23 April 2015


Daniel Gallan

Finding the right level of arousal is vital for elite athletes if they are to succeed. A long distance runner who burns himself out too early will have as little chance of success as a boxer who is too slow to get in the zone for his fight. Unfortunately, arousal is not a switch that can simply be turned on or off. Mitzi Hollander, founder of The ADD Lab, has helped Attention Deficit Disorder patients maintain their levels of arousal for years. Using the same methods, she is helping professional athletes manage their body and minds for peak performance.

Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest sportsman to have ever lived, has been living with Attention Deficit Disorder for most of his life. However, this hasn't effected his performances in the pool as he has managed to control his arousal levels for the task at hand.  Action Images / Jason O'Brien Livepic

Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest sportsman to have ever lived, has been living with Attention Deficit Disorder for most of his life. However, this hasn't effected his performances in the pool as he has managed to control his arousal levels for the task at hand. Action Images / Jason O'Brien Livepic

At only eight years old, Gerhard Viljoen suffered a severe head trauma after being involved in a car accident. He suffered extensive damage to his prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive planning and impulse control, as well as his cerebellum, the area controlling balance and rhythm. But as it states on his website: “Life is not about being disabled, but differently able.”

Today Viljoen is a South African T2 Paralympic cyclist. He represented his country at the 2012 London Games, finishing 4th in the road race and 7th in the time trial. Viljoen has achieved success through hard graft and perseverance while understanding how to manage his levels of arousal.

The Yerkes-Dodson law, developed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, states that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. Represented on a bell curve, performance rises with arousal but drops off if the mind and body are too active and tense.

The body’s autonomic nervous system and the brain’s central nervous system arousal levels need to operate near the bulge of the curve for optimal performance. A deviation from the centre can result in athletes being overly sensitive for example to external visual and auditory stimuli that can act as distractions. This can lead to a loss in focus and concentration as well as a mismanagement of energy levels.

As a result of his trauma, Viljoen finds it difficult “switching off” and remaining calm. He is constantly at a heightened level of arousal which if unchecked can lead to stress, anxiety and panic. Even at rest his muscles often tense up and his pH balance can become acidic which can lead to injury. Strategically, he used to struggle in long distance races, often exerting too much energy at the beginning while losing focus towards the end. Thanks to Mitzi Hollander, the founder of The ADD Lab, Viljoen has gained control of his arousal levels.

“Having the appropriate energy level for the task at hand, and being able to sustain that energy for the duration of the task; that is what an athlete needs to strive for,” says Hollander, South Africa’s leading neuroscientist in the study and treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). “When dealing with peak performance in athletes, I can teach them how to alter and shift their arousal so it’s appropriate to the task that they need to do. But before I do that, I need to first understand and measure where their arousal lies naturally.”

Electrical activity in the brain is measured in terms of frequencies and compared to the median score within the individual’s age and gender as measured by a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG). Frequencies are divided into four categories: delta, theta, alpha, and beta. Alpha (8-14 hertz) is the goldilocks zone. This is where a state of what Hollander calls “quiet alertness” is possible. Focus is achieved without putting too much strain on rational cognitive function, minimising the risk of mental burn-out and negative thought intrusion while still being able to perform strenuous physical tasks.

At theta (below 8 hertz), focus is turned inward and individuals can be described as “inattentive” and are often unable to “switch on”. These individuals struggle to focus on anything in particular and need to raise their brain’s frequency in order to reach alpha.

The Yerkes-Dodson law states that increased arousal improves performance, but only up to a certain point. 

The Yerkes-Dodson law states that increased arousal improves performance, but only up to a certain point. 

For people like Viljoen, whose brains hum in the beta range (above 14 hertz), arousal levels are naturally high and need to be brought down to reach alpha. Focus is difficult to maintain, not because not enough information is being absorbed, but because there is an overload of information. Distractions abound as background noise and visuals are not blocked out but form part of the target. Imagine a tennis player being distracted by every sneeze or laugh in the crowd, or a footballer being unable to distinguish his teammates from the blur of the stadium. As Hollander explains, “filtering is like a net that catches what’s important but lets out everything else. This is what happens at alpha. At high beta the net catches everything.”

