“Old habits are hard to break. ” With Ashley Besecker

Old habits are hard to break. The best technique I have found so far, both personally and in my practice with clients, is the “fake it till you make it” technique. For example, if you’re addicted to soda, next time you’re offered one, you say, out loud, “no thanks, I don’t drink soda”. “No thanks, […]

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Old habits are hard to break. The best technique I have found so far, both personally and in my practice with clients, is the “fake it till you make it” technique. For example, if you’re addicted to soda, next time you’re offered one, you say, out loud, “no thanks, I don’t drink soda”. “No thanks, I don’t smoke”. “No thanks, I don’t drink during season.” The more you say it, the more you become it. Others will hold you accountable, and you will begin to evolve into the person that truly doesn’t do those things.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Besecker, RDN, CD.

Ashley Besecker is an expert in human biochemistry and nutritional genomics, and personal nutritionist to Sue Bird, Megan Rapinoe, and many other professional athletes around the world. Trained as a registered dietitian nutritionist, she specializes in nutritional genetics and sports medicine, working with professional athletes from the NFL to World Olympians, to Ligue 1. She completed her degrees at Pepperdine University, Vanderbilt University, and Stanford University, and believes in using science with integrity, building trust among players and providers, and working smarter in order to attain longevity in a professional athlete’s career.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Sure! I grew up in a very stereotypical middle class American family. My Dad worked as an electrician and my Mom worked in the travel industry until she had us kids. We lived paycheck to paycheck but were super happy and had dinner together each night! We grew up playing tons of sports, eating things like casseroles and drinking milk with dinner, and when we were lucky, we got Happy Meals. I am the first born of 3 kids and fit that mold well. I am a Type-A, overachiever who pushed to always be the best. I’m from a small wine town in Woodinville, Washington and my parents still live in the house I grew up in!

What or who inspired you to pursue your career working with high level professional athletes? We’d love to hear the story.

Well, this story has some twists and turns. I played all the sports as a kid; everything from soccer to gymnastics. But what I really excelled in was volleyball and softball. I was tall, and I was fast. In fact, I still hold the record for time to first, and time around the bases at my high school. I lettered each year in high school and was even recruited to play in college, but alas, my nerd side won out, and I chose to attend Pepperdine University. Being athletic, I chose Pepperdine to specifically major in Sports Medicine. They had one of the only specific “Sports Medicine” majors in the nation at the time. I studied hard and struggled through chemistry and physics, but it was when I took Sports Nutrition that I had my first “uh oh” moment. I loved the nutritional focus on sports. Maybe I was in the wrong major? After speaking with professors and advisors, I ended up changing majors over to Nutritional Science and began to fall in love with nutritional biochemistry, human physiology from a preventative perspective, and genetics.

That shift turned me away from sports and athletics for a while. I began to focus on preventative health in the “normal” population. I completed my nutritional residency program at Vanderbilt and went on to specialize further in genetics and genomics through Stanford University. I am one of the longest practicing nutrition providers in the nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics field, applying this science into my daily work for over 10 years.

Because of my specific genetic work, I had been written up in a magazine article, specifically talking about how genes and nutrients interact. A very well respected and now, one of my favorite strength and conditioning coaches, read that article and asked if I would take on 2 of her clients, Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird. (They have publicly acknowledged their work with me and are two of my athlete ambassadors so I can acknowledge that I work with them!) From there, you know how locker room talk and bus rides go. Players chat about what they’re doing, who they work with, and they look to the most skilled and high performing athletes to try and replicate their success. I began receiving text messages from all over the country, and all over the world, from athletes wanting to work with me. It was an organic referral process that came out of no where!

I now get to apply my love of biochemistry, nutrition, and genetics, to professional athletics. Which I believe, is one of the coolest jobs in the world.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My nutritional science professor in college, Susan Helm, was particularly tough on me. She pushed me to do better, to be better. She too has an obsession with genetics and nutrition and we now nerd-out together and talk shop as friends and colleagues. She was and still is one of my biggest cheerleaders in this field.

