Neural markers of performance states in an Olympic athlete: an EEG case study in air-pistol shooting.

Author:di Fronso, Selenia
Position::Research article - Report


The analysis of psychobiosocial mechanisms underlying optimal performance experiences has received a great deal of attention in the domain of sport and exercise psychology (Hanin, 2007; Robazza, 2006). Researchers have adopted multimodal approaches to target different structural components (e.g., emotional processes, cognitive functioning, motor behaviour) underlying human performance (for a review see Hanin, 2007). In this context, Bortoli et al. (2012) recently proposed the multi-action plan (MAP) model based on empirical evidence that different performance levels are associated with unique behavioural, psychophysiological, and neurological patterns (Bertollo et al., 2013; Comani et al., 2014a). According to Bortoli et al., a fundamental assumption in the MAP model is a 2 x 2 (performance by control) relationship in which optimal and suboptimal levels of performance interact with high and low levels of action control (i.e., controlled vs. automated task execution). Consistent with this conceptualization, behavioural and psychophysiological patterns underlying distinct performance levels and attentional demands can be classified into four performance experiences: optimal-automatic, optimal controlled, suboptimal-controlled, and suboptimal-automatic.

Optimal-automatic performance experience (Type 1) is characterized by action "supervision" (i.e., parallel rather than serial processing) and smooth execution (Ericsson, 2003; Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Optimal-controlled performance (Type 2) is typified by an effective reinvestment of attention to core movement components that are not completely automated. Type 2 performance is likely in situations of distress, competitive anxiety and fatigue, when reinvestment of cognitive resources tends to occur (Masters and Maxwell, 2008). Noteworthy, when experiencing Type 2 performance states, athletes benefit from adopting an action-centred coping approach (Hanin and Hanina, 2009), in which a small number of specific core components of action are used to focus attention and improve performance. In pistol shooting, for example, the athlete can identify any element or behaviour encompassing the chain of movement as a core component. For example, these elements may include "stance and balance", "sighting" and "triggering".

Mistakes and distress tend to result in suboptimal-controlled performance (Type 3), especially if an athlete lacks relevant experience and coping skills. The Type 3 performance state is typified by task-irrelevant focus of attention or excessive conscious control of movement execution and, as a consequence, undermined fluidity and automaticity of action (Maxwell et al., 2000; Oudejans et al., 2011). Finally, suboptimal-automatic performance (Type 4) can occur because of low levels of involvement, interest, energy, effort in task execution, attentional focus, and movement coordination (for more details see Bortoli et al., 2012).

Recently, Bertollo et al. (2013) found that the four performance states were mirrored in both physiological (e.g., skin conductance responses, heart rate) and behavioural markers (e.g., kinematic patterns). Furthermore, Comani et al. (2014a) observed different neural patterns associated with the MAP model's 2 x 2 performance types. In particular, an optimal-automatic performance state among shooters was characterized by lower Alpha power in the somato-sensory, contralateral parietal, and occipital areas (at shot release), in agreement with the neural efficiency hypothesis (i.e., global decrease in cortical activity). Conversely, optimal-controlled performance was characterized by increased Alpha power in the frontal and occipital areas. In the present study, we investigated neural markers of optimal and suboptimal performance states according to the MAP model's tenets.

Neurophysiological mechanisms in general, and cortical activity in particular, are proposed to be at the core of an integrated view of human performance (Del Percio et al., 2009; Hatfield and Kerick, 2007). Electroencephalographic (EEG) measurements have been useful in shaping our understanding of skilled performance in sports (Hatfield and Kerick, 2007; Nakata et al., 2010). In particular, Event Related Desynchronization/Synchronization (ERD/ERS) analysis has been widely used in sport settings to examine how functional changes in cortical activity influence performance in self-paced tasks, such as shooting and putting in golf (Babiloni et al., 2008; Del Percio et al., 2009; Hatfield and Kerick, 2007).

