A PsychoNeuroPhysiological Approach to Sports Performance

Current focus in this line of research: Cortical activity during self-controlled sports performance

Self-Control and Sports Performance

Doing sports often requires willpower: In order to fulfil the New Year’s resolution to go running more often, one has to override the temptation of staying on the couch and instead go out for a run. And while one is out for a run, one has to constantly fight the urge to go slower or to quit earlier than planned. When fatigue accumulates, the demands on willpower increase as one has to fight more and more afferent aversive sensory signals (e.g., muscle pain, high heart rate, hunger etc.).

Willpower is the colloquial term of what has been labeled self-control in psychological research. Self-control can be defined as the ability to volitionally override dominant response tendencies and to bring them in line with individual goals, aims, or norms (e.g., Baumeister & Vohs, 2004). It comes as no surprise that the ability to exert self-control is important for sports performance.

Performance from a Process Perspective

When assessing the effect of psychological variables on performance, performance is mostly looked at as an outcome and not as a process. In this line of research, we are interested in how performance, conceptualized as a process, is affected by psychological variables. For example, where (time) and how (direction) does a reduced ability to exert self-control exert an effect on performance? We have, for example, investigated how endurance performance is affected by a self-control demanding task that is performed prior to an endurance task (read here).

Cortical Activity during Sports Performance

So far, little is known on how psychological variables differentially affect cortical processes during an athletic performance. In our work, we aim to address this research gap and are interested in the cortical processes that are involved while performing a self-control demanding task. So far, we have primarily investigated the cortical processes involved in performing a cognitive task. We have, for example, investigated the cerebral correlates of trying to fake an Implicit Association Test on doping attitudes (read here). Currently we use functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to investigate the cortical processes that are involved during endurance performance. Compared to other neuroimaging methods, fNIRS is less susceptible to movement artifacts and can thus be used to ‘have a look into the working brain’ during a performance.


This line of research is primarily pursued by Wanja Wolff. If you are interested in this topic please feel free to contact him. The research on cerebral correlates of self-control is primarily experimental and is suitable for a Bachelor- or Master thesis. Students are encouraged write to us if they are interested in doing a thesis on this topic (contact).