“Be a better human.”
Stanford Men’s Basketball Strength and Conditioning Coach
I first heard this phrase from Cory Schlesinger on a podcast he has been on (though I forget which one I heard it on first), and it is a phrase that has stuck with me ever since. I interpret this phrase as: training for athletic qualities is absolutely important, but before we become athletes, we are humans first, and movers second. Seeing impressive and gimmicky expressions of athleticism is cool and all, and I, too, love watching incredible feats performed by athletes. But the key to long-term health, wellness, and athletic performance almost always comes down to performing the basics consistently well.
Get too carried away with cool athletic-looking activities, and you will probably end up injured. Only play your sport year round, and you will probably end up with chronic fatigue and unhappy joints. Get too fancy in the weight-room, and you will probably sacrifice health, in addition to losing some of the performance improvements you had in the first place. I have experienced this in my own training many times personally, and I also hear and see examples of individuals who end up chronically injured, or with multiple surgeries as they get older due to poor applications of training methods.
None of this should scare you, though. It is easy to get carried away with linear thinking, hoping in your mind that progress over time will be a continuous straight line that never stops going up. But the key is to remember that, as with everything in life, there are constant ups-and-downs, progress is non-linear, and there will absolutely be some hiccups along the way. Take the good with the bad, and maintain a long-term mindset. The easiest way to avoid this path is to keep in mind that you are always a beginner. With that mindset, you will never believe that anything is beneath you. You will remember to revisit the basics often. And you will learn to do simple well.
So with that said, what are the basics? How does one maintain a beginner’s mind? How do we avoid getting a big head and thinking we are better than we are? What is the key to long-term growth? I would argue it comes down to a few basic principles that are easily applicable regardless of goals, aspirations, or present conditions.
The first, and in my opinion, most important principle to remember is that stress is holistic. This means that regardless of the influence, everything affects everything. This includes, but is not limited to: sleep, nutrition, hydration, training, sports, emotional issues, psychological dilemmas, traumas, illnesses, allergies, school work, or anything else that causes a change in your life. The body hates change, and tries to stay in a constant state as much as possible. So anything that changes your habitual path will have an impact on you, whether big or small.
That said, the key is to minimize the cumulative amount of stress on your body at any one time. Have a big test coming up? Get more sleep, eat well, and drink plenty of fluids. Having a fight with your family or significant other? Reduce training volume and focus on the issue at-hand. Limited on sleep due to illness and homework? Make sure that you account for that during sports and performance-related activities.
We all have more similarities than differences in the grand-scheme of things, so don’t think you are immune to any of these stressors. I often try to push through outside stressors and train through anything and everything personally myself, but every time I choose not to listen to my body I end up tweaking something and having to spend more time recovering because I didn’t make smart choices. Learn from the mistakes of others so you don’t have to go down a similar path. Stress management is the most important variable for long-term health and performance.
Movements to Master
The weight room is cool and all, but if you can’t manage gravity and pressure within yourself without external loads, what makes you think that you will be able to squat the house and not suffer consequences long-term? I have yet to find an individual who has mastered these simple movements: walking, push-up plank, side plank, hanging from a bar, single-leg balances, isometric lunge hold, glute-ham raise, reverse hyper, single-leg hip up, and push-ups. What I mean by mastered is consistently perform these patterns with high quality technique utilizing either high repetitions or long isometric holds without: losing position, cramping, taking breaks, or quitting early.
I am sure there are people out there who can perform these all relatively well, I just have not seen it in most cases. Almost every person I have worked with has some kind of deficiencies in: breathing, grip, feet, hips, hamstrings, shoulders, and core. Especially with the amount of emphasis placed on traditional barbell strength training methods, athletes are often “extended” beyond belief. What I mean by extended is that they preferentially use compensatory patterns to stabilize the pelvis, skull, ribcage, and spine, and this can eventually lead to a multitude of issues if not handled appropriately.
I have challenged myself personally to take those ten movements above, plus a few more, perform them weekly for a challenging amount of time in lengthened isometric positions, and continuously increase that time until somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes non-stop. For walking, I try to get about an hour at a decent pace, and I can almost guarantee the progress from these simple training methods will be astronomical. This is a strategy that consistently humbles me, and is a training plan I have been revisiting often, particularly when my joints begin to feel unhappy and fatigued. It is unbelievably simple, and almost hard to believe at first, but not all strength training needs to take place under a barbell. And I would argue, for most people, until basic movement patterns are mastered, you probably shouldn’t get under a barbell if you are prioritizing long-term development over short-term gains. Food for thought.
The final principle I would argue is essential to maintain a beginner’s mindset is the idea that progress is never maxed-out. There is always room for growth, no matter how elite you are in whatever it is that you choose as a hobby, career, or passion. Even elite athletes often have glaring weaknesses. LeBron James is an unbelievable basketball player, even though I am not a fan, but he clearly has deficiencies in shooting, particularly from the free-throw line. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play, but he is far from elite in any measurable quality of speed or quickness. Tiger Woods has accomplished incredible things, but injuries and personal issues almost derailed his career. These are three of the greatest athletes of my generation, and they all have glaring weaknesses. They may overcome these weaknesses with specific strengths, but there is no denying that even the best of the best have potential to improve in some aspects. If this is not an illustration that you can always find a way to take your talents to the next level then I don’t know what is. As corny and cheesy as it sounds: have the hunger, work ethic, and desire to seek out growth opportunities as frequently as possible. And remember that comfort is typically the enemy of growth.
I often get caught up in the mindset than I am further along than I am, regardless of the endeavor or activity. It is a natural human bias to believe you are better than you are, and especially important from an evolutionary standpoint considering the primary goal of humans was survival. That said, I have found the key to growth for me is minimizing the urge to advance too quickly and push the limits when I probably shouldn’t. It is normal to constantly seek progress and expect greatness at all times. However, never think you are too good to revisit basic principles. It goes back to the cliché “80/20” rule; 20 percent of the things you are doing are responsible for 80 percent of the results. Eliminate the fluff, humble yourself, and revisit the basics often. A rule not just for training and athletic performance, but for life.