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Study shows the Benefits of Peak Achievement Training and Stress Management for New Learning

Dr. Steve Radlo and his associates compared students from two classes, a stress management class and an aerobics class (control). The students in the stress management class were also given 15 sessions of Peak Achievement Training of 15 minutes duration. A pair of students, one from each class, were then brought in for competitive testing in a new situation--underhanded dart throwing,. The data showed that the stress management and Peak Achievement Training group won 11 of 12 matches, focused better, and threw closer to the bull's eye. The study was presented at the meeting of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity in 2005:

"Effects of a Stress Management Program and Biofeedback on Learning in a Competitive Environment"
Steven J. Radlo, Randy Hyllegard and Masayuki Yamamoto

Often, students learning new motor skills or information in physical education classes are required to demonstrate achievement in tests or competitions. During times such as these, it is not uncommon to see a learner “choke” under pressure and produce performance not truly indicative of what they are capable of. Learning how to become optimally ready to perform and effectively cope with stress are important aspects in the development of skilled performance of cognitive and motor tasks.

During stressful times (e.g., competition), the release of extraneous catecholamines and stress hormones can lead to a loss in concentration and attentional focus, memory lapses, and high arousal levels (Orlick, 1986; Rotella & Lerner, 1993; Zaichowsky & Takenaka, 1993).

The use of biofeedback has been shown to be an effective method for monitoring and regulating arousal. The ability to demonstrate to the learner his or her stress/tension and concentration levels before and during performance is extremely enlightening and very important, practical information. Essentially, this is the role of biofeedback. One such biofeedback instrument is The Peak Achievement Trainer (PAT). The PAT is used to provide instantaneous easy-to-interpret information that can be used by performers as they freely engage in their activity. Just as important is the fact that the PAT is portable and user-friendly. Coaches, sport psychologists, and physical educators from major universities, professional teams, and the Olympic Training Center have put their stamp of approval on the validity of the PAT. Many have even used it on the sidelines of sporting events to help athletes monitor and modify their stress levels. A unique feature of the PAT is its ability to dissect attention into two sub-components: arousal and concentration. Relaxing more intensely inhibits or lowers the amplitude of this signal. The signal is filtered online and thus allows the coach and athlete to see and hear when the amplitude of the signal is approaching an optimal level of arousal. Ideally, individuals should perform within a frequency of 8-13 Hz, a relaxed yet alert state known as Alpha. Additionally, another graph on the computer screen will instantaneously show if the person is in an optimal state of concentration, measured by the number of 40 Hz spikes.

The purpose of this study is to investigate the effectiveness of a stress management program and the use of biofeedback on skill acquisition during competition. The task participants will learn is underhand dart throwing. Stress will be induced by using monetary incentives and head-to-head competition. It is hypothesized that participants engaged in the 15-week stress management program and using the PAT will perform with greater accuracy and consistency and spend a significantly greater proportion of their time in alpha (a measure of arousal) and produce a greater proportion of 40 Hz activity (a measure of focused concentration) than their control counterparts.


University students (N=24) volunteered to participate in the study. Half of these participants were randomly drawn from stress management classes and served as the experimental group. The other half were randomly drawn from personal fitness classes and served as the control group. All students were asked to read and sign an informed consent during the first day. Participants in the stress management group, aside from taking the 15-week stress management class, were also engaged in 15 min of biofeedback using the PAT per week.

Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-II (CSAI-II)
The Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-II (Martens, et al., 1990) was administered to all participants before they engaged in the motor task and midway through competition. The CSAI-II is a multi-dimensional scale that is believed to assess somatic anxiety, cognitive anxiety, and state self-confidence. The scale consists of 27 questions (three nine-item subscales) arranged on a four-point Likert scale.

