Patterns of Performance: What We All Can Learn From the Practices of Elite Athletes

05/20/2015 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016
Brad Stulberg

Specialization, a bedrock of our modern economy, is generally held in a positive light. The notion of gaining expertise in a specific field is widely celebrated, and our fascination with the "10,000 hour rule," popularized by Malcolm Gladwell (i.e., it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert), is based on this premise.

But with specialization often comes tunnel vision, and we fail to recognize what other disciplines can teach us about how to excel at our own. As world-renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, "It is important to keep in mind that most breakthroughs are based on linking information that usually is not thought of as related. Integration and synthesis both across and within domains."

Through our (i.e., Steve and Brad's) collective experience working with elite performers in sport and intellect, we have recognized two practices common in great athletes that can also be used to enhance more cerebral work: (i) taking control of personal evolution; and (ii) cultivating a self-transcending purpose.

Personal evolution, be it physiological or psychological, results when a stressor challenges the body or mind and then is followed by adequate recovery, yielding a positive adaptation. The hard part is striking the right balance between stress and recovery.

World class endurance athletes are masters at manipulating this balance through a longstanding process called periodization, or systematic training that elicits peak performance at a particular time. On a micro level, training alternates between hard days (e.g., intervals until the brink of muscle failure and total exhaustion) and easy days (e.g., jogging at a pedestrian pace). On a macro level, master athletes intentionally design their seasons to include only a few "peak events" that are followed by periods of physical and psychological restoration.

This ebb-and-flow contrasts mightily to the constant grind of most thinkers and businessmen in the knowledge economy, where individuals either (i) perpetually work in an "in-between zone" of moderately hard work, or (ii) work at the utmost intensity non-stop. Neither approach is ideal - the former leads to under-performance and the latter to cognitive fatigue and burnout.

Instead of taking either of these sub-optimal approaches to "getting work done," those whose work relies on more cerebral endeavors (and the organizations that support them) could model elite athletes - alternating between bouts of stress and recovery - to foster growth and enhance performance over time. In fact, research shows that creative thoughts and subsequent intellectual breakthroughs tend to occur after periods of stress followed by recovery.

For instance, a recent study out of Stanford suggests that taking a break and going for a walk outside is one of the most potent ways to increase creativity. But this shouldn't be surprising. Years earlier, in Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi highlighted a common theme across field-changing geniuses; they all tend to operate at polar ends of the activity-rest spectrum, either pursuing their activity with ferocious intensity, or engaging in restoration and recovery.

Even after following periodization to a tee, reaching and sustaining the highest levels of performance proves elusive to all but a select few. A key contributing factor manifests itself in memorable post-game interviews, where after breakthrough performances, athletes often thank god, their parents, or another pivotal figure in their life.

Having an overarching purpose that is beyond oneself (i.e., a self-transcending purpose) is common amongst great performers in athletics. In his book, On Purpose, Dr. Victor Strecher, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, explains that nurturing a self-transcending purpose decreases the impact of our ego. When our ego is minimized, so too are constraining emotions, like fear and worry, that are associated with it.

No longer in a guarded state trying to protect our literal "self" from failure, and in the case of athletics, physiological pain, we become more open to taking calculated risks and venturing past of our own perceived limits. Perhaps it was this greater sense of purpose that propelled Lelisa Desisa who, after winning this year's Boston Marathon on April 20, told reporters of his driving force, "Number one reason is Boston Strong, Boston Strong 2013."

In a paradoxical twist, thinking less about yourself is one of the best ways to improve yourself.

Those whose work falls in the domain of knowledge can also benefit from nurturing a self-transcending purpose and methodically reminding themselves of it. In a meta-analysis of over 200,000 workers (i.e., non-athletes) across industries, the belief that one's job had a positive impact on others was associated with heightened motivation and performance. Be it on the playing field or in the office, connecting work to something greater than yourself holds promise as a performance enhancer.

In the end, performance is performance, whether it is a ballerina perfecting a pirouette, a pitcher throwing a flawless curve-ball, or an author devising the perfect prose. While narrowing focus within a particular field is required to gain expertise, looking across domains -- in this case, from intellect to athletics -- is useful to unlock novel performance insights.

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This post was co-authored by Steve Magness who is a cross-country coach at the University of Houston where in addition to his college athletes, he coaches a group of professional runners. He is also the author of the book The Science of Running and writes a regular column for Running Times Magazine. You can follow Steve on Twitter @SteveMagness.

Brad Stulberg writes about the art and science of health and performance and is a regular contributor to Outside Magazine. He was formerly a McKinsey and Company Consultant. You can follow Brad on Twitter @Bstulberg.