Hello and welcome back to Brain in the Game. Brain in the Game is a podcast that's been specifically designed for athletes, coaches, and parents who are looking to do their sport just that little bit smarter. And I'm your host, Dave Diggle.
In this Episode 92, we're going to look at why most high performing athletes don't reach their full potential. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of why athletes really do struggle, we've got to understand that high performance is really tough. It's a tough gig for athletes to be able to perform at that level consistently. And what we probably don't give enough credibility to are the different stages of performing athletes.
If we think about it in this way, when we're looking at an athlete's career path, they generally start as an amateur athlete. Then when they go past that level and they end up in the competitive stream, they normally just go into that general competitive performing area. So that's just after the athlete who's having fun, they're going to start doing competitions. That's not the athlete we're talking about. Once they start representing maybe their state or their club, and we end up with an elite athlete, now we're starting to look at athletes who take what they do incredibly seriously.
There's a lot of consequence and investment to becoming an elite athlete, but we're still not talking high performance just yet. The high performing athletes are those representing their country, who are maybe paid or professional athletes. So these are the high performance athletes that we're talking about. Those that may be in high performance programmes, who are, as I say, representing maybe their state or their country, and what they're doing is their sport is their primary occupation. So high performing athletes, it's a tough gig. It's their job. We have to expect them to perform. So that's what we're going to look at today. We're going to look at the high performance athlete.
And of course, what applies to the high performing athlete will apply to the elite athlete who's striving to become that high performance athlete. If they're on that tipping point of almost representing their country or almost being selected in the primary team, then that elite athlete who probably dedicates as much time into their sport, just not at that level just yet.
So the first part of why high performing athletes don't necessarily reach their full potential is because it's tough. And what we're going to do is we're going to make an assumption for this podcast that we're not going to be discussing whether they're physically or technically capable. We're going to make the assumption that they are good enough to be there. They're good enough to be competitive at that level. So we're going to look at the mindset of what is required from an elite athlete to be into a high performing athlete when we're looking at consistency of performance.
There was a study done in the late 80s that looked at the top 1% of high performing athletes around the world, and it looked at a lot of different sports. And what they were trying to do was to ascertain what made a consistent top 1% athlete. Initially, what they thought it would be was they were the most talented athletes. And so the metric that they used to try and gauge is they looked back through history of that competitive athlete all the way back to when they first started competing. Because if they are the most talented, that would be represented throughout their whole career. So it was a good metric for them to assess and see if it was purely and simply, are they the most talented athlete in the pack? Is that what makes them the top 1% of that competitive field?
What they found was less than 10% of that 1% are the most talented athletes, which was really interesting because that meant there was 90% of the top 1% of performers that was something other than talent. Now, as an athlete who wasn't particularly talented, that's awesome to hear. The fact that it isn't just dictated by those athletes who are the most gifted, who have a talent in that sport above and beyond everybody else. To know that there's a 90% chance that you can still be in a top 1% for something else other than talent. So the scientists carried on digging, and what they then looked at was, was there a genetic component to that top 1% of the performers? And yes there was a small percentage of the top 1% of performers that were there because they just had this genetic gift. They could be 6 foot 8 if they wanted to be a basketball player. Now, look, I'm 5'7. I was never going to be a basketball player. It doesn't matter how gifted or talented I was, and I wasn't. If I wanted to be a basketball player, it wasn't going to come off of genetics, that's for sure.
So when we look at that, and yes, there was a very small percentage of that were genetically gifted, there had to be more. So they carried on digging. And what they then looked at was social economics. Was it the athletes that had more: more exposure to better coaches, more exposure to better equipment, to more consistent training facilities? And again, a very small percentage of that top 1% of athletes did have deeper pockets than everybody else or better equipment than everybody else, or the best coaching staff. But it still wasn't the lion's share of what was making up the top 1% of performers.
So they started to interview the athletes and what they were looking for, was there something that these athletes had that set them apart, that made them the top 1% above and beyond their results. Was it a mindset? Was it something that they focused on? And it was.
What they found across all of the top 1% of the top athletes in the world, there was a mindset. And the mindset was that these athletes had built a program specifically designed around them. They weren't an off the shelf package. They weren't trying to be somebody else. They weren't trying to follow somebody else's footsteps. What they had done was create a program that was designed specifically to feed them and their natural skill sets, their natural capabilities, their natural focus, their determination.
The second part of that was the tenacity. They stuck to it. They might tweak a certain area to optimise it. Because ultimately, when we're thinking about high performance, it is all about optimisation. It's about getting the most out of every single training session. It's about getting the most out of every interaction with your coach or with your team. It's about making sure that every time that you step up to perform, the best version of you steps up and performs. So it makes sense that if the top 1% of the competitive athletes on the planet were building programmes designed specifically to optimise themselves, and they were tenaciously sticking to it, that statistically, they would be the best performers. They would get the best outcome and the best results. No one would ever say that they would always win or they would always perform at their best. Yet, statistically, they would be the highest performing athletes. So that tenacity of sticking to something that is designed specifically for you is part and parcel of what allowed that top 1% of these high performing athletes to stay at the top of the pack.
