Erik Peper, PhD and Vietta Wilson, PhD
Adapted from: Peper, E. & Wilson, V. (2021). Optimize the learning state: techniques and habits. Biofeedback, 9(2), 46-49. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-49-2-04
Long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, online learning will continue to increase as better methodologies and strategies are developed to implement and integrate it into our lives. This post provides suggestions on how to enhance the learner’s ability to engage while online with the use of pre-performance routines or habits.
Facilitating online learning requires coordination of the teacher, technology, student, environment and the topic. Teachers can enhance engagement (Shoepe et al., 2020) online through different types of prompts: intellectual (associated with instructor interaction, academic challenge, active learning), organizational (associated with enriching academic experiences by directing students, selecting topics and summarizing or redirecting), and social (associated with supportive campus environments by encouraging social interaction, using informal language and affirming student comments).
The student can enhance the satisfaction and quality of the online experience by having a good self-regulated learning style. Learning is impacted by motivation (beliefs about themselves or the task, perceived value, etc.), and metacognition (ability to plan, set goals, monitor and regulate their behavior and evaluate their performance) (Greene & Azevedo, 2010; Mega et al., 2014). While critical for learning, it does not provide information on how students can maintain their optimized performance long term, which is increasingly necessary during the pandemic but will possibly be the model of education and therapy of the future.
Habit can enhance performance across a life span.
Habit is a behavioral tendency tied to a specific context, such as learning to brush one’s teeth while young and continuing through life (Fiorella, 2020). Habits are related to self-control processes that are associated with higher achievement (Hagger, 2019). Sport performance extensively values habit, typically called pre-performance routine, in creating an ongoing optimized state of performance (Lautenbach et al., 2015; Lidor & Mayan, 2005; Mesagno et al., 2015). Habits or pre-performance routines are formed by repeating a behavior tied to a specific context and with continued repetition, wherein the mental association between the context and the response are strengthened. This shifts from conscious awareness to subconscious behavior that is then cued by the environment. The majority of one’s daily actions and behaviors are the results of these habits.
Failure to create a self-regulated learning habit impedes long-term success of students. It does take significant time and reinforcement to create the automaticity of a real-life habit. Lally et al. (2010) tracked real world activities (physical activity, eating, drinking water) and found habit formation varied from 18-254 days with a mean of 66 days. There was wide variability in the creation of the habit and some individuals never reached the stage of automaticity. Interestingly, those who performed the behavior with greater consistency were more likely to develop a habit.
The COVID pandemic resulted in many people working at home, which interrupted many of the covert habit patterns by which they automatically performed their tasks. A number of students reported that everything is the same and that they are more easily distracted from doing the tasks. As one student reported:
After a while, it all seems the same. Sitting and looking at the screen while working, taking classes, entertaining, streaming videos and socializing. The longer I sit and watch screens, the more I tend to feel drained and passive, and the more challenging it is to be present, productive and pay attention.
By having rituals and habits trigger behavior, it is easier to initiate and perform tasks. Students can use the strategies developed for peak performance in sports to optimize their performances so that they can achieve their personal best (Wilson & Peper, 2011; Peper et al., 2021). These strategies include environmental cueing and personal cueing.
By taking charge of your environment and creating a unique environment for each task, it is possible to optimize performance specific for each task. After a while, we do not have to think to configure ourselves for the task. It is no different than the sequence before going to sleep: you brush your teeth and if you forget, it feels funny and you probably will get up to brush your teeth.
Previously, many people, without awareness, would configure and reinforce themselves for work by specific tasks such as commuting to go work, being at a specific worksite to perform the work, wearing specific clothing, etc. (Peper et al., 2021). Now there are few or no specific cues tied to working; it tends to be all the same and it is no wonder that people feel less energized and focused.
Many people forget that learning and recall are state-dependent to where the information was acquired. The Zoom environment where we work or attend class is the same environment where we socialize, game, watch videos, message, surf the net and participate in social media. For most, there has been no habit developed for the new reality of in-home learning. To do this, the environment must be set up so the habit state (focused, engaged) is consistently paired with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues. The environment needs to be reproducible in many locations, situations, and mental states as possible. As illustrated by one student’s report.
To cue myself to get ready for learning, I make my cappuccino play the same short piece of music, wear the same sweater, place my inspiring poster behind my screen, turn off all software notifications and place the cell phone out of visual range.
