7.     The power of “how are you?”

With advancement in technology whether if it is Heart Rate Variability or electronic devices, the purpose of every invention is to automate and reduce the need for man-to-man communication. Going to the supermarket now, I’m no longer checking out with a friendly staff chit chatting about the weather or the latest events in the world, instead I’m greeted by a machine that may eventually tell me how cold it is outside but I’m sure she won’t be putting on a jacket anytime soon. Just like that, human relationships are dying!

Whilst the machines are useful and provides an objective measure of our athlete’s physiological state, but it is directing our everyday practice towards communication through an artificial medium. In more time-pressured environment we even set up a traffic light system that group athletes in a rather obscure green, yellow, and red groups! So here’s the question, do we really need ‘luxury’ devices such as HRV monitors to know our athlete is not having a great day? That they are mentally and/or physically fatigued? Trust me, if you genuinely care about your athletes, you will TALK! If you are not even engaging in the most primitive forms of communication it’s no coincidence a coach may struggle with athlete buy-ins.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used HRV in practice and with good success, but nothing trumps face-to-face contact. In fact, I’ve used HRV as a tool to building relationships with my athletes. For instance, if I notice a decline in key monitoring metrics, my next series of questions would be along the lines of: “How are you feeling?”, “Is everything okay?”, “How’s your diet/sleep pattern?”, “Well, let me know if there’s anything you’d like to chat about or I can do for you”. Technology needs to be utilized to foster care and support, it should not be used as an automated system that group individuals without dynamic personalities i.e. “you’re in the red zone today, so you are just going to rest”; it’s through care we develop relationship with each other (our athletes) or anyone that we cross path with.

As human beings we crave feedback, without feedback we go crazy. In fact, that’s the purpose of solitary confinement. In prison solitary is one of the most common method to penalize mischievous inmates where they maybe completely isolated from human contact for hours and even days. This practice has actually received much criticism for the detrimental psychological side-effects that borderlines torture. While solitary confinement maybe an extreme case in point, but technology is in fact doing just that. It is reducing the necessity for human-to-human, face-to-face contact, and it is not a coincidence that reports of depression is at an all-time high!

So before reaching for the bells and whistles that may facilitate our practices, I’d urge young coaches to master the art of relationships. Perhaps begin your sessions by a simple dialogue:

Coach: “Hey how’s your day going?”

Young Athlete: “Oh, math assignment has been stressing me out”

Coach: “Oh, let me see if I can help”

Try this. Once you become proficient at building relationships with your athletes your coaching will grow exponentially. I’d like to end this section with another quote introduced to me by the great Mike Boyle:

“People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”

 

8.     High performance is not training, it’s a lifestyle

In sports performance we often hear the term ‘High Performance Coach’, what seems to be used synonymously to describe elite technical coaching. But in actuality sound technical coaching alone does not qualify one as a ‘high performance’ guy. High performance is a lifestyle! It’s a strategic lifestyle layered upon deliberate habits allowing one to craft excellence and demonstrate human ingenuity through artistic expressions in a chosen discipline. High performance is not a term that is applied strictly to sports, a master musician, actor, or businessman are all high achievers in their own respective field and their artistry was only attained through a lifestyle of high performance, unrelenting pursuit for perfection.

So now begs the question, what is a high performance lifestyle? In my opinion a high performance lifestyle is an ensemble of purposeful conditioning to the body, optimal replenishment of nutrients and physiological restoration, and development of psychosocial intelligence; only through harmonious orchestration of these components can one ‘approach’ the infinite limits of a given discipline.

Historically high performers were often life philosophers who may not necessarily grasp all these attributes, and this is where there may be inherent weaknesses to their greatness. Nonetheless these high performing individuals typically do share a common trait, and that is an obsession towards mastery and conquest that often concurs with a rather monotonous lifestyle. The moment an individual decides to lead a high performance lifestyle they are committed to make sacrifices and refrain from allurements that yield no benefits to their objective.

At this point all your actions become calculated and purposeful, i.e. as an athlete you will no longer eat for pleasure but instead you start to view nourishments as a source of fuel that facilitates peak performance. This distinction between leisure (doing something as a hobby) and mastery (doing something for a living) is an important one. Failure to realize this distinction is possibly the number one reason preventing an individual from high performance in their chosen field and flounders to make a career out of something they thought they love.

Playing sports, music, lifting weights etc. are fun, but the road to mastery are not and probably will never be. In fact Maestro Ben Zander, the great conductor of Boston Philharmonics once said “professionals set the standard, the students make it a training orchestra, and the amateurs are a reminder that music is an act of love”. Through intense and arduous deliberate practices an expert (a professional) will often overpass the purity and joy of a craft that a hobbyist indulges in, this is not to say the experts are no longer passionate but these individuals have a different perspective stemming from the fact their survival depends on it. Conversely, for an enthusiast they may only engage in purposeless practices that is only good for the soul but not the strategic practices that are probably not the most joyful on the agenda. It’s through this distinction can one turn their passion into a profession and attain mastery that is only a product of a high performance lifestyle.