But there's something else, too. There's something that we look at when we're working with athletes, particularly when I'm working on the psychology of an athlete, and there's a pattern that we see really, really frequently, and it's a reactive pattern rather than a responsive pattern. Let me explain what I mean. Picture you're sitting in your vehicle, in a car, and you've got your foot on the accelerator, the gas pedal. When you put that gas pedal down and you want to do is you want to perform, you want to get the most out of that vehicle. That's very similar to you getting the most out of you as an athlete. So whether that be the start of a competitive season or the start of a preseason, and what you want to do is you want to increase the intensity of what you're doing.
We put our pedal to the metal, we put that foot to the floor, and we increase our output. What tends to happen is if we accelerate really quickly, which is what we want to do, we want to optimise, right? We want to be the best. We want to be that high performing athlete. We want to optimise and get the most out of that. What we start to see often is things on the peripheral of your training, maybe not necessarily what you're focusing on, but maybe some skills start to become less consistent, or we start to get some niggling injuries, or some fatigue-based injuries, or we just basically fatigued and our work load and our work rate drops. What we tend to do as humans is take our foot off that accelerator. We decrease what we're focusing on, what we're doing, that workload gets to drop. And as that workload drops, our peripheral injuries or issues or skill challenges start to dissipate and we think, Okay, we've done that. We've taken a bit of time off, we've recovered. What we've done is put ourselves back in a position where what I've got to do now is put our pedal to the metal again and catch up. So I've got to train even harder.
And as we put that accelerator down, our foot down on that gas pedal, we increase our output, and then all of a sudden we start to see exactly the same things happening. We might get those repetitive strain injuries again, or we might start losing skills or consistency with skills.
And then we do the same thing. We take our foot off the gas, off that accelerator, trying to give ourselves a break and trying to recover. This bunny hopping effect that we see when we're learning to drive a vehicle where we accelerate, we put a foot off the accelerator, we accelerate, we take a foot off the accelerator, we accelerate, we take a foot off the accelerator, is the same psychology that we apply to our training. But that's not high performance, right? That's not allowing us to optimise and get the most out of our training, our performance, out of our coaching staff, out of our facilities.
So what's the solution to that? If it's not put in our pedal to the metal, then maybe it's gradually increasing. Yeah, that's going to work. But again, we're probably not going to get the most out of our training session, every single training session. So we are probably going to compromise that high performance environment. So there has to be a solution.
What we do when we're working on the psychology, the mental performance of these athletes, because it becomes incredibly frustrating when you want to accelerate, maybe you're preparing for a competition, or maybe even building into a competition season. So you want to be ready to go on that first competition. But all of a sudden you've got all of these peripheral issues that are going on around you that's compromising your ability to prepare, your confidence in your ability to perform. So what we do in the mental performance world is we build a really strong structure around the athlete, the peripheral things, the prehab, the rehab, the recovery, the sleep, the physical preparation, the mental preparation, making sure that that framework is so solid around the athlete long before they want to increase their workload.
So pre preseason, we spend a lot of time in building a framework around that athlete that allows them to be mentally, emotionally, and physically the best prepared and supported they possibly can. So when they choose it's the right time to put the pedal to the metal and accelerate their workload, it doesn't impact them physically, mentally, or emotionally.
Think of it like this. The analogy I tend to use is most athletes are like a steam train. And what we want to do is build a really reliable track for them to follow. That's going to give them the best bang for buck. When they accelerate, we want them to stay on track towards where they want to perform. So that analogy, that physical picture inside your brain of, Well, this is where I am. Where do I want to get to? What's the tracks I need to lay to get there, need to be really strong, robust, direct, and reliable. So that when they stoke the engine and they want to increase that workload, increase the speed in how they get from where they are to where they need to be, those tracks are going to hold them on track. It's going to keep them travelling towards where they need to be. What most athletes do is – even when they get those wobbly wheels, maybe those tracks aren't necessarily as reliable as they need them to be, their mental preparation process isn't as robust as it needs to be, or maybe the physical development process isn't necessarily what it needs to be. And they've increased their workload, they've got some stress based injuries or fatigue – they then take their foot off the accelerator just so that they can recover. And then whilst they're recovering, they build up this emotional anxiety of, 'I'm now behind. Everybody else is accelerating.' So when they do put their foot to the metal again and they try and catch up, those issues that were there before just get increased and we get more fatigue-based injuries.
