There’s so much that goes into an athlete’s preparation before they compete — fueling their bodies, focusing their minds and even connecting with themselves spiritually. Athletes have a specific, personalized rituals and routines they rely on to perform at their highest potential.
“Eat, pray, jam” explores how different members of the MVHS athletic community mentally, physically and emotionally prepare themselves to achieve athletic excellence. Scroll to view the package.
Cover photo by Justine Ha
Going vegan for a week didn’t seem too difficult. But going vegan for a week while running several miles per day was a learning curve for junior and cross country runner Sylvana Northrup. As a nutrition enthusiast, she convinced some of her team members to try a vegan diet for a week. However, having never gone vegan in the past, Northrup struggled with getting enough energy from vegan foods.
“It’s important that when you’re doing that [vegan week] you’re not eating any less food, or eating any less calories, because we need the calories to run,” Northrup said. “I know during those weeks, I was a little bit more hungry on my runs than my other ones. I had to learn to adjust.”
When Northrup tried going vegan for the second time, she tailored her diet to include the nutrients and amount of carbs she needed as a long-distance runner. Through the process, she learned a lot about her body and diet control.
“The most important thing for watching your food, when you’re an athlete, is just finding out what works for you and sticking to it,” Northrup said. “[It’s about] adjusting and being conscious of what you’re doing, rather than letting [diet] be a passive thing.”
PE teacher and dance coach Dasha Plaza agrees that conscious eating is integral as an athlete. During pregame dinners with her dance team, Plaza has noticed many of the girls eating unconsciously. To improve their eating habits, she often talks to the team as a whole about diet in dance.
“I have noticed [at team dinners] in the past some of my dancers have portion control issues,” Plaza said. “After I noticed that, I encouraged them to make sure that they [are] giv[ing] their brains the time to process the information that they ate and then don’t go for seconds right away.”
Plaza understands that body image is a delicate subject for dancers, which is why she talks to her dancers one-on-one when it comes to discussing individual eating habits.
“We have really form-fitted costumes and outfits, and I want to make sure that everyone feels confident,” Plaza said. “I know that [body image] will come up soon because dance has this certain expectation of how we aesthetically look. If you have an excessive, extra weight on your body, it’s harder obviously to dance and move, so I just go more personally, on-on-one [with students], bringing that balance.”
Plaza likes to individually check in with her dancers because she knows that eating disorders are common in dance. While she hasn’t encountered any students with an eating disorder at MVHS, she wants to ensure that her students have psychological support in terms of body image.
“Things such as bulimia and anorexia [do] come up a lot in the dance world in general,” Plaza said. “I had a friend who struggled with that in the past so first you have to have this honest conversation about how much harm [an eating disorder] causes on the body and that their performance will go downhill.”
According to Plaza, a dancer’s goal is to look more “lean and long,” not to bulk up or create excessive muscle mass. On the other hand, senior and football player Tarun Sarang explains that he has to consume much larger amounts of protein in order to compensate for the break down of muscle in a contact sport like football. He adds that it’s important to eat clean, as diet is a large factor in performance on the field.
“If you’re going to eat bad before practice or a game, then you’re probably going to play badly just based the stuff that you’re putting in your body,” Sarang said. “Generally, if you eat Popeyes, for instance, before practice, you’re probably going to throw up during conditioning just because that stuff doesn’t sit well in your stomach.”
Northrup agrees that eating clean, especially before a tournament, is essential. In order to fully control what she’s putting in her body, she makes her own meals, including homemade muffins packed with nutritious grains.
“I’m able to control what I put in [the food I make],” Northrup said. “I can experiment with new things, I can add in extra ingredients that I’ve read are good for boosting performance or take out some ingredients that I’ve heard are bad. It definitely gives me more control [when] making my own food rather than buying prepared foods.”
In addition to eating clean, like Northrup, Sarang adds that he drinks a lot of water and other fluids in the week leading up to a game to prevent cramping, which is something he struggles with.
“I don’t know why I get it, but I cramp up a lot,” Sarang said. “I found that if you eat more throughout the day before you go to workout, you avoid cramps because I think your body just has more energy. Drinking a lot of fluids like Pedialyte and coconut water, that’s really important.”
