July 20, 2022 5 min read

With the 2022 NBA Summer League wrapping up, you can be sure there are as many athletes celebrating their performances as there are feeling frustration with their own. Despite every one of these athletes truly performing at an elite level, there inevitably are those that simply rise above the rest and therefore further solidify themselves as the “ones to watch.”

So, what is it that differentiates one athlete from the rest in competition that is so highly scrutinized? In my experience posing this question to others, the clear, default answer is that it all comes down to the physical attributes of the athlete’s body, his or her strength, flexibility, coordination, power and so on. I would propose however, that this is not the case any longer as it is often found that with elite athletes, including both the overperformers and underperformers, it is quite difficult to differentiate them so easily at that level when truly analyzed. In my opinion, the true differentiation is how well an athlete can perform at both the physical and mental level; to what extent he or she may possess a well-balanced state of both body and mind.

 

The 5 Keys

Here are 5 key factors for athletes to consider if truly seeking to optimize their level of performance and create this balance of body and mind.

 

1) Recovery – Recovery simply means to treat one’s body with respect. It is the acknowledgement of the fact that every cell that supports the complexity of human physiology is often being stressed out and abused for the sake of achieving greatness and MUST HAVE the ability to return to a balanced state if it is expected to integrate the new information it is learning and apply it so it may adapt and change.

The term recovery, despite years and years of growth as a distinct subsidiary of the athletic performance enhancement industry, is still battling for significance in the lives of most athletes. The song bolder, faster, stronger certainly didn’t help it out. Nonetheless, the increased number of injuries as well as the complexity of modern-day sports injuries is indirectly making the case for the need for athletes to change their relationship with recovery. Whether is active recovery (ex. post-workout flexibility work or soft tissue mobilization techniques), tech-assisted recovery (hot/cold massage guns, compression sleeves, vibration platforms etc.) or passive recovery (breathing exercises, meditation etc.), they all can be significantly impactful in allowing the body to achieve homeostasis while simultaneously providing key physiological benefits for the athlete. The idea that watching Netflix or scrolling through your Instagram feed in between workouts qualifies as recovery must be rendered obsolete.

 

2) Present Moment Awareness – Present moment awareness is the ability to stay in the moment by cultivating the ability to let thoughts move in and out of consciousness without identifying with them or “getting lost” in them. Given most athletes spend a lot of time dwelling on the failures of past performances or anticipating what may or may not occur in future performances, this skill provides an area of quietude that can enable them to be more aware of their movements and the movements of those players around them, more intuitive in their decision-making, and more capable of entering “the zone” they so often seek to gain entry into. It is often the case that cultivating present moment awareness can be done effectively through breathing exercises, which offers tremendous secondary benefits for the cardiopulmonary system.


5 Keys

"I never looked at the consequences of missing a big shot ... when you think about the consequences, you always think of negative results."

- Michael Jordan-

3) Equanimity– Simply put, equanimity is the failure to categorize a given event as good or bad. As most successful athletes (and all of us as well) have learned, the best situations can often lead to the worst outcomes and vice versa. Equanimity involves looking at all experiences as a lesson to be learned and maintaining a position of inquiry when both good and bad things happen. It also ties into present moment awareness in its ability to support stabilizing oneself in “the zone.”

4) Focus & Determination- There is no better example of someone truly focused and determined than Michael Jordan. Perhaps Lebron James or Kobe Bryant are comparable. Nonetheless, truly focused and determined individuals have the adjacent characteristics of confidence and willingness to sacrifice. And while sacrifice is not always ideal for the people around them who are being sacrificed, it is the shedding of distractions which so often create emotional complexities and the demand for additional energy expenditure due to the need to recover physiologically from those charged states. In addition, focus and determination better shapes one’s expectations of their future situation, somewhat of a visualization process if you will. And while I am sure I may get some eye rolls with this statement, the bottom line is that it is not uncommon for people to one day realize those future scenarios they visualize.

5) Gratitude – We see this often in awards speeches, but it is something to apply to every day given an athlete gets to do what they love and be rewarded to do it. Whether that is a salary, a college scholarship, or any other benefit that an athlete enjoys based on the hard work they’ve put in (often from childhood), there is a need to be grateful. Gratitude is also the acknowledgement of all the people who support them, care for them, push them, and teach them how to be elite. In appreciating the “teamwork” that got them where they are, the sense of community around that is motivating and can help them understand that people have their back regardless of how they perform or how things shape up in their careers. It also serves to provide a great source of positive energy to the people around them.

 


Final Thoughts

 

If there is any one certainty in life, it is the fact that things change. We are at a point in time where elite athletes are performing at levels never before seen and it’s not just one or two standalones, but thousands. The physical limits of the human body are being expanded, but the mental and physiological balance required to support these physical changes is lagging behind in its perceived importance. As a result, more serious physical and mental health issues are prevailing in athletics. The time has come to take a more comprehensive approach to what defines optimal human performance. Hopefully, these 5 factors above can become more commonplace and emphasized in the athletic performance enhancement industry in coming years.

 


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