4 Decompression Strategies for Performance StaffFeb 16, 2023
One of the major struggles of my career, as well as many other performance support staff, is the inability to be present.
They're always thinking about what's next, whether that's career instability or progression, qualifications, the latest CPD, the stages of the season or Olympic cycle, training camp or competition preparation.
All of this is on top of the most potent and rarely discussed causes of stress in performance staff: the demands of managing, solving and sometimes surviving the day-to-day communication and conflicts with the people they work with.
This leads them to be stuck in their head when they get home, meaning they aren't showing up for their partner, their children, or themselves.
"My relationship broke down. I'm always away. I'm always down on energy, unable to see friends and family. I feel guilty that it's my fault, and I'm tired of every human interaction being a transaction. I'm lonely."
Sport can so often be perceived as 100% committal 24/7. You need to be first in and last out to be a successful and loyal member of the MDT.
But know that that is a myth or a story that many performance staff accept, believe, and surrender to without truly reflecting on if or why that is even true in the first place.
And this comes down to clarity:
- What are th expectations of you?
- Who defines that?
- What jobs are you adding for yourself?
- What are you avoiding?
- What are you pretending not to know?
All of the above is complex and requires help, which is why I do what I do. But what stands out as the first step in this, is to become skilled in detaching ourselves from all that encompasses work by utilising a decompression strategy.
- Have you got one when you leave work?
If you haven't got a conscious process, you'll never create separation from your work, meaning it’ll affect every waking moment.
To successfully do this, requires a simple 2 part plan:
Part 1 is to have a simple plan of tried and tested practices which you can use after each day (I also use this plan before my day).
Part 2 is to tune into intentionality. I say this because it’s far too easy to make this another tick-box exercise. Once it becomes that, you may as well not bother. So intentionality to me is about feeling and experiencing what changes happen, in the moment, of each practice you use. Ultimately this teaches you what you can refine to keep the effectiveness as high as possible.
If you don’t choose how to use your time, others will choose for you. If you don’t choose what is important, others will choose for you. If you don’t choose what to think or believe, others will choose for you.
The Decompression Strategy
Everyone’s life and situation are unique, so there are no set rules to this. What I can do is share four beneficial practices that have helped me over the years in navigating periods of stress, staying fully engaged in my craft, and continuing to love my job every single day.
I’m a father, husband, business owner, and former strength and conditioning coach. I’d be lying if I said sometimes I didn’t get overwhelmed, but these five practices below have always helped me to find level ground and continue to be my best self on a daily basis more consistently than ever before.
Not only that, they continually offer insight into myself. That may sound abstract to you right now, but all I can do is say that the list below contains practices I turned my nose to and called pointless years ago. Allow yourself to change, and be amazed at what you discover.
1. Window to the World
“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. It is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.” - Edward O. Wilson
A common complaint I hear often, as well as one I used to dance with, is how members of the coaching team reach out at 10 pm, 11 pm or even later to ask questions or request data for the following morning.
You can see how ridiculous this is. The only situation that this is potentially acceptable is during a very small window during a major competition e.g. Olympic Games/World Cup.
For the rest of the time, the sobering realisation is that if we keep our own phones on, and then check them late at night, we are causing our own issues.
We can’t control other people, and it’s certainly not our place to manipulate other people's boundaries - that’s their stuff. What we are responsible for is our own boundaries, which include making it very clear when we are available.
I like to call this availability our “window to the world.”
The research shows that the average person will spend nearly two hours (approximately 116 minutes) on social media every day, which translates to a total of 5 years and 4 months spent over a lifetime. Let that sink in for a moment! Most people haven’t had intimate relationships as long as that.
Approximately 73% of the workforce feel they’re expected to be always-on. We check our phones on the way to work and on the way home; before bed and first thing in the morning. Connectedness has its benefits, but it’s also adding to our stress.
This is more than the boundaries of other people, this is a chronic addiction to our devices. And if you don’t think you’re addicted, turn your phone off and don’t touch it all weekend. See how long it takes for you to formulate excuses for why you need to check it.
Addiction comes in many forms!
“There are only two industries that call their customers “users”: illegal drugs and software.” — Edward Tufte
A deeper question would then be to ask yourself what are you distracting yourself from?
