The Performance-Life Balance

The Performance-Life Balance – Some of the hurdles that get thrown up “when life gets in the way” and how best to overcome them.

When Life Gets In The Way

When Life Gets In The Way
When Life Gets In The Way

This article is designed to get you thinking about some of the hurdles that may get thrown up in the months ahead “when life gets in the way.” Some barriers are predictable (e.g. juggling work and training commitments) whilst some will spring up unexpectedly (e.g. illness or financial stress). We’ve all had times when “performance” has taken a back seat to other demands; however this thing we call “life” need not derail our progress or compromise our sense of pleasure.

Let’s pause for a moment and recall a core Metuf principle of performance enhancement: enjoyment is essential in developing mental toughness.

When life gets in the way we need to remember why we took up our chosen sport (or performance area) in the first place; what we love about it; and why it is enjoyable for us personally. In other words, it’s important to quantify the ‘fun factor’ and what it is that we gain from participating in our chosen sport, so as to provide a buffer from the non-sporting challenges that life inevitably throws our way.

‘Quantifying’ means putting a name, value or description to something so that we can better understand it and therefore improve it. If you can specify what you love about your sport (e.g. working on a common goal with team mates vs. beating the clock vs. learning new skills vs. simply running around under lights on a Friday night) then you can start incorporating this as a ‘non-negotiable’ in your sporting life. By maintaining the fun factor we give ourselves an outlet or refuge from life stressors, as well as enhancing our sporting performance in the face of adversity.

Following on from this idea of quantifying enjoyment, it’s extremely useful to define what matters to us outside of the sporting arena. Below are a range of categories which our clients have identified as being important in their lives:

  • Family Friendship / social relationships
  • Physical health
  • Emotional and personal wellbeing
  • Non-sporting leisure activities
  • Education
  • Personal development
  • Spirituality / religion
  • Employment / career
  • Community life The environment

I daresay most readers would agree that the above categories are important – to varying degrees – with some categories more important than others. If we explore an area such as ‘employment’ it soon becomes clear that this matters to individuals for very different reasons. For some people, employment is simply a means to an end, i.e. a way to put food on the table. For others, it’s more than merely having a job: what matters is building a career. For some people their work helps to define their identity, whilst for some their employment is a gateway to making a difference in the world.

When life throws up work-related stress, for example, it helps to know what matters most to you in this category so that you can define your own targets for improvement and develop strategies for meaningful gains. This has the benefit of contributing to positive changes in your job situation and also of knowing that you’re actively doing something to make things better for yourself.

Let’s again pause to recall another core Metuf principle of performance enhancement: that improvement is best achieved through a focus on effort.

Effort – as we define it – is controllable and involves a combination of quality and quantity into the areas you are targeting for improvement; It is most easily measured in minutes spent ‘trying’ each week. Most importantly, it involves setting clearly defined weekly blocks of effort to drive continual improvement towards attaining goals.

In essence, you can take goal setting and goal getting skills from sport and use them to better your life in general. Let’s take ‘education’ as an example, with academic issues such as low grades having a negative impact on an athlete’s performance.

Firstly, it may help to quantify what it is about those particular studies that matter to the athlete – why are you doing that course and why is it important to do well? If there are elements of fun in those studies, it can help to specify what exactly is enjoyable about studying and incorporate these as ‘non-negotiables’ to help stay on track.

Secondly, it’s important to set clearly defined goals over the course of an academic year/semester – what grade or other outcome are you hoping to achieve in the not-too-distant future?

Thirdly, the use of monthly checks allows you to keep tabs on your progress – what measures will serve as evidence of improvement and confirm whether you are on the right track?

Finally and most importantly, what does your academic effort look like? That is, what are you doing each week that is within your control to improve as a student? By allocating dedicated blocks of time each week to high-quality learning improvement activities an athlete gives themselves the best chance of addressing educational challenges.

Life has a tendency to get in the way of our sporting ambitions, either by disrupting our routines unexpectedly or casting a shadow over the simple pleasures of training and competing. Crises in areas such as family, work, study, health and finances can seem overwhelming; however the same strategies which allow you to quantify, understand and then enhance athletic performance can be used outside of the sporting arena to benefit you in “the game of life”.

If you’d like a simple way to measure the impact of your current workload and/or circumstances then complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires which, amount a raft of other measures will show you how stressed you are at the moment.

