If you played football as a kid, chances are you were unpleasantly greeted with the phrases "suck it up," or "just deal with it" by a coach, teammate, or parent. As if football players are meant to exhibit the characteristics of a robot or machine lacking thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I bought into this idealism for nearly all of my years playing football, until the last season of my college career.
I realized that nearly all the training and recovery conducted both in and out of season for athletes focuses predominantly on physical health. While this is necessary for a long, healthy, and successful career, there are other elements that I believe must be present in an athlete's training regimen to optimize performance and prevent anxiety, depression, burnout, fatigue, and other factors that athletes face.
Applying a holistic approach to my training routine allowed me to do just that. It also contributed to my staying healthy, boosting my confidence, and increasing my performance. A holistic approach to health and training looks at the whole person: mind, body, and spirit.
I’m a firm believer that pursuing the best version of ourselves mentally, physically, and spiritually allows us to be at our best in all other areas of our lives and for those around us.
I attribute much of my success in my senior year on and off the field to the holistic approach implemented in my training which I now take with me and apply to my everyday life.
Throughout the entirety of my senior season, I made becoming the best player, student, and leader I could be my main focus. The training, coaching, content creation, and other endeavors would always be there. My time as a football player would not. Each day I would create my checklist to ensure I was taking care of and strengthening my mind, body, and spirit.
It looked something like this:
Mind: 5-10 minutes of Wim Hof or box breathing to manage stress and anxiety, visualization, and a few minutes of reading something non-textbook related, journaling.
Body: stretching and mobility at the beginning and end of each day, fueling my body with lots of fruits and vegetables, complex carbs, protein, and tons of water, and icing my knees and shoulders after practice.
Spirit: A few minutes of prayer or meditation, a walk to class without headphones, and practicing gratitude by writing down 3 things I’m grateful for.
You by no means have to do all of these, and I’d be lying if I did them all every day. The bottom line, try things out, see what works for you, and do them consistently to see their effects.
Confidence is a key component in the pursuit of progress; however, it is something I have struggled with both in sports and in life. I couldn’t tell you why that is, but I can tell you that by developing mindset practices I was able to go from 4th string my freshman year to a starter and team captain in my senior campaign. These are a few ways I went about strengthening my mind:
Each morning as part of my routine, I would close my eyes, sit upright in the chair on my back deck, and listen to a guided visualization. In doing so, I would visualize how I went about my training for that day. This included everything from walking onto the field, putting my cleats on, and executing cuts and movements flawlessly. I would also visualize the game day atmosphere and the feeling of achieving my goals.
Our bodies are capable of more than we give them credit for, but we have to treat them properly as they are our vehicle for performance. What we choose to put into them has a direct correlation to the output we get.
Our bodies need a variety of proteins, fats, and carbs with an emphasis on lots of whole foods if we want to feel and perform our best; however, this does not just apply to athletics. Before I started taking nutrition seriously I lacked energy and focus, felt sluggish at practice, and had gotten injured at least once in the previous three seasons. In season, I ate a high protein and carbohydrate diet. This meant eggs, turkey sausage, potatoes or oatmeal, and fruit for breakfast, a chicken or turkey sandwich and salad with lots of veggies for lunch, usually a PB&J and protein shake before practice, lean meats, veggies, and pasta or potatoes for dinner, and then typically another protein shake and oatmeal before bed.
Game day was always 6 egg whites with a bowl of oatmeal with honey, cinnamon, blueberries, and peanut butter for breakfast. Pre-game would usually be a banana about 30-minutes prior. Honestly, I also ate skittles because psychologically it got me ready to perform and simple sugars are good around the time of performance.
Progress is made by stressing the body and also allowing it to recover. The body and mind must work together in order to achieve optimal performance, so doing things like yoga, meditation, breathwork, massage therapy, sauna, and cold exposure check both boxes.
A stable in my recovery routine was doing hot/cold contrast the day after games to reduce swelling and inflammation, improve circulation, reduce muscle soreness, and improve my mood.
Spirituality is the most overlooked element as part of a holistic training regimen and it can be difficult to differentiate from a mindset practice. Spirituality is not a religious practice. Religion is the deliberate practice of a specific type of faith, whereas I believe spirituality is a connection to the world around you and trusting that what you are pursuing is in alignment with your purpose.
At that time in my life, I felt it was my purpose to train hard, make the most of my last year playing the sport I loved, and be a leader on both my team, as well as in my campus community. I wrote out on a notecard that I would become an All-American, an all-conference player, and that our team would win the conference championship. I believed it with every fiber of my being and I read that notecard each morning when I woke up, every night before I went to bed, and carried it in my wallet with me.
I went 0 for 3 with those goals. However, I was voted a team captain, was named to the all-conference sportsmanship team and won the coaches award. Three unexpected things I earned not just because of my play on the field, but because of my character. I knew that I had given it all I had and was able to hang up the cleats with no regrets. That same principle can be applied to everything we do: focus on what you can control (output), not what you can’t (outcome).
What a spiritual practice looked like while I was playing football was having faith knowing that God was guiding me as I worked hard each day and led those around me. My spiritual strength reminded me of my why on days when I didn’t feel as motivated.
How They Work Together
Now, as my purpose has shifted to empowering others through wellness, I implement these same principles in a different context.
I still visualize my performances, whether it be training days as I’m preparing to run a marathon or interviewing a guest for my podcast.
I meditate and practice breathwork to connect and align with the person I am striving to become.
I prioritize my nutrition so that I have the energy to feel my best during training, in my work, and while spending time with others.
By prioritizing our physical health we prove to ourselves that we can push through the difficulties and hardships of life. How far we can push ourselves depends heavily on the mental strength and fortitude we develop. Our spirituality then connects us to the reason why we are pursuing the goals we have set for ourselves and guides us along the way.
Physical training and performance should amplify our quality of life, not take away from it. Navigating life in your twenties is a strange enough time, and losing the identity of being an athlete certainly does not help. The struggle to find a balance between our professional careers, relationships, social life, and whatever else is present in our lives can be a challenge. We’re still finding out who we are, let alone where we see ourselves in 5 years.
As I continue to work on myself mentally, physically, and spiritually, holistically if you will, I have found comfort in knowing that all things will align themselves so long as I keep showing up. And the same goes for all of you. Pursuing the best versions of ourselves is the best thing we can do both for ourselves, and for others.