A group of sport psychologists lead by David Eccles at Florida State Uni joined by those from the University of Amsterdam have recently collaborated on a paper looking at ways to help get athletes adequate mental rest.  The paper is in the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action and so behind a paywall but if you have access to an academic library it is available here

Below are the key points the paper makes and ideas on how athletes can get the mental rest required.

Why is mental rest important?

There is research to show that when we are mentally rested (this is rest taken between sessions or competitions – rather than the micro moments during them) we can better sustain high performance. Mental rest is important because it facilitates mental recovery. When we don’t mentally recover our cognitive functioning can become impaired so we make rubbish decisions when performing and long term we risk burnout. It is also important because rest helps in our acquisition of new technical and tactical skills, allowing for the memories of our newly learnt skills to be consolidated in our brain.

The two routes suggested in this paper to help us get better mental rest are Extended Sleep and Wakeful Resting.

Extended sleep

The first route to more mental rest is extended sleep. Some of the ideas are offered in this piece are ones we can all try:

  1. Keep a sleep diary.
  2. Learn about the benefits of sleep for sport performance, recovery, and enjoyment.
  3. Focus on increasing nocturnal sleep rather than adding in napping and sleeping in on rest days.
  4. Delay morning training by 30 minutes to allow sleep extension
  5. If you need to nap it should be within two hours of training.
  6. If you sleep in it should be no more than an hour after usual waking time
  7. Create a sleep hygiene plan: cool bedroom temperature, dark and quiet, restrict physically, cognitively, and emotionally stimulating activities before bed, use a dim light two hours before sleeping.
  8. Develop a ‘wind-down’ plan, especially if you have exercised close to bedtime
  9. Work on a self-talk strategy to help tone down any negative ruminations
  10. Have a relaxation technique – such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation

Wakeful resting

There are 6 ways you can try to rest more while awake – most of these focus on using your rest day from training effectively.

  1. Not thinking about your sport. Not taking a break can lead athletes to feel mentally fatigued and less motivated so we need to actively switch off on our rest day. Maybe focus on another hobby, put your sports equipment out of sight, avoid the places which remind you of your sport or spend time with those outside of your sport.
  2. Taking a break from effortful thinking. Not effortful thinking doesn’t have to be mindfulness (which I find many athletes struggle with) but something where you lose yourself in the flow like Lego, jigsaws or cooking. You can also do things like watching TV, taking a bath or listening to music; enjoyable but not productive.
  3. Try NOT to be an athlete for the day. The routines and schedules of sport can be tiring so to fully rest we need to reduce the perception of being controlled by others or the clock. Use your rest day to reduce external commitments and spend time away from a timetable.
  4. Breaking routine. Spend some time on your rest day in a different place to usual, see friends you don’t get to see often, read a book – anything to break the usual routines.  
  5. Complete outstanding work tasks. This sounds counter-intuitive to rest but scheduling in time to catch up on projects that have been weighing you down can help you feel more refreshed afterwards. If you do them early in the day you get to feel lighter and smugger (not sure smugger is a word – but maybe it should be?) for the rest of it.
  6. Embrace a personal life outside of sport. Athletes can feel frustrated that so much if their life and identity is linked to their sport that it is hard to escape and rest. Ensuring there are other things in your life outside of sport helps you to escape and feel more rested afterwards.