During athletics, if we want to perform at our best, we need to think at our best too. This is commonly called being in the zone or in a flow state. Once here, the athlete almost feels like they have superpowers allowing them to move in the right direction without thinking, without letting distractions get in the way, and having the confidence to execute the muscle-memory commands needed to win.
In the world of neuroscience, this flow state can be measured. It’s called alpha power. Alpha power refers to some of the electrical activity that the 100 billion neurons in our brain constantly send to each other. Some of these power states indicate that the mind is tired, slow, sluggish, or dreamy, and others indicate feelings of being wired or hyper alert. Neuroscientists can measure that as alpha power increases, so does athletic skill level.
The reason for this is that when the alpha neural frequency increases, the body decreases cortical activation. This combination produces a relaxed but wakeful state of mind that facilitates optimal cognitive performance. This performance level is vital in sports if an athlete wants to increase their accuracy in sports like golf putting, pistol shooting, or archery.
However, it’s not just the lower cortical levels that produce greater accuracy but, instead, a reorganisation and the acquisition of more efficient motor processes that is occuring. When this happens, suppression of visual stimuli benefits the performance of closed skills, such as basketball free throws. Therefore, with less visual stimuli to process, athletes have less thoughts to process in the seconds prior to the shot, which allows them to allocate their full attention to the analytical processing required to achieve the athletic performance desired.
This visual focus is called Covert Visual Spatial Attention (CVSA). CVSA is the ability of committing attention to a position located in our peripheral field of view without any overt eye movement. Studies have found that with goalkeeper’s, for example, there is a positive correlation between athletes’ improvement in CVSA abilities and the increase of their alpha power at rest. More importantly, athletes can train this ability using neurofeedback where they self-regulate the activity of specific neurophysiological patterns required in sports to train individuals to remain in high performance state.
This is done so athletes can reproduce the shift of the individual alpha peak frequency (iAPF) induced by physical effort. iAPF has been increasingly used as a neural marker of mentally stressful conditions in sport science. For example, iAPF increases after the acute physical effort required in an endurance cycling task. iAPF was suggested as a useful measure to study fatigue and stress-recovery balance to prevent dysfunctional states such as overtraining and/or injuries in athletes and to modulate the individual training load in different sports. When the iAPF shifts to higher frequencies as a response to intense physical exercise, this feedback is detectable by our CURVEX headset, which we can use to help athletes train while under pressure, so when it’s time to win, they can.