Pressure, Stress and Mental Resilience

Imagine 100,000 people cheering towards your imminent failure. Fun, Ehhh! That’s life for fieldgoal kickers when visiting their opponents stadiums in big time American football programs. 1.2 seconds is the maximum time to focus on a moving target, football, strike it with proper trajectory through uprights that are 15 feet apart ~40 yards down field. BTW, two of the fastest people on the earth are sprinting and launching themselves trying to block the kick. This is the pinnacle of stress in the athletic arena. Good kickers have physical ability and a consistent ability to focus, eliminating the extraneous(things they can’t control), with high stakes on the line. Their ability to manage stress, in such a short window of time, is a high form of specialization akin to hitting a 90 mph fast ball with two strikes at the bottom of the ninth inning. 

I was a 'specialist' at a major Big Ten university and got to play four years of college ball. I watched my capacity to focus diminish during my collegiate career even though my technique and strength were improving. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Plagued by inconsistency I wondered, “where is the ice in my veins?” I was never taught that mental resilience could be amplified through healthy eating habits. Conversely, I had no idea that eating the Standard American Diet would diminish performance. I thought that ‘mental toughness’ was inherent to one’s character, not something that could increase with positive inputs. Heart broken by my failures I chalked up the end of my football life to just peaking too early.

A little over a year ago I was introduced to the notion of decision fatigue and instantly, with a revisionist historians zeal, my past performance chronology became clear. One factor that causes decision fatigue is depletion of the hormone testosterone. Could decision fatigue and focus be linked some how? As it turns out they are! When under stress, either physical or mental, our body will produce and use appropriate hormones to regulate blood chemistry. Without the necessary compounds to replenish the production of new hormones the body will undergo a decline in resilience. In other words, performance will suffer. My inability to handle stress was directly proportional to the poor quality food I was eating.

I was your typical college student scrounging for every dollar, not really having the ability to invest wisely in my nutrition. One summer, $1 BigMacs were my main dietary input for an entire month. Cheap and plentiful they seemed to be the perfect solution to my budgetary constraints.  With copious amounts of vegetable oil & sugar coursing through my veins was it any wonder that I became ineffectual? The topology of nutrition being cumulative is a moot point when poor.

 My whole notion of health was built around the principle of vanity. Having low body fat and six pack abs was the extent of my self appraisal. The degree and intensity of my specialization hid the fact that I was falling apart. Stiff with chronic pain, sleep deprived from the ravages of competition, indigestion, from the cheapest food possible, life was quite miserable. My batteries had been drained to the extent that new stressors were ungracefully received. Unable to reconcile such a rapid decline in my abilities I psychologically lashed out by blaming everything but the true culprit, my eating habits. I was filling my half ton diesel pick up truck with ethanol, Terrible. 

Adhering to the tyrannical notion of saturated fat being of the Devil I denied myself multiple opportunities for real nutrition. My conditioning funneled me towards estrogen increasing foods which never satisfied me. I could literally eat 6000 empty calories and still feel hungry even though I was physically stuffed. How is this possible? Unaware of my guts signaling I foolishly followed the paradigm of the day. Mythical absurdities of carbo loading and high volume lean protein consumption severely lowered my ceiling.

The peak of my idiocy was highlighted by being surrounded by stellar athletes that were quite minimalistic. Almost every good player on my team hardly ate a thing. Emphasis on good players. Equating their lack of hunger to nerves, preferences, money or whatever wasn't what was intriguing. The shear consistency in the behavior now being labeled 'Intermittent Fasting' was across the board for these studs. Not having any restraint towards secondzies or thirdzies my hobbit like tenacity for over eating was aided by their frugality. The fact was they ate 1/3 to half of what I consumed while having much larger bodies. Their body intelligence subconsciously limited their toxic exposure while optimizing their hormone levels.

Current literature on the subject has revealed that carbohydrates are the true nemesis to optimal hormone levels, especially for men. Bathing in a cascade of pastas, bread, waffles etc…. shrouds cognition. My raw food friends lovingly call this phenomenon 'grain damage.' If responsibility is the ability to respond effectively than anything that inhibits processing speed of environmental stimuli is irresponsible. Not being able to re-act contributes it's own form of stress which compounds the problem. I had no idea of the deleterious affect grains had on me until I abstained for one month while going 'Bullet Proof.' Eliminating grains set my mind free. The malaise of brain fog that hampered my logical faculties was progressively dissolving. Long chain thoughts reappeared with a burst of creativity that I hadn't experienced since early childhood. Being able to think and focus again tripped my memory banks back to my early playing days when doubt never entered my mind.

 In a direct tangible way eating nourishing food has restored my confidence by correcting my neurochemistry. Now, when faced with stressful situations, there is a calm foundation, mostly butter, that I can push off from. Being completely satisfied has had a secondary benefit of eliminating my decade long infatuation with snacking. No longer affected by the boom bust cycle of blood sugar spikes the cookie monster has been defeated, Hallelujah! With this new outlook, revising old habits and measuring tendencies is a fun exercise in dietary self experimentation. We all know how comforting 'Home' cooking is. Lets make sure that our homes are as nourishing as possible.