When it comes to dieting in sports, Plaza emphasizes that it’s never a “one size fits all” type of situation. She believes the most important thing is to stay in tune with your body.
“Everyone’s body is different,” Plaza said. “Everyone’s metabolism is different. I would say there’s no one formula that’s going to be perfect for everyone. You have to listen to you body, that’s the number one thing.”
Playing the mental game
Exploring how student athletes at MVHS alleviate the mental stress that comes with playing sports
God our Father, help us to put forth our best effort, to represent our school with class, to respect our opponents, and to grow as disciples of your Son, Jesus. Keep us safe from injury and harm through the intercession of Our Lady, the mother of your Son and our mother, too. We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
For junior and MVHS varsity quarterback Simon Loeffler, this prayer comes before every game he plays.
“Football is a very aggressive and dangerous game,” Loeffler said. “I read the prayer because it gives me that sense of comfort that I’ll be protected out there with my teammates.”
For Loeffler, prayer is just one of the ways he mentally prepares himself before games. As soon as he finishes his lunch on game days, he heads to the locker room during his free sixth and seventh period. During this time, the locker room is typically empty, so Loeffler turns off all the lights and listens to his own music — he spends that time focusing on his own goals and assignments for the game.
Although senior Emily Tang’s process for mentally preparing herself is vastly different, she too prioritizes mental preparation. On game days, she is constantly thinking about the game and motivating herself. Right before the game, the team collectively helps mentally prepare each other by having fun and getting the energy level up.
“I give myself a pep talk,” Tang said. “I feel like outcomes don’t really matter … because I think sports in general are just really a mental game. So I kind of have to tell myself that I have to give it my all and work hard. I’m trying to keep telling myself don’t give up no matter the outcome.”
Although Tang has been playing high school water polo for all four years, this is the first year she began really prioritizing her mental health. As the varsity captain, she knows that she needs to perform skillfully every game and mentally preparation translates into better games.
“Of course [sports are] physically difficult and they’re draining physically, but anything mental can affect it,” Tang said. “I feel like once something happens and once your mental state is out of it, you kind of look down on yourself and you feel like you’re giving up — that when you know the game’s over.”
Psychologist Danielle Kamis explains that athletes who are not mentally prepared end up losing control of their emotions and having a hard time concentrating when playing. She explains that because of the high pressure on athletes, mental stability is incredibly important — students without adequate mental preparation can’t carry out their game plans.
“If we’re so stressed all the time, then we’re not going to have as good of a performance [on the field],” Kamis said. “Having some time to do what we just like to do can actually can be more productive because sometimes if we’re pushing [yourself] so much, we actually can become so [stressed] — we become less productive [and] the stress is going to take over.”
Sophomore Rhea Rai agrees with Kamis on the idea of sports coming with stress — stress can be mitigated with adequate mental preparation.
With homework piling up for Rai by the time she comes back from tennis matches, she has learned many ways to mentally manage the amount of work she has. With a culmination of listening to music and meditation to alleviate stress, Rai has learned to channel the stress, although she says it’s still challenging.
“I’ve been playing tennis since I was five,” Rai said. “[My parents] barely [put] any academic pressure [on me], but the pressure they put [for tennis is] a lot — [It’s] stressful because I have to manage school with tennis all the time.”
With the support of the high school varsity tennis team, Rai leans on her teammates to help to take the edge off of the competitive environment she feels when she’s playing club tennis tournaments on her own outside of school.
“When [playing] in [tennis] tournament’s [outside of school], [I see] tennis [as] a solo sport,” Rai said. “You don’t really have the support of people around you except for your family but that can be stressful. But, in a high school team, everyone is so supportive and caring. They don’t put pressure on you if you lose, and it’s a really carefree environment.”
In regards to team sports, Loeffler explains that mental preparation is even more important because you need to perform for your team. He explains that if each person does not understand the strategies and goals, then the team won’t be on the same page and won’t perform well overall. Because of this, according to Loeffler, the football team as a whole always stresses the importance of letting go of distractions before the game.
“Football is a game where there’s 11 players for each team and all 11 guys have to know what they’re doing and have to do their job,” Loeffler said. “I feel that I go into the game, knowing what I need to do and what’s my job, then I’ll perform better.”
