By Liz Hanson – Client Director of Athlete Assessments
Almost by definition, elite athletes (and often serious student-athletes) and coaches are extremely dedicated to their sport. The large majority of their life effort and energy is focused on their training and competition. They spend time with others involved in their sport or supporting them continuously to improve their sport performance. With few exceptions, coaches are ‘time poor’ for things outside of the physical training and competition. Often, things outside of sport are seen as a luxury they cannot afford and very often they feel their life is out of balance.
What happens when all you have is sport? To be blunt, your performances (whether as a coach or athlete) can be adversely affected. The most critical implication of this can be on your personal self-esteem and confidence. From an athlete or coach’s perspective, your identity (who you see yourself as) and self-esteem needs to be attached to more than what sport you play, who you play for and the results you achieve. If not, your sport becomes more important in the overall scheme of life than it should be. If sport is the only major part of someone’s life and as sport goes, it naturally has its ups and downs, then the coach or athlete’s self-esteem is also attached to this one dimensional “roller coaster”. However, when there is something else of value in their life (study, family, interests and time with friends) there is literally balance between each interest and their self-esteem is supported through this balance.
In some cases, single-mindedness towards their sport can also lead to over training, a condition of fatigue and under-performance. While this article isn’t focused on the topic of over-training, it is worthwhile to touch on it (although does not do justice to the seriousness of this condition). Particularly as “prevention is always better than a cure”.
Over training is defined as an imbalance between training and competition versus recovery. With this condition, it is common for athletes to have an increased susceptibility to infection and illness, persistent high fatigue ratings, heavy muscles and depression. This in itself has enormous consequences, let alone the implications to life balance. One of the most important combatants to over training is understanding the value of recovery and this does tie in with life balance.
Sports science has shown recovery works and improves performance. Quality recovery strategies include active recovery (low intensity activity), compression garments, hot-cold contrast baths/showers, food and fluids, ice (water), pool work, massage, spas and stretching. Small lifestyle changes can make all the difference; for instance, getting the recommended number of hours of sleep may improve health, as insufficient sleep combined with stress or other factors can weaken the immune system.
So back to life balance in sport. Unfortunately, the challenge of achieving life balance for both athletes and coaches is seen as a ‘nice to have’ and lower on the priority list, but the ramifications both short and long term of this perspective can be extremely serious.
But there is also another scenario that is becoming more common – the pursuit of the ‘all round’ achiever. I recall a conversation I had with a young athlete and her family recently. She is in her final year of high school, doing very well at a national level in her sport and has dreams of going to the Olympics. Her dad wanted advice on how to combine her pursuit of Olympic representation, starting college next year, working part-time to develop commercial skills and experience while maintaining a healthy social life… To be frank, my advice was this wasn’t possible. With an Olympic goal, few other areas of your life can take priority or be managed at a reasonable level without significantly hampering your main goal. That’s not to say that you can only have sport if you want to go to the Olympics – quite the opposite in fact – but you will struggle to achieve your full potential if you have too many competing goals. You may end up being mediocre in all, “jack of all trades, master of none”. Ultimately it comes down to timing and prioritizing what is most important to you.
There are some things in life that have a time limit and others that don’t. For example, there is a ‘biological clock’ for staring a family, there are ‘age related working visa limitations’ for travelling and working internationally and there is a window of peak performance in sport if you want to achieve the highest goals. There are always exceptions and medical science and successful athletes, be it young swimming stars or older rowing champions, at either end of the age spectrum will prove this. However, if you want to pursue your sport to the highest of levels, it is much easier and attainable within a certain age bracket.
On the other hand, some things don’t have a time limit. For example, you can always go back to university at an older age. You can pursue a professional career in business at an older age. You can enjoy amazing holidays at any age. So my advice to the young athlete’s family was if she truly does want to go to the Olympics, commit wholeheartedly to that goal for the next few years. She will make it or not and either way, at the age of 21 years old, she still has an enormous opportunity to pursue other life goals such as career and even significant social goals like partying! By having the one main goal of her sport, she can then pursue ‘balance’ by enjoying time out of her sport with lower intensity goals and actually having some fun, get some education and relaxation. And ultimately, achieve better results.
So how do you get balance with sport? Here are my top 5 recommendations for balancing sport and your life:
5 Recommendations for Balancing when all you have is Sport
- Know what is most important to you. What do you truly value? (A way to know what these are, is to look at how you spend your time and money. We usually spend these two things on what we most value – check in to see if this is true for you? You may need to make some changes. Otherwise, another suggestion is to look at what creates ‘extreme’ levels of emotion for you. The things that bring you the most happiness and the things that give you the most heart-ache. The things that bring you the big highs are usually valuable to you and the things that give you the biggest lows usually represent what you most value being taken away or compromised. In a general sense, go for more of the positives and avoid what causes you pain.)
- Set your goals on what you truly want to achieve and ensure you are committed to their achievement. This may mean missing out on other things – are you prepared to give those up?
- Prioritize your time and energy.
- Love something away from your sport. Having a fulfilling hobby or other interest is a wonderful energy builder. Just make sure this interest is complimentary to your sport.
- Understand your stress levels and learn to diagnose when you are pushing too hard. Take time to recharge. “Self care” isn’t selfish or a luxury, it is a necessity.
One word of caution about how you relax and unwind from your sport. Statistics show that nearly 60% of all seniors and close to 50% of all juniors report regular drinking activity. Studies from the American Athletic Institute have provided evidence that consumption of alcohol directly relates to decreased athletic performance. Alcohol consumption decreases speed, endurance, agility, strength, and concentration; all key factors in the success of an athlete!
It is useful for coaches and athletes to remember that sports performance is only a part of their life performance, and not vice versa. It means that everyone needs to find time for friends, family, education, opportunities outside of sport, other interests and hobbies in order to maintain life-balance. Take a moment today to recharge away from your sport, however small it may be. Remember something that gives you extreme happiness and take some time to enjoy it. Your sport and those you do it will also benefit.
If you found this article valuable, you may also enjoy our Book Review on The Only Way To Win by Jim Loehr.