The Drake Foundation aims to improve understanding of concussion in sport and its effects on long-term brain health.
For most athletes, the year coming to a close has no real significance if they are truly in the mindset of constantly improving their game. It’s no secret that training is an essential part of success, which includes physical activities such as practicing drills, strength training, and cardio to improve performance. What many give little credence to is that sports are 90% mental and only 10% physical. All too often, athletes neglect the development of mental skills as part of their training routines, which can in most cases, catapult them to the next level.
Let’s talk mental toughness. My forever mantra is, “Start with the mind, and your game will follow.” Here are four ways that athletes can incorporate mental skills into daily training:
Review Past Performance:
It is important to review your past performance to evaluate where you are and where you want to be. Once this information has been gathered and reviewed, improvement can begin. I recommend taking a look at your stats from the past four to six games or competitions. What are your averages (speed, points, etc.)? How did you place? Were you better or worse this time last season? What caused the decline or uptick? After reviewing your stats and answering these types of questions, you are now ready to set some goals.
Whether it’s the start of a new season or you’re already in the throes of competition, goal setting is always a great way to set your athletic journey in a new and positive direction. Often athletes have team goals that are given to them by their coaches, but the designation of individual goals are not always the norm. If you currently don’t have individual goals, now would be a good time to set a few with input from your coach and/or trainer.
When playing team sports, being a good teammate means focusing on and perfecting your role within the team. In my sessions with athletes, I often encourage them to think about what they want to achieve, not just for the overall season, but for each game, match, meet, etc. For example, if you are a basketball player, decide how many points, rebounds, assists, blocks, etc. you want to get for every game. While setting these goals, please be realistic. If you don’t typically score 50 points a game or get 20 rebounds, then set goals that are slightly higher than your average with the intent of increasing and improving in every area as the season progresses.
Develop a Mental Pre-game:
When I ask athletes “What is your pre-game routine?” I most often hear one of three things — a physical warm-up, listen to music or “I don’t have one.” Developing a mental pre-game is an excellent way to maintain focus on performance while allowing the athlete to meet his or her goals. On game day, your mental energy should be locked in on goals and positive affirmations.
It’s perfectly fine, and I would recommend giving yourself a mental pep talk. It goes much further than most think. Recite positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror, place sticky notes in your locker, or store them in your phone and schedule them to appear on your screen before each game. Make this a practice that becomes a part of your pre-game prep.
“I think, therefore, I am.” These are five of the most powerful words athlete can say. To be successful in sports and even in life, a positive outlook is a big requirement. Athletes must strengthen or develop (if needed) the belief in self, and this is not to be mistaken with arrogance or boastfulness. When pressure-filled situations arise during play or a simple mistake on the court happens, some athletes become negative in their thinking. This can affect performance and even create feelings of anger, fear or doubt.
Positive self-talk is a technique that provides athletes the confidence to perform at their best even in the most difficult and high-pressure moments. When you or a teammate have made a mistake, recognize the importance and benefits of speaking positively over a situation with statements like “I’m not giving up,” “I put in the work, so now it’s time to perform at my best,” or “I trust my skills and talent.” In a nutshell, if a negative thought tries to creep in, replace it with positive thinking.
I dare you to try any or all of the tips shared in this article. Developing the skills to be mentally tough takes time, but will ultimately enhance your daily performance and take your game to new heights!
Natalie Graves is a licensed clinical social worker and an expert in the area of mental health and wellness for athletes.
Think about it. Your brain is always “on.” It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep. This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.
Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel. Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.
Unfortunately, just like an expensive car, your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel. If substances from “low-premium” fuel (such as what you get from processed or refined foods) get to the brain, it has little ability to get rid of them.
Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
It makes sense. If your brain is deprived of good-quality nutrition, or if free radicals or damaging inflammatory cells are circulating within the brain’s enclosed space, further contributing to brain tissue injury, consequences are to be expected. What’s interesting is that for many years, the medical field did not fully acknowledge the connection between mood and food.
Today, fortunately, the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is finding there are many consequences and correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel, and how you ultimately behave, but also the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut.
How the foods you eat affect how you feel
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.
What’s more, the function of these neurons — and the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin — is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome. These bacteria play an essential role in your health. They protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria; they limit inflammation; they improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food; and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain.
Studies have shown that when people take probiotics (supplements containing the good bacteria), their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook improve, compared with people who did not take probiotics. Other studies have compared “traditional” diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical “Western” diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet.
Scientists account for this difference because these traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and to contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They are also void of processed and refined foods and sugars, which are staples of the “Western” dietary pattern. In addition, many of these unprocessed foods are fermented, and therefore act as natural probiotics. Fermentation uses bacteria and yeast to convert sugar in food to carbon dioxide, alcohol, and lactic acid. It is used to protect food from spoiling and can add a pleasant taste and texture.
