Biofeedback and physiological reactivity in high-performance athletes


Pressure and stress are salient experiences for high-performance athletes. Consequently, many of these athletes struggle to manage the demands of sport. High-performance athletes must adapt to changing performance demands, pressure and heightened psychophysiological activity; failure to do so reduces performance. Failure for athletes to self-regulate their psychophysiological responses impairs concentration, attention, motor functioning and coordination, and increases distraction. Sustained sympathetic nervous system activation associated with arousal responses leads to deteriorating health outcomes including depression, illness and burnout. This further emphasizes the importance of athletes having effective coping and self-regulatory strategies to optimize recovery in sport. Researchers who study biofeedback (BF) training assert that it is an effective method for athletes to achieve superior performance under pressure and optimal recovery. In this study, I explored the effects of BF training on psychophysiological recovery (skin conductance and respiration rate) and reaction time in university-level athletes (N = nine). Participants were randomized into experimental and control conditions and underwent a baseline assessment, a training phase and follow-up assessment. Experimental participants received five sessions of BF respiration training and the control participants underwent five sessions of guided breathing training, without the use of BF equipment. Using nonparametric analyses, no significant differences were found in the variables of interest between the groups. However, interesting trends were observed for changes in the skin conductance response and respiration rate. Implications for athletes' performance, coping and recovery and limitations to this study will be discussed. Keywords: biofeedback, athletes, psychophysiological arousal, self-regulation, recovery

Acknowledgments: Dr. Adrienne Leslie-Toogood, Dr. Melanie Gregg, Dr. Lorna Jakobson