Peak Performance

Two of my favorites to follow on twitter are author Brad Stulberg (@bstulberg) and coach and author Steve Magness (@stevemagness).  So, when I saw they had co-authored a book —Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive with the New Science of Success— I bought it.

I enjoyed this book.  It covers a lot of ground, which makes it a good resource to direct further reading.

The book focuses on the central question, can we excel in our work, art or sport and still maintain some balance in our lives?

Can someone use the science of performance to achieve results, but also manage to avoid burning out?

This is an important question.

As you go deeper into the book another large question starts to emerge.

Can you change your mindset or opinions about stress in such a way that you can promote growth and health?

The authors work to connect the research on performance from multiple fields in order to bring new and richer insights to each individual domain.  Their stated goal is to find the science behind performance and productivity.

If you are already familiar with Anders Ericsson, Mihaly Csikzentmihaly, Daniel Kahneman and Carol Dweck you may find that the book covers familiar ground. However it does tie all this disparate research together well and shows how they intersect to drive performance.  I also found new research and nuances that were helpful and covered new ground.

Peak Performance has certainly focused in on some of the most significant thinkers in the realm of personal achievement and performance.

Here are my notes from the first half of the book:

Chapter 1: The Secret to Sustainable Success:

Here it is: Stress + rest = growth

They emphasize hard work, but spend more time on the value of recovery. Take Deena Kastor as an example. Kastor, our most famous and successful American marathoner, said in an interview with Competitor magazine 

“The leaps and bounds I’ve made over the last several years have come from outside the training and how I choose to recover. During a workout you are breaking down soft tissue and really stressing your body. How you treat yourself in between workouts is where you make gains and acquire the strength to attack the next one.”

The authors then move to creative and intellectual performance and dive into the work of the great Csikszentmihaly who is most famous for his research on Flow.  Here they look at his book Creativity, which documents the process of many of the worlds best inventors, scientists, artists, writers, etc.

The formula applied again:  Immersion (stress)+ Incubation (rest) =Insight (growth)

Mental fatigue is as tiring as physical fatigue and also requires a period of rest.  As coaches we need to remember this when dealing with our athletes as whole people and not just the time that we see  them on court or the field.

Chapter 2: Rethinking Stress

In this chapter we look at stress from a different perspective.

Stress in the right doses has value–prepares us, strengthens us, etc- but too much of it and the body does the opposite and starts to deteriorate as a result.

“Put this all together and a paradox emerges. Stress can be positive, triggering desirable adaptations in the body; or stress can be negative, causing grave damage and harm. The effects of stress depend entirely on the dose. And when applied in the right does, stress does more than stimulate physiological adaptations. It stimulates psychological ones too.”

For any of us who have spent time training athletes to get out of their comfort zone the idea that “skills come from struggle” is not a new one, but their are some interesting nuances.

For instance, they point to a study that shows that learning using open-ended exploration or learning that begins with students working through complex problems on their own before getting help is a more powerful way to learn than helping students immediately.

We can transfer this idea from the classroom to the field and set up training that requires decision making and some level of mental struggle as well as physical.

Another term I like is “productive failure,” which refers to the failure that occurs when we are out of our comfort zones.

(This is not too different from “invest in loss” a term that Josh Waitzkin uses in The Art of Learning.)

Anybody who has read Thinking Fast and Slow will recognize the discussion on the System 1 and System 2 processes in our brains.  That book is dense and wonderful. This one cuts through to the simple idea: the harder we work at learning something new (System 2) the more it becomes integrated into our natural processes (System1).

“If we stick at learning something for long enough, what was once a formidable System 2 challenge becomes a simpler System 1 task.”

Therefore you need stress–to challenge yourself–to increase your ability in any field.

This leads into the work of Flow by Csikzentmihalyi which establishes that we need the right balance between stress and competence to stay engaged in the learning process.

 “What you’re after is the sweet spot: when the challenge at hand is on the outer edge of, or perhaps just beyond, your current skills.”

Chapter 3: Stress Yourself

What makes an expert? Not simply experience, but “deliberate training,” an idea from the work of Anders Ericsson.

This book is not an in-depth look at deliberate practice.  For that, you should turn to the book Peak which I have written about before.

The piece of deliberate training that they highlight in this book is the need for absolute focus.

They use a term “single tasking,” which was new to me, to indicate how much more productive we all would be by giving our attention to one thing at a time.

