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10 Low Hanging Fruits to Grab for Optimal Performance

By Rob Assise, Homewood-Flossmoor High School

One of the reasons why late summer and early fall is my favorite time of year is apples are ready to be harvested. Each year, my family heads to the orchard the first weekend honeycrisps are ready. While we are picking, I often find myself doing dangerous (my wife says stupid) and time consuming things in an attempt to get the perfect apple. I have stood on ladders, stools, wagons, cars, people, and unstable branches to get apples no one else could reach. Part of the reason is I want to be unique, but each year I find my efforts are not worth it because there are thousands of delicious apples within my unassisted reach.

I think coaches and athletes who are committed to their craft often mirror this scenario. We look for the next best exercise or method that will give us an edge over our competition. This search can be time consuming, and the exercises can be dangerous (my wife’s assessment of stupid often applies). While I think it is necessary to consistently add items for possible implementation, I do feel it should not be at the expense of ignoring the easily accessible “low hanging fruit.”

The intent of this article is to provide suggestions for the student-athlete to implement, but almost all people can find value.  Within the content are numerous links for further investigation.  I encourage all readers to not take what is stated in this article at face value.  Whether you agree or disagree with the content, continue researching on your own!

It is essential for athletes to believe in their training, train smart and hard, and also do what is necessary away from the training environment to maximize what they have been given athletically.  In my experience, it is often what is done away from practice and competition that is the limiting factor in an athlete reaching his or her potential.

The “low hanging fruit” that can impact the performance of any athlete are as follows:

  • Getting off the grid
  • Nu­­­trition
  • Breathe
  • Sleep
  • Hygiene
  • Athletic Homework
  • Reflection
  • Visualization
  • Time Management
  • Respect

1. Getting Off the Grid

Smartphones are incredible….and incredibly awful.  They make communication and accessing information easier than ever, but the constant accessibility which goes along with them is unhealthy.  How many times have you been getting ready to turn in for the night and you read a text or saw something on social media that ticked you off and your sleep suffered?

Smartphones reduce one’s ability to focus

Smartphones reduce one’s ability to focus

Smartphones have addictive qualities and reduce attention spans.  How many times do you check your phone per hour?  If you can’t be around your phone without checking it regularly, get away from it (and other modes of technology).  Most importantly, by dealing with what is going on in the outside world, we can be more aware of what is going on in our own environment.  There is a difference between being present and being in the moment.  People who are only present can go through the motions, people who are in the moment are fully engaged in the task at hand.  Getting off the grid can assist with being in the moment.

2. Nutrition

This article gives excellent guidelines on what an athlete’s plate should look like based on the day’s training intensity.  If you have access to a dietitian who can tell you exactly what your body needs, take advantage of it.  If you do not, focus on being balanced.  Here are some additional suggestions:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.  A common check is to make sure your plate is colorful.
  • An easy way to add a serving or two of vegetables at the start of the day is to drink a smoothie with kale and/or spinach.
  • Protein is essential for any athlete.  A phenomenal source that is overlooked is fish. Aim for twice a week.  Salmon, mackerel, cod, and trout are some solid options. Another perk is getting the health benefits of Omega 3’s (such as improved recovery and reaction time).
  • Speaking of Omega 3’s, an easy way to add more to your diet is to consider including chia seeds or flaxseed with your bowl of healthy cereal in the morning.  While you are at it, consider adding some almonds and blueberries.
  • Consider making avocado common in your diet.
  • Consider using olive oil and coconut oil in cooking instead of butter.
  • Hydration is also a huge component proper nutrition. Many sources say that a dehydrated muscle is more likely to be pulled (or will be pulled more severely when stressed). Carry around a water bottle all day and sip from it. Avoid carbonated beverages. Do not overindulge in caffeinated beverages (especially in the evening, it can impact your ability to fall asleep). Limit intake of drinks with high sugar content.

3. Breathe

If you are reading this, you are breathing, so what is the big deal?  We need to breathe to survive, but how we breathe is also connected to our emotional state.  In a previous article, I outlined how many people need to spend more time using diaphragmatic breathing because it activates the parasympathetic portion of the nervous system (rest and digest).  A simple mantra we use in our program comes from Douglas Heel’s Be Activated system, “In through your nose, out through your mouth, all in the belly, nothing in the chest.” Try to spend at least 20 minutes per day focused on diaphragmatic breathing. Ideal times are on your way to school, during a bowel movement, before/after practice, while trying to fall asleep, or any other time you are feeling stressed!

For those interested in the sport-specific version of Heel’s system, I would encourage attending a Reflexive Performance Reset (RPR) training.  Athletes who are familiar with the system can self-reset at any time, which is what makes RPR unique.