Chris also wrote the below article in 2014 on the same subject:

Striking the Balance: How Off-Field Gain Can Boost On-Field Game

By Chris Pomfret (PSY0000966671)

Parents of young athletes will often ask us – with varying degrees of seriousness – how they might encourage/support/force/trick/bribe their kids into taking their schoolwork seriously, or at the very least doing something to prepare for some sort of career once they ‘hang up the gloves.’ Understandably, young athletes can struggle to see what relevance of studying or exploring long-term work options has to achieve their sporting dreams. Those Mental Toughness Digest (MTD) readers living in Australia or New Zealand may have noticed increasing coverage in the media about the importance of developing a ‘sport/life balance’ for those athletes competing professionally or at the elite level (and in turn for those young people involved in development pathways, or amateur athletes aiming to reach the top one day). We at Condor Performance welcome the growing awareness of the important – yet underappreciated – role of ‘off-field’ matters in not only safeguarding an athlete’s long-term future but also enhancing their performance ‘on-field.’ So let’s consider the Lifestyle Choices pillar of performance excellence and in particular a target for continual improvement which we call T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. But firstly…

… I’m sure you’ll agree that playing careers are short at most levels for most athletes in most sports. At the elite end of the spectrum, there is a growing body of research that demonstrates the need for athletes to either be participating in a ‘dual career’ (a non-sporting career), or to be taking steps to prepare for their post-athletic career while still participating in their sport. Most competitive athletes retire at a young age, which not only impacts on their lifestyle and their finances but also ‘bigger picture’ areas such as their sense of self, their social identity, and their sense of direction in life. In US college sport, for instance, approximately 1% of collegiate athletes become professional athletes, and the average professional sports career only lasts around 3.5 years (1). One area where the US college system appears to ‘have it right’ is that athletes are required to maintain grades whilst studying in order to play. Traditionally this has not been the case elsewhere in the world, where club-based sporting systems are prevalent or professional development pathways are separated from the education sector. This has changed in recent times however, with athlete education and career guidelines now being set by national governing bodies across the globe.

MTD readers in Australia and New Zealand will probably be aware that many of the major sporting codes in these countries now require professional and semi-professional athletes to be studying or undertaking vocational training as part of their contracts. In the past, professional clubs or franchises have sometimes ‘paid lip service’ towards career/personal/welfare development or have even been deeply sceptical due to a belief that their athletes should be focusing solely on improving on-field rather than off-field. To be fair, this hasn’t been helped by a tendency for many athletes to prioritise their sporting activities above all other pursuits. Not surprisingly, athletes choosing to maintain a non-sporting activity or placing equal importance on the alternate activity achieve better jobs and are happiest with their life beyond sport than those who focus exclusively on sport (2). But for those of you still playing or coaching in your sport, take note: some research has suggested that engagement in dual career activities may actually lead to a performance benefit for athletes. This may in part be due a sense of balance in life and a sense of security from preparing for the future (3). Interestingly, a recent study showed only 31.9% of elite Olympic athletes decide to follow the ‘sport only’ career path (2). A case study of a club culture within the Australian Football League suggested that club culture supporting whole person development was associated with on-field performance rather than being irrelevant or even competing against performance (3). From a psychological research perspective it’s relatively ‘early days’ as far as identifying the direct impact of dual career development on elite level performance but it will be absolutely fascinating to see how this develops and we might revisit this area here in the MTD in the near future.

Now let’s take a step back to the Lifestyle Choices pillar of performance excellence. You may recall from the Metuf mental method Simplifying It that a key component of one’s best possible performance on-field involves constantly improving off-field. The Lifestyle Choices pillar of performance can be broken down into a number of targets for improvement, including (but not limited to) Fun, Nutrition, Sleep, and – you guessed it – T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A.

T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. stands for ‘The Other Thing I Want to Be Excellent At.’ This essentially involves something outside of your chosen sport that provides you with:

  • A sense of reward
  • A purpose in life
  • Something to challenge and stimulate you
  • Something to develop skills and competencies for self-improvement
  • Activities to take your mind off training, practicing, playing or competing

In other words, T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. helps to provide that elusive ‘sport/life balance.’

As the growing body of research shows, when T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. is defined by an athlete as an academic goal (such as completing a course of study) or as a vocational goal (such as working towards a long-term profession) there are significant rewards to be gained during their playing days and in the years that follow. What this research also shows, however, is that there are a range of barriers to successfully balancing sporting and non-sporting career progression. Chief of these is the issue of ineffective time management (2), along with a lack of understanding or support for dual career development at the family, club or organisational level (4).

Outside of the study and employment fields, some other areas that Condor Performance clients typically tell us they want to be excellent at include family; hobbies; music; travel; church/spiritual life; community; art; personal development; and more. Through Simplifying It they learn how to break down the pillars of performance excellence and in turn understand how T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. can drive them to greater heights. Athletes of all ages are pleasantly surprised at this discovery and as for Mum and Dad: you’re welcome.

References

  1. Tshube, T. & Feltz, D.L. (2015). The relationship between dual-career and post-sport career transition among elite athletes in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 109-114.
  2. Lopez de Subijana, C., Barriopedro, M. & Conde, E. (2015). Supporting dual career in Spain: Elite athletes’ barriers to study. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 57-64.
  3. Pink, M., Saunders, J. & Stynes, J. (2015). Reconciling the maintenance of on-field success with off-field player development: A case study of a club culture within the Australian Football League. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 98-108.
  4. Ryba, T.V. et al. (2015). Dual career pathways of transnational athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 125-134.