This may sound implausible to you, but the notion that good bacteria not only influence what your gut digests and absorbs, but that they also affect the degree of inflammation throughout your body, as well as your mood and energy level, is gaining traction among researchers. The results so far have been quite amazing.
What does this mean for you?
Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel — not just in the moment, but the next day. Try eating a “clean” diet for two to three weeks — that means cutting out all processed foods and sugar. Add fermented foods like kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, pickles, or kombucha. You also might want to try going dairy-free — and some people even feel that they feel better when their diets are grain-free. See how you feel. Then slowly introduce foods back into your diet, one by one, and see how you feel.
When my patients “go clean,” they cannot believe how much better they feel both physically and emotionally, and how much worse they then feel when they reintroduce the foods that are known to enhance inflammation. Give it a try!
For more information on this topic, please see: Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry, Sarris J, et al. Lancet Psychiatry. 2015
The field of Nutritional Psychiatry is relatively new, however there are observational data regarding the association between diet quality and mental health across countries, cultures and age groups – depression in particular.
Eva Selhub MD Contributing Editor
Despite what some people think, you don’t need a fancy gym membership to get the health benefits of working out. Walking is something you probably do on a daily basis without a second thought — whether while completing chores around the house or commuting to work — making it one of the most underestimated forms of exercise. However, science has shown time and again that simply walking can boost both your physical and mental health.
The best part is, your walk doesn’t have to eat up two hours of your time, or be a strenuous hike to feel the positive impact walking can have on your body and brain. “Walking is known to have fantastic physical health benefits, but even a twenty minute walk can also provide a big boost to your mental health,” Stephanie Blozy, an expert in exercise science and the owner of Fleet Feet of West Hartford, CT, tells Bustle. “As you walk, your whole body wakes up — especially your mind.”
Seriously — all you need is 30 spare minutes in your schedule to get the benefits of walking. According to science, this is how even a 20 to 30 minute walk can change your brain for the better.
1. It Lowers Your Risk Of Developing Depression
If you needed some motivation to lace up your sneakers, do it for your mental health: As The Telegraph reported in April, a 49-study review led by King’s College London found that exercising for just twenty minutes a day could cut your risk of developing depression by a third. The review determined that any kind of “moderate aerobic activity, such as cycling or brisk walking,” could boost your brain health.
2. It Improves Your Overall Cognitive Functioning
Harvard Health reported in 2016 that several studies have discovered that just twenty to thirty minutes of daily aerobic exercise improved overall cognitive function. Study participants who participated in aerobic activities, such as walking, performed better on tests, and had a quicker and more accurate reaction time.
3. Walking Releases Endorphins
Like all forms of exercise, walking encourages your brain to release endorphins — a neurochemical that boosts your mental health, decreases your sensitivity to stress and pain, and can even make you feel euphoric. A 2018 survey conducted in the U.K. found that it took women a mere ten minutes of exercise to feel this “rush” of mood-boosting endorphins, as The Independent reported.
“Becoming consistent with your walking routine is also a great morale booster. You can’t help but feel proud of yourself when you conquer your daily goal — which, in turn, inspires you to keep the streak alive the next day and so on,” says Blozy. “Those success-based endorphins will empower you in other areas of your life both personally and professionally.”
As one study published in January found, walking for thirty minutes at a “moderate intensity” increased the production of BDNF in the brains of post-stroke patients. So, walking at a quicker pace could be a key element to maintaining a healthy mind.
5. It Helps With Mental And Physical Fatigue
A 2008 study conducted at the University of Georgia found that just twenty minutes of low intensity exercise, like walking, can dramatically decrease fatigue. In fact, study participants that exercised for twenty minutes at a low intensity level, three times a week, reported a 65 percent reduction in their fatigue levels.
6. It Strengthens Your Hippocampus
If you struggle with memory problems and forgetfulness, walking may be one way to clear up the cognitive haze: As NPR reported, going for a walk, even briefly, can increase the size of your hippocampus — the region of your brain that plays a critical role in forming and storing memories, as well as the associated feelings that go along with those memories.
7. It Improves Creativity
Stuck on an important paper or project? Moving may be the cure to your creative rut. Blozy says that, even after twenty minutes of walking, “You become more creative and think more sharply, which is why it’s the perfect antidote for writer’s block.” A Stanford study published in 2014 confirmed this, finding that walking increased a person’s “creative output” by an average of 60 percent.
8. Walking Increases Blood Flow In Your Brain
CBS News reported in 2017 that a recent study discovered twenty minutes of walking increased cerebral blood flow. And, like with any major organ, increasing circulation is super important to the health of both your brain and body. As the website Brain MD Health explained, blood flow helps to bring “nutrients to your cells, and takes away toxins.”
Walking may not make you break a sweat like running or a pilates class does, but that doesn’t mean it’s a less effective workout. Taking a twenty-minute walk around your neighborhood or the closest park, or opting to walk instead of riding the bus on your way home from work, will keep your brain healthy in the long run.
By KYLI RODRIGUEZ-CAYRO for BUSTLE