A similar concept is used in the treatment of insomnia by making the bedroom the only room to be associated with sleep or intimacy (Irish et al., 2017; Suni, 2021). All other activities, arguing with your partner, eating, watching television, checking email, texting, or social media are done at other locations. Given enough time, the cues in the bedroom become the conditioned triggers for sleep and pleasure.
Create different environments that are unique to each category of Zoom involvement (studying, working, socializing, entertaining).
Pre COVID, we usually wore different clothing for different events (work versus party) or visited different environments for different tasks (religious locations for worship; a bar, coffee shop, or restaurant for social gathering). The specific tasks in a specified location had conscious and subconscious cues that included people, lighting, odors, sound or even drinks and food. These stimuli become the classically conditioned cues to evoke the appropriate response associated with the task, just as Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate when the bell sound was paired with the presentation of meat. Taking charge of the conditioning process at home may help many people to focus on their task as so many people now use their bedroom, kitchen or living room for Zoom work that is not always associated with learning or work. The following are suggestions to create working/learning environments.
- Wear task-specific clothing just as you would have done going to work or school. When you plan to study or work, put on your work shirt. In time, the moment you put on the work shirt, you are cueing yourself to focus on studying/working. When finishing with working/studying, change your clothing.
- If possible, maintain a specific location for learning/working. When attending classes or working, sit at your desk with the computer on top of the desk. For games or communication tasks, move to another location.
- If you can’t change locations, arrange task-specific backgrounds for each category of Zoom tasks. Place a different background such as a poster or wall hanging behind the computer screen—one for studying/working, and another for entertainment. When finished with the specific Zoom event, take down the poster and change the background.
- Keep the sound appropriate to the workstation area. Try to duplicate what is your best learning/working sound scape.
Learning to become aware of and in control of one’s personal self is equally or more important than setting up the environment with cues that foster attention and learning. Practicing getting the body/mind into the learning state can become a habit that will be available in many different learning situations across one’s lifespan.
- Perform a specific ritual or pre-performance routine before beginning your task to create the learning/performing state. The ritual is a choreographed sequence of actions that gets you ready to perform. For example, some people like to relax before learning and find playing a specific song or doing some stretching before the session is helpful. Others sit at the desk, turn off all notifications, take a deep breath then look up and state to themselves: “I am now looking forward to working/studying and learning,” “focus” (whatever it may be). For some, their energy level is low and doing quick arm and hand movements, slapping their thighs or face, or small fast jumps may bring them to a more optimal state. For many people smell and taste are the most powerful conditioners, and coffee improves their attention level. Test out an assortment of activities that get your body and mind at the performance level. Practice and modify as necessary.
Just as in sport, the most reliable method is to set up oneself for the learning/performance state, because a person has less control over the environment. For example, when I observed the Romanian rhythmic gymnasts team members practice their routine during the warmup before the international competition, they would act as if it was the actual competition. They stood at the mat preparing their body/mind state, then they would bow to the imaginary judge, wait for a signal to begin, and then perform their routine. On the other hand, most of the American rhythmic gymnasts would just do their practice routine. For the Romanian athletes, the competition was the same as their rehearsal practice. No wonder, the Romanian athletes were much more consistent in their performance. Additionally, ritual helps buffer against uncertainty and anxiety (Hobson et al., 2017).
- Develop awareness of the body-mind state associated with optimum performance. This can be done by creating a ritual and an environment that evoke the optimum mental and emotional state for learning. As you configure yourself and your environment, explore how you physically feel when you are most focused and engaged. Identify what your posture, muscle tension, and body position feel like during these times, and identify what you are paying attention to. If your attention wanders, observe how you bring your attention back to the task. Does it help focus you to write summary notes or doodle? Do you flag important statements in your head and then visibly nod your head when you understand the concept? Or do you repeat an important cue word? Find what you do when you are optimally functioning. Then try to reproduce that same state that can be triggered by a key word that tells you what to focus on (e.g., listen to teacher, look at slide, etc.).
In summary, by becoming aware of and controlling one’s environment and personal states that are associated with productive learning, and then practicing them until they become a routine or habit, one can maximize all learning opportunities. This blog presented a few tips, techniques and cues that may help one to maximize attention and increase performance and learning while online.
