Nyree Dardarian, Director, Center for Nutrition & Performance
Eric Zillmer, Athletics Director and Professor
Fitness is the price of admission to competitive squash. But from a nutritional and neuroscience point of view, squash is also very much a cognitive chess match of geometry and wit. Squash is different from other sports: there are no time-outs, no regular breaks, no huddling up. The squash player must learn to compete at their best while increasingly physically and mentally fatigued. The only time you can refuel mentally and physically during the match is between games. Those ninety seconds (or two minutes for the professional matches) of recovery and planning are essential. They can provide a springboard for recovery and a plan for what comes next. During this break, you need to replenish your body as well as your mind.
It is a neuroscientific fact that the brain can only focus on one thing. In between games, you should create a ritual; a prepared sequence of activities that are easy to follow even under stress and exhaustion. You should, in this order, Eat.Drink.ThinkTM.
As you step off the court, eat a compact but powerful fuel to restore energy. Eating first will allow you more time for digestion and therefore improve tolerance of food while in athletic mode. Concentrate on eating simple carbohydrates to top-off your glycogen reservoir. For example, have one dried date or one sports chew between each game. Avoid fats and protein bars, which are difficult to absorb and not necessary during competition. Ingestion of carbohydrates during sport activity is an ergogenic strategy used to delay the onset of physical and neural sources of fatigue. Replenishing muscle glycogen reestablishes power, strength and endurance for the next game. Glucose also crosses your blood-brain barrier, thus supplying your brain with valuable fuel so you can outsmart your opponent.
Next you must drink to rehydrate between each game. Have your two-liter containers cold and full of water and sports drinks. This is not a time to depend on thirst as your guide to drink. Thirst is a sensation that lags significantly behind the onset of dehydration. Blood volume decreases as dehydration sets in, resulting in failure of oxygen to reach the muscle, causing exhaustion, followed by performance decline and impaired decision-making. Even worse, dehydration opens the door for injury. It is recommended that you drink four to eight ounces (half a cup to one cup) of cold fluid every fifteen minutes of competition. Colder fluids help lower your body’s core temperature, aiding thermoregulation, which is another strategy implemented to optimize performance. Before you move to the next step, check your transparent fluid bottle. Did you drink enough?
Having taken care of your body first, you now have time to think. But remember—your brain is already in stimulus overload. Consider a simple 1+1+1 cognitive paradigm. First, focus on something you were good at and see yourself visually continuing to excel in this area. This allows you to check into your frontal lobe with something positive, while asking your inner critic to take a seat. Next, focus mentally on one aspect of your game that needs improvement. Finally, as the referee reminds you to head out to the court, what is one positive take-away message you want to have in your head as you walk through the door? For example, “I am ready!”
The Eat.Drink.Think paradigm simply means that during your break you are mindfully focusing on recovery and what is in front of you.
During the game of squash, your body and your brain are all-in. This paradigm allows you to use nutrition science and cognitive behavioral therapy to your advantage during breaks between games. Essentially you are depositing currency into the mythical Bank of Squash. Then later, at a critical part of your match, you can make a tactical withdrawal of your equity. As with all aspects of sport psychology, you don’t start practicing Eat.Drink.Think when you are competing, but, rather, when you are practicing. By developing a routine during your breaks as you train, you will have the ability to perform at your best in matches.