Dr Sarah McKay

The Best of Neuroscience for Coaches

In February, I had the pleasure of joining my fellow IECL Alumni members in Sydney for a fascinating evening with Dr Sarah McKay on the topic of “The Best of Neuroscience for Coaches”. Sarah is an increasingly influential brain health commentator, PhD neuroscientist, and author who specialises in translating brain science research into simple, actionable strategies for performance and wellbeing. Sarah received her MSc and DPhil in neuroscience from Oxford University.


After five years of postdoc research Sarah hung up her lab-coat to pursue a career in science communications. She writes a popular brain health blog, has given a TEDx talk on the neurobiology of afternoon naps, and is authoring a book on the life of the female brain to be published by Hachette in early 2018.

The two key takeaways for me from the interactive session were 1) the nine foundations for establishing a healthy baseline for brain health and 2) the six step REFIRE model of tapping into adult neuroplasticity for peak performance and goal attainment.

Sarah’s nine foundations for brain health can be grouped into three key areas:

  1. Bottom up (genes, hormones, immune system),
  2. Outside In (stress, social support, environment, life events, education, connection) and
  3. Top Down (thoughts, emotions, cognition, mindset, beliefs).


The nine foundations are summarised as:


  1. Sleep ” Get a good night sleep and take a nap! A short nap improves memory and learning, sparks creativity and helps regulate emotions.
  2. Move ” Exercising your body is the best exercise for the brain
  3. Nourish ” Research shows there are great benefits in eating less, eating more plants and enjoying a Mediterranean diet (yes, that includes a glass of red!)
  4. Calm ” Find your place of calm. This varies for everyone ” read, walk, meditate … whatever works for you
  5. Connect ” Research shows loneliness is comparable to smoking in terms of the negative health effects. Connecting in person is crucial along with reaching out to others when you”re sad and alone
  6. Nurture ” Maintain and respect your connection with nature in order to reduce the body’s immune response and stress response
  7. Feel ” Marinate in positive emotions and experiences which helps us to gain control of emotions. Again, a gratitude journal might work for some but not for everyone. The important thing is creating a positive upward cycle
  8. Challenge ” Intellectual engagement, builds cognitive reserve and cuts risk of mental health issues and dementia. Learn a language or an instrument or commit to a new field of study. Coaches: what is your professional development plan for 2017?
  9. Seek ” Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than ourselves. Research shows meaning will increase our chances of living longer and reduce the risk of serious illness.


My second key takeaway, the REFIRE model, provides six steps that may enable us as Coaches, and our clients, to tap into the capacity for brain plasticity, mastery, learning and change.


  • Reason: Tap into the why which breeds clarity and certainty. Sarah personally hates big goals which she finds demotivating and instead suggests micro goals connected to your why which gets the dopamine firing in the brain
  • Engage: In learning with focus, become absorbed by a task and get feedback from others along the way
    Feel flow: Identify that sweet spot between boredom (under activation) and fear (over activation)
  • Imagine: rehearse in your mind’s eye through the use of various visualisation techniques which are highly powerful for improved performance
  • Repeat: Deliberate practice makes perfect
  • Extend: Push yourself to the edge of your comfort zone, but the key tip is variation; mix it up. A sudoku puzzle every day won’t cut it


I love that I can now take a nap and drink a glass of red wine in the name of great brain health! Thanks Sarah.

By Renee Holder, Associate Coach and Coaching Practice Lead, IECL