I noticed when I took the time to prepare and ready myself to be focused and be present during the class, I no longer had to actively work to resist distractions; I was focused in the moment and not worried about emails, other assignments, what to make for dinner, etc…
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As the New Year begins, I wish you health, happiness and the courage to follow your dreams. Even though we may face challenges, they are also the gateway to new opportunities. Within each person there are unknown potentials which are so often limited by our beliefs. Enjoy the video that points out there is nothing more powerful than a human being with a dream. Best wishes for the New Year.
“It was the best meet of my life.” -Jo Aita
Setting a personal best and winning the Gold medal is a remarkable feat. Jo Aita, age 46 and weighing 58 kg, set the Masters World Records and Masters Games Records in Snatch, Clean & Jerk and Total Olympic weight lifting at the World Masters Games in Auckland, New Zealand, April 26th, 2017. She lifted 71 kg in the Snatch and 86 kg in the Clean and Jerk Olympic lifts in the 45-49-year-old age group (see video in figure 1). What makes this more remarkable is that her combined lifts were 3 kilograms more than her life-time best in previous competition. She refuted the conventional wisdom that weight lifters peak in their mid to late twenties. There is hope for improvement as aging may not mean we have to decline.
Figure 1. Video of Jo Aita successful lift at the World Masters Games in Auckland, NZ., April 26, 2017.
There are many factors–and many more which we do not know–which contribute to this achievement such as genetics, diligent training and superb coaching at the Max’ Gym in Oakland as a member of Team Juggernauts. In the last three years, Jo Aita also incorporated biofeedback and visualization training to help optimize her performance. This report summarizes how breathing and electromyography feedback combined with imagery may have contributed to achieving her personal best. As Jo Aita stated, “I recommend this to everyone and hope that you can work with athletes in my gym.”
Components of the 30 sessions of biofeedback, internal language and visualization training program
The training was started in September 2014 to reduce anxiety and improve performance. The components embedded in the training are listed sequentially; however, training did not occur sequentially. They were dynamically interwoven throughout the many sessions and augmented with homework practices, as well as storytelling of other people achieving success using similar approaches. The major components included:
1. Mastering effortless slow diaphragmatic breathing in which the abdomen expanded during inhalations and constricted during exhalation. The respiration feedback and training was recorded with BioGraph Infinity respiration sensors and recorded from the abdomen and upper chest. Her homework included monitoring situations where she held her breath and then anticipate breath holding by continuing to breathe. She also practiced slower breathing with heart rate variability feedback from a Stress Eraser. Practicing these allowed her to become centered and regenerate more quickly. As she stated, “It helped me during the day when I am anxious to calm down.” Throughout the training, the focus was to use breathing to rapidly regenerate after exertion especially after training.
2. Learning to relax her shoulder muscles with electromyography (EMG) feedback to regenerate and learn awareness of minimal trapezius muscle tension. She could use this awareness to identify her emotional reactivity (Peper, Booiman, Lin, & Shaffer, 2014). Often emotional reactivity increases muscle tension. She learned to relax here muscles quickly after muscle contractions to allow regeneration
3. Experiencing how cognition affect performance. This was initially demonstrated by arm resistance test. In this experiential practice, she extended her arm and attempted to resist the downward pressure applied to her wrist while she recalled either a hopeless, helpless, powerless or defeated memory or an empowered positive memory (for detailed description see, Gorter and Peper, pp 186-188, 2011). When she recalled the powerless memory she was significantly weaker than when she recalled the empowering memory. This experience demonstrated to her the power of her thoughts.
4. Rewriting failure into success. Each time she missed the lift, she would think, “I should not have done that,” or “I was doubtful or nervous during competition,” she shifted her focus to:
- Accepting what happened by acknowledging she did the best she could have done under the circumstances.
- Exploring how she could have done it differently and imagine herself doing it in the new optimum way.
- Using the trigger of the beginning thought of failure or defeat to evoke the new empowering memory thus interrupting the chained behavior.
The underlying concept was that what we mentally rehearse is what we may become and that our thoughts affect performance which she previously experienced by the arm resistance test. If you keep thinking about a defeat you are training the physiological pattern of defeat. This practice of transforming self-defeating thoughts into empowering thoughts can be applied to all phases of one’s life and was continued throughout the training sessions. The focus was to acknowledge and realize that whatever you did, it was the only thing you could have done because you did not yet have the skills to do it differently. She would then create a new strategy of mental rehearsal that lead to a positive outcome (for detailed description of this practice see Peper, Harvey, Lin, & Duvvuri, 2014).
