Over the last 30 years I’ve had the good fortune to work with many successful champion athletes, both professional and amateur. During that span I’ve seen highly-talented athletes have middling careers and less-promising athletes have long and fruitful careers—and everything in between. I’ve come to believe that an athlete’s success is largely due to the habits that they create day in and day out; the groundwork for excellence is laid in practice. Here are some ways to practice good habits around your sport.
How an athlete mentally prepares for practice greatly impacts their performance quality. It starts with attitude, and attitude is a decision. While some days are harder than others, the ability to partition life stress and tune into your optimal performance zone—that level of activation and focus you need to be on task—is a practiced skill.
Goal setting before practice, both process and outcome, helps you hone your focus. To start, make sure you know the purpose of the practice. What energy system are you emphasizing? What biomechanics are you focusing on? How fatigued should you be by the end of practice? Spend a few moments visualizing efficient movement before practice. You may even want to watch video of high performers to get you in the zone.
Lean on Your Community
I have found the most consistent performers are able to combine fun with focus. They’re excited about the practice, energized about the challenge of the day, and look forward to connecting with their peers at the venue. Experienced athletes work with their coach and their teammates to strategize how to best execute the practice at hand, taking a collaborative approach. There may be internal competition, but that is coupled with a sense of camaraderie.
Any athlete who has trained in well-coached, high-performance practices knows that during “on” days they have something to give to their teammates, and during “off” days, they rely on those same teammates to pull a little bit more out of them.
Refine Your Logistics
A critical part of a successful practice is logistics. By being organized and creating storage and preparation systems, you’ll gain consistency with your equipment and eliminate stressors. While this may seem like basic advice, pre-organizing multiple gym, swim or run bags, having a charging spot for your technology, ensuring bike helmets and equipment are stored in proximity, or pre-packing your training day (and maybe the car) the evening before allows you to have logistics dialed in so that you spend less time pulling equipment together and more time mentally focusing on the day’s training.
Be disciplined about arriving early to practice, creating extra time in your day as a buffer so that you can properly stretch and cool down without stress about needing to be somewhere else. Sometimes an extra 10 minutes makes all the difference.
Being habitual also means logging workouts immediately after practice; have that technology on hand. With so many simple mobile technologies available, uploading files can be done promptly to your training log, as can typed or voice-to-text commentary. Performance tracking allows you to see patterns in performance and to reflect on similar workouts. The ability to compare heart rate, power, and GPS side by side is a very specific way to analyze progress. High performers log their training and provide supplementary journaling so they can better learn from their practices and increase the probability of successful performance on race day.
Keep Your Body Tuned
The last critical piece of maximizing performance gains from practice is body preparation and maintenance. Carve out time to stretch properly and add bi-weekly standalone sessions to work on mobility. Incorporating foam rolling, massage balls, muscle stim, compression boots etc. can help keep the body tuned and ready to work. Outside of practice, other therapies such as massage, physio, acupuncture and chiro are integrated by elite athletes as part of their standard recovery regime, not only as a means to heal after injury.
You also want to be systematic about the way you warm up. Test what kind of warmups best activate you so that you may simulate them on race day. You can tune up your neuromuscular system through activation drills and race-specific movements for very short periods of time, for instance 20 to 30 seconds. And remember to start really easy—many athletes start too fast, particularly in the first third of their warm up.
Plan Your Nutrition
Last, always prepare your nutrition around the workout. Finish your easily digestible pre-meal at least two hours prior. Pre-prepare some carbs to consume within 30 minutes of finishing practice, such as a recovery shake. Have something healthy in the fridge or the cupboards for when you get home, with complex carbohydrates and lean protein.
Attention to detail in the way you practice will allow you to pull out a few extra percentage points each session. The net result over the long term is maximizing your human performance potential.