No matter what the benefits may be, all three athletes agree that preparation is important. Especially as athletes grow older, sports are more competitive and college prospects become more prevalent, athletes should learn how to mentally prepare themselves.
Kamis says the first step is to take the time to analyze your performance and decide how much you are willing to put in to the mental preparation process. She notes that while athletes might have the best coaches and facilities to practice their sport, when it comes to mental readiness, it can make or break their performance.
“I think a lot of athletes don’t really feel like it’s worth the time to mentally prepare,” Kamis said. “So I think the first part saying ‘How good do you want to be in being an outstanding athlete?’ If yes, then what are [athletes] willing to do [to reach this goal of improvement]?”
Loeffler stresses that because there are so many different types of ways to mentally prepare, each athlete should focus on discovering what works with them and then stick to that routine.
Kamis agrees, and explains that once you find a mental routine that works for you, it can be a major sense of comfort.
“If you’ve never done deep breathing [to help mentally prepare] before you go out [and play], it’s going to be something foreign and you’re going to be in the learning stages,” Kamis said. “Even though you have a lot of pressure [from] the coaches and audience in the new place where you’re competing, [being mentally prepared] is something that you can prove within yourself, no matter where you go, and [it’s] something that you have control over, despite all the things that you don’t have control over.”
With 10 seconds left on the clock and her team one point down against Fremont HS in 2017, senior varsity basketball player Kayleigh Hau was a sophomore tensely waiting for her teammates to inbound the ball. As she went after the pass, a player from Fremont yanked her arm and made Hau lose control. Angry, Hau yelled at the referee for missing an important call, causing her to lose possession of the ball due to a technical foul. After that incident, Hau’s coach, Herman Young, recommended she listen to meditation and pre-game music to calm her nerves.
“[Music and meditation] definitely helped me to be more level-headed before and after the games,” Hau said. “I feel like keeping an open mind and being more calm before the game helps better prepare you for when you’re actually playing.”
Another MVHS athlete who benefits from pregame playlists and listening to music is junior Tanmay Sharma; going straight from a math class to an important soccer match, he uses music to shift his mood between the two distinct environments. He found that instead of using music to calm himself, he used it to get excited for his upcoming soccer games and practices. He created his pregame playlist when he started playing soccer competitively and explains that listening to rap music is a major way he gets ready for games.
“It’s a superstition for me— I always have to listen to music before I play my games or go to practice,” Tanmay said. “I feel like it just hypes me out.”
Tanmay has also noticed that listening to his pregame playlist has positively impacted his performance on the field, which he attributes to rap music specifically.
“It would be different if I listened to different genres of music,” Tanmay said. “[Rap] music gives some type of adrenaline rush before practice or the game, so I just feel like it helps me during the games.”
Senior and varsity field hockey player Anika Sharma uses pre-game playlists to clear her mind when she is driving with her teammates to their games. She says listening to music puts her in a focused mindset, rather than focusing on what she or her teammates have going on outside of the game.
“I think [music] lets us forget about all the stress we have at school,” Anika said. “It lets us clear our minds and sing along to the music or dance along to the music.”
Junior and varsity cross country runner Rohun Agrawal and his team have recently taken up a new pre-game ritual—Bhangra, an energetic and traditional Indian dance originating from Punjab. Despite cross country primarily being an individual sport, Agrawal notes that the team often feels the same emotions before a race and pre-game dancing helps them bond and have a positive mindset.
“[Bhangra] helps relieve stress. [Our team gets] really nervous before races [but] someone always plays some random music, then we start doing Bhangra on the field and all the other 50 teams would be staring at us,” Agrawal said. “It [would] be really, really funny but it really lightens the mood for us [and] it’s just a great way to get excited. We’re all kind of bad at it except for one guy, Sahil, who’s the captain of the [Bhangra] team.”
As Hau begins her final year of high school, she notes that other teams should utilize pre-game music in order to connect teammates and motivate players individually.
“Having pre game music rituals helps bring the team together,” Hau said. “It helps [to life] up everyone’s mood and [helps] them have a level head before the game. It boosts team morale.”