In a seminal investigation of cortical activation in self-paced tasks, Bird (1987) found a correlation between successful shooting performance and lower-frequency EEG activity. Salazar et al. (1990) also observed a "quiescence" state (i.e., higher amplitude in Alpha band) prior to successful shots in archery. More recently, Del Percio et al. (2009) observed that the visuo-motor performance of elite shooters is associated with a global decrease in cortical activity. Thus, skilled performance in various self-paced sports seems to be accompanied by a decreased cortical activation immediately before task execution, according to the economy of effort principle or the neural efficiency hypothesis of psychomotor performance (see Haier et al., 1988; Hatfield and Kerick, 2007; Vecchio et al., 2012). The neural efficiency hypothesis of psychomotor performance stems from experimental evidence suggesting that skilled motor performance in self-paced sports is accompanied by a decrease in cortical activation (Babiloni et al., 2008; Haier et al., 1988; Hatfield and Kerick, 2007).

It is also worth noting that EEG studies on attentional control and emotional regulation have focused on comparing athletes of different skill levels (i.e., the expert-novice paradigm) or skill levels within sports (i.e., expert performance approach) through a nomothetic approach. Together with nomothetic investigations, idiographic studies are also fundamental to advancing our understanding of the mechanisms underlying expertise. For instance, the pervasive deliberate practice theory has been validated through single-case studies, such as that of the memoirist Rajan Mahadevan, which demonstrated that "skilled memory" is an acquired rather than innate ability (Ericsson et al., 2004; Ericsson, 2006). Furthermore, the well-established individual zones of optimal functioning (IZOF) framework has been shaped through idiosyncratic analysis and single-case designs (Hanin, 2007).

The importance of case studies in the advancement of sport psychology has been recently addressed in the literature. For example, Barker et al. (2013) emphasized that single-case designs allow researchers working in applied settings and with small samples to (a) identify applied principles and orient practice for both team and individual sports, and (b) develop applied procedures to assess intervention success. In the present investigation, we explored whether the different performance types described in the MAP model were associated with unique neural patterns. Our participant was an Olympic athlete with a rich history of successful experiences as recognized through top-level achievements (i.e., air-pistol shooting medallist in a number of international competitions). By means of ERD/ERS analysis we aimed to test four hypotheses. Specifically, we expected to find: (1) optimal-automatic performance experiences (Type 1) typified by an effective, minimal conscious control level matching task demands, and cortical activity synchronized with the event (i.e., the shot); (2) optimal-controlled experiences (Type 2) characterized by consciously focused control and cortical de-synchronization; (3) suboptimal-controlled experiences (Type 3) typified by a high level of conscious control with cortical activity completely desynchronized with the event; and (4) suboptimal-automatic experiences (Type 4) characterized by ineffective, minimal conscious control, despite a cortical activity synchronized with the event.



The participant was a 30-year-old male air-pistol shooter. He was a member of the Italian national team and had participated in numerous major international events, including the European and World Championships, the World Cup Championships, and the 2012 London Olympic Games. The shooter was accustomed with mental preparation programmes and, at the time of the study, was receiving mental training guidance from a senior sport psychologist. After learning about the purposes of the study, he agreed to participate and signed a written informed consent. The study conformed to the declaration of Helsinki and was approved by the local Institutional Review Board.


This case study involved three steps. First, according to the procedure developed by Bortoli et al. (2012), the participant was asked to detail his shooting action by providing a precise description of the chain of actions and behaviours related to his best shooting execution. He described the elements perceived as very important for his shooting action as: "good stance and balance", "solid grip", "vertical lift of the gun", "attention focus on the front sight (i.e., aiming)", "soft triggering", "timing", and "follow-through". Then, the athlete was asked to identify a single core component of his shooting action that was not always executed in a completely automated mode, especially under distressful situations, and consequently needed to be kept under intentional control to enable a consistent and accurate execution (Bortoli et al., 2012). After reflecting on his shooting action...

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