“We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid we have a digital pacifier for ourselves that is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that.” — Tristan Harris
This is what I do to get control of my windows to the world:
- Turn my work phone off at 7:00 PM
- Turn it back on at 08:30 am
- Open my emails & social media at 10:30 am (or when I am available to give it my attention. If not, I don't want my attention on these things until it's time. My time with my daughter and wife is infinitely more important to me).
These are suggestions, define the times that work for you. Communicate that to your colleagues, and if they don't like it there are bigger issues at play that must be addressed.
2. Mindful Movement
“Trying out new ways of using your body in handling various situations breaks you free from old ways of thinking and being.” – Mirka Knaster
I know this may sound like I'm teaching you to suck eggs but bare with me. In over 140 interviews, the vast majority have told me that they struggle with:
- Low energy that stops them from training
- Poor motivation to train in a gym
- Frustrated that their "fitness" isn't where they feel it "should be
Each of these points is a source of added emotional stress - the guilt of not training or the shame towards themselves that they aren't where they want to be.
Decompression isn't about attaining or achieving, it's about a release and detachment from one facet of your life. On a neurophysiological level it's about shifting your state e.g. HRV, blood pressure, vagus nerve tone.
For me, training to achieve certain "performance" measures made up much of my identity as a coach years ago. It still catches me every now and again, but it's a long while since I really let that bother me.
As a 44yr young man, I feel the most healthy I've ever felt. I equate much of that with changing my story around exercise, societal "norms" and worrying about what other people think.
Letting go of the person I thought I was meant unlearning the things I previously let define me.
There are 3 kinds of people here:
- Those clinging to the stories to define their life as something that happened to them or that they will become.
- Then there are those willing to be honest enough to learn; they only witness their experiences, accept what they are, and let go of keeping some score.
- Then there are the in-betweeners, which is where I am and still enjoying the process of uncoupling the first.
We are all in the habit of our personal stories of how we truly feel about ourselves. After all, that thing that frustrates me about you is really just a mirror to me and where frustration still lives in me.
The ability to look at these stories and laugh has been some of the better comedies in my life.
Any movement is better than no movement, remember this is not about attaining, it's about decompressing. These are some of my favourite exercises to decompress:
- Hike in nature (minimum 30 minutes)
- Run in nature on the trails (3-10 km)
- A walk to the beach (30 mins)
- Bouldering (minimum 30 mins - climbing)
- Swimming in the sea (5-15 mins, year-round)
- Yoga/mobility (minimum 15 mins - moving without weight on my back, to discover and connect with my body)
I still like to lift weights, but it no longer defines me. I do it for health reasons, not to set recorders to feel good about myself. If you get anything from this, I hope that it's permission to drop the need to push yourself, and instead, listen to what your body needs to feel good.
3. Breath Work Practice
“The nose is the silent warrior: the gatekeeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our minds, and weather vane to our emotions.” ― James Nestor
The missing pillar in health is breath. It all starts there. Breathing is so much more than just getting air into our bodies. It’s the most intimate connection to our surroundings.
The vast research in this area now has discovered that 90 per cent of us—very likely me, you, and almost everyone you know—are breathing incorrectly and that this failure is either causing or aggravating a laundry list of chronic diseases.
On a more inspiring note, some of these researchers have also shown that many modern maladies—asthma, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, psoriasis, and more—could either be reduced or reversed simply by changing the way we inhale and exhale.
The key to optimum breathing, and all the health, endurance, and longevity benefits that come with it, is to practice fewer inhales and exhales in a smaller volume. To breathe, but to breathe less.
One of the key exercises I like to do is a simple box breath. It takes moments to do, but has a profound impact on how I feel, think and subsequently act.
Box breathing, also known as square breathing, is a technique used when taking slow, deep breaths. It can heighten performance and concentration while also being a powerful stress reliever.
How to do it
Keeping your hands relaxed in your lap with your palms facing up, focus on your posture. You can be sitting up straight, or laying down with your knees bent, or in the car before you leave work or when you arrive home:
- Sitting upright, slowly exhale through your nose until empty. Focus on this intention and be conscious of what you’re doing.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to the count of five. Feel the air fill your lungs, one section at a time, until your lungs are completely full and the air moves into your abdomen.
