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Electroencephalography and Sport; Review and Future Directions

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It is important to properly identify the population of athletes for important characteristics that can influence EEG assessment and training. Factors to consider are motivation, attention, arousal and cognition. It is imperative that skill level be identified and verified, amount and quality of experience, as well as physical fitness level.

Sport Task Specificity

Identification of tasks must be specific to what is needed in that sport and/or specific skill. For example one does not merely assess attention, but what type of attention. The attention of a goalie in hockey has to shift from broad open focus to narrow closed focus depending on where the puck is at the moment. This is quite different from the fixed attention required in archery.

Other considerations if laboratory tasks are to be devised include who controls the signal to begin the task, is it a consistent or inconsistent probability of occurrence, the body position (luge athletes had different physiological responses to imagery depending on whether they were lying on a bed or lying on their sleds), whether internal timing is necessary and whether the response is a pre-determined response or one that depends on another person requiring you to respond to them.

The testing and training paradigm needs to consider the past and current sport training practice of the athlete. For example, when recording psycho physiological measures, including EEG, of wrestlers who were viewing or imaging a novel throw in wrestling, a significant change in parameters consistently occurred after 10 trials even through the study had 20 trials. While I thought I had found the limits of learning, the wrestlers laughed and said they had trained almost every wrestling skill in drills of 10 for their entire career. They habitually shut off after 10 trials even though the experimenter requested they do 20 trials.

Based upon 25 years of mental training elite athletes I suggest that the skill one practices in a practice setting is not the same skill one uses in competition since the intervening variable of the meaning and importance of the outcome seriously affect brain processing (attention, affect, arousal and cognition)and usually affect overt motor and behavioural responses.

EEG Recording

The setting and timing of EEG recording and training is also critical. Allen noted changes in baseline EEG by the minute. Our experience with athletes would suggest that pre-session physical activity, sleep deprivation, and current mood states are important factors to be recorded if not controlled.
. Our experience with swimmers and triathletes found that for some athletes their preferences for imaging the event were dominant over our instructions even when they were trying to be compliant with the requests. Thus, manipulation checks of what the athlete actually did do during the trial are essential if there is any cognitive demand placed on the subject.


Perhaps pre-performance ERP laboratory studies would be the most efficacious technique for investigating the tasks of closed sport skills, such as shooting, golf, and archery. These sports also lend themselves to being assessed in the practice setting. The use of laboratory tasks designed specifically for sports, such as sport specific attentional games, need to be validated against performance in competition since there may be little correlation between laboratory tasks and field performance. If at all possible, EEG's should be taken during real competitive situations.

Data bases should establish what athletes, skills and conditions were observed. Consistency of terminology of what is a "peak' performance.(pre-determined maximum performance for the competitive season?), or "elite' performance (high consistency across time ?) or maximum performance (one time best ever?) would be helpful.

The following research questions could be readily investigated .Does delta indicate when an athlete is paying attention to internal processing (Harmony, et al, 1996) and is that beneficial or detrimental for skills, such as a gymnastics events? Can we use the R/L frontal asymmetry as an indicator of anxiety and determine who may be predisposed to poorer performance in competition and/or train individuals to change the asymmetry? Can we identify baseline EEG profiles that differentiate the various skill levels within the sport? Is there a different brain signature of elite performers by gender?

I envision the future of EEG in sport to include full psycho physiological assessment of who would make a good athlete (compared to a data base) , EEG training to enhance task and character requirements and on-site telemetry evaluation of performance similar to how videos are now provided players following plays in football. I believe the training of EEG will be done by the athletes who will use portable trainers .Computers will integrate all aspects of their performance into a profile of personal performance including physiological measures such as strength, biomechanical measures such as segment positioning, behavioural measures such as the number and quality of repetitions, as well as psycho physiological measures of how their body is responding in all of its modalities.

Our new Electronic Toll Road (ETR) electronically monitors a car entering and leaving the freeway and calculates the distance by cost and sends you a monthly statement. I am sure the authorities also know It could also be used to charge you with speeding and add a fine! One day we may have ETR's in the gym that telemetrically monitor whether your brain came to the gym with you(fines?). How about the office- no brain, no pay?

A philosophic question then arises. By doing assessment and training with EEG for the expressed purpose of improving performance, are we not providing a direction for the meaning of sport? Is this what we want and what will it cost, in human as well as financial terms?

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Sue is a retired professor of York University, where she taught sport psychology, coaching, and self-regulation courses. Her experience includes Biofeedback and Neurofeedback in a medical center, counseling center, businesses, and in schools. For (more...)
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