Improving Optimal Performance and Life for Young Athletes

Troy Todd, Ph.D., BCN

The phone rings in my office at the United States Air Force Academy Peak Performance Center, the Academy’s college counseling center. Coach Johnson, head coach of the Track and Field team says, “Hey, Troy, I have this really talented athlete, but her performance is just too unpredictable. If this keeps up, I’ll have to cut her from the team! Can you help her?”

Here at the Academy, I devote a good portion of my effort offering Optimal Performance services to individual athletes, teams, and coaches. Applying cognitive and behavioral psychology, biofeedback, and neurofeedback to high-achieving 18-24 year-old athletes from a variety of athletic disciplines not only improves their athletic performance but their quality of life. The story I tell here is a composite of many success stories, and truthfully represents the progression and improvements athletes see when using these services.

At her first appointment, Cadet Amy Rollins tells me of her impressive high school track record; consistently achieving winning times and making it to state finals her senior year, where she became recognized and highly recruited for college track. Since choosing to come to the Academy, however, her performance has become inconsistent. Her sport is a big part of her life, and when she performs poorly, she struggles with confidence in other areas of her life. She also feels bad that she is unreliable for her coach and team, but, despite trying everything she and her coach can think of, she cannot figure out how to gain back the consistency she enjoyed in high school. It is very frustrating to her not to be improving on her high school achievements; this is collegiate athletics!

I ask her what seems to affect her athletic performance. “I have no clue! I mean, even in high school I’ve gotten a little distracted by aches and pains or other competitors in the race, I don’t eat as well due to dormitory food, I stay up later studying, and occasionally have fights with my boyfriend, but isn’t that normal college stuff?” “Well,” I respond, “if the reasons for your performance change were obvious, you and Coach Johnson would have figured it out long ago.”

We explore many cognitive and emotional aspects of life that affect optimal performance; social relationships, attitudes about competing, the way she thinks about herself as an athlete and person, her assessment of how others see her, pre-race rituals, team dynamics, and other aspects more unique to her. Most of these areas seem in good order; there is some negative self-talk and concern for others’ assessment of her, but these are not any worse than in high school. It is clear there is something new affecting performance. Her family relations are very strong and meaningful to her. As we explore this further, we realize she feels more distant from her family, and does not experience the same kind of supportive interactions as she did living at home. “It is not logical,” she says, “but it feels like, because I did well in running and that helped me get to college, running takes me away from my family.”

It is funny how the mind works, inventing ridiculous ways to correct bad feelings. “How does college actually bring you closer to your family?” I ask. Amy discusses how her younger sister feels closer to her as she follows her college running, how her parents support her by attending all her meets, that discussion of college life fills family interactions, and that they are able to talk, text, and e-mail regularly. She acknowledges that, even though physically separated from her family, the college experience has actually drawn her and her family closer together emotionally . “Yes,” we conclude, “Let’s remember that while you practice and race. Winning races, although at first looked like it took you away from your family, actually brings you closer together.” This concept became Amy’s new motivational statement.

In our next meeting Amy reports, “As long as I remind myself that running actually brings my family and I closer to one another, I don’t feel nervous before races, I enjoy interacting with my friends more, and feel more like myself around my boyfriend. I feel happier overall.” We spend or spent? a few meetings focusing on sleep habits, good nutrition in the college environment, and better interactions with the coach and her teammates.

“I never knew I could feel so relaxed,” Amy responds as she masters heart rate-respiration coherence. In just a few training sessions with biofeedback, she is able to achieve noticeable benefits. She is able to get to sleep quicker, her overall energy is increased, she is more relaxed during school tests, and her end-of-race surge is more powerful.

“I can’t believe it!” Coach Johnson says when I join him in his office, “Amy is like a new person: I can completely count on her in events and she keeps cutting her time. I can think of several other athletes that could benefit from this, but I am not sure they will be as willing as Amy.” “I understand. They aren’t comfortable with me or understand how I can help them. I have an interactive presentation that outlines basic optimal performance techniques we could use to introduce them to me and my services.” We make plans to have this at the next team meeting. This allows the athletes to get these techniques on board and seek more customized services from me as they need. As more athletes take advantage of optimal performance training, Coach Johnson is able to spend more time coaching, while I handle more of the factors that affect performance besides skill, talent, and physical conditioning.

“If I keep this up,” Amy begins our next meeting, “I’ll be able to qualify for the Olympic trials next year! I think the only thing negatively affecting my races is getting distracted by the normal aches and pains and other competitors, but I think most athletes struggle with these things. Can you help with those?” Staying ‘in the zone’ requires mental flexibility—considering a distraction, resolving it, and getting back to the zone quickly. Neuorfeedback improves mental flexibility by directly training the brain. It is a great capstone for optimal performance treatment. “First, we will do an assessment to determine what areas of your brain are working too hard, or not enough, then we will directly train those parts of your brain to work better for you,” I explain. After several sessions, she notices an improvement, “I can’t really explain it, but I just don’t seem to get distracted by the other girls on the line. I just think about my race. Sure, I notice the pain in my body, but it is not a big deal: I just feel focused.” We continue neurofeedback for several more sessions, reviewing breathing techniques and occasionally focus on a solution to a problem with her friends or teammates. After just a few months from our first meeting, Amy says, “Running is much more enjoyable now, my mind is clear, my relationships are better, I am doing well in school, and I am making the kind of times I know I am capable of. Thanks for helping me get there.”

On my schedule the next week I notice a cadet from the diving team. Our intake paperwork indicates he is interested in optimal performance services. When we sit down in my office, I ask him how he heard about these services. “I’m good friends with Amy; she said you helped her a lot with her running. Does this stuff work for diving, too?” I smile and say, “It sure does.”