Athlete Hierarchy of Recovery

"There is no such thing as over-training, just under-recovering" - Abe Lincoln, probably.

High school sport seasons can be long and grueling and can have particularly rough stretches of lots of games, tournaments, jamborees (on top of just school and life). Especially in today's age when there is no "off-season" just different leagues and camp season.

As I've previously written in Youth Athletics & The Laws of Economics and Physics, year-round involvement in a single sport is ultimately detrimental to athletic development; while there may be initial increases in skill, the peak is sooner and not as high as multisport athletes.

However, setting all that aside, I'd like to discuss three basic tenants of recovery for in-season athletes -- mental recovery, physical recovery, and team recovery. These are listed in order of importance, at least from my perspective and some science perspective too.

Mental Recovery

What do playing sports, weight training, and worrying about an upcoming test have in common? They all put the body into sympathetic state.

Sympathetic state is a hormonal response to physical, mental, and perceived stress. You probably know it as the fight or flight response. This is a good and useful response:

  • It floods the body with stress hormones like adrenalin & cortisol.

  • It pulls blood from digestive tract to help carry oxygen & hormones to muscles.

  • It helps achieve the objective of the task at hand -- playing basketball, wrestling your brother, driving in bad weather, or taking a test.

The opposite of that is Parasympathetic state. A way I remember it is Para, like Pararescue, is relief. It helps bring the body back down out of high hormone levels to homeostasis. When our body is in homeostasis, it can better focus on aspects of recovery like sleep and digestion -- which is absolutely critical for the health and development of an athlete.

So how do we get to parasympathetic state? There are lots of ways, but here are some that I've found that are helpful.

  • Prayer, Journaling, Meditation -- focused efforts like these calm the brain and calm the body down. These activities reduce stress by getting stressors out of the head and to God, on paper, or resolved through contemplation. If there are fewer stressors flying around the brain, even if we don't think we are actively worrying about anything, it allows the brain to down shift and cool down. This post-sport contemplation is helpful for bigger picture mental health and not just sport training. THIS SHOULD BE A REGULAR PRACTICE REGARDLESS OF SPORT AND TRAINING, NOT JUST AFTER SPORT.

  • Deep Breathing -- There is a big connection between parasympathetic system and our breathing. Close your eyes and take 5 breaths in and out through your nose. Don't tell me that doesn't calm you down! There is a lot of science out there that I'm just beginning to familiarize myself with, but suffice it to say, breathing in through the nose changes how your body physiologically and mentally processes oxygen. It's wild stuff. THIS SHOULD BE DONE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE AFTER GAMES OR TRAINING.

  • Relaxing Body Position -- during high stress, the body sends out lymph hormone. Having that around limits good recovery hormones to get back to the muscles to clear out all the lactate and glycogen produced. In order for your brain to relax, it must work and worry as little as possible about the body. That's why the brain relaxes in an "easy chair" and tenses up when you're near a cliff. So, if you do your breathing, have your body in a position of relaxation -- legs slightly propped up above the heart, arms comfortably to your side or folded over your chest, spine neutral. This literally encourages lymphatic drainage. It should be done after sport or training.

An often overlooked aspect of recovery is processing the game that just happened.

This should absolutely be done in a methodical manner. A methodical manner helps put sport in it's place, not sport putting you in your place.

Meaning, just after a big win or a tough loss, your identity, your life, your meaning could get wrapped into the result.

It's important to remember that sport is finite and that you are in control of the sport so it does not consume you. This ultimately lets you take a step back and objectively assess what happened.

If you never take the time to reflect and act on those reflections, then you're not really improving. Moreover, this processing helps put the brain at ease, allowing for better recovery.

Here are some questions to consider. You could even do this as part of your breathing or journaling practices.

What went well? What went wrong?

Why did it go well? Why did it go wrong?

Did I choke at certain points? Why did I choke? Why was I distracted at that moment?

Was I afraid? What was I afraid of?

What surprised you? Do you have regrets?

Do you need to have a conversation with a teammate?

