Improving an Athlete’s Mental Game

With the school year and spring sports season winding down, now’s the time when young athletes mighImprove_Mental_Game_2t need an extra edge over their competition. Additional drills and practices can help, but so does increased mental motivation.

“Competition can cause some athletes to react both physically and mentally in a way that can affect their performance negatively,” says Dr. Nadia Torres-Eaton, a CHOC Children’s psychologist. “Certain techniques can help young athletes overcome these barriers and continue to improve.”

Check out six ways to increase motivation and enhance overall athletic performance:

Tolerate failure

To become a good athlete or improve at a favorite sport, children must tolerate failure and accept it as part of the process of succeeding. Without failure, no one learns, and without learning, no one improves.

Dig for motivation

An athlete must have an emotionally compelling reason to stick with an exercise program. For serious athletes who train for four to eight years at a time, the motivation might be an Olympic gold medal. Here’s a trick: On the days your child doesn’t feel like practicing or exercising, talk about how good he’ll feel afterward.

Compete against yourself

Another important component of motivation is not comparing oneself with others. For example, if a teen works out regularly at a gym, she should channel her competitiveness into the progress she’s making, not against the highly fit person on the next treadmill. The same is true when competing: A runner should tune out the other athletes in the race.

Hold mental rehearsals

An athlete trying to master a particular physical feat, such as diving off the high board or perfecting a tennis serve, should imagine himself doing it.

Stay in the present

In the midst of an activity, it’s easy to fall into the trap of concentrating on the uncontrollable factors, such as the weather, an opponent or past performance. Instead, stay in the present. While running a long race, for instance, an athlete should concentrate on his breathing rhythm or arm swing, not on the length of the race or the other runners.

Plunge through a plateau

Reaching a stagnant level of fitness or performance – a plateau – is a natural part of training. However, it can dampen enthusiasm and motivation. Talking to others who have achieved a similar goal will help an athlete improve exercise performance after reaching a plateau.

An athlete can stay positive by creating a daily victory log. It might read, “I ran five miles today, and at the four-mile mark, I pushed myself when I wanted to stop.”

Learn more about psychology at CHOC, and schedule an appointment by calling 714-509-8481.

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When Illness Sidelines a Young Athlete

baseball_athlete_illnessBeing sidelined by illness can be difficult for dedicated young athletes, as well as their parents who question when to keep their child off the field and when to send them back.

Depending on symptoms and energy levels, children can often still participate in sports when under the weather, says Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann, a CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital pediatrician who works to provide health tips and guidance for young athletes.

If a child’s symptoms are “above the neck,” he or she can usually participate in athletic activities so long as energy levels are appropriate. “Above the neck” symptoms include a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and minor sore throat, she says.

“If you have a mild cold and no fever, and have enough energy, you can still play,” Dr. Winkelmann says.

But even if a young athlete feels well enough to exercise while in the final throes of a cold, he or she must plan on scaling back the intensity of play, she cautions.

“You need to understand that you won’t be able to practice at the same level,” Dr. Winkelmann says. “You need to speak up and tell your coach that you’re not 100 percent.”

However, a child with symptoms “below the neck” – chest congestion, respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal concerns, fatigue, fever or muscle aches – should stay off the field until well, Dr. Winkelmann says.

And though being sidelined by illness might be frustrating for committed athletes, taking a few days – even weeks – off from practice will not result in a significant setback in performance.

“It may take you a while to get back to where you were, but it’s much more prudent to take the time to rest your body when you’re sick,” Dr, Winkelmann says.

Young athletes can do some things to help speed the recovery process and get back on the field faster: Focus on rest by going to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual, Dr. Winkelmann advises. Also, limit dairy, sugar and processed foods, and increase fruits and vegetable intake.

When comes to returning to play, a child, especially one who suffered a respiratory illness, should first feel normal for one to two days after recovery, she says.

And above all, a child needs to trust her body, and mom and dad should listen to their parental instincts.

“I tell kids to listen to your body, not your coach or trainer or parents,” Dr. Winkelmann says. “Parents should trust their gut. They know their kid and their personality.”

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Athlete Nutrition Fit for a Champ

The new spring sports season means reasoccer_athlete_nutritionrranging schedules and picking up extra equipment, but parents of young athletes should also examine their meal plans to ensure young athletes are eating enough.

“They absolutely need to eat more,” says Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann, a CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital pediatrician who works to provide nutrition tips and guidance in youth sports.

“Young athletes are still growing, and their metabolic demands are so high,” she says. “They need to take in the necessary amount of calories for growth and whatever the sport demands.”

How much, when to eat

Parents can estimate the amount of calories a child’s activity burns by using this tool. That number can help guide the week’s menu and ensure a consistent healthy diet – a key factor for top athletic performance, Dr. Winkelmann says.

“It isn’t true that if you eat badly all week and have one good meal before you play, you’ll be fine,” she said.

Here’s why: Glycogen is an energy source that fuels exercise in humans, but it’s built days before use, Dr. Winkelmann explains. That’s why eating well in the days preceding a game is crucial to optimal performance.

Pre-game eating particulars

Nonetheless, both the timing and type of food an athlete eats right before a game is also important. Whether a snack or a meal, she advises that pre-game fuel should be about 70 percent carbohydrates, 25 percent protein and 5 percent healthy fats. Carbohydrates are a key source of energy for children, adolescents and teens, Dr. Winkelmann advises.

“A meal can be anything from a whole wheat sandwich, a wrap, or chicken noodsoccer_athlete_nutrition_2le soup with bread,” she says. “But if you have less than two hours before competition, focus on a snack that will fill up your tank, and then wait until after the game to eat a full meal.”

Post-game eats matter too

Indeed, what’s eaten after the game is also important. After vigorous activity, the body’s muscles can absorb more nutrients and can produce glycogen two times faster than normal. Dr. Winkelmann calls this time the “golden window.”

“We want to take advantage of it,” she explains. “That’s what your body will soak up. It’s important to have the right kind of fuel at that time.”

To that end, Dr. Winkelmann recommends food with a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of three-to-one:

  • Chocolate milk
  • Fruit with cheese cubes
  • Yogurt and granola
  • Pretzels and nut butter

Tips for tournament eating

An athlete’s road tournaments also present new challenges for healthy eating, but a little preparation can go a long way, Dr. Winkelmann says.

Try traveling with a cooler so that healthy foods like yogurt, cheese, fruit and nut butters are always nearby. Technology can also help track down healthy fast food and restaurant options. For example, www.healthydiningfinder.com finds eateries nearby that offer healthy choices, Dr. Winkelmann says.

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