It’s not about balance
Updated: May 19
The adage goes that “it’s all about balance”. We most likely think first of balance between work and play. One can also think about balance as being 50/50, or even Yin and Yang in equal balance. In arguments, particularly about popular topics like diet and politics, there is often this notion that there is one right way of doing something: Left vs Right, or Dieticians vs the LCHF movement for example. We create a dichotomy of opinion, and we perpetuate the “us vs them” mind-set. I’ve read somewhere about the pendulum of opinion that swings between two extremes of a topic, but the reality is that once the dust settles and the pitchforks and torches go back to the sheds, the pendulum will most likely land in the middle. Balance.
Now that I’ve set that up, I’m going to change my tune a bit and say that sport or at least high performance sport, is a little less about balance. It is quite literally “us vs them”, and we really want to win. Some of the world’s best athletes are quite “unbalanced” individuals in the way they are always striving. In his blog article, “The best are obsessed”, Tom Dawson-Squibb describes some examples of elites who are obsessed about perfecting their craft. They’re obsessed, unbalanced in how they spend their time and effort. I think it’s fair to say that excellence or high performance requires some degree of unbalance, at least for a period. This might take the form of players putting in time on “extras” or “work-ons” after practice, or perhaps the coach is watching some extra footage of an opposition bowler after putting the kids to bed.
My thoughts on balance have been changing over the years. I used to strive for balance in my life, seldom working too hard at the expense of any of my personal time – something I now consider a mistake. The reality is that I should have been putting in my “plus ones” along the way. Currently I think not of balance, but of hitting “the sweet spot”. Remember the pendulum? Well, don’t be extra by kissing the wife and kids goodbye before disappearing into your office with a month’s supply of biltong and Coke (the drink), while you totally embrace your identity as 100% sport scientist and try to perfect your craft. Just try to identify the “sweet spot” for work and life. Instead of pushing for 50/50, we might find that our sweet spot is more like 40/60. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to promote some kind of capitalist mind-set of hustle and grind, but I’m advocating an “unbalanced” mentality that suits you and helps you to be productive and the best you can be. For the sport scientist or S&C, this might take the form of putting aside time to read a few extra articles a week or perhaps we could be intentional about meeting up with a sport science mentor. Running SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE is one of my “extras”, as I get to connect with people in the field and read some interesting and informative articles, and I’m forced to read articles to produce my own musings.
Now, I want to put the spotlight on the people we work with, the players and athletes. These people can be a bit unbalanced in their pursuit of excellence (see quote in figure 1). They’re obsessed. Let us not hinder them with the shackles of perfect life balance. Rather we need to enable them in a healthy way by guiding them to their “sweet spot”. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I occasionally hear coaches bemoaning the input from sport scientists because of how restricting they are about training load. Just the other day I heard a rugby coach expressing frustration that the S&C told him there couldn’t be jumping in the lineout session because the players were overloaded. First of all, I’m quite amazed that there’s a coach out there who actually listens to advice from his/her sport scientist or S&C. Anyway, I can understand the coach’s frustration, but I also understand that the conditioning coach is also just trying to do their best. I think of a line from a presentation by Ton Strudwick (video), “The function of the sport scientist is to keep the athlete training, rather than prevent them from training.” We must remember that, deep down, sport scientists are about high performance and helping athletes achieve, so we do what we’ve got to do to get the athlete there (but keep it ethical and within the rules, guys).
As a bit of a disclaimer: In contrast, some athletes might be too obsessed, and we have to bring them back down to their “sweet spot”. I say this primarily with some schoolboy athletes that I’ve worked with in mind. Context will dictate the “sweet spot”, but it isn’t about balance.
Collins, D., MacNamara, Á. & McCarthy, N. Super champions, champions, and almosts: Important differences and commonalities on the rocky road. Front. Psychol. 6, 1–11 (2016).