John Underwood

Human performance consultant John Underwood is seen speaking to The Dalles High School senior Bre Birchfield after a talk he gave last Thursday at the high school.

It was the usual message—eat right, get enough sleep, don’t smoke or do drugs—but with a jaw-dropping twist: it had the sobering science to back it up.

In a rapid-fire presentation at The Dalles High School Thursday, John Underwood, trainer of Olympic champions and human performance consultant to professional athletes and Navy SEALs, covered the gamut of research on the ill effects of poor lifestyle choices.

Neurotransmitters, for example, are produced in the brain and are needed to initiate all movement. They also govern cognition and mood. They reload during sleep—which Americans don’t get enough of—and are depleted over the course of a day.

But a sugar-based diet depletes neurotransmitters at 350 times the normal rate. Caffeine drains it at 500 times normal. Nicotine depletes at 700 times normal. And methamphetamine had the highest uptake of neurotransmitters, gobbling them up at 1,000 times normal.

Alcohol depletes it at 225 times normal, and marijuana depletes it at 100 times normal. “Kids don’t sleep so they don’t reload neurotransmitters,” he said. “You can’t begin to imagine the impact sleep has on mental and physical performance.”

The average American teen gets six hours and 40 minutes of sleep a night. Elite athletes get about nine hours and 15 minutes a night.

Young people grow during sleep, training sinks in, and repair of the muscles, organ and brain occurs. Stanford did a sleep study of every sports team on campus and found athletes who had two weeks of up to 10 hours of sleep each night performed better by every metric in their sport than those who had four to six hours of sleep nightly for two weeks.

He showed slides depicting impaired blood flow in the brain of someone who pulled an all-nighter, compared to a rested person. An all-nighter reduces learning capacity 40 percent. “Pretty much you’re unteachable because you don’t have the capacity to learn.”

An internationally recognized human performance expert, Underwood founded a program called the “Life of an Athlete, Human Performance Project.”

The program is utilized in 39 states and numerous countries around the world. He said the program can turn a school and a community around, leading to games where the stands are so full people are turned away.

His free talk had a disappointing turnout of around 50 people, but he said he wanted to come back and have a “do-over.”

Underwood was an NCAA All-American runner at the University of Oregon who was coached by the legendary Bob Bowerman. He went to Europe to compete and participated in Finnish studies on human performance and became hooked on the field.

Success requires the necessary preparation to succeed, and then the belief that you will. The act of doubting oneself actually has physical effects on the heart, the respiratory system and muscles. The brain interprets doubt as a signal the body is not ready for a high-level physical performance, he said.

What is perceived as pressure is actually often fear, and the fear comes from lack of preparation, Underwood said.

He said alcohol “cannot be part of your life.” Research shows that every time you get drunk, it erases the effects of 14 days of working out.

As for marijuana, it is 300 times more potent than it was a generation ago. It stays in the system 10-14 days and lowers hormones, slows reaction times—which leads to more auto fatalities in states that legalize it—and decreases brain activity. It builds up in the brain, liver and bladder.

He also had a message about the current direction of school sports. He showed a slide that stated, “Team, teammates, self,” and said society today has gotten the order backwards.

He said schools need a culture that remains steady through both good sports seasons and bad. A culture sets a standard: “one total standard for the whole team.”

He talked about the damaging pressures and expectations on student athletes, and how the most common phrase students say is, “I suck.”

“They beat themselves up so badly, they talk themselves out of things,” he said.

And as for parents, some of them “are timing how many minutes kids are in a game. Are you kidding me? It’s out of hand,” he said.

“Why do you think people don’t want to officiate anymore?” he said.

There was a time when teachers and coaches stayed in one place for an entire career, because they were respected, he said. Not anymore.

He talked about how accepting we’ve become of the negative behavior of athletes.

Students also want success without doing the work it takes to make it possible. He said the big problems are letting yourself down and letting people let you down.

He said the number one challenge students cite is stress, and the ways students respond to stress can lead to negative coping mechanisms.

Students are failing because they’re underperforming, because they haven’t figured out how to cope with stress, he said.

Americans are highly competitive as a society, he said, second only to Japan among developed nations.

The pressure put on young athletes today is like a gauntlet.

He said, “Guys, it’s not that big a deal if you lose or fail. It’s back to the drawing board.”

He said parents can create a lot more stress than they need to. Even an encouraging-seeming “Come on, Billy, you’ve got this!” shouted from the stands can be a distraction when the athlete needs full mental focus, he said.

He showed a clip demonstrating how the brain lights up as seven million cells fire during physical activity. “It’s unbelievable the fission that goes on in the brain. The brain runs the body, no doubt about it.”

He said people take no consideration for the brain, which is the biggest factor in human performance.

For example, the brain’s peak performance is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. He’s asked that schools only schedule important classes during those hours. Between 2 and 4 p.m. is the brain’s “power outage,” when people feel slow, powerless, weak and tired. “Don’t think you’re getting older, you’re just experiencing a normal human function.”

The biggest period of brain development is between ages 12 and 21, and damage then is far greater than if the brain was fully developed, Underwood said.

That’s why concussions are taken so much more seriously now. And a second concussion layers on so much more damage that it isn’t an equation of “one concussion plus one concussion equals two. It’s more like one plus one equals 10.”

Social media and devices are also a threat to peak performance. “Technology exhausts the brain,” Underwood said. With neural fatigue, performance suffers and errors increase.

As for diet, Underwood said, “The American diet is the worst on the planet,” among developed nations. “Even if you try to watch the sugar content, you end up with more than anybody on the planet.”

He likened all the things a person can do wrong in terms of taking care of themselves to sensors lighting up in a car. “If every sensor went on, would you drive” a car?

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