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8 things you can learn from athletes during lockdown

For a long, long time I’ve wanted to do a TEDx talk. And this year…

…I got a little closer.

Back in March I had the chance to speak at the TEDx Sydney Pitch Night. And recently, I was interviewed on the TEDx Sydney podcast (it’ll be released soon and I’ll share the link).

On the podcast, we spoke about some of the lessons we might be able to learn from athletes during COVID-19. From sleeping to sprinting, here are 8 things I think are worth thinking about:

 

1) Compartmentalise – athletes can only do so much physical training in a day, so we have to make those hours count. We aren’t checking our email, calling a friend, or thinking about our shopping list when we are training. We have laser focus on what we are doing, and that focus is typically created with clear boundaries. For instance, doing our training in a particular location, doing a warmup to get our mind and body focused, having goals for the session, and eliminating all distractions (I certainly don’t carry my phone in my bikini when I play beach volleyball!)

With everyone working from home we don’t have the boundaries between activities, so, like athletes, we have to create them. A few ways to do this:

  • Use different spaces in the house for different things. For instance, if you’re working use your laptop at the dining table, and if you’re online shopping do it on the couch
  • Build in transition times between activities. For example, take 10mins to read the news or a book related to your industry before you start work, take 5mins to stretch after you go for a walk, and have a cup of tea in between tasks
  • Set goals for each block of time. And if you finish those goals early then relax a little.
  • Minimise distractions. If you’ve got kids at home then good luck, but otherwise it’s worth switching off all your notifications, or even disconnecting from wifi while you’re head down working on something important

 

2) Sprint – athletes push themselves to their limits every day, in an effort to expand those limits. It would be laughable if Usain Bolt managed to run the 100m in 11 seconds and then shrugged his shoulders and went ‘I’m pretty good at this, I don’t need to get any better.’

Yet that’s exactly the trap we can fall into at work. We get comfortable with our level of performance. We get used to our pace of work. We meet the expectations of our managers and peers and we’re happy with that. It’s rare that we stretch ourselves to breaking point. It’s rare that we ‘sprint’.

Unlike an athlete, ‘sprinting’ at work won’t leave you laid out on the floor unable to move from sheer exhaustion. But it will be exhausting – and that’s the point. Pushing your limits will expand them, and unlock a new level of performance. Whether it’s speed gained from aiming for a seemingly unrealistic deadline, skill gained from tackling a project way more challenging than your current abilities, or quality gained by trying to do work to the standard of someone two or three levels above you. To level up, you need to sprint.

 

3) Use setbacks as springboards – Injuries are common in sports. I snapped my achilles a couple of years ago which is one of the worst injuries possible (it takes a full year to recover). And while an injury is devastating, my coach helped me reframe it into an opportunity – a chance to go back to basics and rebuild my technical foundations. COVID-19 is devastating for a lot of people and businesses, but it’s also a chance to spring forward.

  • If you have a business then that might be by:
  • Getting rid of underperforming staff
  • Hiring amazing new staff at a lower than normal cost
  • Digitising your business
  • Outlasting your competitors so that you’re the only one left standing
  • Culling your product list to focus on the essentials
  • Innovating into new products and services

For individuals, it’s a good chance to:

  • Learn a new skill
  • Take some time to refresh your goals for the next few years
  • Reset your nutrition
  • Change your spending habits
  • Build better relationships by calling instead of texting
  • Create a new fitness routine

Yes, this time feels like a setback for everyone. But like a diving board goes down before it propels you up, so too can this period of time be a springboard.

 

4) Growth mindset – as we get older, we tend to categorise skills into those we are good at, and those we can’t do. We forget that growth mindset we had as kids, or even at the start of our careers when we worked to master new skills. Athletes never forget it, we always believe that we can get better, and that we can learn new skills in our sports.

We know that the human brain is incredibly adaptable – known in science as ‘plasticity’. As you learn new things there are literally biological changes in the structure of your brain. So while you might find it easier to learn some things (we all have predispositions towards specific types of skills), you can learn almost anything.

