Success in sport : is it all in the head?

21. 12. 2016

Many leading sports teams now employ experts in psychology to help boost the performance of their players and athletes, and the results can be impressive.

Many leading sports teams now employ experts in psychology to help boost the performance of their players and athletes, and the results can be impressive.
The psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, for example, was a key member of the backroom coaching staff that helped the Great Britain cycling team achieve such extraordinary success at the 2012 London Olympics, with an unbeaten haul of 8 gold medals, 2 silvers and 2 bronze.

This example demonstrates that mental well-being can play an important role in athletic success. Without question, elite athletes don’t just have incredible physical abilities; they also have enhanced cognitive strengths that help drive them on to victory. These strengths enable them to cope with high levels of pressure during competitive events and enhance their all-round decision-making capabilities.

In addition to psychology, nutrition also impacts the way the mind works, and there is growing evidence that one particular ingredient – phosphatidylserine (or PS for short) – can deliver significant cognitive benefits to athletes participating in a wide range of activities.

PS, a phospholipid, has a long and well-established association with general cognitive health (Glade & Smith, Phosphatidylserine and the human brain, Nutrition. 2015 Jun;31(6):781-6.). It has been linked to enhanced cognitive function- in areas such as memory and problem solving, and also has been linked to reduced feelings of stress in high-pressure situations. Studies involving subjects placed in stressful environments have also demonstrated how PS reduces levels of cortisol (Benton, D., Donohoe, R. T., Sillance, B. & Nabb, S. The influence of phosphatidylserine supplementation on mood and heart rate when faced with an acute stressor. Nutr Neurosci 4, 169-178 (2001)), which is often known as the ‘stress hormone’.

Meanwhile, PS is also well known for its physical sports nutrition benefits, such as increased endurance, reduced muscle soreness and faster recovery times – gains that have been proven in trials involving athletes such as cyclists, soccer players and weightlifters (Kingsley, M. I., Wadsworth, D., Kilduff, L. P., McEneny, J. & Benton, D. Effects of phosphatidylserine on oxidative stress following intermittent running. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 37, 1300-1306 (2005); Kingsley, M. I., Miller, M., Kilduff, L. P., McEneny, J. & Benton, D. Effects of phosphatidylserine on exercise capacity during cycling in active males. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 38, 64-71 (2006);).

Our understanding is now growing concerning the cognitive benefits of PS for athletes. Thus, an athlete consuming PS regularly could expect to enhance both mental and physical performance. The results of one particular trial provides support for the effects of PS to  help athletes simultaneously enhance their cognitive well-being and  their athletic performance (Fahey, T. D. & Pearl, M. S. The Hormonal and Perceptive effects of phosphatidylserine administrtion during tow weeks of resistive exercise induced overtraining. Biology of sport 15, 136-144 (1998)).

In the study, weightlifters taking 800mg of PS daily for two weeks reported significantly more positive feelings of well-being than the control group. In fact, after six training sessions, their perception of well-being was almost twice as great as those taking a placebo. This benefit was recorded in addition to reduced levels of muscle soreness among the subjects consuming PS, highlighting the combined mental and physical gains linked to PS intake.

PS has also been shown to result in a high testosterone to cortisol ratio (Starks, M. A., Starks, S. L., Kingsley, M., Purpura, M. & Jager, R. The effects of phosphatidylserine on endocrine response to moderate intensity exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 5, 11, (2008)). This effect would be expected to lead to  better physical recovery after exercise, but also may improve hormonal balance, which in turn may influence mental well-being.

The good news is that it’s not just elite athletes who can enjoy the cognitive benefits of PS. Millions of people all over the world participate regularly in sporting activities. Whether their aim is to triumph over the competition, or just to achieve their own personal best performance, sports nutrition products incorporating PS can help active men and women at all levels cope with the mental and physical rigours of their chosen sport.