Motor Task
Underhand dart throwing was the task used to determine the effectiveness of the stress management protocol and the biofeedback. Having participants perform this type of novel task ensured that all participants were equal in their motor ability. Standard darts weighing approximately 10 g and 12 cm long, were used and the dart board painted with a white background and black vertical (9) and horizontal (9) lines painted over top to form a grid. Each line was 5 cm apart and numbered 1-9 (+ or - depending on the x,y coordinate location). A masking tape line was placed on the floor approximately 365 cm (10 ft) from the dart board. Participants were asked to stand behind this line when throwing. Throws were made underhanded at a dart board located 91.44 cm (5 ft) above the floor.

On the day of testing, two participants (one experimental, one control) were led to the Human Performance Laboratory at Western Illinois University. The participants were told that they would be competing against each other (both participants were of the same gender). The participants were informed that if their score was better than their opponent, then they would win $20, to be paid that day. Furthermore, if they hit the bull’s eye twice in a row they would receive $10 for each time they did so. Additionally, all winners’ names were put in a drawing for a $300 cash prize to be awarded after testing was completed. The participants then complete the CSAI-II. Upon completing the questionnaire, the participant-to-be-tested put the PAT headware on, while the other not-to-be-tested participant put on a similar, non-functional cap. After 6 practice throws, the not-to-be-tested participant threw his/her 3 darts first, followed by the to-be-tested participant. Scores were recorded and reported to the participants after each trial block. 15 blocks of 3 throws were completed for a total of 45 throws for each participant. Testing time was approximately 30 min. Once testing was completed, the participants were debriefed about the experiment and any questions they may have were answered.


The pretest/posttest scores for the three sub-scales, cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety, and self-confidence, were analyzed using a repeated measures, MANOVA with Groups (Stress Management/Biofeedback (SM), Control (C)) as a between-subjects factor and Pretest/Protest as the repeated measures. The multivariate test for the Groups x Pretest/Posttest interaction was significant, Wilks’ λ = .27, F(1, 23) = 32.36, p<.001, η²=".73." examination of the univariate f-tests showed that this interaction was significant for all three sub-scale categories, cognitive anxiety, f(1,23)="41.90," p<.001, somatic anxiety, f(1,23)="44.13," p<.001, and self-confidence, f(1, 23)="30.71," p<.001. simple effects conducted for the groups posttest interaction revealed that for the cognitive anxiety items, participants in the condition rated themselves higher (m="22.5," sd="2.89)" than participants in the sm condition (m="18.35," sd="2.23)" for the posttest. for the somatic anxiety questions, dart throwers in the group scored higher (m="24.2," sd="3.75)" than those in the sm group (m="18.8," sd="1.99)" for the posttest. finally, for the self-confidence items, participants perceived themselves as less confident (m="21.1," sd="2.15)" than the sm participants (m="24.00," sd="1.75)." />
Performance Scores
A paired-samples T-test was used to analyze performance differences (absolute error) between the SM and C group. The test showed the two groups were significantly different, t(11) = -2.69, p<.05. the sm group was more accurate (m="5.49," sem=".34)" than the group (m="6.29," sem=".31)." see figure 1. with regard to head-to-head competition, the sm group defeated the group 11-1. furthermore, the amount of time participants spent in optimal concentration (5 before each dart throw) showed that the sm group spent 71% of their time optimally concentrating as opposed to the group, which spent 55% of their time concentrating optimally.


Overall, findings suggest that individuals learning a self-paced motor task during stressful situations will experience performance benefits when using a stress management program and the Peak Achievement Trainer (PAT). Oftentimes, students in a physical education class or youngsters learning a novel sport skill will be asked to perform that skill in front of others or in competition-like situations. It is not uncommon to see individuals in “pressure” situations such as these “choke” and produce sub-par performances. Learning theorists propose that this is so because stress, coupled with the early stages of learning, decreases attentional capacity and focus, while at the same time increasing nervousness and memory lapses (Fitts & Posner, 1967; Maxwell, Masters & Eves, 2000). In extreme cases, if an individual is faced with competitive, stressful situations on a relatively frequent basis, the effects of these stressors could become debilitating and cause the individual to quit or drop out of the sport or activity (Anderson & Cole, 2001; Brustad, 1993; Cox, 2002; Smith, 1986).

