Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The role of lifestyle support in the professional era

In a previous post we examined what Lifestyle and Personal Development support is.  In this post, we look at why such support is vital in the modern high performance sport environment, using rugby union as an example.

Lifestyle support is the youngest of the performance support services, and it’s only in the last ten years that lifestyle or personal development advisors have become regular staff members within the high performance sport environment.  In some ways, this is not surprising.  The need for such support has increased with increased professionalism in sport.  The role of the lifestyle or personal development advisor is often to manage or counteract the negative aspects of being a full-time athlete.  The role is often a hidden safety net which allows performance directors to continue on their one-track road to success at any cost.

Encouraging athletes to consider dual careers and to prepare for life after sport is often in direct conflict to the messages portrayed by those who manage performance (encouraging centralized training and full-time sport, and recommending reduced distractions from performance) or the very environment that increased professionalism brings with it (increased time demands as an athlete; increased money and subsequent reduced need to work). 

Counteracting the effects of increased professionalism
If we take Rugby Union – a sport which has shifted from an amateur sport where players were not paid to a big business sport where players have the potential to earn enough as a player to set themselves up for life, in the space of just over a decade – as an example, we quickly see why lifestyle and personal development planning has become so important.

Rugby has traditionally been associated with private schools and third level institutes where, in the armature era, most players had well-paying jobs and secure futures when they retired from the sport.  Quickly, and refreshingly, the sport has become the sport of the masses, both in terms of participants and spectators, but unfortunately, professionalization of the sport has meant that an increasing number of players forego their education, in favor of a sports career which one injury or a bad run of form could end in an instant.

Players are being talent spotted earlier and earlier, reducing the chances that they will have naturally completed their education by the time they reach senior level.  Of course academies insist that players stay in school, and many provide additional tutoring and support to enable players to do so, but the point is that these measures have to be put in place just to maintain equilibrium.

For many players, the lure of big money contracts in France can be too great to ignore, and while living and playing in another country can be a life-changing experience for many, money can’t be the only reason to move.  Players should be encouraged to consider all factors in the decision making process and those who decide that France is for them may need to be supported through the major life change.

The celebrity status associated with being a successful player, and the accessibility of players to the fans via social media can bring about a host of other issues.  Blanket bans of social media can prevent players making stupid mistakes, but do little to increase the player’s marketability or help them develop a unique image.

While it may sound like a bit of a contradiction, professional players tend to have a lot of time on their hands.  This can bring with it a range of potential problems, including boredom, addiction, depression and anti-social behavior. 

Managing lifestyles for performance purposes
Athletes are often busy people with a number of different factors to juggle.  Athletes need to be fresh and well rested to perform at their best, and a well managed lifestyle will help them to perform in their sport and to get the most from potential opportunities that arise.  Talk management, goal setting and decision making skills can help an athlete manage their lifestyle, while managing stress and priortising demands will also have far reaching benefits. 

Preparing for life after sport
We have spoken before about the importance of preparing for life after sport, and encouraging a player/athlete to prepare for life after sport is an important part of lifestyle and personal development support.  Few athletes/players get to choose when they end their careers, particularly in a sport like rugby where career-ending injuries and deselection are common reasons for retiring.  Athletes should be encouraged to plan for life after sport from the very beginning. 

Creating the well-balanced individual
Players and athletes can potentially become trapped in a life where they eat, sleep and breath their sport, with little balance or connection with the ‘real’ world.  True, many transferable skills, including teamwork and goal setting, can be learned in the sporting environment, but players who have nothing to think about other than turning up to training on time, who are surrounded by similarly-minded teammates on a regular basis, and whose only daily decision is chicken or salmon for lunch at the club canteen, can loose touch with reality and quickly forget how to fend for themselves.  They can also quickly become bored.  As lifestyle and personal development consultants, we therefore have a responsibility to expose the players to other experiences and opportunities.  Many sportspeople value the contribution of distractions in their lives.

