Athletes inspire us. Often under challenging circumstances, these gifted human beings rise to meet and beat what appear to be insurmountable odds. Long distance runners, Ironmen (and women), professional football players and countless others–are able to fight through pain, and adversity and ultimately excel at the highest levels. We can learn a great deal from these extraordinary people. As physicians, we are involved in a high stakes “competition” against disease every single day. So, how do we raise our game to the elite level? How do these amazing athletes do what they do?
A recent article in the New York Times explored the training habits and philosophies of elite athletes. Much of what the successful athlete does to prepare for competition can readily be applied to our daily lives and careers.
1. Focus: Successful athletes identify goals early in their careers. They set these goals apart and develop a plan to achieve them. To achieve these goals, repetition and practice is required. In medicine, a lot of what is done during a day may seem routine–making rounds, follow up office visits, and paperwork. During the performance of mundane tasks, often our minds wander and we daydream. Many elite athletes note that when they focus on each activity–no matter how routine, their performance improves. As physicians, our ability to provide excellent care may very well be enhanced by employing a similar tactic. Remaining focused–even when performing tasks that we have performed millions of times before, makes us better. We may pick up on a subtle physical exam finding, or discover an important historical fact during an offhanded comment made by a patient during an office encounter. Focus makes us better. Focus allows us to go beyond the ordinary and excell. Most importantly, focus allows us to give our best to our patients.
2. Managing Your “Energy Pie” : Sports psychologist Dr David Martin speaks of “energy pie” as all of the things in life that take up time and effort. In his opinion, the key to an athlete’s success is closely tied to managing this energy pie well. Limiting distractions and avoiding the pitfalls of spreading oneself too thin are critical. In medicine, we must set priorities. We must put our patients needs first. We must also balance family life. Avoiding unnecessary conflict and expending effort (and thus a piece of the precious pie) only limits our success. We must carefully choose where and when to expend effort.
3. Structure Your “Training”: Elite athletes have remarked that one of the keys to success is to partner with a coach that helps to provide meaning and purpose to training. Each workout has an objective and all effort is with intention. In medicine, when our activities are streamlined and structured, we become more efficient and more successful. Ensure that everything you do during the day has a purpose and at the same time allow for “recovery” activities. Just as elite athletes may have a day for recovery where they may focus on stretching, yoga or other less strenuous activity, we must build in time in our professional lives to recover. Spa days, a round of golf, or a weekend getaway can ultimately help us reach higher levels of success.
4. Take Risks: The status quo rarely produces exceptional results. There are many elite athletes who have taken enormous risks to achieve success. For example, there are many professional football players who have changed positions (from offense to defense) when entering the league in order to make the team. An undersized college wide receiver may in fact make an excellent cover corner or safety in the NFL. Some of these players have gone on to become hall of famers and excelled for many years in their new positions. In medicine, as well as in many other professions, we must often go outside of our comfort zones in order to reach the next level. Pushing ourselves allows us to improve the care that we provide to our patients. We may learn about and master new procedures or therapies and in turn be able to offer these to our patients.
I continue to be inspired by amazing athletic performances. Elite athletes can teach us a great deal about success. These exceptionally gifted humans are able to perform amazing works on the field of play. Much of what makes them so successful is hard work, dedication and perseverance. The way in which athletes train can be applied to our daily lives and can in fact, make us more effective. As physicians and providers of healthcare, we must adopt some of the skills that make these athletes successful and strive to provide elite level care to our patients. So, I guess this has been our pre game pep talk for the day. Now, grab your stethoscope, strap on your white coat and let’s go out there and “win one for the Gipper!”