4 things elite athletes understand (and most of us ignore) about high performance and being at our best


Lately I’ve been trying to move over during my park bench reflections of life and make a space for Vulnerability to join me. Truthfully, I’m thinking of bringing it a coffee and a donut, we’ve been hanging out so much.  Passers-by sometimes notice us sitting together and look at me like I’ve just been seated next to someone on a long haul flight who has a nasty hacking cough.   I’m normally doing the equivalent of running laps around the park and I don’t always stop and sit here. There are too many things to do.
I’m a psychologist, mum, employer, wife, volunteer Board member and patron, among other things. I love all of it and feel gratitude beyond expression. But sometimes I quietly also notice that it is a hell of a pace.  In my work, I’ve been noticing how many people describe that, psychologically, they are “always on”.  They know they have high anxiety but worry that if they turn down the sensitivity of their radar it might dilute their productivity. Maybe if they stop and smell the roses more they will drop a ball.  Or if they took a lap around the field, jersey over-head to celebrate their achievements they’d only be inviting an epic face plant just around the corner. 
It’s made me wonder why our thinking and often our behaviour is so ‘all or nothing’ for many of us. Shakespeare started the ball rolling with his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy.  Personally I think he should have said we could be sometimes and not be other times (ok – it’s less poetic), and Sheryl Sandberg could have helped by asking us to Lean In from time to time.  A lot of high performing people we see pride themselves on being accountable – but for everything?  It is great that we do what it takes, but what if it is at the price of our health and relationships.  Mentally preparing for a Board meeting is part of the arousal curve for peak performance, we tell ourselves, but if we can’t sleep because of over-processing and get agitated because the guy making the coffee doesn’t seem urgent, maybe we are over the wrong side of the bell curve.
As I watch our athletes leave for Rio the last weeks, I wonder if it isn’t about time we learned the true art of high performance and did with our minds what elite athletes do with their bodies. 

1. Aspire to psychological agility.
 
True high performers aren’t “always on”.  Do you think Usain Bolt sprints to the letterbox to get the mail, or to the fridge to get the milk? High Intensive Interval Training (HIIT) has been proven to maximise fitness by doing shorter bursts.  What if we did the same with our thinking and chose to do anxiety like we were on a freeway and accelerating and then decelerating and results orientation on key focus areas and not everything? We can choose to dial our radar upwards on the way into a meeting and dial it down when we walk out.  Sprint through a project deadline and decelerate again as soon as it is complete

2. Run your own race plan.
 
Athletes don’t care if someone notices they left a session early.  If it is good for them they leave and if it is good to stay back, they stay back.  If they need to see the team psychologist to reflect on their race plan or focus, they book it. There is no shame, fear or hesitation because it gets them to their goals faster. It is profoundly different from most of us who think getting support is weakness not strength; or workplaces where people work when they are tired – fearing they look uncommitted if they go home even if they are unproductive.
 
3.    Know Yourself

Athletes don’t wait until they can’t move their shoulder before they go to the Physio.  They go when they feel a slight weakness because there is a race 10 days away. They know when they put their shirt over their head that one joint seems slightly more restricted than another.  What might it be like if we noticed the first sign of increased irritability; the smallest sign our resilience is down, or the defensive thoughts before they even turned to words


4.     Get more sleep 

Ask an elite athlete about their sleep and you will find they literally sleep for Australia. If they want results, it is like any other part of their training and they plan everything else around it.  They don’t sleep when they’ve finished everything else on their list.  Athletes don’t tell people they’ve only had 5 hours sleep like it was a badge of honour.  They know they need to not be half asleep at training and half awake at night.  All that we know about psychology says the same is important for high performance for us too. 
 
Wondering about why we don’t treat our minds like we treat our bodies – or why mental health is not treated with the same priority as physical health is not a new analogy.  But as we can increasingly measure the brain the way we have measured our bodies in the past, it is worth a thought…

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