5. Identifying whether imagery rehearsal is somatically connected. It is our bias that imagery rehearsal is useful if the body responds in a similar pattern when the person images the task as it would during an actual activity (Hall, 2001; Peper et al, 2015). The concurrent physiological activity would indicate that the person is experientially involved in the task and not just observing as a witness/second party.
Her performance is weightlifting and this would involve major muscle activity. Surface EMG was recorded from muscles that would be activated during the actual performance of the task to identify if they would be activated during mental rehearsal. The muscle activity during mental rehearsal is usually at a much smaller amplitude than that occurred during actual physical performance; however, should follow a similar timing sequence. In our experience there are three responses:
- Muscle activity in the appropriate muscles that are in the same timing as in and actual performance. This implies that mental rehearsal is actually training the motor pattern and facilitate performance. Thus continue practicing with mental rehearsal.
- Muscle activity in the appropriate muscles are not generally in the same timing sequence as the actual performance. This may mean that the person was performing too slow or was skipping sequences in the mental rehearsal and mental training may not be useful. The person needs to master and exhibit the same muscle pattern during mental rehearsal as during actual performance of the task.
- No muscle activity or inappropriate muscle activity during the during the mental rehearsal. This implies that during mental rehearsal there is no motor pattern training and the approach would not be useful unless the person learned to activate appropriate motor activity. It is possible that some people who have experienced past traumas may have coped by shutting off feelings and sensations in their bodies.
When Jo Aita initially practiced mental rehearsal while being monitored with surface EMG recorded with Myoscan Pro sensors (filter set narrow 100-200Hz) from the right and left upper trapezius muscles, there was no corresponding muscle activity as shown in Figure 2. Although she imaged, she did not feel/experience the lifting. The training focused upon reconnecting imagery and body experience.
Figure 2. Left and right upper trapezius EMG showed no increase in activity while Jo Aita mentally imaged performing her lift.
6. Integrating imagery and body experience with EMG. After identifying that imagery did not elicit concurrent muscle activity, the training focused on developing the imagery muscle connection. The training consisted of:
- Monitoring EMG activity from her right and left quadriceps and right and left upper trapezius muscle and have her simulate her actually lifting in practice and competition by going through the complete sequence which included standing and waiting till her name was called, caulking her hands, performing a ritual activity to be ready to lift the weights, lifting the weights, and releasing them. The pattern is shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Simulating the actual Snatch and Jerk lift (Clean is lifting the weights to the chest and punching Jerk is pushing the weigh upward is labelled).
- Practicing imagery by going through the same procedure and purposely slightly activating the movements which were necessary to lift the weight. As she stated, “I learned to do mental rehearsal in a more structured way and visualized the total sequence from chalking up to doing all six lifts”. This was monitored by the EMG to see that there occurred EMG activation of the muscles. This was repeated numerous times till, the activation occurred in imagery as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. EMG activity during mental rehearsal.
She then reported that imagery was a real experience.
7. Training mental rehearsal and imagery for peak performance (Cumming, Hall, & Shambrook, 2004). The major components of the mental rehearsal focused upon performing perfectly, visualizing lifting more weight easily than actually lifted in the gym, performing in the gym as she would during competing, practicing performing when interruptions occurred, and punching the weight through the ceiling.
- Performing perfectly. During the day she would mentally rehearse practicing lifting perfectly. In addition, as part of her readiness routine she would image performing the lift perfectly.
- Practicing recovery and being centered when interruptions would occur. For example, she was asked to role play competition and waiting for the judge to give the signal to start, I delayed giving her the signal to begin and told her the weights had to be adjusted because they had miss-loaded the bar. This way there would be no novelty during actual competition. This concept of coping with the unexpected was illustrated by Michael Phelps swimming the 200-meter butterfly in 2012 Being Olympics when his googles filled up with water when he dove in. Michael still won his 10th gold medal even though he swam part of the race blind (Fanning, E., June 25, 2012). He could do this because numerous time in the past, his coach had purposely trained Michael to swim with leaking googles
- Imagining lifting 10 kg more while competing. The concept of feeling/imagining yourself performing more that you can do at this moment creates the possibility for improvement since the limits of imagination may limit the experience/performance. As she reported, “This was incredibly helpful last year in competition when I needed to lift more than I had done before to qualify for the American Open, so I had mentally done it so often, then I just did it and made the qualifying lift.”
