Success in sport : is it all in the head?

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 wellbeing plays an important role in sporting prowess. 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 sports people participating in a wide range of disciplines.

PS, a phospholipid, has a long and well-established association with general cognitive health. It has been demonstrated to enhance functions such as memory and problem solving, and has been shown to reduce feelings of stress in high-pressure situations. Studies involving subjects placed in stressful environments have also demonstrated how PS reduces levels of cortisol, 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.

These health effects are not exclusive to each other, and our understanding is now growing of the cognitive benefits of PS for sport. A sportsperson consuming PS regularly stands to gain both mentally and physically. In fact, in one particular trial, we can see how PS brings these two areas together, to help sportspeople simultaneously enhance their cognitive wellbeing and take their athletic performance to new levels.

In the study, weightlifters taking 800mg of PS daily for two weeks reported significantly more positive feelings of wellbeing than the control group. In fact, after six training sessions, their perception of wellbeing 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 it delivers.

PS has also been shown to result in a high testosterone to cortisol ratio. This not only indicates better physical recovery after exercise, but is also a sign of a good hormonal balance, which may translate into mental equilibrium.

The good news is that it’s not just elite athletes who can enjoy the cognitive benefits of PS for sport. Millions of people all over the world participate regularly in sporting activities. Whether their aim is to triumph over the competition, or just to beat their own personal targets, 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.