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Back when I first launched Extra Points...well before COVID, before conference-realignment craziness, before NIL...there was still one topic that came up, even when I didn't mention it, with virtually every college athletic administrator I spoke to.
College athletic administrators, almost to a person, are concerned about athlete mental health outcomes. They're concerned about their ability to handle stress and pressure, about their ability to juggle significant time and resource demands, about their ability to navigate uncomfortable and new situations. The administrators weren't just worried about how mental health challenges might impact athlete performance (although they are worried about that), but about how they might impact athlete health, period.
Those are good and proper concerns, and they're even more relevant now. Every athletic department and professional organization should take athlete mental health very seriously. They need to help athletes develop the tools to navigate emotional challenges, manage stress in healthy and sustainable ways, and require coaches to build cultures of compassion and safety.
But those aren't the only ways to think about brain health. I recently had a conversation with another newsletter creator that reminded me that just like with any other organ, there are physical components to brain health that need to be considered.
Dr. Louisa Nicola, a Neuroscientist & Neurophysiologist, runs Neuro Athletics, a newsletter covering the intersection of Neurology and athletic performance. She also consults with a variety of athletes and teams, including major professional squads.
When we chatted, I told her that my degree is in Political Science, not Biology, and that I might struggle to recall biological concepts more complicated than the idea that the Mitochondria is the Powerhouse of the Cell. So with that in mind, what would she say is the most critical foundation of brain health, the one single area anybody hoping to improve athletic performance should give extra attention?
Sleep, she told me. The answer is sleep.
Sure, it's important to get enough sleep. But to maximize true athletic performance, "It's not just duration, it's sleep hygiene, and that requires quality sleep." she told me.
Sometimes, professional sports leagues, or college conferences, make that a real challenge. She gave me an example, based on a client of hers.
"I have one player who went to the playoffs, and his travel schedule was absolutely disgusting. Their travel itinerary had them land in an inner city, at like 4am, go to sleep for two, three hours, get up to train, and then have to be back on a flight that night at 11. And they're hardly sleeping on the plane.
Sleep is basically emotional first aid. Without getting the right amount of sleep, these athletes, they're getting angry, they're getting emotionally disturbed. If they're not getting enough deep sleep...we have this system, the glymphatic system, which literally clears out your brain, that isn't getting properly engaged.
So the athlete's memory is going to be paused. Their bodies may not release enough testosterone. All of this stuff can mess up an athlete in so many ways."
It can be hard to convince an athlete, or even a coach, that they actually need lots of sleep. After all, nobody thinks they are more indestructible than an athlete in their early 20s, and after years of playing an elite level despite less-than-elite sleeping habits, Nicola admitted she sometimes gets pushback, with one NBA coach even telling her that he "didn't like science, and doesn't want his players to win with science."
Punishing athletes with long practices and constant sprints may be an effective way to establish a certain type of old-school discipline. But that doesn't make it the most effective way to promote long-term health (and performance).
Everything starts with sleep. But it doesn't have to end there.
Dr.Nicola told me that "I don't think you can achieve anything without first getting your sleep, everything comes back to sleep." But taking a neurologically-focused approach to athletic development is more than just making sure that athletes are getting the right amount, and the right quality, of sleep.
Neurologically-focused training won't necessarily take a D+ student and get them ready for a MENSA application, but it can improve specific skills that will help them in athletic performance. Specifically, Dr.Nicola told me that athletes can train and develop their hand-eye coordination, their ability to process information quickly, and their memory.
Being able to process a playbook, react to a shuttle shift in where a linebacker's weight is distributed, recognize that an incoming pitch is a curveball...those mental skills, and they require a healthy brain.
"If I want to throw a ball, our prefrontal cortex sends a message to our primary motor cortex, telling it, 'I want to throw a ball.', and then we're going to send that message to the rest of our body. Then we have our sensory system, our skin, our eyes...the parts of our body that detect temperature, or pain, or sensation, they're going to send information back to our brain to help us execute. The more we practice, the more we study, the faster we can send those signals. That's neuroplasticity."
One way to make sure that athlete's bodies can effectively send those signals is to make sure they're properly hydrated. Just like we cannot effectively build muscle without ensuring our bodies get enough protein, Dr.Nicola told me, our body needs enough sodium and potassium to properly run our nervous system.
College football Twitter vets remember the famous Texas pee chart, right? Of course you do.
It was a funny meme, but Texas was on to something. Bodies need championship level hydration if they're going to perform at a championship level.
This advice isn't just for athletes. It's for everybody trying to perform at a high level.
Over the course of the conversation, I jokingly tried to push the Diet Coke I was drinking further and further out of view of the camera. It was a bit hard, after all, to take notes about the importance of deep sleep and proper hydration, while I was sucking down yet another Cola, designed to paper over the fact that I do a pretty terrible job on both counts.
Ditching Diet Pop for water isn't going to prepare me for the NBA Draft. I'm 34 (old enough to play on the Lakers!) and my athlete days, which were never all that great to begin with, are mostly done. I'm in the Weekend Warrior stage of life, hoping to run 5Ks, play church basketball, and ideally, not get hurt.
But Dr.Nicola was adamant that this sort of advice could benefit schlubs like me, or anybody hoping to improve their athletic or mental performance, not just elite athletes. Drinking more water, sleeping longer and deeper, and actively trying to train our reaction time and ability to process complicated stimuli won't just help us hoop a bit at the YMCA without embarrassing ourselves, it can set us up for a better long-term health future.
Athletes need their coaches, administrators and leagues to have their backs
Dr.Nicola also told me that she thinks it is critical for all sports leagues, professional, college, youth and any others, to build their schedules and their day to day operations with athlete health, including brain health, at the forefront. Multiple long flights with minimal turnaround time, poor sleeping accommodations, cultures that treat hydration or missing time for injury as weakness, etc, aren't just dangerous and risky, but diminish the actual product.
Athletes need time to heal. And if that means Nebraska needs to take one fewer flight to Maryland in order for that to happen, well, maybe that's a price worth paying.
You wouldn't ask your athletes to go without a weight room. You wouldn't ask them to play without proper equipment. You shouldn't ask them to perform without sleeping enough, even if the athlete decides to channel my children, and declare that they don't want to go to bed.
Trust us. You do want to go to bed. Get some sleep. You need it.
I'll do the same....uh, right after I finish getting rid of this Diet Coke.
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