Sport Psychologist Kirsten Peterson on the important relationship between the brain and body

February 28, 2023

During her time as a pitcher on her university softball team at Union College in New York, Sport Psychologist Kirsten Peterson faced a daunting challenge when she lost her ability to throw strikes. While she found some sense of purpose playing other positions, Kirsten never did get the help she needed with her pitching from coaches, whose sole advice had been to “relax!”.

Motivated by her experience, Kirsten made a commitment to enhance the mental and emotional athletic experience for other athletes. Upon learning about the field of Sport Psychology, she realised it was the path she needed to pursue.

Throughout her career, Kirsten has dedicated herself to supporting and guiding athletes through the challenging mental obstacles that come with high-performance sport. She began as a Sport Psychologist at the US Olympic Committee, then moved on to become the Head of Performance Psychology at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), and now operates as an independent Sport and Performance Psychologist, providing her expertise to professionals across a range of sports and other high performance domains.

Kirsten’s business motto is “high performance that doesn’t hurt people”, and she is resolute in her mission to eliminate the historical all-or-nothing and scorched-earth approach that has been traditional in professional sport.

The link between mental and physical is stronger than you may think

The human brain is responsible for everything that happens in our body. When an individual experiences anxiety and psychological stress within a high-pressure environment like sport, it can hinder the physical response needed to successfully perform, says Kirsten. The same applies to other stressful situations.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems make up the human structure that controls the body’s unconscious functions such as breathing and heart rate.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for preparing the body to act in ‘fight or flight’ during times of danger or stress. It increases heart rate, dilates the pupils, and constricts blood vessels to direct blood to the muscles.

“Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in when we feel a threat in the environment, and we either fight, flight, or freeze,” says Kirsten.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ response, which promotes relaxation and digestion while slowing down the heart rate.

Both systems operate in opposition to each other to preserve the body’s internal equilibrium. However, when athletes encounter high-stress situations, the sympathetic nervous system’s responses can be intensified.  And while this ‘fight or flight’ system is important when we are under actual threat, it can get in the way when we need to be calm, relaxed, and able to make quick and effective decisions.

Kirsten teaches performers about these systems, as well as ways to shift from the more highly charged sympathetic nervous system to the calmer and more relaxed parasympathetic way of functioning when conditions demand.

When times change, you must change too

Throughout Kirsten’s career, she has encountered numerous coaches who have pushed athletes to their absolute limits and beyond, only to turn to her and say, “I break them, you fix them.” While this approach may progress athletes physically in the near term, it can cause immense mental strain and decreased performance in the longer term.

The word ‘grit’, made famous by ‘Grit’ author Angela Duckworth, refers to the intense passion and perseverance some people bring to their long-term goals. After observing the challenges that athletes faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirsten came to the realisation that when uncertainty dominates, grit alone may not be enough to stay afloat. Rather, it is important to give equal emphasis and priority to both mental and physical health. Kirsten’s recognition of the equal importance of mental and physical health, coupled with her firsthand observation of the pandemic’s profound impact on sporting professionals, compelled her to write her latest book, “When GRIT is Not Enough: Reworking Mindset and Purpose for Easier Effort in Hard Times.” In the book, Kirsten explains why those who pride themselves on being ‘gritty’ may find their approach counterproductive during times of extreme change and uncertainty. Instead, she suggests that the key to effective performance may instead lie in being able to adapt and “ride the waves of change”.

Looking at the whole person, not just the body

Kirsten acknowledges that in allied health services such as physiotherapy, the emphasis can be primarily on the functional and physical aspects of the body, movement, and exercise, making it challenging to remain attuned to mental health.

When attempting to navigate the delicate balance between mental and physical health, Kirsten offers the following advice for coaches and allied health professionals, “appreciate that while you may not be a counsellor or therapist, you can still do things to help set your clients at ease and support them if they are distressed”. Although it’s crucial to consider a client’s mental health, it’s recognised that broaching the topic of someone else’s emotional distress can be challenging and uncomfortable. As part of her services, Kirsten works with allied health professionals to help them become more empathetic and provides guidance on the kinds of questions to ask to determine if clients require additional support.

To find out more about the importance of unpacking ‘grit’ and the important balance of the brain and body, visit Kirsten Peterson’s website and order “When GRIT is Not Enough: Reworking Mindset and Purpose for Easier Effort in Hard Times.”  here.

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