Coordination and sports don’t come easily to me; bruises do. When I look at my peers who hike, marathon and cycle with ease, I’d all but given up on exercising, declaring we weren’t meant to be. I was done with exercise classes where I was told to give my 200%, where any less meant I was weak.
Because my body needs rest, and I’m happy to honour that, in the name of kindness to myself. As a psychologist and executive coach for high achievers, I want to practice what I preach. Except I looked in fervent longing at my kettlebells, and dreamed of going back to fitness classes.
That is, until I met Peter Shmock, a two-time Olympian, which led to an epiphany I’d been judging myself too harshly. Instead, he enlightened me that the secret to top athletes’ prowess is their ability to treat themselves well. And I found myself exercising again, this time enjoying myself and feeling strong in my body. With that in mind, we wrote this article drawing lessons from psychology and sports on the importance of being good to yourself.
Being good to yourself = self-compassion
As a concept and practice, self-compassion has been gaining traction in the therapeutic world, linked to resilience, more intimate relationships and achievement.
Except that for most of my cerebral and overachieving clients, it is a difficult concept to grasp, especially if you’re used to being led by the metaphorical stick rather than the carrot. And the term ‘self-compassion’ can feel a little entitled.
But we all know the term ‘being good to yourself’, and it is with this that we can begin.
According to Peter, what distinguishes an Olympian from a non-Olympian is the ability to be good to themselves.
He says, “I wouldn’t have gotten there if I kept listening whenever my mind kept saying you gotta give more. If you do less in many cases, you will be more”.
Wise words, indeed.
Becoming more can be how you bribe yourself to treat yourself well, for starters.
The only time pushing yourself is important
“But isn’t pushing yourself important?”, my clients ask me.
After all, this is the basis of how we learn and excel. We perform tasks of increasing challenge till the simpler ones become easy. I remember my college used to set us impossibly-difficult internal examinations, so much so that I finished the external exams in 40% of the time allocated. In my mind, that is the metaphor justifying why I need to ‘push myself’ in life.
In his book, The Way of the Life Athlete, Peter pens his story of how his coach did not yell at him to give his all, or call him names. Instead, he was asked to “tap into his grit to overcome the weight of the bar and [his] self-doubt”, leading Peter to believe that he was more capable than he suspected.
And that was the only time this coach did that. In Peter’s words, “Once was enough. From that I knew what was possible”.
Indeed, pushing ourselves is key to help us learn about your capability, master a new skill, or the times we need to meet a certain goal.
But pushing yourself just to push yourself defeats the purpose. That often leads to exhaustion and breakdowns.
To quote Peter, “the goal is to become better rather than to see who can work the most. It is not about a competition or simply about endurance. But rather, to be in your body in a way that you enjoy, that makes you go ahead and do it all the time.”
In other words, pushing yourself is merely one part of the puzzle. You don’t want to become addicted to the act and do that all the time.
In everyday speak, just because everybody eats kale doesn’t mean you can’t eat cabbage or spinach, or eat quality supplements. And learning to still your mind is important, but that doesn’t mean you need to squirm for two hours or weeks in a silent retreat.
When we cut out the competition and comparison, we excise the shame. And that peace of mind can take us a far longer way than running on cortisol.
Ask yourself why are you pushing yourself
Peter muses that competitive exercise can be a form of self-medicating to get rid of anxiety. “People think they can say to themselves “I’ve finally done as much as I can do”, so for the moment I am finally chilled out because I am so tired”.
Indeed, many of us wouldn’t think to label our experiences as ‘anxiety’, as we associate it with being paralytic with fear and unable to function. Instead, we think that our busy minds are normal, because everybody else is stressed out.
A surefire sign that you’re experiencing anxiety is when you need to find ways to medicate your mind away. This comes in many forms— drinking, shopping, working, exercising— anything to silence your mind. My colleague Dr Charles Hindler (Psychiatrist) remarks that most people who aren’t aware they’re anxious are working all the time, otherwise they are numbing themselves. This tends to explode during the holiday season, when we are left with our minds and their seemingly-ceaseless chatter.
In other words, if exercising is perpetuating escape and perfectionism, then pushing yourself may be detrimental for your performance and peace of mind.
Befriend your body
An Olympian athlete pays attention to their body.
This means, not sweeping any discomfort under the carpet, and listening to what your body has to say.
Peter advises that we start with the idea that we should take care of our bodies and hearts in a way that we can make use of them for many decades ahead in an enjoyable fashion. Rather than merely pushing ourselves unrelentingly because we have a certain work ethic, know that the top athletes did not get to the next level because they think they have to give 110% everyday.
In everyday speak, where are you ignoring your body’s pleas to slow down?
Do you try to silence your doubts and fears with self-censure, and bodily aches with medication, and find that the cycle repeats itself daily?
A simple question to ask yourself is, “What is my body telling me to do right now?”. Often, it could be as simple as how we forget to use the bathroom, drink water, or eat regular meals.
Running at 80% vs Running on Empty
The high-level athlete knows that learning when to cut back is as important as when to give more.
Peter advises, instead of running full marathons, run half marathons. You’ll do your body less damage this way.
And instead of sprinting, walk.
Ask yourself how do you feel when you come back.
Do you feel energised or vibrant? Did you move your body and breathe fresh air? If so, you’ve been good to yourself.
He also advocates considering the benefits of running at 80% of your capacity. “If we run at 80%, we can talk with someone else, feel good, and we can recover and do it again. If we’re injured, we’re very tired and take a long time to recover”.
Running ourselves figuratively at 80% also extends to other parts of our lives.
Notably, my clients with busy minds practise slowing down by walking slowly, feeling their feet on the ground. They tell me this gets them away from their heads, and back into their bodies. A bonus? They notice new things in their surroundings, like new cafes and restaurants, and treat themselves to those as a reward for slowing themselves down consciously.
In a work culture run on stress, burnout and sleep deprivation, which Arianna Huffington has personally declared as “unsustainable”, it is difficult not to run on empty.
Indeed, my colleague Vanessa Bennett (High Performance Expert & Coach) states that most people believe they should simply charge forward like a bull to the gate, giving more than they can. They eventually crash into a forced recovery, in the familiar forms of colds, flus and panic attacks.
By mindfully running at 80% and building in enjoyment, we know we are filling our metaphorical tanks up, rather than running on empty everyday.
Downtime is essential
An Olympian knows how to rest and recover.
Instead of seeing rest as a sign of weakness, allowing the body time to recover is a prerequisite for peak performance.
And Peter shares that it certainly went against how he saw training initially, but learned to be open to these ideas, because “If you learn to swim with the current you can do more great things in the world”.
He cites an example of working with the seasons of life and weather. For instance, giving yourself permission to sleep more as the days grow shorter, knowing you’ll sleep less in the summer. You might have more fun and feel more productive instead.
Indeed, in his book Rest, researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes that accomplished people like Darwin and Dickens actually spent a few hours a day doing what we would regard as important work, and spent the rest of their time taking naps, going on walks or just sitting and thinking. He cites research that the brain switches on its default mode network (DMN) when at rest, which is responsible for creativity, self-awareness and empathy.
And if you’re scratching your head wondering “How am I going to spend this downtime?”, simply ask yourself, “What activities used to give me joy and a sense of awe before I learned to over-give?”.
Then without any judgment for how juvenile it may seem, do it.
Your mind, body and performance will thank you for it.
Want to learn how to tame your busy mind for phenomenal performance? Contact Dr Perpetua Neo (DClinPsy, UCL; MPhil, Cambridge) to do it quickly and deeply, and to grow your psychological capital.