Back in October 2016, I wrote the article: “What 20+ Years in the Gym has Taught me About Personal Development“. It was the first of two gym-focused performance coaching articles I had wanted to write for an age. This is the second.
Like listening, as opposed to speaking. Like failure, as opposed to success. Like unexpected, as opposed to as expected. When events don’t go quite as we plan, our learning potential goes way up.
And so, I often reflect on the many lessons about peak performance – not just in sport, but in all areas of work and life – that I’ve learnt as a direct result of the injuries I’ve sustained over the years, at the gym.
And these thoughts have become particularly relevant in recent years: as I’ve gotten older; or perhaps, just more cocksure. So for your benefit, let me share with you now 8 lessons for peak performance, as attested to by my aching joints!
Elite athletes and professional sportspeople never enter into training or competition without thoroughly warming-up. So, why do I repeatedly think I don’t need to? Because I don’t understand it’s value – that is, until I get injured. Then I do. Or until I do warm-up and see the step-up in performance. I get its value then, too.
So from here on, I don’t want ever to be underprepared. And to ensure that happens, I want to make preparation a fundamental part of my routine – not some hassle before I can start.
To make that happen: build a ritual. Because we don’t want to make the task dependent on recalling why it’s important to warm-up. We want warming-up to be the process. It’s just what we do. And not only for the gym, but for any performance moment. A meeting. A presentation or pitch. A project kick-off. Have a ritual that you can lean on.
Lesson #1: Take your preparation seriously.
Lack of concentration for the duration
With a touch of slapstick about it, I can come off a lift with a weight well-beyond my body weight without a problem. And then promptly hit my head on the bar or trip over a weight plate. Of course, I keep smiling, pretending it’s nothing and that I’m unaffected. But I am.
This isn’t so much a temporary lapse in concentration as it is allowing my concentration to switch off, prematurely. Instead, I need to recognise I’m still in the performance moment and in the performance environment for the duration – and act accordingly.
An example of this performance error at work is the dead-time following an important meeting, pitch, presentation or interview, when the performance event is seemingly over – but we’re still in the company of our stakeholders. The accompanied walk to the lift, for example. We need to stay on our “A” Game until we’ve left the building and are travelling home. Anything less is premature – and sub-performance in these moments will have a consequence.
Lesson #2: Stay in the performance zone until the very end.
I’ll let your imaginations run wild with the very many amusing ways ego-led thinking has lead me to injury. Suffice to say, I’m not making solid, objective, goal-focused decisions. And performance suffers as a result.
Ego plays a potentially-destructive role in performance moments everywhere in life. But if we want an area to focus on for maximum performance-enhancing effect, take a look at the role ego plays in your decision-making.
There are 2 primary thinking traps when it comes to making decisions: blind spots; and ego. Take your ego out of the equation by developing the habit of meta-cognition. That is: thinking about the thinking. How am I doing the thinking around this decision? How much of this is led by evidence? How much is rooted in fact? And how much of this is my ego talking? If I reduced my egotistical thinking by just 5%, what different decisions would I make? What’s my ego-based goal here: approval; or control?
Lesson #3: Drop the ego.
It always raises in me an ironic smile that I can lift weights far heavier than my bodyweight without issue; and then in that same session, hurt myself when I move to the very light weights. The reason is complacency and a lack of respect for the task. I drop my good habits – and get injured as a result.
No matter what the performance requirement, I want to treat every event with maximum respect and deliver my best performance, as standard. For example, at work: whatever the dollar value of a deal or project, I want to deliver a wholly professional effort. In my business: whomever the client, I want to deliver outstanding personal service to them. In life: whatever the opportunity, I want to give it everything.
Lesson #4: Respect all performance events, big and small.
Not listening to my body
Last year, I damaged my left shoulder and it kept me away from my full routine for over 6 months. It was deeply frustrating. That injury stemmed from not listening to my body. I tweaked my shoulder at the very end of a session: a warning that, had I heeded it and stayed off my shoulder for a short while, might have saved me a lot of pain and heartache. But I didn’t. And then next session, combined with an absent warm-up ritual, launched straight into full lifts – and that was that.
Our bodies are continually communicating with “us”. Not enough food or water. Not enough sleep. Too much stress. Too many things to think about. Best (and worst) times of day. Intuition. Instinct. Gut reaction. But we often push those communications to one side in service of some outside-in “priority”. But we can’t give what we don’t have. And if we don’t have our health, we don’t have anything. Start listening to what your body is telling you.
Lesson #5: Listen to what your body is telling you.
Breaking my own rules
When it comes to exercise, I have rules and rituals that significantly contribute to my best performance. They range from the general to the specific, are personal to me and, having been developed with the input of many years of experience, serve me well. They are also very brain-friendly ways to recall the information. Simple mnemonics that are easy to hold in mind.
But occasionally, something in the environment will prompt me to break a rule or skip a ritual. To lift more than I should. To go too fast, too quickly. To mess with my carefully planned sequence of training days. And injuries follow.
For any performance activity you do repeatedly, develop your own “performance rules”: a set of principles that facilitate a high-level of personal performance, as standard. And then stick to them! (Meaning: no ad hoc or ill-considered diversions off the plan.) Like an aeroplane’s pre-flight checklist, your rules and rituals can seem dull, unsophisticated and unnecessary, in and or themselves. But they are what setup peak performance.
Lesson #6: Stick religiously to your well-defined performance rules.
Getting through it
When I let the focus slip into powering through an exercise, I’m liable to get injured because I relegate other thoughts that contribute to personal performance (thinking, tempo, rhythm, form, etc.) behind just getting it done. And that’s fine for a low-level task; but not for a performance moment. Not when the stakes are high and the quality of the result really matters.
What’s the opposite of getting through it? Getting into it! When I get into my set, everything starts working together. And not only do I drastically minimise my chances of getting injured – I also get far bigger returns for my efforts. Slowing down and relaxing into the task at hand delivers higher returns, everywhere. Resist the busy person’s mantra of “no time to slow down” and try it. Watch how performance improves.
Lesson #7: Relax into your performance event.
Going it alone
I would rate myself as a well-above-average gym-goer (if I do say so, myself!), in terms of knowledge, experience and results. But that status I’ve given myself can come with issues. In particular, I can forget the significant benefits of outside perspective, choosing instead to go it alone.
It’s only since introducing a physio that I’ve got the detailed feedback that showed me an issue I’ve been overlooking; new insights to understand how I’ve actually been exacerbating the problem; and new strategies to correct the root problem.
Professional sportspeople wouldn’t dream of not having a coach. Anyone in a high-performance role shouldn’t either. Get a coach or a mentor. Find someone who can promote awareness and responsibility in you. And find ways to introduce quality feedback to your performance.
Lesson #8: Work with a performance partner.
Bringing it all together
When I work with my physio and she has me doing really small, simple BUT incredibly challenging exercises that work tiny muscles and joints, I’m reminded: it’s all interconnected. It’s not just about the big muscle groups and the major lifts; but about all the little intricacies of the working machine that together achieve peak performance.
So, as you look to raise your base standard so every performance is excellent, find ways to incorporate ALL of these lessons into your approach and make them ALL part of your daily practice.