The Italian soccer team recently discovered this when they focused on retraining their thinking by using neurofeedback, along with guided imagery and other cognitive restructuring techniques, in a glassed-in room that became known as the "mind room." Their use of these training methods drew much media attention when they won the World Cup in 2006, largely, it is believed, due to neurofeedback therapy.
Neurofeedback was instrumental in helping these athletes to free themselves from the stress and anxiety produced by self-criticism and by replaying past failures. Many athletes use positive imagery and visualization to center their focus on the desired outcome. Still, it can be a struggle to keep the mind from going over mistakes, in effect reinforcing them, and possibly causing a repetition of the regretted performance.
Neurofeedback therapy goes even further than positive imagery. A device receives feedback from the athlete's brain waves and "rewards" the brain for optimal performance, and removes the reward when the brain wave readings show an increased stress level (which might be caused by pondering past failures).
In the "mind room," the soccer players chose the reward of making an animated robot on the computer monitor run, using only their brain waves. After this exercise, the players would compare the speeds they had each achieved with the robot. They learned that it was impossible to make the robot run faster by consciously trying to, but only by relaxing the mind until the desired brain waves were attained.
The importance of performing in a relaxed state can be especially obvious during a major event such as the Olympic games. Athletes who are not expected to win a medal and are just happy to be there will happily tell interviewers that they just plan to enjoy the experience and do their best. Often, these performers will surprise everyone by winning a spot on the podium.
Conversely, when the pressure is on to bring home the gold, athletes will frequently disappoint themselves by making unexpected mistakes that cost them the medal they dream of. Such was the heartbreaking case for figure skater Michelle Kwan in 2002, when everyone's hopes seemed to rest on her to win the gold in the long program, but it went, instead, to relative newcomer Sarah Hughes, and Michelle won the bronze. But during the closing exhibition, when the pressure was off, Michelle delivered an exquisite and flawless performance of the same routine. Few who watched her skate so elegantly to the song "Fields of Gold" will ever forget it.
Neurofeedback helps performers gain control over the emotions that cause this type of frustrating scenario, and to reach that state of heightened intuition, creativity, and energy known as "flow" when they need it the most.
Neurofeedback has been used in clinical situations for over 30 years, but, as with any new development, it has taken time to overcome prejudices against it. Real life experiences such as the Italian soccer team's famous win have helped to remove doubts and open the way for not only athletes, but also musicians, artists, and others to reach new heights of creativity and power in their performances.