 

9.     “I have no special talent, I’m only passionately curious” – Albert Einstein

Coaching is a truly special profession. As a coach (or any type of leader) you shoulder the responsibility of those under your care and tutelage, you have the opportunity empower and impact another person’s livelihood beyond your subject of practice. In my opinion been competent at the craft of technical coaching is only a prerequisite, meeting this minimal requirement is a good start but a great coach is a role model figure who is well-versed in a diverse range of topics. This man is a ‘Jack-of-all-trades and expert-in-one’. By been attuned across a range of subjects you will be better equipped to build instantaneous relationships with athletes of all walks and interests and be more socially aware for those who may require special attention as a result of societal issues.

This practice requires an open-minded, childlike curiosity towards all-facets of life and is a trait that will catapult one’s coaching career. Through cross-disciplinary learning you will encounter universal principles applicable to all field-of-practices, and by rephrasing a question/paradox under a different context it may reveal overlooked details that will bring layers in your quest to mastery. It is not uncommon I experience ‘lightbulb’ moments on problems I have been pondering upon while learning or observing about another discipline. As a matter of fact, historical breakthroughs were often founded upon contextual learning i.e. Newton’s infamous tale of an apple falling on his head inspiring him to propose the theory of gravity, or Einstein’s imagination of a laboratory in an elevator that led to his General Relativity Theory. Hence ‘deliberate’, multidisciplinary exposure to diverse content is a powerful way to enhance your learning and everyday practices.

Lastly, if you’re like me and chose to turn your passion into your profession, in some ways you’ve lost a hobby. I vividly recall a Sunday morning on May 2014 where I’ve just endured a 60 hour work week and the last thing I’d like to hear is a bouncing basketball. At that moment I thought to myself, “geez wouldn’t it be nice if I can turn to my hobby and sit down to enjoy a game of basketball?” That’s when it occurred to me the need to develop/maintain interests outside of one’s field-of-practice. Trust me, you’ll need it!

 

10. Work-life-balance

My last point is also probably the most important lesson I’ve learnt over the past 10 years (and yes, you maybe noticing some repetitive themes). I entered the sports performance industry living the dream of pursuing my life-passion working with athletes that even till this day I sometimes pinch myself on how incredible my journey has been; some of whom I now call ‘friend’ is something an 18 years old Neal would not have believed. Because of the nature of this business (or any hobby-turned-career venture) means it’s very easy for our profession to consume our life.

This happened to me and it came without precaution. As a starting coach I was immersed and enjoying every moment of my work, look, I was working with basketball players all day everyday what more could I have asked for? Before you know it I was working absurd amount of hours and totaling 20 or so days off per year while working 7 straights Christmases! After a few years of ‘living the dream’ racing down the freeway with no speed limits I was finally burnt out, there was never a reserve fuel warning on my dashboard (or maybe I was racing so fast I failed to notice) and I simply ran out of gas.

Running out of gas on a freeway would never be a fun experience and when it happens you have no choice but to call for help (sometimes calling for outside help is the hardest thing to do). The refueling process was a rough one, one met by life events where you can only rely on friends and family to get you off the road. Through a yearlong of soul-searching and realizing there are more to life than basketball/work, I started to understand the importance of breaks, extracurricular activities, and the little things became an afterthought while I was busy turning my dream into a reality.

Nowadays I ‘try’ to keep my Sundays away from anything work-related (though I’m currently writing this article on a Sunday afternoon in a café, uhhh the irony), even if it means going overtime to get more accomplished during the week or simply, just wing it! I keep this day completely to myself sometimes even engaging in the art of ‘doing nothing’ where it has actually been the best refresh button for me preparing for my upcoming week.

In pursuit of establishing a work-life balance I also made a conscious effort of growing my social network and building long-lasting relationships, which is also a means for me to refuel my tank. While reading one of the titles by Dean Graziosi (I highly recommend his books for those looking to establish life habits) I came across the concept of battery chargers and drainers, it’s a method I use to select my social circle. The idea is simple, if I find somebody who is a battery drainer, those who consumes my energy with minimal reciprocation, I will be fairly quick to distance myself from those individuals whilst the battery chargers are providers who energizes me and I will do my best to give back in return. This has been a highly effective strategy that helps me to maintain a positive energy even during ultra-endurance periods, and should I have a drop in energy or facing challenging situations I now have a support network who can help me through various issues.

Now I understand everybody is different and have different life priorities, but if you ever find yourself in similar situation as myself I suggest you start thinking about your means to deriving a healthy work-life balance. Personally this work-life equation is a rather complex one, and one I hope I can solve in the next decade.

Neal Wen

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