So our ethos is very much around building a network around the athlete. So that could be mental preparation. We talk about JOBV, which is journal, objective, bounce, visualisation. These mental and emotional frameworks allow the athlete to have really good, robust control over their thought process and managing their emotions. So they don't feel like they have to force an outcome by training or overtraining to try and catch up or be somewhere. The process is designed to optimise every single session, making sure that that athlete is getting every thing they possibly can at the right time. Everything is fit for purpose and on purpose. This process will allow the athlete to make the most of that. We've talked before about that top 1% of athletes having that very robust, personalised plan that they've built designed specifically for them and being tenacious about how they stick to that. So these go hand in hand, hand in hand in glove to make sure that that athlete can optimise every single training session.
When we're talking to coaches, it's important that the coach is collaborating with the athlete to really understand what that session objective is. How do they measure success? What does success look like to them collectively, particularly based on that athlete? So we can recognise, we can reward, we can then feed and stoke the engine to increase the output as we go forward. We want to build on success. We want to make sure that that athlete has that really good framework around them. If we're looking to patch holes when things go wrong, and they will go wrong, if you're going to work really, really hard, you're going to increase your output, but you don't have the framework around you, at some point, something will go awry. The analogy I use is like a Formula One racing car. If I put you in a Formula One racing car in the pit and said to you, 'Right, all you're going to do is going to put your foot flat to the floor and then off you go. And all you're going to do is keep your foot flat to the floor and drive around this track as hard as you possibly can.'
One of three things are going to happen. You're either going to crash, which is the most common outcome. An athlete will absolutely crash, mentally, emotionally, physically, or with an injury. Or something's going to break. Something on that F1 vehicle isn't going to be able to take that stress and that strain for that long, and a component is going to break. Again, the same thing, the same analogy we can make with an athlete. We're going to get repetitive strain injuries. We're going to get issues where the physicality just can't keep up with the workload. Or we're going to run out of fuel. Again, with an athlete, that could be where an athlete just loses the passion and the drive to do what they're doing is because they've had their foot flat to the floor and they've just held on. They've got white knuckles on the steering wheel. So that analogy can be really well aligned with, if we can learn to manage and optimise every step and every stage that athlete is going through, we want to optimise, we want to get the best out of that. So whether that is pre preseason or it's preseason, whether it's rehab or prehab, making sure that the athlete is optimised.
We want to do our JOBV, we want a JOURNAL, so we're collecting really good data so we can assess it. Yes, we're definitely on track. Or you know what, maybe we're going a little bit off track here, let me course correct. We want to set very clear OBJECTIVES for every single session, plus where we want to go. Where we want to go is the easy bit. Where do I want to be? I want to compete really, really well at this competition. We want to work back from that and make sure every single training session builds towards that. We do an exercise called BOUNCE, and this is about mental stimulation. It's about focus, it's about creating a behavioural trigger. We'll go into that in another podcast. But for now, Bounce is a critical mental stimulation exercise for every athlete. And you'll probably see, if you're watching this on YouTube, you'll be seeing a visual showing what that is right now. And VISUALISATION. That visualisation mechanism allows our brain to build that optimal blueprint. So when we're learning skills and we're building towards a performance, we've got that, I know exactly what I need to do. I know what it looks like, I know what success looks like to me, and I've got a blueprint inside my brain that I just need to learn to trust.
So these things, plus the sleep cycle, making sure you're optimising your sleep, hydration, nutrition, as I said before the rehab, the prehab, making sure that we're physically prepared. A lot of the time I see athletes who will match their physical capabilities of where they think they are right now, rather than preemptively building a physical capability so that it's ahead of where they're going to accelerate to. If we wait until we get there before we build the physicality to cope with that, then we're going to get that bunny hopping thing, aren't we? We're going to not be ready. We're going to have to take our foot off the accelerator to catch up the physicality. So when we're looking at why most high performing athletes don't reach their potential, more often than not, it's got nothing to do with, are they good enough? More often than not, it's got nothing to do with, are they physically capable or technically aware? The vast majority of the time that an athlete does not reach their full potential is because mentally they don't have the structure and the framework to optimise everything they're doing to keep them on track.
Ask yourself, if you're an elite athlete or a high performing athlete, how much of your surrounding peripherals would you say are ahead of what your workload is? If your mental and your emotional and your physical framework around you far exceeds your workload that you're working on, then you're in a really good place and there's no reason why you can't optimise your high performance mindset.
If you are playing catch up with your mental, your emotional, and your physical then you're not yet in that high performance, high optimisation world. And what we need to do is to build that framework.
I hope that's allowed you to really understand why sometimes you're going to get that frustration of, I want to work hard, I know I need to work hard, and you overtrain. Then you get these little injuries, these little peripheral things, or skills that aren't as consistent as you thought they were, or they used to be. And then you take your foot off the accelerator and then you go, I feel like I've got to catch up. And then you just go through this cycle.
Until the next episode of Brain in the Game, train smart and enjoy the ride. My name's Dave Diggle. See you there.