From the World Cup to youth tennis, a training fad
emerges; the science of finding the zone
By RUSSELL ADAMS
July 29, 2006; Page P1
Members of Italy’s World Cup-winning soccer team have done it. A
starting quarterback in the NFL has tried it out. And so has Jordan
Kreuter, an 18-year-old golfer in North Carolina.
The thing they have in common: They’ve all turned to neurofeedback, a
technique that promises to help athletes reprogram their brains so they
can reach a zone of relaxed concentration during clutch situations.
Long used to treat medical conditions such as attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder, epilepsy and dementia, it is beginning to
emerge as a tool for pro and amateur athletes alike — with
neurofeedback machines even starting to show up at some local public
Mind Games: Several members of Italy’s World Cup-winning team,
including Andrea Pirlo, second from lower left, did extensive
neurofeedback in the runup to the tournament.
This technique is bringing some science to the mental side of
athletics, a field also known as sports psychology, which has often
been derided by many players and trainers as hokum. In neurofeedback,
athletes strap on electrodes that measure brainwaves. They then try to
learn how to control spikes in those brainwaves, which may signify
distractions going on inside their heads, such as obsessing about a
past performance. Critics say it’s one thing to be able to manipulate a
bunch of lines moving across a screen, but it’s another to remain
perfectly calm as a fastball zooms toward you at 100 miles per hour or
network cameras hover over your par putt.
As a veteran sports reporter who has seen many training fads come and
go, I was curious to try it out. Wiring myself up to a neurofeedback
machine, I spent two hours working my way through everything from
complicated math computations to techniques for slowing my heart rate.
It was far more grueling than I had envisioned. But it gave me some
appreciation for what it feels to be more focused — and for how stress
and pressure can hijack your brain.
In one exercise, the goal was to use the power of concentration to move
two mice forward across a computer screen. Just when I was starting to
have some success, I was interrupted by a phone call from my editor,
who was calling to burden me with more work. For the next five minutes,
I couldn’t even keep the mice from back-pedaling. (See this story for
more details on my neurofeedback experience1.
connection to this year’s World Cup. In February, months before the
tournament started, some of Italy’s best soccer players, including a
handful who would later play in the Cup, began spending much of their
practice time in a small room in Milan furnished with six luxury
leather recliners facing a glass wall.
Our reporter tries neurofeedback and learns from computer-animated
mice that he has a “busy brain.”
On the other side of the glass Bruno De Michelis, head of the sports
science lab for AC Milan, one of the country’s top professional teams,
monitored a bank of six computer screens wired to a system made by
Thought Technology Ltd., a Canadian company. The screens showing how
each player’s brain responded to stressful situations. Some players,
the data showed, were nervous about doing mental exercises in front of
their teammates, while others either had trouble winding down after a
match or winding up before one. In the following weeks, the players
spent hours working on these issues through a series of exercises that
resembled computer games, with the brain as the joystick.
Mr. De Michelis says a tremendous amount of energy in soccer games goes
to waste because players lose concentration during key moments, like
penalty kicks. “I call this useless suffering,” he says. “We can’t do
magic here, but it can be of some help.”
Having the ability to tune out distractions during competition — known
as having a “quiet mind” — is one of the holy grails of sports. Jocks
believe that the capacity to have extreme concentration during
stressful moments gives you a big edge, whether it’s a basketball
player staying focused on the hoop while thousands of fans are waving
their arms in the background, or a tennis player learning not to berate
himself for a bad shot.
To help Tiger Woods learn to block out distractions during critical
moments, his late father, Earl, used to jingle change in his pocket,
drop golf bags and roll balls across his son’s line of vision. Golfer
Se Ri Pak’s father used a different approach to make her mentally
tougher. When she was a child, he took her to pit-bull fights and
Korean cemeteries at night.
Until now, neurofeedback has mostly been confined to medical
environments. Sufferers of attention deficit disorder, for example,
have been found to have reduced activity in parts of the brain.
Neurofeedback teaches them how to produce brainwave patterns that speed
up those slow brainwaves. But brain-training has rarely been tried on
healthy people, mainly because of doubts about its utility and its high
cost, which can be as much as $200 an hour.
Over the last decade, university researchers and some of the companies
that make neurofeedback devices have begun to dabble in the sports
world, including helping Olympians like Austrian skier Hermann Maier.
Many of these same athletes have already had experience with a
technique called biofeedback. Biofeedback differs from neurofeedback in
that it focuses on controlling physiological responses to stress (like
a fast heart rate and extreme muscle tension) as opposed to
neurological responses. (To confuse matters, neurofeedback is sometimes
referred to as EEG biofeedback.
Proponents of neurofeedback say retraining your brain, as futuristic as
it sounds, is now possible because scientists know precisely which
brainwave frequencies correspond with optimal levels of focus. All a
person has to do is learn how to achieve those same frequencies by
practicing, they say.
But not all the kinks have been worked out yet, according to some
people who have used the neurofeedback devices. Vietta Wilson, who has
trained some Canadian track-and-field Olympians, says some of the
devices she has tried pick up radio stations instead of brain waves.
Another potential problem, according to some researchers: Some of the
same devices track brainwaves in a particular part of the brain called
the executive center — but altering brainwaves there can trigger
depression in certain people. Several device manufacturers say neither
of those problems has been an issue with their products.
In the last five years, neurofeedback has become the focus of studies
in some top medical and psychology journals. In general, they bolster
the case that it’s possible to retrain the brain.
Last fall, Canada’s governing body of tennis put some of its top 20
youth players through neurofeedback. And McGill University in Montreal
and the National Coaching Institute of Montreal have committed to a
five-year study to test neurofeedback on the region’s top 80 athletes
in sports ranging from hockey to racquetball.
For high-school football player Michael Dell’Aquila, neurofeedback was
part of a plan to gain an edge with college scouts. At the time, Mr.
Dell’Aquila, a skilled defensive back, had already received letters of
interest from dozens of colleges. But he was concerned about his
ability to perform in front of recruiters day after day. Specifically,
he wanted to learn how to clear his mind of the previous day’s
performance. So last spring, while he was finishing his junior year at
Avon Old Farms prep school in Avon, Conn., he signed up with a nearby
Over the course of about 10 sessions, he worked on boosting his
concentration by trying to propel a rocket forward with his mind. If
his focus drifted and he either began daydreaming or listening to his
inner critic, different-colored rockets associated with those brain
states would creep forward and begin to overtake his rocket. The
sessions also showed that Mr. Dell’Aquila wasn’t getting enough
connectivity between the two hemispheres of his brain. So every night
during the summer he listened to 30 minutes of specially engineered
music. Mr. Dell’Aquila will play football for Boston College beginning
this fall. Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist to a number of top
golfers including Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco, says neurofeedback
will one day be the norm for PGA Tour pros. But he says he’s not about
to strap anything onto his clients until these devices are rigorously
tested on amateur players.