Recent examples include Irish 800m runner Mark English who, not long after winning the 800m bronze medal at this summer’s European Athletics Championships, stated that he was looking forward to getting back into his Medical studies at UCD:
"I love having something to distract me from all the training during the winter," English said. "You can't just be an athlete with nothing going on in your life." - See more at: http://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/medical-career-offers-refreshing-perspective-for-clinical-english-30521181.html#sthash.Ait3NEZU.dpuf
"I love having something to distract me from all the training during the winter," English said. "You can't just be an athlete with nothing going on in your life." - See more at: http://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/medical-career-offers-refreshing-perspective-for-clinical-english-30521181.html#sthash.Ait3NEZU.dpuf
"I love having something to distract me form all the training during the winter," English said.  "You can't just be an athlete with nothing going on in your life." (Irish Independent 20/8/14)
Similarly, Jo Pavey, who at 40 won 10,000m gold at the same championships, stated that being a mother to two children helped improve her performance:
The mother of two ... thinks it is her self-satisfied approach to life and flexibility that is key to the form that has finally given her the first major title of her career. (Athletics Weekly 13/8/14)
Having distractions away from sport is particularly beneficial when dealing with injury, and as mentioned previously, having an identity which is not completely dependent on sporting success can help an athlete cope with retirement. 

Social responsibility
Sport has a responsibility to look after its players and athletes and to help create well-rounded individuals who can give back to the community.  Giving athletes the skills to deal with setbacks and to manage mini transitions can help prepare them for life beyond sport.  Athletes should be encouraged to make the most of every opportunity that comes their way.  They should never see competing in sport as a sacrifice or an excuse to put their lives on hold.  They should exit the sport a better person than they entered it.  Player welfare is an important factor, and with an ever increasing number of cases of depression, eating disorders and addiction being reported among high performance sportspeople, it’s clear that even more work needs to be done on that front.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Can Pizza be Healthy?

Done right, pizza can be a great way to get your five-a-day! But all too often, the circular feast, taken straight from the freezer or dropped off by they delivery boy, contains nothing resembling a fresh vegetable and is topped with a small truck load of fat-laden cheese and peperoni.

This week's quick and simple recipe suggestion will give you some ideas of how you can enjoy the taste and convenience of a pizza without any of the guild.

1. Warberton's Square Wraps make a great base for a pizza-type snack.  They can be purchased in most large supermarkets, and cost approximately £1.30 for a pack or six.  They are cheaper than standard pizza bases, and cook much quicker.

2. Spread a generous layer of pesto or tomato puree across the base, taking care to reach right to the edges.  There is no need for fancy pizza topping sauces, and if you're feeling particularly enthusiastic you can make your own pesto.

3. Add toppings of your choice.  The pizza will only take 10-15 minutes to cook, so toppings should be chosen accordingly.  Raw chicken wouldn't be suitable, but cooked chicken leftovers would be a great addition.  Here are some other suggestions:
  • Any cooked meat
  • Smoked salmon or tinned tuna
  • Peppers
  • Courgettes, very finely chopped or thinly sliced
  • Mushrooms
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweetcorn
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Olives
  • Chilli Peppers
  • Pineapple
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Green leaves - rocket, spinach or basil
Avoid Peperoni and other high-fat, high-salt processed meats

4. Sprinkle some fresh or dried parsley, oregano or mixed herbs on top.

5. If so desired, top with a small amount of cheese.  Feta or cheddar are good choices.  Remember that the base is very thin, and the ingredients will be quite moist, so only a small amount of cheese will be required.

6. Cook in a hot oven until the base is crispy and slightly browned.

7. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Therapeutic Actions and Activities: The Key to Emotional Balance?

Too often we view therapy as something which only those with severe depression, anxiety or psychological issues undergo to 'fix' their problems.  But perhaps we can all benefit from taking part in therapeutic activities.  Maybe there are activities we can engage in on a regular basis to prevent depression, anxiety or other psychological issues, and prevent disappointments, anger and upsets from becoming long-term issues or affecting our performance.  It's only in recent years that I've noticed what I do to keep myself 'sane', and performing at my best, but having identified them allows me to keep a check on my emotions.  These are my top 4 therapeutic activities:

When I was young, I struggled with writing,  I was inadequately skilled to transfer the thoughts and images inside my head into anything resembling beautiful pros, but over time I have found joy in writing.  Simply putting words together gives me confidence and a sense of purpose, and I can't even begin to explain the sense of achievement obtained from writing and publishing a book.  And apparently I'm funnier when I write than when I talk!  But writing has a much broader benefit.  Putting my thoughts in writing can help keep me focused, reaffirm my goals, identify what is making me angry/confused/blue, and work through those issues.  Writing a blog or something which someone else is going to read, forces me to express my thoughts in a postive way.  Both myself and Rachael have written blogs that will never be published, but simply putting our thoughts on paper eradicated the confusion or anger that we were feeling, or helped us change our perspective on a particular situation.  If you are angry about something, try writing down your arguments for why you're angry, what the other person's perspective might be, and what you can do to fix it.  As you right, some of your opinions might change, and some of the anger abate.  Then you can look to sort out the real issues.  Don't underestimate the power of expressing yourself on paper!

