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World Class Performers Unplug Differently

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All of us "perform" in some aspect of our lives. For some, performance comes in the way of business, sport, or military applications; for others it might be school, relationships, care-taking, or artistic expression.

While it may be true that all the world's a stage, an audience is not actually required in order to "perform." In fact, Dictionary.com describes performance as simply, "the process of carrying out a task." Think of all the tasks you've carried out today. Believe it or not, even the most mundane of these things count; almost every activity involves in its process some form of mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual performance.

In their pursuit of being the best in the world, how do world-class performers -- from Olympic athletes to Forbes-list business moguls -- manage the effort behind their particular tasks? How do they get so much out of themselves when they're plugged-in to their activity? And how do they unplug afterwards?

After spending over a decade with world-class performers, a very clear pattern has become evident: They seem to know and accept that stress is an inevitable part of life -- that it's necessary for growth and optimal performance. They also seem to understand that the recovery from stress ("unplugging") is equally important.

In the search for balance, every unit of stress needs an equal unit of recovery.

Before I describe that recovery, what do I mean by stress?

Not all units of stress are equal. Some forms of stress drain our energy at a much faster rate than other forms. The two types of stress are known as: eustress and distress. The key difference between the two depends on the interpretation of the event by stressed individual. Each of us has the ability to determine the type of stress that we are experiencing.

To illustrate this point, imagine a very stressful event: a loved one dying. One interpretation might be, "He was in lot's of pain the past three years of his life. I wish I would've spent more time with him. He was such a great man. He is in a better place now." This type of stress is considered to be eustress: it doesn't feel good, but there's a perspective that allows for clarity, optimism, and growth. A distress experience for the same example might sound like, "He was in so much pain for the past three years of his life. It's just not fair. I wasn't able to spend enough time with him. I'll never forgive myself for that."

In respect to energy maintenance and balance, eustress and distress have very different effects on the body. Distress requires much more energy, and hence, much more recovery needed to regain balance.

So how do high performers do it? How do they seem to find the energy to be one of the best in the world, and to do it consistently? How do they balance being plugged in, and unplugging? There's no real silver bullet to full balance -- and there are certainly exceptions to the rule -- but here are some common themes:
  1. They don't waste much energy with distress responses to uncomfortable and stressful life events. Part of their life's work is to be extremely proficient in a set of specific tasks. It seems like a natural extension to spend and recuperate energy in the most efficient manner possible: by creating eustress scenarios.
  2. They get plenty of sleep. Our bodies don't function very well without it--and when your passion is to be "the best," sleep is a valued commodity. It's well understood that our minds and bodies recover from sleep. Feeling recovered can have a tremendous impact on the quality of your ability to negotiate between eustress and distress interpretations.
  3. They give themselves permission to nap. Napping is a wonderful way to "unplug" throughout the day. Determine the best type of nap for you. According to recent research from Mathew Walker from UC Berkeley, napping has been linked to have an effect on positive brain power.
  4. They have clear goals, with clear purposes in life. Having perspective definitely helps with being able to use effective coping strategies when things don't go according to plan.
  5. They eat a well balanced diet and are well hydrated. Eating well increases natural energy sources, and decreases the need to recover compared to those who eat processed and other low-quality foods.
  6. They pay attention, on a daily basis, to how they are performing. They perform mindfully, observing themselves carefully. They attend to their internal dialog, continually searching for the most efficient and powerful ways to speak to themselves (i.e., looking to create eustress interpretations). This awareness allows for more immediate and effective maintenance of energy.
  7. Many (e.g., athletes and artists) are often without computers, electronic planners, cell phones, and televisions for a large portion of the day. Imagine what that must be like. Of course, they still make time for their favorite Huffington blogs, naturally.

Learn from world class performers how to be mindful of ways to negotiate stress and convert common complaints and roadblocks into challenges and opportunities. Getting plenty of sleep, being balanced in diet and hydration, and having clear and purposeful goals, also enhances efficient recovery. These approaches can be a foundation to unplug in a world-class way.

Dr. Michael Gervais, is the Director of Performance Psychology at D.I.S.C Sports and Spine, An Official Medical Service Provider for the U.S. Olympic Team. Dr. Gervais, as a licensed psychologist in California, has consulted with numerous NHL, NBA, NFL, UFC, MLS, AVP, NASCAR, Mixed Martial Arts fighters, Olympians, collegiate athletes, and military personnel.

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