Body arousal is measured with a similar device to a lie detector. Hollander measures heart rate, sweat response, muscle tension, and breathing in order to establish how the athlete’s autonomic nervous system functions when at rest. Essentially what is being measured is the athlete’s fight/flight response. The autonomic nervous system can’t be separated from the central nervous system and often a heightened state of arousal in the body is a direct response to a heightened state of arousal in the mind. In a previous article, Stephan du Toit, the head of strength and conditioning at Western Province Rugby, related how an over active mind directly resulted in some of Western Province’s fittest players pulling up injured due to performance anxiety in a big match.  

“I worked with a Springbok rugby player who was constantly getting injured whenever he started hitting good form,” Hollander recounts. “We discovered that when he was young, his dad constantly put him down, saying that he “plays like a girl” and that he would never make it as a professional rugby player. These negative thought intrusions (one of the three disruptors of zone as identified by Dr Roland Carlsteadt, along with subliminal attention and anxiety) resulted in a heightened level of arousal and had a direct impact on his physiology.”

Once Hollander knows where on the bell curve the athlete’s arousal lies, she can start working on attaining a level of arousal that is appropriate for the particular task. Not all athletes require the same level of arousal. A test match cricketer who needs to bat for hours at a time needs to operate at a much slower frequency than a 100m sprinter who completes his job in less than 10 seconds.

Studies have shown that some sports actually benefit those who resonate in the beta range as focus doesn’t need to be maintained for long periods. An estimated 8 to 10 percent of all professional athletes have ADD compared to the 4 to 5 percent of the general population. Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest sportsman of all time, has had ADD his entire life. His struggles with attention and heightened arousal have been well documented but it hasn’t affected his performance in the pool.

“We find out where the arousal is coming from,” Hollander says. “Often the athlete’s arousal is high as a result of performance anxiety or a latent fear and therapy is needed. If it is coming from the brain we need to get the athlete to be able to control his or her own frequencies at will. They need to be able to bring their level of arousal to the desired state for whichever task they are about to perform. We do this through operant conditioning.”

Electrodes are attached to the athlete’s head and brain activity is measured. Then, using only brain waves, the athlete is made to perform a task on a screen by playing a game that rewards desired mental states and discourages frequencies that fall outside of the target parameters. By calming his mind, closing his eyes, and regulating his breathing, the athlete is able to accomplish the task. When the desired state is achieved, the game rewards the athlete with images and sounds of affirmation and he receives words of encouragement from the neuroscientists.

Through these simple games, the athlete instinctively remembers the mental state that was rewarded and through constant repetition is able to tap into that state at will in any situation. The athlete can replicate the desired level of arousal even when confronted with a stressful big match situation or fatigue by accessing the state of mind he was in when connected to the electrodes and playing the game.

“It’s called bio neurofeedback therapy and it works wonders for children and adults who need to control their levels of arousal,” explains Hollander. Self-regulating arousal by the simple act of accessing a mental state has proved an effective way of reaching alpha frequencies. When the mind is at ease, so too is the body. Fight/flight responses become normal, muscles relax, and the body’s natural pH balance is less acidic as a result of normal adrenal gland secretion and endocrine function. Athletes are able to strategize and plan more effectively when not clouded by anxiety and high states of arousal.

How many chokes, blunders, or missed opportunities in the history of sport could have been prevented with the help of neurofeedback therapy? Roberto Baggio’s penalty miss at the 1994 FIFA World Cup; Alan Donald’s dropped bat at the 1999 ICC World Cup; Bill Buckner’s blunder in the 1986 World Series; who knows what would have happened if these athletes were able to remain calm and control their arousal levels? If Viljoen’s story is anything to go by, and Hollander’s work and results continue to change the lives of so many people who walk through the doors of The ADD Lab, it’s fair to say that sport’s history may have been written a little differently.

For more information on bio neurofeedback therapy and other interventions for peak performance, visit www.addlab.co.za