A 3-pronged approach for mental, nutritional and physical athlete training and health during and after COVID
In the coming months we can anticipate a mental health tsunami. Our athletes and active patients are completely out of sync in regard to athlete training and health from an unparalleled and disrupted year of conflict, fear and confusion.
Case study: mental to physical pain
Beth is a 37-year-old mother of two who plays tennis twice a week, jogs and weight trains. She presented with non-specific, insidious onset of transient low-back pain, but after a two-week trial of chiropractic treatment three times a week, there was no change. I was slightly frustrated.
Every visit was filled with new questions, and old ones that were just worded differently. I was looking for the puzzle piece that would make Beth’s clinical picture clearer. Finally, one day, she joked about getting a doctor’s note to get out of having sex with her husband. That’s when I realized what was going on. Beth was on the verge of divorce, so her low-back pain may have been subconsciously psychosomatic.
A doctor is a health detective and muse who finds the problem and provides hope by inspiring the patient. With all levels of athletes, this is a “must-have” aptitude when dealing with injuries and peak performance strategies. It is time to stand firm on what we know — and what we can learn — so we can better serve our athletic patients.
Most DCs were taught in chiropractic college that homeostasis is a balance between chemical (nutritional), physical and mental well-being. It is called the “Triad of Health” and oriented as a triangle with even sides. Here are some tips for each one:
People who have extraordinary athletic competence are masters of mental toughness and resilience. What’s the difference between these two qualities?
Mental toughness — the learned quality of sustaining ideal performance despite whatever life throws at you. Good players use this toughness through their years of training and playing, but great players let it use them. Over time, it becomes so natural and innate that they never even think about it. They are simply mentally tough; there is no possibility of being any other way.
Resilience — the quality of using adversity as a tool for motivation and inspiration. This describes players who bounce back from adversity easily and maturely. They are able to immediately refocus on the future and identify how an event has presented an unexpected opportunity without feeling defeated or overwhelmed.
The combination of these two characteristics enables superstar athletes (and you also, if you choose) to focus on specific desired results and how best to achieve maximum athlete training and health. Jethro Toomer, PhD, a psychologist formerly with the Miami Dolphins, teaches that comparing mental toughness and resilience “…is like comparing a two-by-four piece of wood to a palm tree. One can keep being hit over and over again without a change in their attitude, while the other can sway and bend and resume its position.”
The way you develop resilience and mental toughness is to change your vocabulary. When an athlete uses extreme words like “awful,” “terrible” or “horrible” to describe performance, it allows their mind to lead their body into debilitating despair. Sometimes, simply changing the words that describe the event can significantly affect the athlete’s ability to reframe and recover from a disappointing incident.
An attentive coach might suggest changing “hate” to “dislike” (my mom’s personal favorite) or “problems” to “challenges.” The hope is to stimulate inspiration rather than perspiration. Softening the words can minimize negatives and enhance positive impacts.
Athlete training and health: nutrition
The lockdown from COVID-19 has hindered some athletes nutritionally. Yet, proper diet is as critical to an athlete’s body as it is to an academic’s brain. How can you help an athlete with nutritional health now that they’re returning to training and play?
Remind them that if you drink too much fluid before, during or after eating, the digestive acids in their stomach become less effective. It can also result in gas, bloating and cramping. Athletes can avoid this by reducing how much they drink 30 minutes before and 60 minutes after a meal.
Next, researchers are noting a growing phenomenon called “food sensitivity.” This is different from a full-blown allergic reaction; it is a more subtle reaction to substances (either natural or synthetic) in foods and often occurs with foods that are eaten frequently.
The cheapest, easiest and most effective way to find sensitivities within your athletes is to have them journal their reactions after they eat. This helps identify the problem foods so they can be eliminated.
Be aware that eliminating these foods may actually cause symptoms similar to drug withdrawal. But the upside is that they will feel healthier and more energetic as their bodies no longer struggle to process foods they cannot effectively manage. A costlier but more accurate approach is a food sensitivity test, which requires drawing blood.
Prolonged muscular inactivity, such as what some have faced during the pandemic, inevitably leads to a loss of muscle mass and functional capacity. It affects their strength, stamina and coordination. This is a recipe for athletic disaster.
The post-pandemic protocol is the same as the protocol used following an injury. Get up and move as soon as you can to minimize weak muscles. This helps avoid injury and brings blood flow to the needed areas when returning to athlete training and health practices.
Also, I keep hearing about strengthening your core, ad nauseam. During my intensive search for the most effective and efficient muscle conditioning practices, I came across several studies touting “the best” practices for abdominal conditioning. However, each was similarly and critically flawed because it did not consider or evaluate potential damage to the lower back.
To this day, the only exercise I’ve ever found that remains the most scientifically sound is the V-Up. This exercise is the most effective for the abdominals while having the least effect on the low back. To do it, lie on the floor supine and extend your legs and arms straight up to the ceiling. Next, touch your fingers to your toes. Hold this position for five seconds. Start with 10-15 repetitions and increase gradually as you get stronger. That’s it!
Seek to understand the athlete
Never take for granted the amazing lives that our athletes live and consider what it takes to keep them strong and healthy. It takes years of hard work, endurance and persistence to get — and stay — where they are in regard to athlete training and health.
Additionally, behind any inherent skill stands an incredibly talented and dedicated team of support staff and health care professionals. These professionals deserve far more than the few accolades they receive. They are the true contenders in the health care arena and they never stop learning what it takes to get their patients healthier, faster and stronger each time they face the field, court, track or stadium.
Achieving this type of goal and helping athletes return to form involves using a three-pronged approach that is utilized with compassion and concern. It’s an approach that entices athletic patients to want to follow your lead — because they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Spencer Baron, DC, DACBSP, served as a team chiropractic physician for the Miami Dolphins for 19 years and is author of “Secrets of the Game.” He currently serves as the team chiropractor for Nova Southeastern University Sports Medicine and is the president of NeuroSport Elite. In 2001 he helped establish the Pro Football Chiropractic Society and the Pro Baseball Chiropractic Society, bringing together some of the best sports chiropractors in the nation. Now he directs the same type of efforts to DoCS (Doctors of Chiropractic Sports, doc-sports.com), an organization committed to creating camaraderie and coaching within the chiropractic profession.