- Feeling your arms extending way up into the ceiling. Extending beyond your mental boundary of the test allows more power because the body tends to stop at the boundary. For example, when running 100 meters you want to see the finish line at least ten meters beyond the actual finish line this way you continue to run at maximum speed through the finish. If you focus on the actual finish line, you often slow down before reaching it. I told her how we used this concept with young male gymnasts to be able to do the iron cross for the first time by thinking of their arms being an iron beam and extending through the rings into the wall. In the case of lifting, you want to feel yourself punching the weight through the ceiling instead of just driving it upward. This portion of the lift when punching up into the ceiling is call the Jerk. This concept was experientially demonstrated by the following Aikido exercise of the iron arm.
Two people pair up and face each other. One stretches his arm straight out and rests the wrist and back of the palm on the shoulder of his partner. The partner put both hands on the elbow and then then pulls down trying to bend the elbow while his partner is try resist the downward force and try not to bend it as shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5. Testing the effect of imagery on resisting downward pull at the elbow with wrist facing palm up.
Then relax, and repeat the same exercise except the person imagines that his arm is like a metal bar extending from their shoulders out through his hand into the wall. Once the person is imaging this, then the partner again attempts to bend the arm.
In almost all cases, when the person imagines the arm extending like an iron bar into the wall, it is much stronger and much more difficult to bend. Jo integrated this felt imagery in her lifting during practice and she experienced increased strength while imagining/feeling the iron bar and reported that she had the “best Jerks in her life.”
Achieving a new world and personal record at age 46 in the master’s competition is a remarkable tribute to the athlete’s dedication and coaching. Although I (EP) may think I contributed, and hopefully what I taught was beneficial, in the end it is the athlete herself who has to perform in the competition–she is alone stands on the platform to lift the weights. When I (EP) asked whether the biofeedback visualization training was useful, Jo inequitably said, “Yes, and I would recommend this approach and training to everyone!” Watch the in-depth interview with Jo Aita in which she describes her experience of integrating imagery techniques and biofeedback to enhance performance on May 26, 2017.
What is interesting to ask is, how come a 46-year-old woman could lift 3 kg more than at any other time during her competitive career of Olympic lifting? It gives hope that loss of strength that commonly occurs as we age may be due less to aging than to learned disuse, injuries and lack of recovery. Most important factors are personal motivation and hope—you want to perform your best and know/believe that it is possible (Wilson and Peper, 2011). As Jo stated, “It helped for me to focus on doing my personal best.” I love Olympic lifting, I like taking care of my body, and I like feeling strong.” Finally, Jo is a recent athlete in her sport. She started lifting when she was 33 and competed one year later. She then took time out to give birth to her son and in a couple of months came back quickly and continued to become stronger. As she stated, “I always wanted to get stronger no matter what my age was.”
From a performance perspective it is interesting that she lifted more than ever before. Would it be possible that she is similar to many performers who achieve maximum performance after about 10 to 15 years of dedicated training? As she gets older, she improves her skills, increases efficiency of here muscles and neural connections. Is a possible that loss of performance as we age less due to aging than loss of motivation after years of practice, competition and achieving your goal. At that point life may offer other challenges and new opportunities.
* This blog was adapted and expanded from: Peper, E. & Aita, J. (2017). Winning the Gold in Weightlifting Using Biofeedback, Imagery and Cognitive Change. Biofeedback, 45(4), 77–82. DOI: 10.5298/1081-5937-45.4.01 https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/a-winning-the-gold-in-weightlifting-published.pdf
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 Correspondence: Erik Peper, Ph.D., Institute for Holistic Health Studies, Department of Health Education, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132. email: firstname.lastname@example.org; web: www.biofeedbackhealth.org; blog: www.peperperspective.com
 We thank Dr. Sue Wilson for her helpful and constructive feedback.
 We purposely use the word “may” because it is a case report and not a controlled study. Coaches, sport psychologist, or anyone who has had contact with an athlete who does extremely well usually claims that their suggestions were the magic ingredient; however, it could be synchronicity and not due to the actual skills taught. It may be due to unidentified factors or covert factors embedded in the coaching or teaching such as transforming hope and belief.
 Be aware that when people learn to reconnect with their body or learns slow diaphragmatic breathing and allow their lower abdomen to relax and expand, it is possible that past traumatic memories could be released. This release is a healthy process and we usually adapt an Autogenic Therapy/Training perspective by which the person accepts, allows discharge and continues with the task at hand.