I set out to write this column about nutrition. As you’ll soon read, that’s not what happened.
The idea came to me last Monday after morning practice when coach Mike Schnur gathered the men’s and women’s swim teams for a meeting. He stressed the importance of health outside of the pool by telling an anecdote about Melvin Stewart, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and world recorder-holder in the 200-meter butterfly before a gentleman named Phelps came along. Back in the early 1990’s, Stewart was on top of the swimming world. However, he didn’t start smashing world records until he gave up alcohol and made a more concerted effort to focus on nutrition.
“Now that would be a great idea for a column,” I thought. I could explain the resources available to Penn athletes — like the advice of full-time nutritionist Jill Joseph or the in-depth internal body composition data provided by the BodPod — and encourage my peers to use them to their advantage. Penn student-athletes are lucky to go to a school that has prioritized investment in cutting edge sports performance technology. Failing to incorporate these resources into training regimens struck me as a wasted opportunity.
Joseph explained that most athletes wander into her office hidden above Franklin Field’s athletic training room with questions about fueling.
“It’s usually I’m having trouble at practice, I don’t feel like I have any power, endurance – depending on the sport,” she said. “It could be I’m cramping, just feeling like they’re not getting what they can in that practice.”
The most difficult aspect of fueling is the timing. For many sports, consuming calories the recommended 45 minutes to an hour before practice commence is hard to fathom for 6 a.m. workouts. Trust me, rolling out of bed at 5:45 a.m. just to eat a protein bar before practice is not quite fun.
For other sports, the main concern is recovery. When evening weight-lifting sessions are followed by morning practices the next day, student-athletes’ bodies are left with little time to recover between training periods. With most teams receiving just one day of rest per week, fueling and refueling to maximize athletic performance becomes a 24/7 ordeal.
Yet when Joseph was discussing navigating the dining halls creatively, I couldn’t help but think about the other ways in which we fuel our athletic performance. Obviously there are good habits like getting enough sleep, eating healthy and managing injuries that contribute to our physical wellness. But what about our mental wellness?
With so many good habits to maintain to fuel our bodies, minds and souls, and a finite number of hours in each day, certain things are bound to fall by the wayside. Too often the first to go are the things that make us mentally well.
In the two-week interim since my last column, I watched as the stress of midterms, impending schoolwork and on-campus recruiting ate away at my teammates. I barely slept for two nights, kept up by worried thoughts about the girls training in the lanes next to me. We were all sore and broken down physically, but we were broken down mentally, too.
Although it is often shrouded in stigma, maintaining mental health is just as important as maintaining physical health in athletics. According to a research sponsored by the NCAA’s Mind, Body and Sport initiative, “as with physical injuries, mental health problems may, by their severity, affect athletic performance and limit or even preclude training and competition until successfully managed and treated.”
The tricky thing about mental wellness, however, is that there is no clear way to “refuel.” For some people it is taking a day off of practice to catch up on homework or getting dinner with a teammate to destress. For others, it is going to Counseling and Psychological Services. It’s not as simple as just eating a granola bar.
This is not to say that nutrition is not important. Clearly that is not the case, because success stories like Melvin Stewart’s are so common in the sporting world that they’ve become clichéd. Wouldn’t it be reassuring, though, if success stories of athletes who made conscious efforts to be mentally well were just as common?
I still believe that Penn student-athletes should take advantage of the resources at their disposal to be physically well and highly encourage them to make an appointment with Joseph. But I also believe that Penn student-athletes need to find a way to be accountable to their mental health too. They should use the resources this campus has to offer, whether it is through the Provost, peer counseling services like Penn Benjamins, the wellness checkup survey on CAPS’s website or just conversations with teammates asking if they are doing okay.
After all, a body in peak physical shape is worthless if the mind behind the muscles is not equally strong.