4. Sleep

Sleep is the ultimate form of recovery and our society looks at it as an expendable commodity. Not enough time in the day to finish everything?  Cut into time spent sleeping.  Athletes are asked to push their bodies to the limit on a regular basis. Optimal recovery is essential to being able to train or compete at a high level in the days following a challenging session. Here are some suggestions on how to optimize sleep:

  • Wake up at the same time every day (yes, even on weekends). Our bodies have an internal clock (circadian rhythm) that runs through a daily cycle. A consistent wake time is imperative to keep this rhythm flowing.
  • Upon waking, get into daylight (ideally natural, artificial if necessary) as soon as possible. Daylight causes the body to produce serotonin, which boosts mood and improves focus.  One item to consider is using a light up alarm instead of a standard sound alarm.
  • Develop a pre-sleep routine an hour before you intend to go to bed. During this time, limit the amount of blue light you are exposed to by dimming the lights, turning off the television, and ditching the electronic devices. Less light exposure will cause your body to produce melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. If it is difficult for you to avoid light during this time, buy a pair of blue-blocking glasses.  I’ve used a pair for over a year and have found them helpful.  A consistent pre-sleep routine will make it more likely for you to fall asleep soon after entering bed.
    • In the Strength Power Speed Performance Concepts Chat Episode #10, performance coach Pat Davidson stated light is the signal for the functioning of mitochondrial DNA and if a person is not exposed to the proper light environment throughout a 24 hour period, electrons can destroy the person from the inside out.[1]  In short, an abundance of natural daylight during the day is ideal for your circadian rhythm, while artificial light prior to bedtime should be avoided.
  • Try to have a consistent bedtime (adolescents – ideally nine hours from your wake time). This can be difficult because of the inconsistent nature of required tasks. If you are certain you will have to be up past your bedtime, still wake up at your set wake time, but try to work in a 20 or 90 minute nap. Here is why these lengths are prescribed.  Arranging a nap in a typical student-athletes weekday schedule is unlikely, which is why optimizing the time spent awake is necessary.  This article provides extensive information about naps.
  • Take the television and video game system out of your bedroom and do not bring in your smartphone (buy an alarm clock if you use your phone as one). These items have addictive qualities and can create stress, which can cause your body to release substances which make it more difficult to sleep. Your bedroom is meant for recovery, not for maintaining access to the outside world.
  • Sleep in a cool and dark (pitch black) environment.
  • Sleep on your non-dominant side. It is less sensitive, so you will be less likely to feel the need to wake up and reposition while sleeping. Plus, your dominant arm will be free to protect your vital organs and defend yourself. This may sound silly, but in order to get optimal sleep your brain needs to feel secure. Your non-dominant side is the least vulnerable position you can sleep.[2]
  • Make diaphragmatic breathing a part of your pre-sleep routine.  If you wake up with a dry mouth, it probably means you are a mouth-breather.  Breathe-Right nasal strips have solved this issue for me.

Proper sleep also increases the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a person’s system

Proper sleep also increases the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a person’s system.  Davidson feels a high level of dopamine is essential for athletes.  Other ways to enhance dopamine production are exercise and increasing Vitamin D intake.  The best way to obtain Vitamin D is to be in daylight.

5. Hygiene

You should strive to decrease the likelihood of getting sick. If you are sick, you cannot train at a high level (or at all).  Do not share beverages or utensils. Stay away from people who are sick. Do not be afraid of asking your teacher to relocate away from the student who is constantly sneezing, coughing, and blowing his nose. Wash your hands often (especially after leaving a workout facility!).

While the practice of showering immediately after P.E. class or practice is dying, you should make it a priority to do so upon getting home.  Be sure to use soap!  Infections such as MRSA are nasty and taking steps to avoid them should be a priority.  It is also worth thinking about the contents of what you put on your skin.  Many feel skin and hair products (soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, make-up, deodorant, sunscreen) contain chemicals which disrupt the endocrine system.  I am still processing my way through this rabbit hole (it is quite deep) but it I think it is one worth considering.  If an athlete is putting a substance on his or her skin each day and it reduces testosterone production, the athlete should consider an alternative.

6. Athletic Homework

A prevalent belief amongst many in regards to training is more is better.  On the surface, it makes sense, but my experience has shown otherwise.  I have seen numerous athletes ruin their season because they did more than was asked.  Going to see personal trainers after practice.  Working out with parents after practice. Doing more running and lifting after running and lifting at practice.  Many people fail to understand two items when it comes to extra training:

  1. Everything has a cost.  The additional time spent training cuts into recovery time. This means the athlete will not be as good as they could be during the next training session.
  2. The workout done after a practice often contradicts what was done in practice.  For example, say a sprinter does a maximum intensity workout (like 5 x 30 meters with 5 minute rest between reps).  He or she walks away from practice feeling great, but thinks more can be done because the workout did not pose an aerobic challenge.  So, the athlete goes home and runs four miles at a moderate pace.  The problem is the athlete is sending mixed messages to his or her body.  Instead of being able to focus on recovering from the maximum intensity workout, the body is now faced with recovering from a maximum and a sub-maximum workout.  Instead of being able to do a great job recovering from one, the body will do an average job recovering from both.
    • The above situation deals with a very common misconception in training. Feeling “tired” at the end of a workout IS NOT a requirement of a quality training session.  The 5 x 30 meter workout at maximum effort is a significant challenge to the nervous system.  That is the system the coach is having the athlete train.  Working the aerobic system afterwards confuses the body and destroys the benefits that could be obtained from the first workout.

