I recently travelled (27 hours!) to the USA to attend the Boston Sports Medicine Performance Group seminar hosted by Art Horne and the guys at Northeastern University. In this series of articles I’m going to share with you a short summary of the presentation and the key pieces of information that I took away from each of the speakers that I listened to over the two days.
I’ll also be sharing some additional nuggets of information that I managed to pick up during my visits to Boston College Football, Northeastern University and the various dinners and visits I had with other coaches and professionals throughout the week. I had a blast this week- attending seminars always lights a fire under me and fills my head with ideas. I hope you get a little bit of value out of these notes too. Enjoy.
Presentation 1: Professor Robert Sapolsky
Professor Sapolsky- author of “Why Zebras don’t get ulcers” (one of the books I cited in my career changing list) was the key note speaker of the seminar. His seminar pretty much covered the same topics as the book: the human response to stress and what it means in the context of health, disease and performance. Here is a rundown of what he had to say:
- Stress is an evolutionary response to threats to our survival (things wanting to kill or eat us)
- That response takes the form of a mobilisation of energy- lots of adrenaline, glucose and fats in the blood, increased heart rate and breathing etc.
- In the dawn of our species this is a good thing- it gives us the energy resources we need to survive, and it also provides the stimulus our body needs to prepare for future bouts of stress- increases in immune function, improved cognition and memory, physiological adaptation.
- Chronic stress is bad because it diverts energy away from regenerative processes like tissue repair and immune function and towards energy mobilisation for so long that something eventually breaks (“You don’t spend the day gardening when a hurricane is about to hit your house”).
- Traumatic stress during childhood can have extreme effects on growth. Children are essentially long term physiological building projects and chronic stress can stunt growth. In cultures with physically painful rites of passage like circumcision, adults are 2 inches shorter than those without.
- It’s very unscientific but the more safe and loving a child’s environment is, the greater calcium deposition within bone and growth will be. Obviously as coaches we are typically not dealing with kids who are exposed to such trauma, but it reaffirms the need to properly manage stress in youth athletes, particularly during growth spurts. Excessive training during adolescence may not only increase injury risk, it might also hurt eventual height and weight- important in contact sports like rugby.
- There is a profound link between the psychological state of the individual and their physiology. People who are exposed to severe psychological trauma or clinical depression will experience physical, irreversible changes in the structure of their brain (specifically the hippocampus). Even once they are “cured” the changes will remain, as does susceptibility to future bouts of depression. Suggests we can’t switch off if we are dealing with athletes who experience depression and are “cured”.
- Despite all this bad news about stress, the good news is that some people seem remarkably uninfluenced by stress when others fall apart. The big different is psychological coping- the use of social networks, hobbies and friends exert a more powerful effect on mortality than things like smoking, drinking and obesity. Coping is huge!
- Psychological perception of stress and pain is also key in determining how stressed our bodies become. If we receive prior warning about an arriving stressor, if we experience a regular and predictable pattern of stress, and we believe we have a sense of control over our situation (rather than a sense of learned helplessness) or physiological response is significantly reduced.
- Likewise if we perceive a painful or stressful event to be good for us (how we psychologically frame the event) we can change a physiologically and psychologically detrimental event into a positive event.
- The same event may elicit two very different stress responses in individuals based on their performance expectations. Under-performing relative to expectations can be hugely stressful whereas over-performing can greatly reduce the impact of a stressor.
- Ultimately our ability to resist stress lies in the brain. If we are clever enough to create non-exercise stressors in our head, we are clever enough to successfully manage them with no ill effects.
Key lessons I took away from the presentation
Though as coaches we aren’t dealing with diseased, traumatised or severely depressed individuals, the principles at play are exactly the same. Everything going on in an athlete’s live will exert a physical toll which must be factored into decisions made about the training process. If we don’t do this the athlete will pay a price. Less is probably more. And if you aren’t at least attempting to measure how stressed your athletes are, you are risking overdoing it.
We have to be particularly mindful about giving young athletes the energy resources they need to fully reach their growth potential and stay healthy doing so. Less is sometimes more, particularly when we are dealing with successful multi sport athletes at private schools (where they routinely flog the kids!). We also have to be aware of the risks of extreme stress on athlete mental health (for example during extended injury lay offs or periods of uncertainty) and its physical ramifications.
Lastly there is a lot we can do to shape the athletes environment and lessen the impact of potentially chronic psychological or physical stress: give the athletes a sense of control and predictability over their environment, keep them informed (or in the dark if stress is the goal) about their exposure to stress, encourage strong friendships and social bonding within the team, provide mentally relaxing outlets like meditation or the rugby classics: table tennis and xbox!
Lastly we can also encourage cognitive reframing of stress to be seen as positive opportunities for growth and development rather than something to be feared. We can also mitigate for stress by encouraging process rather than outcome mindsets, reducing the potential for perceived under-performing when defeats occur that are outside of our control.
Videos to watch if you are ambitious and have 25 hours to spare!
This is a free lecture series of Professor Sapolsky’s Stanford University course on human biology. It is both hugely entertaining and informative for coaches and non-coaches alike: