Recently, Mental Grit was awarded the opportunity to interview two of the top sport dietitians in the nation. Toni Tillett (Washington State University) and Kari Oliver (University of Notre Dame) were gracious enough to answer a few questions and divulge some juicy nutritional information. A healthy body and mind are essential to peak performance, which is where mental conditioning and nutrition intersect. The interesting piece about this interview was how basic mental skills principles have such a primary role in the execution of effective nutrition. Get back to basics and keep yourself mentally and physically strong.

Back to Basics

If I were to ask you to name three healthy foods, could you do it?

Of course you can! We all know what healthy and unhealthy food is. The question I presented to these two dietitians was, “If we all know what the healthy foods are, why don’t we eat them?”

Kari answered, “It’s because of our habits. Food is a huge part of everything that we do. It’s around families, celebrations, birthdays, births and deaths, and basically everything. For a long time, people have associated healthy with not being as tasty or flavorful. They’re not going to choose the healthier option because if they have the option to choose something else, it’s going to bring them more pleasure. Whether it’s associated to a situation or not, they’re going to choose that less healthy option.”

Toni further elaborated, “There’s so much information out there and so much of it is contradictory. There are so many fad diets telling you what to eat and what not to eat. If you start trying to be “healthy”, it can wind up being more stressful. We really just have to go back to basics.”

So how do we break out of those negative nutritional habits? What do we have to do to get back to basics? Why are the fundamentals so important to peak performance?

They said it all comes down to three words: variety, consistency, and purpose.

As mental skills trainers, we have found these principles don’t just impact the ability to break ineffective nutritional habits, they impact the ability perform in any domain.

Variety

When it comes to variety in our diets, Kari Oliver says that there is room for everything and that the most variety should be in your vegetable source. Toni indicated, “Vegetables have the highest nutrient density per gram out of any food group. That means that vegetables give you the best bang for your buck.” There’s room for all foods and every type of food. Fill your plate with a variety of vegetables and feel your energy go through the roof.

In sport, athletes may become mentally or physically fatigued, lose interest or develop a negative attitude towards their sport, and/or not feel like they are able to reach their goals anymore. These three factors all lead to burnout. One way to counteract this burnout, is to involve the athlete in other sports and activities. Although they may spend a large part of their waking time on their sport, participating in a variety of pursuits gives them a fresh perspective on their sport. This opens up the athlete, not allowing the sport to overpower other facets of their lives.

Consistency

Anything that starts and stops will not lead to success. Doing something lifelong, habitually, and behaviorally will build success. This is true in every part of life, and isn’t any different in nutrition. We need to consistently fuel our bodies with foods that promote health and wellness.

This doesn’t have to be 100% of the time. Toni firmly believes in the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time, you should be putting food into your body that is going to encourage and support a strong body and mind. 20% of the time, it’s okay to indulge. It’s okay to enjoy foods that aren’t necessarily the most nutrient dense, but consistency is key. 80% of the time, stick to those foods that you know are healthy for you.

The 80/20 rule can also be applied to your goals. Most of the time, we should be focused on our process goals. These are the goals we can control. We can control going to the weight room 4-5 times a week, we can control our diet, and we can control how much sleep we get. Celebrating these goals is what we want to do 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time, rejoicing our outcome goals is okay, but it’s important to remember that without our process goals, we would not have achieved our outcome goal.

Purpose

The last fundamental principle is purpose.

A common phrase in the performance field is: When you know why you are doing what you are doing, you will have more power to do it.

Lets go back to basics and take the breath for instance.

The Navy SEALS say, “You don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.” When under pressure or involved in a high stress situation, and you sink to your level of training, will you still be able to perform at an elite level. The breath’s purpose is to help ground you and allow you to focus on the task at hand. It puts you in the present moment, enhancing your awareness and mental clarity. If it is not practiced, it can do the opposite, clouding the mind and bringing your awareness to the intense situation. Now instead of focusing on the next step, you’re focused on how fast your heart is beating or how much your palms are sweating.

You have purpose in your breath.

The same goes for nutrition. What is the reason you’re putting that food into your body? Are you choosing to put it in your body with purpose? If you don’t know, find out!

These are three websites that Toni recommends:

  1. eatright.org
  2. usda.gov/fnic
  3. choosemyplate.gov

Kari says, “Maybe that food is going to make you feel good right now, but is it going to make you feel good down the road? Choose the foods that will make you a healthier version of yourself in the future.”

Mental Training Technique – Breathing with Purpose

One basic strategy to help your breathing and overall focus, is the counting method. Elaborated on
by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, “The Miracle of Mindfulness”, the counting method is incredibly simple. All you have to do is count to 20! When you breathe in, see in your mind’s eye the number back to basics1. Then, when you breathe out, see the number 1 drift away. On your next breath in, see the number 2. Again, when you breathe out, see the number 2 float into the distance. Continue this process up to the number 20. If you lose track of where you are, start over. The purpose of this is to bring awareness to your breath and enhance your ability to focus on the present moment by paying attention to which number you’re on.

Stay Healthy and Stay Strong

In the end, it’s the fundamentals, and getting back to basics, that will keep us performing at the optimal level. Variety, consistency, and purpose, three principles that can be applied to every area of life and help you perform at your highest level.

Take Action and Get Back to Basics

What hit home for you in this article?

How will you implement variety, consistency, and purpose into this week’s training regimen?

Need more variety in your mental training tool belt?

We’re here to help, comment below or contact one of us to get started!