How the Nervous System Impacts Performance

How the Nervous System Impacts Performance

If you’ve followed this blog for a length of time, I speak a lot about strength training and the muscular system. One component I’ve been missing, however, is the nervous system component of high performance. Before I docked this guest article from Zach Michael, I was yelling on the phone to a colleague (not maliciously), but with zest and fervor, all due to my nervous system being jacked up on coffee. 

It’s critical to pay attention to what your nervous system is doing, no doubt. Especially when it comes to athletics and even every day living, we must keep it in check to benefit our health and performance. Enjoy:


How the Nervous System Impacts Performance

The brain is basically your overprotective mom in high school (no that’s not the beginning of a yo momma joke – Erica made me promise I wouldn’t tell any of those in this article).

It is going to do whatever it can to protect you.

Maybe some of you had a mom that was both protective AND very well connected in the community.  It seemed like no matter how sneaky you tried to be, she always found out what you were really up to.  Somehow, she was able to use her network of spies to make sure you stayed out of trouble and grew up into the great young guy or girl you are today.

If you challenged what your mom thought was safe too much or too often, it’s likely she brought about forms of punishment.  Things like no more cell phone, no car keys for 2 weeks, or no video games for a month.

It didn’t matter to your mom that “no cell phone” meant you weren’t able to coordinate your weekly study group.  Or that “no car keys” meant you wouldn’t be able to get to offseason workouts.  And it didn’t matter that “no video games for a month” meant you weren’t going to be able to develop your Call of Duty (or nowadays Fortnite?) skills.

In other words, Mom didn’t care very much about your performance.  What mattered to mom was that you were safe.

Now, Erica asked me to write an article on how the nervous system might affect your clients’ ability to run a 20 yard shuttle faster from one day to the next, and so far, all I’ve done is written 274 words about my mom (love you, Ma!).

But the same thing that matters most to your clients’ Mom (their safety) is what matters most to your clients’ brain.  The brain uses its network of spies (the sensory nerves) to sense threats and respond to keep your clients safe from them.

For the brain, a threat is anything that it doesn’t consider “normal”.  Basically, it is constantly receiving input from the sensory nerves and asking “is this normal?” If the answer is no, it starts going into ‘overprotective mom’ state.

And just like Mom, it doesn’t care nearly as much about your clients’ performance as it does their safety.  So if the brain is overwhelmed by many different threats at once, it will direct energy and resources to taking care of the threat, potentially affecting your clients’ performance.

There are a number of “threats” that can cause nervous system function to change from one day to the next.

For example,  as I’m writing this article, it’s 1:00 PM.  I’ve consumed nothing today but 3 cups of coffee, a piece of bread w/ peanut butter, a protein shake, and a few glasses of water.  Last night, I slept about 8 hours after drinking 3-4 alcoholic beverages.  This morning, I got a quick, intense workout in.

My stomach is starting to rumble a little bit, I’ve got a dull headache from the 3-4 alcoholic beverages (welcome to the ripe old age of 28), and I’m feeling a bit thirsty.

In other words, the brain is sensing a few threats.  It isn’t happy about my nutrition, consumption of alcohol, and lack of water.  It’s re-directing resources, trying to get me to take action (grab something to eat, dummy).

Instead, I’m on a mission to finish this article, but let’s be honest, my writing performance is suffering (what am I even saying right now??)

Similarly, if I were getting ready to run a 20 yard shuttle, it’s likely my athletic performance wouldn’t be ideal.  My brain is using precious bandwidth to think about when it’s next meal will be and wonder why the heck I choose to poison it every now and then with alcohol.

Therefore, it’s much harder for it to dedicate energy to the task at hand, and a number of performance factors suffer, including:

  • Force output from muscles
  • Coordination
  • Body awareness in space
  • Range of motion
  • Cardiovascular performance

If any or all of these are being impacted by the nervous system, it’s expected that a decreased level of performance would follow.

In order to fully optimize nervous system performance, all factors must be considered, including:

  • Nutrition
  • Hydration
  • Sleep
  • Recovery
  • Physical stressors
  • Psychological stressors
  • Social stressors
  • Spirituality


A simple strategy can be employed, considering all of the factors:

  • Predict what demands (threats) will be placed on the client during performance.
  • Prepare and train the client to meet and exceed those demands.

For trainers, this is a no brainer when it comes to the physical stressors.  It’s what you do.  You know a midfielder will be required to run 5-7 miles during a game.  At times they’ll need to sprint, shuffle, and cut with power, speed, and quickness.  So you design a training program that will allow their body to meet and exceed those demands (I know I’m oversimplifying here).

By doing so, you are both forcing the body to physiologically adapt (add more muscle) and de-sensitizing the nervous system to the idea that such rigorous physical demands could be considered a threat.

Basically, it’s like bringing your mom along slowly to an idea that she considered threatening to your safety in the past (I don’t know, sending you off to an out-of-state college?).

The challenge for many trainers is going beyond the physical.  I challenge you to not only strive to optimize your clients’ performance physically, but neurologically.  In order to do so, all of the above factors must be considered, and we’ll need to ask ourselves questions like:

  • What psychological and social stressors will your client face during a game?
  • What tools can we provide to them to help manage these stressors?
  • How can we supplement our physical training programs with activities that will de-sensitize the nervous system to the psychological and social stressors associated with sports?
  • How can we identify and educate our clients on their nutritional, hydration, and sleep needs to make sure we minimize unnecessary threats during performance?
  • How can we create systems of accountability to make sure our clients are following recommended guidelines outside of training sessions?

Asking questions like these will help you take a more well-rounded approach to nervous system optimization and give your clients an added edge when it’s time to perform.

If you’re already asking and answering these questions in your own training philosophy (or even have a few ideas), I’d love to hear about them.  Comment on the blog or shoot me an email at zach@premierneurotherapy.com.


Zach Michael is co-owner of Premier Neuro Therapy.  Over the last 3 years, he and other therapists at Premier have traveled around the United States to help MLB, NFL, and MLL athletes recover faster from injuries and prevent future injuries.  In October of 2017, they opened a clinic outside of Baltimore, MD to serve the area’s best athletes.



  • Shane MCLEAN
    Posted at 20:22h, 06 May Reply

    Great analogy Zach on explaining a complex topic. Maybe you could do a follow up article giving some real world examples and how to tell whether your client is ready to crush their workout or it’s time to back off.?

    • erica
      Posted at 22:17h, 06 May Reply

      Thank you, Shane! I will relay the message to Zach. I’m going to have him write more often for me, since he is the nervous system specialist. Stay tuned.

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