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How mental fatigue can affect your squash performance - by Gary Nisbet

Squash is a tough enough sport as it is, never mind when your evening game/training session has been preceded by a long day at the office.

Just about every player at every level will have at one time or another blamed a loss on work/social/family stresses while lamenting their poor performance, but is there any actual real evidence to support the validity of this oft-used ‘excuse’?

‘Mental fatigue’ is quite a loosely defined term but can be best characterised as a subjective feeling of tiredness or general lack of energy, without necessarily any physical cause underpinning it. A hard day at work, social stresses, or any other prolonged period of demanding cognitive activity without adequate rest and relaxation, can result in this type of weariness.

There are lots of studies that have looked at the damaging effects of mental fatigue on the performance of commercial vehicle drivers and airline pilots, and these have shaped much of the current policy in these fields in terms of working hours and support from colleagues.

Far less attention has been paid to the effects of mental fatigue on actual physical performance however. One study that did directly address this topic, was Marcora, Staiano, and Manning’s paper Mental Fatigue Impairs Physical Performance in Humans’, that was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Subjects in the research study were tasked to one of two groups – either spending 90mins completing a mentally demanding memory/attention test, or 90mins relaxing and watching some light documentaries on topics such as cars and trains.

The hypotheses that those subjects who undertook the mentally challenging tasks instead of relaxing and distracting their minds with the documentaries would perform less well on a subsequent physical performance assessment, proved to be correct – the participants who had worked on the mentally fatiguing test reached exhaustion significantly faster on a high-intensity cycling test undertaken immediately afterwards, than those who had relaxed watching the cognitively undemanding documentaries beforehand.

The researchers concluded that the difference in the performance in the two trials, was due to a higher perception of the effort the mentally fatigued subjects were expending, as opposed to any actual physiological effect – the participants who had completed the mental concentration task simply felt like they were working much harder on the bike, and thus achieved significantly lower results when tested.

This study once again displays the power of the mind over the physical body, and how psychological state can really affect performance.

Whilst it’s often very difficult to mediate the effects of everyday mental stresses and strains on your state of mind, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself if your squash performance is sluggish or lethargic after a tough day – it’s not just an ‘excuse’ to put poor physical performance down to mental fatigue, it’s science!

Gary Nisbet

B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director

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