- Hold your breath for a count of five seconds. Your body should be relaxed, with just a mild “lock” in your throat area.
- Exhale evenly for a count of five seconds.
- Hold all air out of your empty lungs for a count of five seconds. This may sound like it wouldn’t be nice, but most often of all people experience a feeling of great peace in this phase.
- Repeat until you feel content — give it at least a count of 5 rounds.
4. Most Important Tasks (MIT’s)
“Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way.”― James Clear
Cognitive performance is about keeping your brain sharp. While most of us rarely consider rhythms and the distribution of effort in mental processing, cognitive performance can vary by around 20% during the average day.
- How often do you think about pacing yourself at work?
- How regularly do you consider how you will distribute your energy, to sustain your peak output whether that's coaching or data analysis?
This is why defining what's most important each day is a powerful ally in supporting how you both show up, and how you decompress.
The three most important tasks practice is simply about defining what you need to achieve for the next day to make it a success for you. This practice is to be done at the end of your working day, just before you shut down.
Just write them down, the three most important things. So when you get to work the following day, you are:
- Clear with direction
- Ready to start
- You'll know that once you've ticked them off, the chances are you'll achieve them and you'll do more work.
Whether it's programming, session planning, testing schedule, data analysis e.t.c., be super clear about what you need to achieve the next day for it to be a success e.g.
- The number of sessions?
- The number of weeks planned for?
- What data is most important?
- The number of papers researched?
- The number of paragraphs written?
Beware The Devil of Discipline
“True discipline is really just self-remembering; no forcing or fighting is necessary.” ―
One of your first thoughts about the 4 practices above may well be around your need to use your discipline to develop them as daily practices within your life. It's important though to look at discipline a little closer.
In one door, you have the choice of disciplining your behaviour. You will change and grow many things through this process. However, the root problem will always exist, and all attachments you have must be constantly repeated and controlled to avoid the other door.
The other door is a gateway to accepting your decisions and uncovering why you believe you need to change your situation or behaviour. It is a path to accepting the decisions you have made in your life, learning to listen to what you need, and getting to the root of what drives you. This door also gives you every piece of what you believed the other door would without the repetitious attachments hiding that truth.
If I need to discipline myself to a new "healthy behaviour," it's important to consider discipline's definition:
"The controlled behaviour resulting from discipline. Or, to train (someone) to obey rules or a code of conduct, using punishment to correct disobedience e.g. "I'm a bad man!"
Discipline eludes to learning a process of behavioural control, which makes a lot more sense for us culturally. If you look around enough, you'll learn that any control issues fit some psychological assessment.
From an over-simplified physiological view, applying discipline to behaviour is using the dopamine and adrenaline lever to mobilize energy to make us feel productive while reinforcing those patterns (via the nervous system). It feels so good! I can now tick the box off.
Needing a disciplined lifestyle to be healthy or decompress only keeps us busy avoiding the truth, and being busy and being disciplined are not actual skills. If you look deep enough, you have become highly skilled at many things without the thought of discipline, simply a passionate drive.
The hard part about well-being practices, such as decompression strategies is that the term 'behaviour' and 'discipline' are so pervasive that they have become synonymous with skill.
I invite you to pay attention to when professional athletes retire and how difficult that process is for a large majority of them. Or most people who retire or let go of something from their life.
We've been sold on the concept of luxury, popularity, 24/7, high performance, achievement, safety, and convenience and there is no consequence for any of it.
Yet, it's anywhere I can sense, and we can protect ourselves from it by avoiding the truth. Or we can choose to feel it by asking ourselves:
- What Am I Pretending Not to Know?
A tough reflection because it's asking you to look at the options you're choosing to ignore. e.g. the role leaving you feeling out of balance, low energy, and lonely may have run its course - it's time for you to move on to other opportunities.
All of the issues I describe in this piece are exactly why I created The Lost to Liberted Blueprint. It dives deep into all of these areas, offering senior performance staff powerful skills to free themselves from improving athletes at the expense of their health & happiness!
So they can find their personal freedom within sport or create their own exit strategy to stop living to work and start living their life.