It can be easy to think about our sports one-dimensionally. We carefully craft training plans and think that if executed they should give us the result we desire. The problem with this is training and athletics are anything but one-dimensional. In fact, they are highly complex processes that combine science and art, physiology and psychology. This complexity leads to the physical impacting the psychological and the psychological impacting the physical. Or more simply put, you can’t have one without the other.
Often, in my work with athletes what initially brings an athlete in the door is some disappointment or frustration with their performance. Most of these athletes have already tried to change training and are still coming up short in the performance department leaving them confused and exasperated. The first step I take with these athletes is asking them to redirect their focus from their training data to their mental health. Here we can begin to ask questions and unravel the psychological narratives and mental health concerns that may be impacting performance.
Understanding What Mental Fatigue Is
There are many psychological issues that will impact performance. For now, I want to focus on one that nearly every athlete will experience. That issue is mental fatigue. First, let’s start by defining mental fatigue. Mental fatigue is a mental tiredness that occurs due to prolonged or intense periods of cognitive function required to complete a task or navigate a circumstance. It can occur acutely such as after a long work day or during a race. Or it can be a cumulative result of persistent cognitive stress without adequate rest or management such as a season of life stress, being in peak competition season for too long, or mental health struggles.
Mental fatigue can result in:
- Decrease in reaction time
- Low motivation
- Emotional deregulation
- Less attention to detail
- Inability to concentrate
It is believed that a combination of life circumstances, biology, and personality impact a person’s susceptibility to mental fatigue.
Impact of Mental Fatigue on Performance
Numerous studies have been done to explore the impact of mental fatigue on performance. If you are interested in doing a deep dive into the science, I recommend you pick up Alex Hutchinson’s book Endure. Not interested in the deep dive? The highlights are that studies have found that mental fatigue impacts performance, particularly through endurance and perceived exertion. This occurs even while biological markers such as heart rate, lactate, and oxygen consumption remain unchanged. Put more simply, those that enter an endurance event already mentally fatigued struggle to perform at their best. This can happen even though physically their bodies are prepared.
The first step athletes can take is being aware that mental fatigue matters. Have you found your splits slower after a long day? Maybe you’re struggling to complete a long run after a bout of anxiety? Extend yourself some grace and acknowledge that your brain has limits too. Our brains get tired and if we continue to push them a lackluster performance is the least of our concerns. We know serious mental health conditions can develop from prolonged mental fatigue. Besides being aware when mental fatigue sets in there is very little research or evidence-based interventions as to what to do to mitigate it when it is occurring. Most agree that preventing it in the first place is the best course of action. Here are some steps you can implement to ward off mental fatigue.
- Log your mood, emotions, and life stress along with your training. Look for patterns and high-stress life seasons and adjust training accordingly.
- Play – take time to schedule play into your life. Think of a game of HORSE on the court or playing with sidewalk chalk with your kids. It can also be a game of laser tag. Research has shown that the more childlike the activity and more time outdoors can help regulate the brain. It goes without saying, but do these without electronics and enjoy playing.
- Consider your Schedule – plan your training and life events in such a way that you are not stacking stressors on top of each other. This may mean moving a workout because you were up all night for various reasons. Find a schedule that works for you and practice flexibility with adjusting as needed.
- Prioritize Sleep – just like your body needs sleep to recover so does your brain. Without adequate sleep, you further increase mental fatigue.
- Set Limits – Practice saying “no” to things that are not helping you and further draining your mental energy. Maybe that means skipping happy hour with a co-worker or deleting social media. Understand what gives you energy and what drains you then set limits and boundaries around those things.
- Mentally Taper Before Your “A Race” – Consider eliminating as many stressors as possible in the weeks leading up to your goal race. This can take the form of getting to bed earlier or asking for more help. Another thing to do is say “no” to extra things. These can help reduce stress and leave your mind feeling fresher on race day.
- Hire a Therapist – If you feel yourself digging a mental hole, reach out to a therapist. They can help you stop the spiral. Sometimes you need an outsider to help you zoom out and get perspective and solutions.
Mental fatigue is one of the most common psychological hurdles an athlete will face. Even though it is common it is still a cause for concern. To perform their best and live their best lives athletes must be aware of their life stressors and how they are mentally and emotionally managing them. It is possible to recover from mental fatigue. That being said, the best thing to do is to prevent it in the first place. This requires an athlete to implement the strategies above.