Peak Performance Training with Electrodermal Biofeedback 1

The Use of Electrodermal Biofeedback for Peak Performance Training

A biofeedback program that helped U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics Team member do their best by learning personal control.

Erik Peper, PhD.
Andrea B. Schmid - Shapiro, Ed. D.
San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA



Even though athletes report that during competition their mental attitudes account for 80% or more of their success, few training programs systematically train athletes to control their mental attitudes. This protocol reports on the use of electrodermal response (EDR) biofeedback strategies to enhance peak performance. The biofeedback strategies are derived from our two year Mental Peak Performance Research and Training Program with United States Rhythmic Gymnastics Team (USRGT). These strategies, however, can be applied to any performer such as a figure skater, gymnast, sharp shooter, dancer or musician.

In our multidisciplinary training program, we discovered that biofeedback was a powerful tool to enhance peak performance. Biofeedback uses instrumentation to monitor and feedback the physiological changes that continuously occur within an individual.

Performance can be highly affected by the
self-talk of the athlete.

The feedback can be perceived as "a psycho-physiological mirror." However, the coach, teacher and researcher often are constrained by expensive, sophisticated, electronic, laboratory devices. Recent advances have made biofeedback equipment economical and easy to use by the athletes on the gym floor or in the locker room; a number of such feedback devices have only an ON/OFF switch and cost less than one hundred dollars.2

Biofeedback training can facilitate elucidating the importance of mental training as well as monitor and encourage the learning of psycho-physiological control that is necessary in peak performance. Although we used many different biofeedback devices in our study - electromyographic, thermal and electrodermal - this protocol focuses on the electrodermal response (EDR) biofeedback device (one of the most economic). The EDR feedback unit measures and feeds back changes in skin conductance. Skin conductance measures the changes in sympathetic arousal as produced in the perspiration of the palmar surface of the hand and correlates highly with the triggering of the fight/flight response. This is often called Galvanic Skin Response (GSR). Usually, changes in skin conductance co-vary with the changes in arousal. Namely, an increase in autonomic arousal usually results in an increase in the skin conductivity. The feedback device reflects those changes; specifically, when the conductivity increases the pitch of the feedback sound increases, when the conductivity decreases the pitch of the sound decreases. 3

Although EDR is a useful feedback tool with most athletes, some do not respond with this system. They may respond cardiovascularly, gastro-intestinally or muscularly.

The athletes use feedback units while they mentally rehearse their routine.

We used EDR biofeedback in peak performance training for the following strategies: 4

  • To illustrate how thoughts affect body and performance.

  • To monitor physiological relaxation.

  • To identify stressful components of the athletic performance during imagery rehearsal.

  • To facilitate concentration training.

1. Thoughts affect body.

One of the major points of our mental peak performance training program was that thoughts and feelings affect performance; namely, each thought has a corresponding physiological effect. In fact, performance can be highly affected by the self-talk of the athlete. Many athletes were unaware of the extent by which thoughts affect their physiology and performance. Yet, this concept is the foundation of many mental training programs, which focus on self-talk changes. Consequently, during the first phase of our two year program, we used a small portable EDR feedback device to illustrate this concept. In the group meeting with the 17 athletes, one of the athletes was attached to the portable EDR feedback device. The device was turned on and the feedback level was set so that the sound was audible. The athlete was asked to think of an anxiety-provoking event or we whispered something such as: "You just blew your routine." Each time the person thought of an embarrassing event or anxiety-provoking situation such as imagining a difficult move, the pitch of the sound increased. Each athlete used an EDR feedback device to experience how their thoughts and feelings affected their physiological state. It helped them to identify and stop disturbing thoughts and feelings as well as restructure their self-talk from negative to positive.

2. Monitoring physiological relaxation.

Learning relaxation is important since it can allow athletes:

  • To modulate their level of arousal necessary for performance;

  • To reduce the misdirected muscular efforts 5 (differential relaxation while doing a task; reduction of dysponesis);

  • To facilitate the skill to regenerate or fall asleep with ease when one is under stress;

  • To build the foundation that is needed to practice imagery rehearsal.

Acquiring the ability to regenerate or relax at will, can be monitored with EDR feedback which allows the athletes to monitor their changes in sympathetic arousal. As the athlete relaxes more and more, the skin conductance level decreases.

To observe the efficacy of our relaxation training, we monitored electromyographic, temperature and EDR while the gymnasts practiced a rapid relaxation strategy known as autogenic training. As the athletes rapidly relaxed, the skin conductance, as measured from the non-dominant palmar surface, decreased as is shown in Fig. 1.

Figure 1. With the rhythmic gymnasts, the relaxation was physiologically observed as demonstrated by an increase in the peripheral hand temperature and a decrease in the Skin Conductance Level (SCL).

The decrease in skin conductance demonstrates that the athletes have learned to relax. Having the athletes practice relaxation with a small portable EDR biofeedback device in their rooms enhanced the relaxation. The physiological feedback is a powerful reinforcer to facilitate learning - it continuously tells athletes how well they are doing. With this tool, learning becomes a joyful exploration.

3. Facilitate mental imagery rehearsal.

Imagery rehearsal of the athletic event is another powerful tool to enhance performance in which we found EDR feedback helpful. The athletes use small portable EDR feedback units while they mentally rehearse their routine. These small feedback units fit in the palm of the hand and the athlete receives the auditory feedback as is shown in Fig 2.

Figure 2. United States Rhythmic Gymnastic practicing imagery rehearsal of her routine with the EDR feedback device (GSRII).

With the help of EDR feedback, the athletes can, more rapidly, identify stressful, anxiety-provoking events or cues during imagery rehearsal of their routine. It is our premise that if athletes are anxious about components of their routine, then, this worry or anticipation can impede the attainment of their personal best.

After relaxing (the athletes observe the success by hearing the EDR feedback), the athletes mentally rehearse their gymnastic routine. Each time the feedback tone increases, the athletes know they have emotionally reacted. The tone usually follows, two seconds after the cognitive trigger, which they can then identify.

After the athletes identify the component associated with the increase of arousal, they continue to rehearse the routine until no more electrodermal responses occur. During their imagery rehearsal, they perceive themselves performing the routine perfectly without experiencing any anxiety. This process is a self-paced psychophysiological desensitization that may break the cycle in which the anxiety of performance increases the probability of mistakes during competition.

In our study with the USRGT, each gymnast practiced for two weeks with a small personal EDR feedback device at the Olympic Training Center, Colorado Springs.

Anxiety of performance increases the probability of mistakes during competition.

During the final assessment, most reported that EDR was helpful in learning to reduce their arousal during mental rehearsal. In fact, within two weeks, many of the gymnasts reported that they had learned to inhibit the EDR feedback tone during imagery rehearsal as is illustrated in Fig 3.

Figure 3. Ratings by the USRGT of their ability to control the EDR feedback signal while visualizing their routines. A process, which most of them indicated to be beneficial because it enhanced concentration and reduced arousal while visualizing.

4. Enhancing concentration training.

The ability to concentrate and not be distracted by external and internal stimuli is of primary importance during competition. EDR feedback can be used to facilitate this concentration learning in a "fun" dyadic practice. In this practice, athletes formed pairs. A member of each pair mentally practiced their competitive routine while receiving EDR feedback, simultaneously, the other partner attempted to distract and arouse him/her so there would be a change in the EDR feedback signal.

The partner attempted to distract him so there would be a
change in the EDR feedback signal.

After five minutes of practice, they reversed roles. The athletes seemed to enjoy this competitive practice, while at the same time, they learned the awareness of their own internal cures of anxiety as well as the strategies to control their electrodermal response through passive attention. Through this competitive practice, the partner who received the EDR feedback learned concentration and attentional skills, such as the ability to detach and to dissociate from external and internal stimuli while focusing on the task. For more strategies see the article by Schmid & Peper, 1998 6.


To encourage athletes to maximize their potential in competition, they need to be trained both in performance of their physical skills and in their mental attitude. The EDR feedback strategies presented in this protocol are powerful teaching tools to any performer, to facilitate the mental training components, which so often affect a performance outcome. With the use of the small portable EDR feedback devices, a coach who wants to enhance the mental training of athletes can also implement the above-cited strategies. Once these skills are learned, they increase the possibility of achieving one's personal best by generating the sense of INNER CONFIDENCE through the experience that "I HAVE CONTROL."


Adapted from Peper, E. and Schmid (1983/84) The Use of Electrodermal Biofeedback       for Peak Performance Training. Somatics IV (3), 16-18.

We thank Thought Technology Ltd. for their generous donation of the electrodermal response feedback devices, the GSRII, for use with the United States Rhythmic Gymnastics Team. For further information contact: Thought Technology Ltd., 2180 Belgrave Ave., Montreal, P.Q. H4A 2L8. 514-489-8251 Website:

An anxious thought or feeling which triggers a sympathetic response is usually followed by an electrodermal response. The latency of the response is about two seconds.

Peper, E. and Williams. E.A. From the Inside Out: A Self-Teaching and Laboratory Manual for Biofeedback. New York: Plenum, 1981.

Peper, E. Ancoli, S. and Quinn. Mind/Body Integration: Essential Readings in Biofeedback. New York: Plenum, 1979.

Schmid, A. & Peper, E. (1998). Strategies for Training Concentration. In Williams, J.M. (ed) Applied Sport Psychology. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Co., 316-328

Copyright, 1997 The Biofeedback Foundation of Europe