Why Failing to Prioritize Recovery is Impacting Your Mental Health: Part Three

If you haven't tuned in to Part One and Part Two of this Series I recommend starting there. 

Part One: The role of the Nervous System in both Mental Health and recovery 

Part Two: The link between Recovery and Mental Health 

But the impact of failing to prioritize recovery will also be a foundational piece of how an athlete performs. 


Impact on Performance 

For those of you who have gotten this far, THANK YOU.  But alas, we have one more element to also consider. 


Although I believe that there is NOTHING more important than the overall well being of an athlete, I also know that sport is competitive. Although we are moving in the right direction with mental health in sport there are still MANY athletes and coaches who prioritize performance and winning over overall health.  

Performance is a critical piece to sport. But mental health is the foundation for performance.

Many athletes come to sport with goals and aspirations. The majority of athletes I work with want to be the best athlete they can be. Although success can often be subjective, many athletes want to achieve both personal and team accomplishments. Sport also has winning and losing. As the daughter of a former DI coach and being a former DI coach myself, I understand that winning is important. I don’t think any athlete or coach would argue with the fact that on game day we need every athlete to show up primed, focused and ready to “go”.  For many athletes this primed, performance mode requires physical, mental, emotional and for some spiritual readiness. 

An athlete’s mental health is the foundation of being able to do this. 

But this is also not just a game day thing. Sport is an everyday journey. As seen in my “example” day above for a college student athlete, this journey is complex and always moving. There are many elements to “performance” that help an athlete be the best they can be. Many athletes understand this and have no problem pursuing the journey when it comes to the training, lifting or additional work that often occurs behind the scenes. 

In order for an athlete to continue to pursue the everyday journey of sport and performance they HAVE to have a mind-body system that is functioning well.  As you have read thus far, there are many factors that will contribute to this. 

The nervous system, in particular, will be the main driver. Prioritizing and emphasizing recovery is going to be critical for this and in many ways I think how an athlete recovers is even more important than how they train. 

In Short: Recovery and mental health are a critical piece to performance. 

The Caveat. Is there an over emphasis on PNS activation? 

In a recent conversation about social media and 2023 with a colleague and friend, Reilly Beatty, she stated “there is just enough information out there to be dangerous.” Reilly is well known in the athletic nutrition and dietitian community. I wholeheartedly believe this. 

Over the last few years I have seen an increasing amount of information being spread about the nervous system and parasympathetic activation. Within this article alone, I have spoken often and highly about this Nervous system state and how important it is for mental health, overall health and well being and athlete recovery. 

Yet, we need to remember that this is ALL unique and individual. One post, one article, one blog shouldn’t be the determinate for how you individually address your needs. Even this one! 

I am extremely passionate about mental health, recovery and nervous system training for athletes. In my own experience (as a former DI athlete and coach) and in the work I do now, I find that more often than not, athletes are OVER stimulated, OVER stressed and spending MORE time in the Sympathetic state. 

This is NOT the case for everyone.

The more important message is that there is absolutely a connection between mental health, recovery and performance for any athlete. As athletes, coaches and larger sport organizations how can we be thinking about this and continuing to support our athletes in whatever way they need. Prioritizing and emphasizing recovery will have an impact on total well being, but specifically mental health. 

For athletes specifically my recommendation would be to start by getting to KNOW your mind-body system (ie the nervous system). This sounds silly and many athletes I first start working with say “I don't find that to be an issue for me, I know myself.” But do you know how you feel in your nervous system? Before reading this article were you familiar with the nervous system? I often ask teams when I do Mindfulness training with them what the Nervous System is. Unless they are a Pre-med or Bio student, rarely do athletes have the answer. Mindfulness training can be one of the BEST ways to get to know your nervous system! 

This is NOT just a physical thing and this can take time! Even when working with athletes individually or clients in a clinical setting as a therapist, it can take weeks or even months to help a client get familiar with their own mind-body system pending what they are navigating and what their history is. If this article resonates with you, find someone to WORK WITH YOU on this. My recommendation would be to find someone that is well trained, certified and credentialed in a variety of Mindfulness based interventions and has extensive background in working with the nervous system.

Polyvagal Theory provides us with a framework to be able to work with our clients (and our own) nervous systems. As I mentioned earlier, this theory provides us with 3 main nervous system states, as well as a variety of hybrid states. Its a complex and extremely smart system which is why it can be helpful to find someone to work with! 

Here are a few things to consider: 

  1. It rarely a one size fits all because no 2 humans are the same. Just because a social media post, blog, doctor or even research article says something is good doesn’t mean its good for you in this moment 
  2. Trauma, chronic stress and various mental health challenges will impact nervous system flexibility and regulation. 
  3. Remember identity and social context will also impact mental health and well being as well as the nervous system. Mental health and one’s ability to recover is often thought as just an “individual” thing but society, systems and larger social context will ALWAYS be impacting ones nervous system and their ability to restore! 

Want to know where to start with Recovery. 

Check out my Blog Post on Best Practices: A Mindful and Holistic Approach to Athlete Recovery 

Download my FREE EBOOK: An Athletes Holistic Guide to Recovery 


References and Resources: 

Porges S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biological psychology, 74(2), 116–143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.06.009

The majority of this blog post comes from personal experience as well as additional professional training in Polyvagal Theory and Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness. 

Other professionals within this work that I admire and follow are: 

Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Stephen Porges 

David Treleaven 

Stanley Rosenburg


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