Tidying up for someone else
If I'm feeling particularly blue, or stressed because things are slipping out of my control, something which gets me back on track, is sorting out an untidy store cupboard or an out-of-control attic for somebody else.  The more impossible the task seems, the harder I work to bring it under control, and the happier I become.  It's as if putting order on a seemingly uncontrollable mess makes my thoughts and emotions look a lot easier to manage.

Drawing up a plan
There are few things more motivational than ticking items off a to-do list, or crossing off sections of a weekly plan, but sometimes just putting the plan together in the first place can give you the kick start you need.  Putting  everything that needs to be done down on paper can help put order on chaos, and turn panic into calm.  Often we know that there's a lot to be done, but putting together a plan can help focus us. 

Running has always been my sanctury.  Many a problem or conundrum has been sorted out in my head while on a run, and many big, life-changing decisions have been made over the course of a 5 or 6 mile run.  I find it difficult to run when angry, negative or highly stressed, and I don't like not to run, so those thoughts and and emotions are quickly turned into positive ones in order to let me get on with the business of running. Running also allows me time to dream and hatch plans to take over some aspect or other of the world.  Often I later realise that my dreams are unattainable or my plans unachievable, but every once in while I come up with a grand scheme that will change my life forever.

Singing in the shower, collecting sticks for the fire and walking the dog are just some of the other activities which help me turn negative thoughts or emotions into positive ones, and allow me to gain control over my life.

Talking is one of the most popular and effective forms of therapy, and it's true that a problem shared is a problem halved.  If you are feeling stress or down, or feel that your life is spiraling out of control, talk to someone.  Just getting things off your chest can make a worry or stress disappear.  However, always talking about your problems without any bias for action or motivation to change things, can be a very ineffective form of therapy.  Talking can sometimes reaffirm negative emotions such as anger or hatred, result in you asking for advice rather than making decisions for yourself, and waste a lot of time.  Always talking to the wrong person may lead you to moan, or wallow in self pity.  This, I feel, is why I find writing far more therapeutic.  With nobody taking my side, I have to work issues out for myself.  After all, there is nobody as expert in my life as I am, and we all have capacity to solve our own problems.  Talking can help us realise that, but we shouldn't just talk to those who will take our side, or tell us what to do.  In a future post, we will look at the role of talking as a form of therapy in more detail, and examine how it can be most effective.

You don't have to be down or depressed to engage in therapeutic activities.  Regularly engaging in therapeutic activity can help prevent depression, manage stress, make decisions and refocus on what's important, and simply doing things that we enjoy can help us maintain that all important 'balance' in life.  Find the activities and situations where you can best control your thoughts and emotions and engage in them when needed. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Autumn Picking

I am lucky to be able to grow a lot of fruits and vegetables in my garden and as we start moving into the autumn months there is an abundance of blackberries to choose from and this year they seem to be much bigger than normal!

Although they are pretty simple to grow, there are also many to choose from on local hedgerows which can be just as good (although perhaps avoid those along the road side) and now is a good opportunity to take advantage of a good source of vitamins from this seasonal fruit.  

So what are the benefits of Blackberries?
Blackberries are packed with antioxidants including vitamin C and bioflavonoids like spinach, apples plums and grapes.  The dark blue not only provides another colour into your rainbow of fruits and vegetables to be eaten, but the dark colour also means it’s has one of the highest anti-oxidant levels of all fruits.

Vitamin C must be part of the everyday diet as the body can't produce it and it plays a role in exercise metabolism as well as to maintain health.

During exercise there is normally damage to muscles especially during harder workouts and this must be repaired in order for the athlete to recover and adapt. One function of Vitamin C is in the process of making collagen, and important ingredient in the repair of damaged muscles and tissue. It also reduces the amount of oxidative stress an athletes may suffer and therefor help to reduce the amount of illnesses picked up by athletes and allows them to train optimally.

As always Blackberries provide the best benefits in their natural state so an easy way to include them in your diet is as a smoothie or by adding them to cereals, I will include a simple apple and blackberry crumble recipe to this blog which provides an idea to use them for dessert.  

