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Current views on recovery

Recent research by Nash and Sproule (2018) asked coaches for their views on recovery in training. While recovery was widely understood as crucially important, results revealed that few coaches think about psychological and cognitive recovery with the same depth and importance as the physical aspects of recovery. One reason for the differential treatment of psychological stressors is that they are often seen as separate and isolated from physical ones, perhaps a reflection of persistent but outdated views on mind-body dualism. However, managing only the physical elements of training is akin to attempting to solve a puzzle while only flipping over half the pieces. This article aims to explore how psychological stressors affect training, and how coaches can begin to deliberately manage this type of psychological load.

The implications of psychological load

While it is tempting to think of stress as physical or psychological, the two are quite interconnected. For example, Kiely (2018) summarized a series of studies which found higher injury rates among athletes with higher levels of pre-season anxiety, elevated academic stress during exam periods, and stress-related personality factors such as “perfectionism” and “self-blame”. Further, emotional stress impaired training-related gains in cardiovascular and maximal power, muscular strength, and running economy. Although frequently viewed as existing on a different dimension, emotional stress consistently demonstrates physical consequences in the context of athletic training.

The impact of psychological factors is not limited to emotional stress but extends to the stress of cognitive processing demands (i.e. decision making). To help simplify the similarities between emotions and decision-making, we suggest using the term psychological load, similar to the idea of training load. As opposed to the negative connotations of “stress” in every-day language, talking about psychological “load” allows a more balanced view of its nuanced influence on athlete learning and performance. For instance, increasing psychological load during practice by increasing drill complexity and adding decision-making elements leads to greater learning retention and transfer to competition. However, there is a limit to the benefits of adding load. Smith and colleagues (2015) showed that a 90-minute pre-training reaction time task resulted in higher ratings of perceived exertion and slower running performance at every stage of a maximal interval running task. This can be partially explained by the theory of ego depletion, which simply dictates that people have a limited amount of cognitive resources, and when these resources are depleted we experience impairments to cognitive control, self-regulation, and learning (see Thompson and colleagues’ 2014 study of ego depletion and implicit learning). Taken together, this evidence suggests psychological load can be both beneficial and detrimental, depending on how, when, and to what degree it is imposed. The consequences depend on how the load is managed.

Planning psychological recovery

When psychological load is viewed as simply another training variable, lessons about its management can be gleaned from the ways in which training loads are organized. Coaches generally use some form of periodization to cycle the type, volume, and intensity of an athlete’s training load, and these same basic ideas may be applied psychologically. For example, many coaches focus early-season practices on learning new skills and strategies, then shift focus to refinement and performance as end-of-year competitions approach. This same strategy can be applied to psychological load by imposing a lot of perceptual-cognitive stress early in the season and tapering it off to account for the higher cognitive and emotional stresses during competition. Similar variations may be planned on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis (Table 1), and can be proactively managed using a variety of measurement tools. Formal measurements can range from questionnaires of emotional stress (e.g., Kellmann & Kallus’ RESTQ-Sport) to the emerging practice of quantifying the complexity of a drill (e.g., see Buszard and colleagues, 2017). Even the informal information garnered from daily conversations with athletes can be extremely useful when beginning to consider these factors.

Table 1: Managing psychological load

Time Period Example
Yearly cycle How does your athlete respond to exam time, or holidays with family? Understand the stress/relaxation from different seasonal schedule items and plan for them.
Monthly cycle How do you progress psychological load in your program? Just like you build volume or intensity over a month, try building the cognitive or emotional demands of a task over 2-3 weeks before having an easier “rest week”.
Weekly cycle How will the psychological load of yesterday affect today? Consider following up high psychological load practices with low load ones (e.g., games, well-practiced skills/strategies)
Daily cycle Is your athlete a morning or evening person? Plan your perceptual-cognitively demanding tasks (e.g. learning a new skill or strategy) for when they’re more alert.

The frequency with which training variables are cycled depends on the athlete’s ability to balance stress and recovery, a balance that can be aided through the targeted use of specific activities of recovery. For instance, it’s common to take 48 hours between strength-training sessions, but this can change depending on the individual athlete and the use of recovery modalities such as ice baths or individualized nutritional interventions. In contrast, psychological recovery is often viewed from a “hands-off” perspective with the assumption that the normal patterns of daily life provide the best recovery. While this is well intentioned, psychological recovery has the potential to benefit from a greater use of more deliberate approaches.