Also, that talented strength and conditioning coach I mentioned earlier, Susan Borchardt. She played in the WNBA, and happens to be married to one of my husband’s good friends and college teammates at Stanford, Curtis Borchardt. Curtis also played in the NBA, and they now work together as a PT and Strength and Conditioning Coach in Oregon. She is the one who read my article, believed in science, and we now work in collaboration with many professional athletes.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Well, this one doesn’t relate to sports directly, but it happened along the way to my specialization in sports science. As a Sports Medicine major, I was in my General Chemistry Laboratory Final Exam. This is the one where you are actually in the lab performing an experiment for a final grade. The professor had us blindly choose a slip of paper from a jar that described our final experiments. The rule was, each question you asked the professor automatically deducted points off of your final exam grade. I drew a pressure-based experiment that required setup with dry ice. I had never been in an experiment that worked with dry ice. My first question to Dr. Green: where is the dry ice? He noted my point deduction and pointed to the cooler in the corner. My second question to Dr. Green: I know I can’t touch the dry ice with my hands, so how do I get it out? He noted my deduction and showed me gloves hanging on the wall intended for the dry ice. As I get to my station and begin my experiment, I am already rattled, feeling embarrassed and nervous.

About 2/3’s of the way through my experiment, I’ve taken meticulous notes, set up my pressure, and leave my station to grab another material, when from across the room, an explosion happens and glass shatters everywhere. The whole room stops, people begin to panic and try to figure out what has happened. I hurry over and realize the experiment that had exploded was mine. The girl at the station next to me had a bloody lip from a flying chard of glass, I am now the color of a beet, and the professor is taking apart the experiment and helping to clean up. I ran to the bathroom crying. Completely mortified, scared, ashamed, guilty, feeling stupid. One of my classmates came to get me and let me know the professor wanted to see me.

The rest of the students finished their experiments and had gone. My professor had cleaned my station and was holding my notebook. In my meticulous notes, there was the mistake. I had weighed out the dry ice with the correct weight, but was off by one decimal point. The dry ice amount I had used was much larger than the directions intended, resulting in an explosion.

He made me start over, complete the final exam, and I failed that General Chemistry class.

One tiny detail gone wrong caused an avalanche of events. An explosion, a failed class, a summer school class, humiliation, a drop in confidence, and also, a huge lesson. Details matter. Taking your time and slowing down to check your work, check your language, and check your calculations is absolutely critical if you are going to practice in a field where gaining even the slightest edge can make a huge difference.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get your dream job right away. It took me zigzagging across many different jobs and disciplines to end up where I am today. Each experience you have gives you a tool or insight to bring with you for when you eventually do reach that dream job. And network. Always network and speak out loud to others about your dreams. You never know who might be listening.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

My projects are my athletes. Right now, along with supporting their normal nutritional needs for performance and recovery, I am gathering data on those who’ve had COVID19 and those that haven’t. I collect a lot of data; blood, DNA, and an intake form about a mile long. I have more data on these players than most other providers. I’ve been sifting through that data and trying to find trends related to COVID19. Why is it that one of my players was extremely sick and the other was asymptomatic? One of those variables I am looking closer at is Vitamin D status. I know the rest of the medical community is looking into any variables they can find as well. The more eyes we have on our clients, and on data, the more we can learn.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As you know, athletes often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you teach to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

I encourage every player I work with to begin thinking about coping strategies, mental health, mental performance coaches, and counseling right away. I am a huge believer in optimizing the entire body, and that includes the brain. Get a therapist, psychologist, or mental performance coach.

Some of my favorite quick and actionable techniques are from Amy Cuddy’s research on body language and “power posing”. For example standing in the hallway or locker room in a power stance — I call it the Wonder Woman — before walking out onto the field or court. It actually activates chemicals in your brain that can flood you with focus and confidence.

Another is a breathing technique called 4–7–8 where you breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. It helps with immediate anxiety.

Do you teach any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

Yes, the 4–7–8 technique as described above.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

I give my athletes nutritional support, that is my main job. But I also give them tools and resources to add to their arsenal. I want them to play at peak performance for a very long time, and that takes looking at all aspects of health. One of my favorite books I give for techniques on focus and distractions is called “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. He has so many great techniques on habit building and focus.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

I love data. I live for data. I am a true biohacker in the sense that I do not recommend any food, device, product or vitamin before I have tried it on myself. That includes genetic testing, blood draws, and analysis tools. I wear 2 different smart watch devices that analyze everything from movement to sleep and use that data to make changes to my recovery, and to analyze the recovery of my athletes.

I drink 30 oz of water with an antioxidant + collagen blend right after I drink my coffee each morning. Hydration is such a huge problem, but such an easy fix!

I get my blood drawn every single year around my birthday. I do a full panel that most doctors would never order on a healthy 35 year old. It includes micronutrients, cardiovascular and inflammatory markers, thyroid and hormones and a basic CBC. My family history is rampant with cardiovascular disease so I absolutely have to stay on top of my health, and you don’t know what’s going on inside until you actually take a look. There are lots of direct to consumer lab ordering companies available now, so every day people are able to log on and order their own lab work if their doctors won’t.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

I have tried and failed at so many changes. Whether its housecleaning or health related. Like meditation. Man, I’m still working on that one! Everyone has failed at things like this. And it’s ok. Grace is a huge piece of mental and emotional health and I have had to learn that pushing to the max all day every day is not the way to longevity. Giving yourself, and others, grace and incorporating things that truly make you happy is a huge part of recovery, which in turn has a huge impact on performance.