It may sound like I do not believe in outworking the opponent, but nothing could be further from the truth.  While training, be in the moment and give the best possible effort you can in everything that is asked of you.  If you feel the need to do extra outside of practice, first focus on taking extra time to address the content in this article.  If that is not enough, talk to your coach about exercises/drills you can do at home that mesh with what was done during training.

7. Reflection

Reflection is a powerful tool that can increase the chance of achieving optimal progress.  Keep a training log.  Write down not only what you did, but what went well and what you can improve upon.  Then dig deeper and ask why a session went well or did not.  Ask yourself if you are taking care of the items discussed in this article. Looking backwards helps us move forward on the correct path.  Legendary coach Vern Gambetta feels that reflecting over a day’s workout is worth another workout.[3]  So for those who are obsessed with doing more work, reflection is a healthy option.

For those who are obsessed with doing more work, reflection is a healthy option.

For those who are obsessed with doing more work, reflection is a healthy option

8. Visualization

Like reflection, visualization is another option for low-impact “athletic homework.”  Projecting a mental vision is difficult for many people, but like anything else, if concentrated effort is put forth, substantial gains can be made.

In the GAINcast Episode 47, renowned track and field coach Harry Marra told a story about decathlete Brian Brophy.  Six weeks out from the World Championship qualifying meet in 1995, Brophy set a personal best in the high jump by jumping 6-10 ¾.  However, during the jump he sprained a ligament in his foot.  Over the next six weeks, Brophy was not allowed to high jump.  At the national qualifying meet, Brophy high jumped 6-10 ¼, just shy of his personal record!   When Marra asked him how he was able to do this without having practiced over the last six weeks, Brophy said that every night before he went to bed, he visualized a great high jump.1  This seems like a pretty safe way to achieve high performance!  Here are some visualization tips:

  1. Make it a part of your daily routine. The morning is a great time to do it because your mind is clear, making it easier to project an image.
  2. Visualize having success! If negative thoughts creep in, find a way to turn them into a positive or start over from the top.
  3. A little every day is better than one long session per week. You can combine diaphragmatic breathing sessions with visualizing.
  4. Try to get all of your senses involved. Do not just focus on what you see.  Determine what you hear, feel, smell, and taste.
  5. Vary your perspective. View your performance from not only your own perspective, but also from an outsiders.

Numerous studies have shown that brain activity is the same when a person thinks about an activity when compared to when the person is actually performing the activity.  Visualization can help strengthen and create new pathways in the brain.  A word of caution:  Since visualizing releases chemicals into your body that can make you more alert, be careful if you are doing it as part of your night-time routine.  The chemicals released could make it more difficult to fall asleep.

9. Time Management and Academics

Academics are a clear priority for the student-athlete.  They can have a negative impact on athletic performance because of the stress they can create.  Be sure to take action to minimize that stress.  Procrastination is often a huge issue.

Do your best to get ahead whenever possible.  This often means prioritizing academics over social events.  A common issue amongst athletes is they try to match the social agenda of a student who is not an athlete.  The problem is there are 24 hours in a day for both.  If two hours is devoted to a sport, the student-athlete is operating on a 22 hour day.  It is hard to keep pace on a condensed time schedule, and attempting to do so can carry over to deficits not only in academics, but in sleep and training.

10. Respect

Above all else, respect yourself as well as everyone and everything you encounter. Lack of respect often leads to drama. Drama leads to issues. Issues can jeopardize your ability to train with your team (school/parent discipline). Besides this, nobody wants to be around someone who is a jerk. People who lack respect not only hold themselves back, but also those around them.


There are many ways to go about addressing the content mentioned.  Focus on one or two items, try to be better in each area, or anything in-between.  What you will probably find is that being good or bad in one will be connected to being good or bad in others.

Feel free to contact me directly at robertassise@gmail.com

[1] Hansen, Derek M. Exploring Central Nervous System Fatigue with Pat Davidson [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from www.strengthpowerspeed.com/articles. March, 2017.

[2] Littlehales, Nick. Sleep. Penguin Life. 2016.

[3] Bingisser, Martin and Gambetta, Vern.  The GAINcast [Audio Podcast].  Retrieved from https://www.hmmrmedia.com/gaincast/.  January, 2017.

About Rob Assise

Rob AssiseRob Assise is a mathematics teacher and track coach at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.  He also has experience coaching football and cross country.  He can be reached via e-mail at robertassise@gmail.com or Twitter @HFJumps.

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