Now is the perfect time to take a course, find a coach, get a mentor, and master a new skill.

 

5) Sleep – Athletes sleep all the time. We literally get 9-10 hours a night, and often have a nap as well. However, most adults don’t get enough sleep on a consistent basis. And we all know that one person who has just 5 hours a night, 7 cups of coffee a day and claims they are ‘fine’.

Science has told us unequivocally that not getting enough sleep leads to higher levels of stress, and lower levels of performance. Plus it’s linked to a whole range of health issues including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, obesity, depression and lower sex drive.

Without a commute (or a social life!) we can finally get enough sleep. You may think you don’t have time for it, but, like athletes, you’ll probably find that an extra couple of hours in bed leads to much higher levels of performance. So put your feet up and have a nap.

 

6) Habits – We always think of athletes are highly motivated and disciplined, but mostly we have just built good habits. We don’t think about waking up early and going to workout, we just do it because it’s what we’ve always done. Probably like you never thought about ‘motivating’ yourself to go to work, it was just something you did each day.

Being at home with the same routine everyday is the perfect time for people to build a new habit (or remove an old one which is just as important). Here are a few suggestions:

  • Stop hitting the snooze button (if you get enough sleep this shouldn’t be a problem!)
  • Stop checking social media when you wake up
  • Read 10 pages of a book each day (I do this over breakfast)
  • Stretch in front of the TV instead of sitting on the couch
  • Drink water rather than wine with your dinner

Habit theory suggests that a habit is an automatic mental program composed of three steps:
1. Trigger – a stimulus that kick starts the habit in your mind
2. Routine – the action or behaviour that we think of as the habit
3. Reward – when we train dogs the reward is the food treat, but for adults this is more emotion based such as the hit of endorphins we get after we exercise

The best way to change a habit? Keep the trigger (and if possible the reward) the same, and change the routine. So for the reading habit above, the trigger is I get hungry for breakfast, the new routine is I read while I eat, and the reward is that I feel satisfied after. Pretty simple.

 

7) Take a long term view – In sport athletes set goals that will take a decade or more to achieve. When you’re looking at that time frame, a delay of a few months, or an injury that takes you out for a few weeks, is just not that big a deal. It’s a way to put things in perspective – 10 years from now how will you look back on this period of time?

I recently spoke to my grandma who is 94. She remembered staying home from school for a term when she was in her late teens because everyone was expected to isolate to avoid spreading polio. 80 years later it doesn’t seem like a big deal to her!

Much like point three in this blog post, zooming out your time perspective is a way to reframe your current situation.

 

8) Get a coach – Every single athlete has a coach. Why? Because it is the fastest way to get better. A coach knows what are the key skills you need to master, and in what order, to reach your goal. A coach gives you honest and specific feedback so you can fix what you are doing wrong immediately. A coach is someone you are accountable to, meaning you can’t sleep in and skip the work you’ve committed to. And a coach is your personal cheerleader – someone who believes in you even when you might doubt yourself.

It’s tempting to say I can learn that myself. And technically you could – all the information you need is on the internet. Plus there is always the trial and error method of learning. But it’ll be slower, tougher, less rewarding and in the end you are less likely to succeed.

If you are trying to improve anything in your life – whether it’s learn to sing, be a better husband, figure out social media marketing, speak Italian, or study neurosurgery – do what athletes do and get a coach.

 

Conclusion

Very few people are striving to be the best in the world at something – but athletes are. Because of that they pick up a few perspectives, skills, and habits that enable them to perform at incredibly high levels.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be an elite soccer player, figure skater or weightlifter to learn the same things. You can steal them right out of the athlete’s playbook.

I hope these musings help you to not only survive isolation during COVID-19, but to come out of it stronger than before. It’s not easy. Like an athlete being injured you’re restricted and hampered. You can’t do what you want to do. But you can still grow. You can still learn. And when this is over, you can dominate even more than before.

June 22, 2020