The recipe for sustainable high performance by coaches

Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D. | February 03, 2022

Coaching is all-consuming work, drawing down our energy reserves at the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual levels—even during the best of times. After enduring two years of a pandemic and changing routines to accommodate masks, public health alerts, ever-changing policies, and COVID-19 protocols, we are all wondering if life as we knew it will ever return. This predominant thought is occurring at a time in which tennis participation has spiked in a manner unseen since Billie Jean King outmaneuvered Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.” Thus, the need to balance the energy demands of life on and off the court is greater than ever.


You, the coach, are front and center in leading the charge on attracting, engaging and retaining new players into our game. As the star of the show, it is important to schedule time for you, just as you would schedule an important meeting or lesson. Investing in your health is a non-negotiable not only to survive, but to thrive! Rather than a guilt-ridden commitment that falls to the bottom of your to-do list as the day winds down, prioritizing your time is the essential fuel for sustainable high performance.


As the saying goes, "We cannot pour from an empty cup!”


Too much stress without proper recovery “gets under the skin," and the biochemical ramifications of chronic stress can short-circuit the mind-body operating system in powerful ways. But, there is good news. Healthy lifestyle habits, positive experiences and narrative—the adaptive, resilience-building stories we tell ourselves about our lives—are not only the antidotes, but the biological energy source for best-self possibility.


These time-tested, scientifically-grounded ingredients are crucial in the recipe for optimal health and well-being.


Three Key Scientific Facts

  • Nurture shapes nature: Each and every one of us is an ongoing epigenetic work-in-process, malleable and changing in dynamic ways by the nanosecond— 24/7, 365 days a year. The lifestyle and mindset choices we make influence how our DNA is read and expressed, shaping how we look and feel. This means our capacity for agency and choice gives rise to daily opportunities to shape our lives in alignment with our highest priorities, goals and values.

  • What’s real in the mind is real in the body: It’s not objective reality that affects our biochemistry, but rather our perception of that reality. By making positive, adaptive, growth-oriented meaning of the events in our lives—no matter the situation—we lean into creating the neural pathways that reinforce mind-body health, build resilience and activate transformation.

  • Mental and physical health are two sides of the same coin: The very same biochemicals that affect our brains also affect our bodies. This means that engaging in activities that promote the health of our minds also promotes the health of our bodies. In sum, emotional, behavioral, mental and physical health are all part of the same biological story under the skin.


Now that you understand the “how," let’s delve into the “what." Here are eight key ingredients in your personalized recipe for getting your own oxygen mask on first.


1) Do something active every day: Whether it’s going to the gym, hitting a tennis ball, doing yoga or heading out for a walk, give yourself the gift of at least 30 minutes of free time just for you. If there’s one fast-acting medicine for better mental and physical health, mood and creativity, it's exercise! 


2) Prioritize sleep: When we sleep, our brains recharge, our bodies heal and our immune systems power up for the day ahead. Stick to regular bedtimes and wake-up times, shut down screens an hour before bed, and remember: no technology in the bedroom.


3) Choose food and drink wisely: Digestive health has a formidable effect on mood and cognitive clarity. Lean proteins, such as fish, lentils and chicken are easier to digest and more efficient at fueling your body than red meats. Colorful vegetables are loaded with antioxidants that boost immunity and reduce inflammation. Choose fruit over cookies, avoid soda, minimize alcohol consumption—especially within 2-3 hours of bedtime—and drink lots of water. Don’t bypass desserts entirely: food is meant to be enjoyed! Everything in moderation!


4) Practice mindfulness meditation: Meditation reduces stress by dampening the “fight, flight or freeze” response, improves mental clarity and mood, bolsters heart health, improves the efficiency of our gastrointestinal systems and increases immunity by reducing inflammation. 


5) Keep a gratitude journal: Think of 3-5 things that made a difference in your day. A moment of human connection that touched your heart, a personal or professional accomplishment or gratitude to yourself for carving out "you time!" Just before bed, write them down—closing your eyes and breathing in how these moments made you feel—in order to infuse the restorative biochemistry of gratitude into your epigenome.


6) Offer service to others: Whether it’s reaching out to a friend in need or giving the extraordinary gift of a random act of kindness, research tells us that the mental and physical health benefits can be even stronger for the one who gives than the one who receives. 


7) Savor quality time: As technology threatens to eviscerate authentic human connection, we must learn to reconnect as human beings—in person and virtually, our hearts full and our minds focused—with those we love. When human being is prioritized over human doing, our fully engaged presence offers pharmaceutical-quality medicine for the mind, body and soul.


8) Surround yourself with people who feel like sunlight: Emotions are contagious for better and for worse. Seek out family members and friends who make you laugh so hard that you crinkle your eyes (biochemically distinct from a polite, socially-appropriate smile), who make you feel seen, heard and valued. These people are our neurobiological rocket fuel.


Repetition builds and fortifies the neural pathways in the brain and body by coating them with myelin, making them speedier and more efficient, and transforming once-awkward and clunky new ways of thinking and being into effortless habits. With commitment and practice, your recipe for optimal health and well-being will become part of what you do every day without even thinking—as automatic as brushing your teeth.


By committing to 'you' time, you can offer yourself, those you love, your players and the world—as Katie Reed one said—"the very best of you, rather than what's left of you."


A version of the article first appeared in Psychology Today.


Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D., is a behavioral geneticist whose research centers on how nurture (environment) shapes nature (DNA), and how we can create contexts in sport and school settings that optimize positive development and unlock the potential of our youth. A former professional tennis player, Walker translates scientific findings to equip athletic and academic educators with knowledge and skills that help young people build mindsets and habits that promote wellness and healthy whole human development across life. Learn more at her website by clicking here.


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