What is peak performance? We are in a state called "flow" and mind/body functioning is unified. Moment-to-moment decision making is fluid and precise and the outcomes feel effortless.
We don't have to be an Olympic athlete, or a concert pianist who has practiced 10,000 hours to experience peak performance. In any area of our lives--athletics, our jobs, cooking, even walking to work--we can cultivate the ease and harmony of our mind and body synchronized and at peace.
The key ingredient is our brains changing as Steve Kotler describes in his NY Times article:
The state emerges from a radical alteration in normal brain function. In flow, as attention heightens, the slower and energy-expensive extrinsic system (conscious processing) is swapped out for the far faster and more efficient processing of the subconscious, intrinsic system. “It’s an efficiency exchange,” says American University in Beirut neuroscientist Arne Dietrich, who helped discover this phenomena. “We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”
How do we create peak performance? Here are tools available to anyone.
1. Neurofeedback Training
Scientists researching peak performance have found that the brain wave patterning changes when we go into the flow state. Our brains shift from the fast-moving beta wave of waking consciousness down to the far slower borderline between alpha and theta. In neurofeedback training, the automatic functioning brain is learning out to shift brain patterns in response to the here-and-now needs, rather than being stuck in patterns from the past.
Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Canadian Olympics competitor in track and field knew that the key to her success at Rio for gold (rather than the slivers she had won at worlds competitions) was mental. Her solution was to integrate biofeedback and neurofeedback into her training regimen.
“She [team's sports psychologist] literally places things on my head that read my brain waves, and it gets my body temperature, my skin conductances, respiration and all this stuff,” Brianne said. “You play these games where you have to learn what focus is for you. And once you get the focus, there are hard numbers that prove it.” Read article
U.S. Beach Volleyball Olympian Kerri Walsh-Jennings after the birth of her second child started neurofeedback in Los Angeles as part of her mental training to create more flow state. "My training has always focused on physical agility but brain training helps sharpen my mental agility as well," she says. Read article
Using neurofeedback for peak performance is not just for elite atheletes. That ability of the brain to change states based on changing needs in any given moment, whether it's tuning in and having undistracted focus on how the body needs to perform in a competition or on homework or a work assignment, the key is the brain's ability to tune into present needs and then change states to brain patterning appropriate for the current task. That's what the automatic functioning brain learns through a series of neurofeedback sessions. Watch a video explanation.
While neurofeedback costs money, there are biofeedback techniques (biofeedback defined as consciously altering your peripheral nervous system, such as breathing rate, to shift autonomic nervous system functioing) you can do to change your brain without spending a dollar.
Breathing technique to create cardiac coherence. When we shift our breathing we can lower our heart rate, which triggers the brain to come out of a stress response and into a relaxation response.
- Lie down or sit comfortably
- Have your eyes open with a stop watch in front of you. (Most smart phone alarms have a stop watch feature.)
- Slowly inhale for 5 seconds and slowly exhale for 5 seconds to create 10 second breath cycles. Repeating for 3-5 minutes total.
- Encourage the breath to come from lower in your abdomen rather than using shallow breathing. It sometimes takes a while to develop this skill so don't worry if your breathing is shallow at first.
3. Positive Self-talk
Studies on peak performing atheletes show that those who engage in a regular practice of positive self-talk outperformed athletes who did not have such practice. We all know what it feels like to be criticized for work versus when we are encouaged and valued. The key is whether we wait for comments from others or we actively talk to ourselves in a way that's positive, and accurate. And practicing quality self-talk improves our self-esteem and confidence.
Here's a practice to try once a day before you fall asleep:
- Note in your mind three things you did today where you made a good effort. Emphasizing effort over outcome is key to growing positive self-talk. We can't control outcomes but we can control how much effort we made.
- Use a warm and ecouraging tone in your mental self talk. As a helpful trick: if you are struggling to find a warm tone, imagine that you are speaking to an eight-year-old, note that tone then use it when describing the three areas in the day where you made good effort.
- Note in your mind three things that happened during the day that you appreciated our are grateful for. They do not need to be big in order to be effective. It can be as small as, appreciating the cool breeze as you walked to your car or a colleauge offering you coffee, or as big as a peace agreement being signed between two warring parties. The positive bio-chemical changes in the brain are created in either case.
Written by Natalie Baker, Advanced Certified NeurOptimal® Neurofeedback Trainer and Founder. Neurofeedback Training Co. is headquartered in NYC and has clinics in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Boulder, Colorado. We offer in-office training as well as neurofeedback equipment for home use. Our clinic in New York is located close to Union Square at 80 E. 11th St #310, New York, NY 10003.