Neurofeedback; what could end up as a prime component in one’s tool-shed towards athletic greatness. From volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings to more recent adopters, such as two young right-handers in the Chicago White Sox organization, top prospect Dylan Cease and Lucas Giolito, who is now in his second full year. Top athletes all across the world are in on these incredible techniques. Much media attention has been given in recent years towards EEG-NFB (electroencephalogram neurofeedback) training.
Have you ever had a huge game in your days as a high school ballplayer? Do you remember being quite anxious and deliberately sabotaging yourself by thinking of failure, over and over again? Then EEG-NFB is just for you! Well, maybe not anymore, since you’re now 44 and it has been a real long time since you have graduated high school. But Lucas Giolito could certainly benefit by these methods.
In 2018, Giolito was very simply put, one of the worst starting pitchers in all of major league baseball. I’m a White Sox fan, and let me tell you, it was just frustrating watching him pitch throughout the season. He had an ERA over 6, he was striking out only about 16% (league-average in 2018 was 22.3%) of his opponents while simultaneously walking 11.6% (8.5%) of batters and serving up 1.4 HR/9. At 6’6 and 245 lbs, he certainly has a lot of limbs and it may take him longer than is typical to harness his control. What was quite evident throughout the season was his ability to let any single issue within the first inning or two snowball into worse and worse things. He averaged about 94 pitches per start in 2018 despite only averaging a little over 5.1 innings per start. Anyone will tell you that averaging 95 pitches and 5 innings every start will lead to a career in relief very quickly.
Getting back to Giolito’s issue with letting anything and everything mess up his psyche very early on in starts, EEG-NFB will improve his ability to relax his body and mind while under the most grueling of high-leverage situations. Let’s take a look at studies that were conducted by Mirosław Mikicin (University of Physical Education in Warsaw, Poland), Grzegorz Orzechowski (Warsaw University of Technology), Katarzyna Jurewicz (The Nencki Institute for Experimental Biology), Katarzyna Paluch (NIEB), Marek Kowalczyk (UPEWP), and Andrzej Wróbel (NIEB). The EEG-NFB model was created to increase levels of sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) and beta1 while also decreasing levels of theta and beta2 in a person’s brain. Increasing SMR helps reduce anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia, and helps improve your overall well-being, health and focus. Increasing beta1 levels help improve your sympathetic nervous system, which can act similarly to what meditation would do to your body; lower respiration and heart rates, while providing better blood flow to the brain and inducing less constriction of the blood vessels, which would help with anxiety and stress-levels.
Now, decreasing theta levels can also lead to improvements in levels of stress, anxiety and neurosis. Decreasing levels of beta2 in the brain can lead to improvements in ability to perform various day-to-day activities (such as potentially helping a certain 6’6 man be able to throw strikes more consistently) as well as even helping with joint pain and stiffness. That last benefit is also a very beneficial element for recovery after a 100-pitch outing.
So back to the six men I kindly referenced earlier. Their EEG-NFB sessions were accompanied with self-administration of relaxing, audio-visual stimulation after each daily athletic training session. The training program resulted in the increase of SMR and beta1 power of trained participants and the decrease in levels of theta and beta2. As well as showing improvement in speed, effectiveness and work accuracy, these results, as well as many other studies that provide similar conclusions, substantiate initial support for the use of holistic, EEG-NFB methods in the sporting world.
After an entire off-season dedicated to these methods, how has it exactly helped Lucas Giolito through his first seven starts of 2019? The results are very sufficient so far. Giolito is currently running a 3.55 ERA (6.13 in 2018), a 3.06 FIP (21st in baseball out of 131 pitchers with at least 30 IP), he’s striking out nearly twice as many batters as he was in 2018, and he nudged the walk and home run rates down and has been worth 1.1 WAR in only 38 innings this year, where last year he was basically replacement level over 173.1 innings and 32 starts (-0.1 WAR).
Digging further beneath the surface shows some real, rock-solid proof that Giolito isn’t running into some luck-induced performance, but that he may just be the White Sox next team ace. He has gained either 0.9 mph to his fastball or 1.4 mph depending on which pitch algorithm you look at. He has also made some drastic improvements in some plate discipline metrics; his contact rate on pitches inside of the strike zone has fallen from 88.3 to 83.7% and his overall contact rate has dropped from 80.6 to 74.2%. He’s pumping in first-pitch strikes nearly 8% more often (55.4 to 62.8%.). He is throwing nearly 6% more strikes. His swinging-strike rate has gone from 8.3% last year to a more league-average 11.9% this year. With all of these improvements, he now sits above-average in each of those numbers. Then he went seven strong innings yesterday, allowing only one run on four hits, striking out eight while walking one batter to pick up his fourth victory of the year.
When the White Sox traded Adam Eaton to the Nationals for Lucas Giolito (as well as Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning), they most likely did not foresee just how badly Giolito was going to struggle in 2018. But with Giolito showing major improvements early on, Lopez turning in a slightly-above average performance in 2018 and the emergence of Dunning last year (although he just underwent Tommy John Surgery this past March), this trade may have netted the White Sox 60% of their future rotation for years to come.
Featured Photo Credit: The Athletic
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