A hidden gem for me is also physical space. I’m talking about the physical space that you live in, work in, train in. It has to be functional, and it has to give you a sense of peace and vitality when you walk in. Whether its your locker, or your closet at home. Its amazing what a bit of re-arranging or re-organizing can do to a space, and how much weight and stress that simple change can take off of your shoulders.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Start slow. I know most people want to get everything done at once, but you have to go slower than you think to truly make a change. For example, sleep is a huge component of recovery in athletics, yet sleep is one of the main issues that athletes struggle with. Now there are tons of techniques out there to implement to support better sleep. But you can’t just do them all at once and expect things to change. You have to take a look at the flow of your current routines and see what will fit best and make the most sense. I usually start by having my athlete change their pillow! Then we can go from there.

Old habits are hard to break. The best technique I have found so far, both personally and in my practice with clients, is the “fake it till you make it” technique. For example, if you’re addicted to soda, next time you’re offered one, you say, out loud, “no thanks, I don’t drink soda”. “No thanks, I don’t smoke”. “No thanks, I don’t drink during season.” The more you say it, the more you become it. Others will hold you accountable, and you will begin to evolve into the person that truly doesn’t do those things.

High performance athletes often experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

For me, I think of “flow” as a state of high dopamine, which is partly controlled by a gene called COMT. COMT controls the rate at which dopamine is cleared from your system, allowing you to “come down” or relax into a state of recovery. When I’ve experienced a “flow” state I’m super focused, happy, jamming, productive, and often “floating” where time flies. Genetics are highly involved in the way your brain works with neurochemicals, and some people may be more likely to experience flow than others. Of course we know that exercise also increases endorphins. Flow can happen with anything from writing to artwork to athletics. It depends on what truly makes your soul happy, and allowing yourself the time and energy to bring yourself to a place to achieve that “flow” of dopamine into your system.

I often speak with athletes about longevity and the things that matter outside of their performance in sport. Creativity outlets like art, reading, and writing. Yoga, meditation and things that can help slow their mind. All of these things are proven to lead to healthy, but long and healthy lives. Most Centenarians will describe a life where there is routine, creativity, recovery, and “flow” states.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

The only meditations that have actually worked for me are guided meditations. And what’s funny, is that the guided meditations made for children are the ones that really work! I can follow a unicorn into the clouds, or imagine a red balloon filling up inside of my stomach. It’s hard for me to repeat mantras or “om” with my breath for very long. But fun and simple stories guide me along and help distract my very overloaded mind.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

This is an absolute boundary I draw in my work. There is NO negative self talk allowed. This is a rule in my work, my home, with my friends out to dinner, anything. This comes from my past work with eating disorders. Any time a client would speak negatively about themselves; their looks, performance, personality; I would require them to find 3 things positive about themselves and tell me out loud. I don’t care if its about your eyelashes or your compassion, but 1 negative comment requires 3 positive ones. Change the narrative, and pass it on to others in your life.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I climbed the coveted ladder and got beyond the velvet rope, and you know what I found? A bunch of normal people just like me. Everyone that you look up to whether its a CEO, a team owner, a pro athlete or a celebrity, they all are just normal human beings with problems, insecurities, talents, and habits. In all honesty, NO ONE knows what they are doing. None of us. We are all trying to navigate this crazy world to the best of our abilities. The best way I can bring goodness to others is to let them know that they are on the exact same level of those they admire. We are all equally human, and if we can all remember that one fact, the world would actually be a much better place. I bring people on to my podcast, Functional Performance Nutrition, to talk about how they grew up, their challenges and struggles, and to let people hear what normal humans they actually are.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.”

Always surround yourself with others who will teach you more, bring you up, and share new views and thoughts.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I am completely stumped on this question. My mind goes in a million directions here! On one hand I want to talk science from a perspective I don’t understand as well with Neil deGrasse Tyson. On the other hand I would’ve given my right arm to have a meal with Ruth Bader Ginsberg and ask how she manages her stress and finds time to complete her workouts each week. Then again, I want dive deep into the “why” behind Tom Brady and GIsele’s elimination diet — was there testing, was it just easier, was it based on genetics? There are too many to choose from!

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