Feeling mentally drained or stressed can seriously impact physical performance and motivation levels in sport and exercise, Queensland researchers have found.
- The brain plays a much stronger role in athletic performance than previously suspected
- Queensland Firebirds players were closely monitored for 16 weeks
- Mental fatigue impacts physical motivation and dietary choices, researchers found
The findings are the result of months of work with the Queensland Firebirds netball squad and reveal how mental fatigue can have profound effects on athletic performance.
University of Queensland researcher Suzy Russell, who headed up the study, said while much emphasis was placed on physical fatigue and recovery in sport, more needed to be done on the cognitive side.
“We need to think more about the brain in athletes and how it’s influencing their sporting performance,” she said.
“[This research] gives us a bit more of an idea that it’s something we need to be looking at in terms of our application to sport.”
Before training sessions, 10 contracted Firebirds players were given questionnaires.
Their saliva was also tested for the stress markers cortisol and alpha-amylase.
“They basically are hormonal or stress responses to your external environment and how you’re reacting internally,” Ms Russell said.
Over the 16-week test period, the players who felt physically tired saw little effect on their training.
But those who reported feeling mentally drained felt their performance on the court suffered.
The average mental fatigue rating — 44 on a scale from zero to 100 — also varied significantly from player to player.
Firebirds head coach Roselee Jencke said the information had proved very helpful in managing fatigue and maximising player impact for the upcoming season.
“Managing fatigue is really important, being able to give them enough time to recover and then come back to training and work at intensity,” she said.
Ms Russell said the research showed it was important for everyone partaking in physical activity to consider how mental fatigue could influence exercise motivation levels.
“For our everyday gym-goer, we might run our 3 kilometres a bit slower than we did two days ago when we’re feeling mentally fatigued, after a really long day of activity at work or some emotional stress that’s occurring.”
Training for mental resilience
Queensland University of Technology sport scientist Vince Kelly said mental or emotional exhaustion also had proven impacts on lifestyle choices.
“You might be more inclined to snack a bit more, you’re more inclined to drink alcohol, and you might be less inclined to do exercise when you’re mentally fatigued,” Dr Kelly said.
Ms Russell said fatigue could also impact dietary choices as well as motivation.
“Potentially when we’re feeling really mentally fatigued we might choose to eat the chocolate rather than the apple, and it might influence our decision even to get out of bed and go to the gym,” she said.
Mr Kelly said research was now needed to demonstrate how to best train athletes to be mentally resilient.
Early studies suggest brain endurance training could be beneficial.
“The research is in its really early stages at this point. There is evidence from one study that you can actually do what’s called brain endurance training, which actually increases your resilience to mental fatigue,” he said.