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Healthy Food Intake Fuels Mental Toughness

Athletic success is typically associated with physical conditioning - the reps in the weight room, the timed sprints, the hours of repetition on the court or on the field. But equally important is mental conditioning. And an athlete's food intake (good or bad) directly impacts mood, behavior, and brain function.

The role of our minds in athletic performance can be underestimated. Food equals fuel for our bodies and for our brains. Mental strength and stability can influence our attention to detail, level of self-discipline, our attitude and general performance.

A vitally important component of athletic success, mental FOCUS is often the difference between two equally talented athletes. Even elite athletes can lose focus, both on and off the field.

Coaches: Talk to your athletes about improving the mental aspects of their game. Check out the four tips below.


1. Relax the Mind

According to Joann Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., well-known author and expert on mental training for athletes, "Relaxation is an experience. It's a state of physical and mental stillness characterized by the absence of tension and anxiety." Relaxation can be achieved through quiet meditation, yoga, breathing, stretching, sleeping etc.

Student athletes should get nine to ten hours of sleep per night. Those who sleep fewer than nine hours per night are more likely to consume fast food and less likely to eat healthful food such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein and low-fat or fat-free dairy.

A rested and well nourished system sets the stage for stability and better control throughout the day.

Coaches Tip: On the morning of game day, encourage your players to eat a hearty breakfast and then do 15-minutes of calm and steady breathing and stretching in a quiet, low-lit room. Encourage them to nourish their bodies and then clear their minds, calm their nerves, and focus.

2. Stay centered and focus on the present
There are so many distractions around us but it is critical that athletes try to stay centered and focus on the present. Being task-oriented, in the moment, and focusing on the next step in front of them is key - not what happened last quarter, not what may happen during the next play.

Self-awareness means knowing how to push ourselves to the absolute brink and understanding that our bodies are capable of much more than what our minds sometimes try to tell us. A healthy and balanced diet and plenty of rest helps sharpen focus.

Coaches Tip: Avoid rehashing mistakes during a game. Encourage players to forget, move on and then address opportunities for improvement during practice or while watching game film. Nutrition plays a critical role in mood. Making wise food choices improves athletic performance and mental toughness.

3. Be positive and be with positive people
Taking command of our minds and allowing only positive thoughts of success and victory helps control situations and performance. Unfortunately, many athletes are used to obsessing over what went wrong or what could go wrong, as opposed to believing what will go right. Mental affirmations and repetition of words in our minds can be a great way to help us focus.
Breakfast is the foundation for a successful day, and leads to more steady and predictable blood sugar levels as well as reduced stress hormones. A balance of complex carbohydrates and proteins helps achieve stability.

Coaches Tip: Providing positive reinforcement to
your players builds their confidence and sets an example for some of the positive mental affirmations they can repeat to themselves. Team meals are great motivators -- consider easy eats for away game bus rides, like celery with peanut butter, fruit, string cheese, and nutrition bars.

4. Visualize success
In addition to positive words and environments, a mental picture of success can help athletes catapult themselves to where they want to be. Visualizing results stimulates emotion that can guide performance reality. Mentally creating the future we want and believing it can be so can do wonders for actually achieving it.

Coaches Tip: Build visualization time into practice or encourage your players to do this at night before they go to sleep. Help them create the visual details of peak performance and the results they want - the way the ball feels leaving their hands on a game-winning shot, smoothly handing the baton to a teammate in the championship relay race, accepting the 1st place trophy etc. Help them to see it, and believe it.

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