Friday, October 29, 2010

"The Importance of Balance in an Athlete's Life"

Yesterday I spoke to my former high school, National Sports Academy, about the importance of balance in an athlete's life. My post-lunch talk is a part of a larger series of speakers, ranging from sports psychologists to farmers, and their perspectives on the process of achieving peak performance. 

One thing I realized in doing this is that the subtleties of finding balance can be so individual and unique, varying greatly from athlete to athlete. So I wish only the best to those that strive!
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Here's most of what I had to say:

I do a sport where success can be elusive and fleeting – literally, a hit or miss. I view peak performance a bit in the same way. As an endurance athlete I train all year to prepare for a few minor peaks and one primary summit at World Championships or the Olympics. I could also call these peaks my goals for the competition season.

Visualize the view of Whiteface Mtn.:  Mt. Fuji-like in its symmetry, it emphasizes its peak – the summit – the goal – the top – it is but a mere point, albeit a castle, but nonetheless a small point compared to the mountain, the base, its dimensions and immensity.  For me, the summit represents peak performance and my goals for the season. As athletes, you know you can’t just go from the beginning trailhead of a mountain straight to the summit. That’s why it’s no news to you that the benefits in reaching peak performance are often not just in the goal but also in the process. 

Whiteface Mt. Photo by Shaun Ondak

Instead of being overwhelmed by reaching the summit and achieving my top goals, I reorient myself towards a different focal point – optimal performance. 

This I know I can achieve time and time again: I can do it in training, while working, while traveling. Anytime. The ability to create optimal performances more often is similar to training your threshold for endurance – it’s your base. The more efficient I am at “scaling” 90% of the “mountain” means I have reserved my energy to make that last push to the top when I need to.  I’m pretty happy with how my training has gone this year and I feel like I am right where I need to be going into the first races of the season. When it comes down to my Trial races this November all it will take to qualify is this last leap to the summit. 

One reason why I think I’ve been able to create optimal performances and reach peaks in my career is because I’ve put a lot in to being a balanced athlete.

I look at balance in two ways: physically and holistically. Basically, how strong is your core and how strong is your mind?

Let’s look at the physical aspect first. My standing shooting position requires inner stability to balance out the weight of the rifle and to shoot accurately. If I set myself up right, then I give myself the best chance of shooting well when under the physical stress of racing – high heart rate, competition, heavy breathing

A quick clip from combo training (rollerskiing and shooting) at the Soldier Hollow Biathlon venue during a National Team training camp in Utah this October.

One way I have created my physical ability to balance is by strengthening my inner core – my spinal musclesThis fundamental inner strength is undeniably key to all athletic movements. This strength creates balance, which prevents tensions and weaknesses in the body that can hinder your performance.


The other way I look at balance is much harder to define and more individual than the physical side. Here are 4 ways that I keep myself in balance:

Know when to be “on” and when to be “off” with particular importance to the “off” part:
It is easy to train hard, but it is hard to recover and relax, especially with busy schedules. You can’t be “race-ready” all of the time or else you’ll burn out or just go crazy. I know that in order to be fresh and ready to train and race everyday, I need some downtime to get away from the intensity of biathlon. I’ll head to Canmore, Alberta next week and one of my favorite things about Canmore is a great downtown yoga studio. When I need to get out of the hotel room and away from guns, I usually seek something like this out. But, when I can’t a couple winter knitting projects usually does the trick.

Diverse resources: 
In a given day I can work with a shooting coach, head coach, strength coach, sports psychologist, mentor, team manager and physical therapists. They all bring different views to biathlon from their unique specialties. A different voice and approach helps balance out my primary coaching support and gives me another way of looking at a problem or task. *

Simply, Know thyself.:
By knowing your self, your needs, your follies, and your strengths you can be a bit more imaginative with what you need to keep you head, heart, position and often just your day in some sense of balance. It’s a bit about efficiency. Why waste your energy trying to juggle too many things, when you can instead use it to move forward and closer to your goals? 

Knowing that I am more than just a biathlete:
I’ve been in and out of school since I left NSA, but in addition to keeping up with my education, I have always found a way to keep art and community service a part of what I do. Currently it comes in the form of visiting the LPES gym class. Don’t forget to remain connected to other interests, communities, clubs, etc. We often are so much more than we think we are. 

But ----- sometimes, no matter how hard you try, no matter what you do, no matter how good you are – your balance will falter. At the moment of a missed goal, a hooked tip, a slip on the ice, and for me, a missed target and all you can say is ‘damn it’. We all know what this feels like and there’s no hiding its momentary agony.

After a tough race or training session when I feel that all is lost, I’ve relied on my sense of balance to right me. When I am stressed or tired while racing, I can often hit only 50% of my targets that often results in additional minutes spent skiing around a penalty loop. There’s really nothing worse than having to make sure I count five loops around the penalty loop. However, these moments are humbling because they demonstrate that achieving balance isn’t easy. It’s challenging to have everything go right every time. But because balance is something that I know is key to my success I have learned a great deal more about being accountable and aware of what works for me.

In that respect, achieving a balance - reveling in equilibrium – is an optimal performance in and of its self: only steps away from your peak.
* * * * * - Thanks for letting me borrow your photo!
* Just one of my great resources.

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