“In other words, multitasking not only makes the work we do today suffer, but it also makes the work we’ll do tomorrow suffer.  As Ericsson’ts expert violinists and the Renaissance man Dr Bob all demonstrate, engaging in a task with singular focus is how we grow from stress.”

One way to ensure that you can focus is to break your work into appropriate lengths of time.  There is no exact amount of time, but 90 minutes seems to be the longest that anyone can focus. With recovery breaks of anywhere from 7 to 20 minutes.

This ebb and flow runs counter to the all-too-common constant grind of either perpetually working in an “in between one” of moderately hard work or working at the utmost intensity nonstop….The former leads to under-performance. The latter leads to physical, cognitive and emotional fatigue  and, eventually burnout.”

Our mindsets are another factor that come into play. What you believe matters.  How you view events matters. This plays into the work of Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset, who is now famous for the concepts of growth versus fixed mindset, but it also brings to mind the work Ellen Langer the Harvard psychologist who has been studying mindfulness and mindset for quite some time.

Suffice it to say that the key is to have a growth mindset over a fixed mindset. How you relate to your struggles, failures, challenges and potential may be the most significant factor in how well you learn.

“At the end  the vast majority of students who had previously felt their abilities were fixed shifted their outlooks. More important, their rate of progression in school increased. Remarkably as they shifted their mindset they also shifted their academic trajectory, going from near failure to academic success.”

Think about the implications.

If we know stress (challenge) has some value and we change our view to embrace stress then we have more opportunity for growth simply by changing our mindset. The authors cite Kelly McGonigal’s work The Upside of Stress, which challenges the current cultural views regarding stress.

In this book she makes the distinction between two hormones that are released when we are stressed, one good and one bad. The good DHEA and the bad cortisol. DHEA has all kinds of beneficial effects like reduced depression,  reduced heart disease, etc.

When under stress you want to release more DHEA than cortisol. This ratio is aptly named the “growth index of stress.”

Can you frame stressors in such a way that yields this result?

The best have figured this out.

The authors note that elite athletes will use stress as excitement and not place a negative value judgment on their nerves. Instead of calming themselves down they make use of their energy to drive their competitive performance.

Chapter 4: The Paradox of Rest

Burnout is a grave threat not just for exceptional people who push past rational limits in the pursuit of excellence, but also for the organizations that employ them. Therefore finding the ability to solve the rest half of the equation is of paramount importance.

Enter mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is about being completely present in the moment, fully aware of yourself and your surroundings.”

They go on to extol the virtues of meditation including the role mindfulness can play in managing our response to stress.  They remind us that we have a choice in how we respond and that by practicing meditation we can develop our ability to exercise that choice.

But meditation is not the only option here.

They also discuss the idea of a “calm conversation” internally that they notice  in elite runners dealing with the pain of running. Accepting the pain as a part of the process led to an ability to manage the pain.

“It was like I was having a simple conversation in the middle of the race–first with you then with myself. When it started to get difficult, I didn’t try to force my way through the pain or fight against it. Instead, I reminded myself this is normal and relaxed.”

How to be creative.

Our subconscious brain pulls more disparate thoughts together.  This part of the brain works when the conscious brain is not working; when we are at rest.

Here the book uses examples that easily could have come from the earlier book Creativity, written by Mihaly Csikzentmihaly. That wonderful book showed how when our brain is partly engaged in an activity we know well–driving to a familiar place, taking a shower, walking in the woods–our most creative ideas emerge. It’s as if by using a small part of the conscious mind we create the opportunity for the subconscious mind to work.

Rest results in record breaking results.

An interesting example in this book, is Roger Bannister the great runner, who broke the 4 minute mile record.  Instead of training for his next mile race he went and cross trained in the mountains, hiking and enjoying himself with friends. In a way this was resting. After that he really rested.  Then he broke the record.

Frame rest as an active choice.  They use the example of Matt Dixon who convinces the runners he coaches that resting is a “supporting session,” helping elite athletes to feel as though they are still accomplishing something.

(Aside) Dixon uses the word fresh, which is something Raymong Verheijin also emphasizes in his model of periodization. Soccer coaches–at the end of your season, are your athletes fresh enough to advance?”

(Second half notes coming tomorrow)

(Disclosure:  This little blog is an amazon affiliate. If you purchase a book or anything through here the blog makes a small percentage. Thank you in advance.)

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