As a Mental Health therapist and Mindfulness and Performance coach I have worked with countless elite high school, college and professional athletes. More often than not the athletes and coaches I work with are driven, competitive and meticulous about their training both on and off the field. Yet, these same athletes and coaches fail to be as meticulous and prioritize recovery in the same way.
Athlete recovery is directly linked to mental heath and well being. We are moving in a time where mental health across many environments, including sport is gaining the attention it deserves yet athlete recovery is an absolutely CRITICAL piece to the athlete mental heath equation. This 3 part blog series aims to clarify the connection between the two.
Elite performance requires elite recovery. Hopefully through this series you will see why.
The Nervous System and Mental Health
The Nervous System is the foundation of our health and well being. Through the Nervous System our mind and body are in constant communication. The Vagus Nerve (our 10th cranial nerve and largest bundle of nerves in the body) is a primary piece of this communication. These messages directly impact and control what we are thinking, feeling and doing.
Taking it a step further, Dr. Stephen Porges has been a pioneer in Nervous System research over the last decade. For a very long time, the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) was thought to have consisted of just two branches including the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branch. Porges (2007), founded Polyvagal Theory in 1995, which revealed that within our Autonomic Nervous System we actually have 3 main Nervous System states, not 2.
Polyvagal Theory helps explain that a “healthy” and regulated nervous system is one that is flexible and can shift between these states in order to meet whatever life is throwing at us (Porges, 2007). Being able to shift between these Nervous System states is what allows us to take in and interact with the world around us and then respond.
The state of our nervous system (whether healthy and regulated or not) impacts ALL OTHER systems within our mind body system (I.E: immune, digestive, hormone, reproductive function etc). The state of our nervous system is also going to affect cognitive functioning, our ability to navigate emotions and tolerate stress. In other words, the state of our nervous system is going to impact our ability to think, feel and interact with the world we live in. This is mental health.
Mental health is not just a “mind” and “emotions thing.” Everything is connected. How I explain this to the athletes and coaches I work with is that we have a mind-body system. The Nervous System and the ability to flexibly shift throughout the Nervous System states is the foundation of mental health and well being.
In short: Nervous system is the controller and driver of our mental health
The Nervous System and Recovery
When we play our sport and train, this depletes us both mentally and physically. Many athletes and coaches account for the physical depletion but we need to remember that training and competing take mental and emotional energy as well. In essence, sport is STRESS on the mind-body system! Stress is not a bad thing but we need to recognize that sport, competition and training are constantly adding load to our system.
Recovery at a foundational level is our ability to restore BOTH mentally and physically after training or competition. This restoration is largely rooted in our nervous system.
As mentioned above, we have several nervous system states and athletes will need to shift between these states in order to both perform and recover. We have 3 main Nervous System states (as mentioned above) that Porges (2007) found. These include the Sympathetic Nervous System, the Parasympathetic Ventral Vagal Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Dorsal Vagal System.
Although I won’t get into the weeds of these states, generally when an athlete is lifting, training or competing they will be shifted more into their Sympathetic state. Although this is often paired with stress or fight or flight, the sympathetic state can be generally thought of as mobilization. I want to emphasize that this state is NOT BAD. We need it! We need it for performance! But, we also do not recover here!
In order to adequately recover and restore both mentally and physically we need to shift more into this Ventral Vagal branch of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Many use the word “downregulate” to refer to this shift. Reason being is that more often than not, after performance we are shifting DOWN from our Sympathetic state into this Ventral Vagal PNS state.
A term that is often used in sport is a “cool down”.
But, this Nervous system shift is a bit more nuanced than just slowing the body down and getting a quick stretch. I too often see team or individual athlete cool downs as a quick hammy stretch, drink some water, and we’re out! Although “slowing down” can be a piece of this downregulation, SAFETY is as well. We can often think of being in this Nervous System state when we are resting, relaxing with our loved ones and we feel genuinely SAFE. There is also a level of joy and ease when we are in this PNS state.
It is critical for an athlete to make this shift post training or competition to not only restore the mind and body to baseline, but also make new gains for the next time they compete. But, for many, this shift takes longer than a 3 minute stretch! As you will see in just a minute (keep reading) for MOST athletes they need to be making this down regulating shift MORE intentional.
This intentional shift will also contribute to the athletes larger goal of having a healthy and flexible nervous system that can continue to meet the demands of sport and life.
A healthy and flexible nervous system is going to be the FOUNDATION of helping an athlete reach peak performance, stay healthy and then maintain their performance level.
In Short: Your Nervous System is the driver of athlete recovery
Check out Part Two of this Series HERE