One reason for why it is believed that the stress management program was effective was in the preperformance routine that was taught. Participants using the stress management program were taught to perform with a “quiet” mind, minimizing internal and external distractors. This approach has been professed in Singer’s (2002) Five-Step Strategy and has been shown to have a great deal of success in the learning and enhancement of self-paced motor activities. Other elements of the stress management program likely play a role in enhancing the learning of a novel skill such as underhand dart throwing. Participants were taught what stress is and how to identify it, as well as coping strategies. Techniques such as general meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, imagery, autogenic training, progressive muscular relaxation, positive self-talk, and cognitive restructuring likely contributed to the superior performance exhibited by the SM group. These participants were also taught a specific preperformance routine to help them be in an optimal ready state and focused on the task at hand.

Along with the stress management program, students were trained using the PAT biofeedback instrument. Biofeedback demonstrates to the learner his or her current stress, tension, and concentration levels before and during performance. These processes are typically subconscious, thus performers are able to recognize when their arousal levels are too high or when concentration is not at a premium. Through weekly sessions of PAT training, participants were able to recognize, understand, and consequently moderate their arousal and concentration skills using the techniques taught in the stress management class. The PAT helped the participants in the SM group to perform in a relaxed, yet alert state, and in a focused manner. SM participants were able to maintain concentration levels for a longer period of time during the 5 s before dart throw than the C group.

In summary, exploring effective stress management interventions could combat potential deleterious effects imposed by competitive pressure by mentally and physically tuning the performer to respond with a quiet, ready mind. This state of readiness would minimize the cognitive processing of irrelevant information and distractors at the time of motor initiation, processing that would essentially degrade performance and is more characteristic of beginners (Petruzzello, Landers, & Salazar, 1991). Furthermore, results of this study showed that combining a stress management protocol with biofeedback appeared to enhance the learning of a self-paced motor skill. Ultimately, this research will contribute to understanding the relationship between competitive stress and human performance.


Anderson, E.D., & Cole, B.S. (2001). Stress factors related to reported academic performance and burnout. Education, 108(4), 497-503.

Brustad, R.J. (1993). Youth in sport: Psychological considerations. In R.N. Singer, M. Murphey, & L.K. Tennant (Eds.), Handbook of research on sport psychology (pp. 695-717). New York: Macmillan.

Cox, R.H. (2002). Sport psychology: Concepts and applications. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fitts, P.M., & Posner, M.I. (1967). Human Performance. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Martens, R., Burton, D., Vealey, R.S., Bump, L.A., & Smith, D.E. (1990). Development and validation of the competitive state anxiety inventory-2. In R. Martens, R.S. Vealey, & D. Burton (Eds.), Competitive anxiety in sport (pp. 117-232). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Maxwell, J.P., Masters, R.W., & Eves, F.F. (2000). From novice to know-how: A longitudinal study of implicit motor learning. Journal of Sport Sciences, 18, 111-120.

Orlick, T.(1986). Psyching for sport. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press.

Petruzzello, S.J., Landers, D.M., & Salazar, W. (1991). Biofeedback and sport/exercise performance: Applications and limitations. Behavior Therapy, 22, 379-392.

Rotella, R.J., & Lerner, J.D. (1993). Responding to competitive pressure. In R.N. Singer, M. Murphey, & L.K. Tennant (Eds.), Handbook of research on sport psychology (pp. 528-541). New York: Macmillan.

Singer, R.N. (2002). Preperformance state, routines, and automaticity: What does it take to realize expertise in self-paced events? Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 24, 359-375.

Smith, R.E. (1986). Toward a cognitive-affective model of athletic burnout. Journal of Sport Psychology, 8, 36-50.

Zaichkowsky, L.D., & Takenaka, K. (1993). Optimizing arousal levels. In R.N. Singer, M. Murphey, & L.K. Tennant (Eds.), Handbook of research on sport psychology (pp. 511-527). New York: Macmillan.


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