Introducing Deliberate Recovery

“Deliberate recovery” is the purposeful implementation of recovery activities to improve training adaptations and performance. While we are just beginning to formally explore this concept, longstanding stories exist of high-performers in various domains (e.g., artists, writers, scientists) organizing their work schedules in order to best benefit from strategic naps or rejuvenating walks at specific times (see Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness for a casual review). The use of deliberate recovery extends from an understanding of the loads of training; if you know the load imposed, you can tailor your recovery to suit it. Matching the type and timing of recovery activities with psychological loads allows the opportunity for a more effective restoration of performance capabilities. For instance, to restore full performance capability after an emotionally stressful game or a cognitively demanding practice, subsequent practice must be less psychologically demanding, whether that be through performing previously learned skills, the addition of fun games, or even having the practice off to rest.

Deliberate recovery may seem like a call to structure and schedule every waking second of an athlete’s life, shuttling them from cold tub to meditation studio. However, a deliberate approach to activities of recovery, specifically when considering psychological and emotional recovery, is not an attempt to robotize the athlete. The degree of organization that an athlete can tolerate will be determined by many factors such as an individual’s personal preference, age, personal life, skill level and sporting culture (some sports are more regimented than others), as well as their ability to regulate their own training and recovery. The toll of an overly structured or mismatched recovery approach is another aspect of psychological load to consider. Deliberate recovery is simply an acknowledgement of the importance of psychological load as a training variable, and of the holistic nature of stress and adaptation. These features must be treated purposefully and with respect if we hope to provide athletes with the optimal conditions for improvement.

Key Takeaways

It’s easy to view the loads placed on mind and body as separate, but in reality they are tightly interconnected, meaning that eliciting successful training adaptations depends just as much on managing psychological loads as physical ones. Everything from emotional stressors to the cognitive processing of a demanding training session can impose psychological load. Plan for periods of high psychological load and re-assess on a daily basis to match the demands of your practices to the current psychological state and capacity of your athletes.

About the Author(s)

Stuart Wilson (@SGWilson92) is a Ph.D. student in Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa. His research examines factors influencing the long-term development of expertise in athletes, including recovery, self-regulation, and skill acquisition. His work draws on both academic and professional experiences with various sport organizations, including Hockey Canada, Canoe Kayak Canada, and Canadian Sport Institute Ontario, to improve athlete development outcomes and experiences.

Joe Baker (@bakerjyorku) is professor of sport science at York University. He has been examining the factors affecting long-term development and performance of high performance athletes for over two decades. He currently works with several NSOs and PSOs in Canada (e.g., Wheelchair Basketball Canada, Golf Canada, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Canadian Sport Institute Ontario) to improve models of athlete development and the delivery of evidence-based approaches to skill acquisition.

Nick Wattie (@wattien) is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. His researchers various factors related to talent identification and development in sport, expertise development, skill acquisition, and positive youth development through sport. He has worked and consulted with a number of sport organizations, including Wheelchair Basketball Canada, the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Ontario Soccer.


Buszard T, Reid M, Krause L, Kovalchik S, Farrow D. (2017). Quantifying contextual interference and its effect on skill transfer in skilled youth tennis players. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(1931). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01931

Kellmann M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20(Suppl. 2): 95-102. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01192.x

Kiely J. (2018). Periodization theory: Confronting an inconvenient truth. Sports Medicine, 48(4): 753-764. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0823-y

Nash C, Sproule N. (2018). What do sport coaches know about recovery? In Kellmann M, Beckmann J, eds., Sport, Recovery, and Performance: Interdisciplinary Insights (p. 201-220). Abingdon: Routledge.

Smith MR, Marcora, SM, Coutts AJ. (2015). Mental fatigue impairs intermittent running performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 47(8): 1682-1690. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000592

Stulberg B, Magness S. (2017). Peak Performance. New York, NY: Rodale.

Thompson KR, Sanchez DJ, Wesley AH, Reber PJ. (2014). Ego depletion impairs implicit learning. PLOS ONE . doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109370

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.