Tips for Blackberries:
Buying: If possible, don’t. Wild berries have a depth of flavour. Search out brambles near you avoiding roadside or polluted spots.  Even in cities you can find blackberries growing on scrubland, canal side paths and wooded areas.
Storing: Keep them cool and dry and eat within a day or two. Blackberries do freeze well and it’s a good idea to get a few bags in the freezer to use with apples throughout the winter.
Preparing: Wash thoroughly especially in they have been hand-picked. 

Simple Apple and Blackberry Crumble
(Prep 10mins, Cook 25mins and serves 4)
120g Plain Flour
60g Caster Sugar
60g unsalted butter
For the Fruit Compote:
300g Cooking Apples
30g unsalted butter
30g sugar
115g Blackberries
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  1. Heat Oven to 190C Gas Mark 5
  2. Crumble Topping: Tip the flour and sugar into a large bowl and add butter. Using your fingertips rub the butter into the flour to make a light breadcrumb texture.
  3. Compote- Peel and core the apples into small chunks. Put the sugar and butter into a saucepan and melt over a medium heat. Cook for 3mins until the mixture turns to a light caramel. Stir in the apples and cook for 3mins
  4.  Cover, remove from the heat and leave for 2-3 minutes in the pan
  5.  Add the compote to the cooking dish and add the crumble topping to the top of the mixture and also add some muesli or oats to add nutritional value and then cook in the oven for 20-30mins- until the crumble topping starts to brown.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Nutrition: Fuel for Females

Good nutrition is important for all athletes as they endeavor to fuel their sport, optimise their body composition, and remain healthy.  Nutrition is, however, often of greater concern to female athletes than their male counterparts.  Females naturally have a higher body fat percentage than males and can often become obsessed with dieting.  Societal pressure to conform to a certain appearance, irrespective of body type, as well as pressure from coaches and other support staff, can confound body image issues, and may lead to eating disorders.  Female athletes also carry a greater risk of iron-deficiency anemia than their male and sedentary female counterparts, and must ensure they have adequate calcium intake to prevent against stress fractures and osteoporosis.

Calorie Intake
Females have a slightly lower overall calorie requirement than males, due to their lower muscle mass and smaller body size (on average), but have higher demands for iron, and equal requirements for calcium and some other nutrients.  They, therefore, need to ensure that they eat a variety of nutrient dense foods.

Restriction of calories is a common practice among female athletes, particularly in endurance sports and sports such as gymnastics and diving where a lean physique is deemed desirable, but this is not the best approach to maximising performance.  Calorie restriction can directly and indirectly lead to the female athlete triad, and a lack of nutrients can confound the effect that low body fat and low hormone levels have on bone mineral density.  Women, just like men, need to fuel their bodies.

The Female Athlete Triad
In summary, the Female Athlete Triad, which was discussed in some detail in a previous post, is a trio of inter-related conditions - disordered eating, menstrual dysfunction and low bone mineral density - common in female athletes.  Low energy intake through disordered eating, along with other factors, lead to menstrual dysfunction, which in turn leads to low bone mineral density.  An inadequate diet can also directly affect bone mineral density.  In general, participation in sport and exercise has profound health benefits, but disordered eating, and the absence of menses, can reverse the positive effects of exercise on bone health and other factors.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Pregnant and lactating females have greater calorie and nutritional requirements, and those considering pregnancy should increase their intake of folic acid in advance of conception.  Those who are planning to exercise while pregnant should seek advice on both exercise and nutrition.

Iron is a very important mineral for both performance and general health.  Iron is an important component of hemoglobin which is responsible for transporting oxygen around the body.  Low iron levels will quickly result in poor performance in endurance athletes, but can lead to a number of other health and performance issues, including poor recovery, depressed mood states and reduced immune function. More information on the importance of iron can be found here.

As mentioned previously, calcium requirements are as high in females as in males, though dairy products (often the best source of calcium), are often restrict in females trying to maintain a low body weight or lean body mass.  We will cover the importance of calcium and how to ensure adequate calcium in the diet in a future post.  However, it is important to stress that vegans, or those who restrict their diary intake, risk getting adequate calcium in their diet.  Low calcium intake, together with low body weight, is a disaster for bones.

Females should take special care to ensure that all their nutritional demands are being met.  Iron and calcium intake are particularly important, and special care should be taken if the athlete is vegetarian.  In some cases supplements may be required.  Most importantly, all female athletes should develop a positive relationship with food.  Food is not the enemy.