Here is a way I like to think about these questions. Have you ever gone downtown to meet a friend for lunch and the only spot available was a "no parking car towed at owner's expense." But you are out of time, out of options, and this friend said they had some big, exciting news to share with you.

You go into your lunch, but you aren't fully present. You want to focus on your friend and their news, but in the back of your mind you think, will this person please get to the point, I could get towed!! You get jittery, you lose your appetite, and you can't concentrate.

That's kind of what happens in your brain if you go straight from sport/practice/training to dinner, homework, etc. The brain needs to process what's happened, if not immediately, then setting an exact time up for it to happen (at 9:00 tonight, I will journal about the game). Methodically going through those questions will help put those things to bed, so to speak, so your brain can wind down and you can actually GO TO BED.

Which leads me to my next point of recovery...

Physical Recovery

This part of recovery is extremely important as well and here are the aspects listed out in importance for physical recovery.

  • Sleep -- if you're not getting sufficient sleep, your body won't recover. PERIOD. You need at least 7 hours of sleep, but for you high school kids that are growing and learning, heck, aim for 10 hours of sleep!! Better sleep means PUT AWAY THE SCREENS -- phones, TVs, computers mess with your circadian rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep and to get to deep restorative REM sleep. Also, limit caffeine intake. The half-life of caffeine is crazy long, and if you have an afternoon pre-workout or coffee, it will still be in your system as your go to bed and, while you may fall asleep, it won't be as restful. Also, alcohol and THC mess with your sleep. As a HS athlete, you shouldn't be consuming these things anyway, but I know how I was. Alcohol severely disrupts your sleep, thereby limiting recovery and cognitive function.

A recent study from the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that lack of sleep was one of the leading indicators of in-season injury for collegiate male basketball players.
  • Nutrition -- make sure you're getting all your calories and get them from good sources as much as you can. There are some foods that increase inflammation and therefore decrease recovery of tissue. As I've written about before, for protein aim for 1.5 grams per pound of body weight; for carbs, 1 gram per pound of body weight; and fats, .2 grams per pound of body weight.

  • Active Recovery -- tissues recover with blood flow. So you want to do things that encourage blood flow in your body, but won't beat you up. A long walk, a bike ride, hitting the rowing machine, going for a swim, doing 20 minutes in the sauna, getting a massage, taking ice baths, foam rolling, stretching, yoga, pilates. These are all great ways to get blood flow to different parts of the body. Some people say these are different type of recovery processes, but its all moving and blood flow to me!

  • Smart Training -- constantly beating yourself up with tons of additional high intensity training will stunt recovery. If you do this to yourself or have a coach that does this, please consider not doing that. That's why with my athletes, I don't absolutely crush them every workout. Using the "Coach's Eye" as described by coaching legend Johnny Parker, I get a sense of what the athletes need -- yes strength training is great, but it doesn't always have to be a hard lift.

  • Supplements -- I think supplements are great, but get them thinking they will cover up for your over-stressed hormones, lack of sleep, and bad eating habits. Protein supplement for instance is much cheaper than just through solid foods and is a great option. There is tons of positive data on creatine -- if you are an athlete you should definitely take it. Magnesium, Zinc and vitamin B6 are great to encourage relaxation and better sleep.

Team Recovery

The same way the brain needs closure and finality, the team culture does as well.

I know there are all sorts of post-game things that happen -- coaches speeches, film breakdown, and next step for practice. But on an individual and peer-to-peer basis, discussing the game should happen. I'm sure it does, but sport coaches would be wise to create a culture that dissects and discusses the game.

If coaches aren't creating this environment, then, as a player or parent, you should bring it up to the coach or do it on your own as part of improving team stress levels, better understanding each other's view points of the game.


Athletes put a ton of stress on themselves -- their minds, their bodies, their teams. This article equips them to recovery mentally, physically, and as a team to be able stay healthy, grow stronger physically, grow smarter mentally, and ultimately achieve more from these endeavors.

These practices aren't just good for athletes, but for anyone and I encourage you take them up! If you've found this helpful, please share with your teammates, colleagues, friends, and family!

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