Think Like an Athlete

by Kay Cross, MEd on Sep 01, 2007

PFT 101

Applying the principles of athletic training in your daily life just might provide the focus you need to succeed.

Today’s athletes have all the resources needed to perform their best. Many college campuses are outfitted with athletic complexes that provide all the necessary staff and “stuff”: the right atmosphere, an appropriate learning space, the best training equipment and the latest technology, as well as skilled nutritionists and tutors. A built-in support system defines practice days and hours, study periods and time off. Athletes rarely have to think about what to do next; their schedule is determined for them.

I vividly remember my high-school days, when I played volleyball and basketball, then decided to sacrifice them both to be on the dance team. Those days were some of the most exciting and physically demanding ones of my life. My teammates and I danced until we thought our bodies would fall apart. But we were fabulous. We practiced, practiced, practiced—hearing the broken record of “Do it one more time” from our sponsor. To a great extent, I credit those years as an athlete for the discipline, endurance, time-management skills and drive I have today.

The life of an athlete is demanding and focused, and the rewards are many. But what about your life? Without a coach or sponsor to guide your steps, how do you figure out where to go next? What do you want to do, and how do you do it? How do you pace yourself? How do you lay out a plan to achieve the life and career you want?

Learning to apply athletic training principles in your life can provide the focus and purpose you need to achieve your present and future dreams. Taking the following three steps can help you come out a winner:
1. Identify specific performance goals.
2. Design a tailored program.
3. Apply proven training methods.

Identify Specific Performance Goals
Motivating people to do what is needed in order to achieve what is desired is the most challenging coaching job of all—even if the one you are coaching is yourself! For athletes to maintain motivation, they must see a purpose to their training strategy. So the first step in thinking like an athlete is to identify your needs and specific performance goals—and to make sure the program you are following matches those goals.

Four of the performance goals athletes typically aspire to achieve are endurance, strength, power and flexibility, all of which are necessary in life as well as in sports.

Endurance. Endurance provides the ability to withstand hardship, such as long work days and sleepless nights. It allows you to stay focused when you’re exhausted and to put one foot in front of the other when you’re weighed down by problems beyond your control.

Do you tend to flit from one goal or job to another, thinking, “This one will make me happy,” when what you really need is staying power? Endurance requires patience, character and faith, and can be developed only through practice, focus and discipline. Endurance is a worthy goal to strive for.

Strength. What area of your life is in need of some strength? Perhaps it is your marriage, your relationship with your teenage child or ill parent, your career as a coach or trainer (learning to challenge clients, uphold policies, etc.)? To build strength, you must practice strength-building activities: get enough sleep; schedule downtime; work on your goals; and build your confidence by learning new skills.

Power. What circumstances in your life require you to have power? You undoubtedly need to exert control, authority or influence over others from time to time.Do the people in your life view you as powerful? Is someone causing you to feel powerless? Choose activities and actions that will develop your personal sense of power, such as taking charge of a volunteer project or fundraiser in your community, or taking lessons to master a new skill.

Flexibility. Any athlete knows that lack of flexibility can lead to physical injury. In a similar way, inflexibility in life can lead to other types of injury (hurt feelings, damaged relationships, anger and aggression), in addition to limited performance. Do you suffer from any of the following causes of inflexibility: tunnel vision, or the inability to see all your options; an overcrowded schedule; too many commitments; poor boundaries (letting work creep into personal time and vice versa); and sheer exhaustion? If so, what can you do to stretch yourself?

Design a Tailored Program
The second step in thinking like an athlete is to use the data you’ve collected about needs and performance goals to create a tailored training program. But remember, program design is a dynamic process. As needs and performance goals change over time, so must the program. An athlete who is not continually challenged with greater or varying demands will become stale and burned out. The same is true in life. You must choose the appropriate stimuli to challenge and motivate you, while avoiding burnout.

The principles involved in creating a tailored training program for an athlete include frequency, intensity, duration and recovery. How do these principles apply to your life and career? Your choices about them affect your health and staying power. Too much of any one training element can be detrimental to your longterm goals.

Frequency. How frequently should you train or coach the same client to get the best results? Too much contact can create dependence or the “tired-of-seeing-each-other” blues. How often do you need or want to invest in continuing education to stay current and motivated?

On the personal side, how often would you like to see family and friends? How many days per week should you be faithfully implementing your own training program?

Intensity. When planning your week, month and year, you need to evaluate how your load varies (or doesn’t vary). I’ve learned to look at my month from a global perspective. I vary my client load, and I plan for when I need a day or a week off. If I work too intensely for too long, I risk getting exhausted and apathetic.

Duration. How much time do you need to spend working on your performance goals in each area of your life? Carve out the necessary time. For example, for each week, I schedule 3 hours of cardiovascular exercise, three 45-minute sessions of strength training, 20 client hours, and 10 hours to work on my business. The rest of my hours are for me and my family.

Recovery. To stay fresh, you need adequate downtime. Plan open time in your day, schedule occasional long weekends and take as many adventuresome or restful vacations as you need. Like your muscles, your spirit will not grow without adequate recovery.

Apply Proven Training Methods
The final step in creating a plan to achieve your goals is to apply proven training methods to avoid wasting time. You need more than a simple desire—you must have a “will do” attitude.

In the realm of athletics, proven training methods include overload, progression and specificity. In life as in sports, targeted preparation that utilizes these methods is vital to success.

Overload. Continually challenge yourself, working beyond your comfort zone to grow as an individual, a coach and a trainer. Adversity builds character and confidence. Push yourself to learn new skills and elevate your reputation.

Progression. Strive to get better—not just older! Vary the demands, commitments and projects in your life so you continue to progress rather than getting bored and stale.

Specificity. We have all heard the saying, “If you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same results.” Do you like the results you are reaping? If not, get specific about how you spend your time. Choose activities specific to your performance goals. For example, if you want more clients, spend more time marketing.

A Winning Game Plan
Thinking like an athlete requires you to organize, plan and focus on your specific life goals. Great athletes have a natural ability and are often good at many sports. Yet they realize that to become hall-of-famers, they must choose one sport and devote all their focus, time, energy and resources to mastering it. They identify their passion and put their will behind it.

The journey of life requires the same careful choices. You can’t have it all, so have what matters most to you. Identify your performance goals, design a tailored plan and apply proven training methods. Instead of drifting through life, act on your goals.Will to be different. Live like an athlete.

SIDEBAR: Common Performance Goals
endurance: the capacity to continue a physical performance over an extended period of time

strength: the amount of muscular force that can be exerted against resistance

power: a combination of strength and speed applied over a short period of time (as in plyometric drills)

flexibility: the ability of a joint to move around its full range of motion

Program Variables
frequency: the exact number of times a program is to be executed

intensity: the weight or overload necessary to promote the desired improvement

duration: the length of each training session

recovery: the appropriate rest period for the energy system being overloaded— between sets, workouts and program changes

Proven Training Methods
overload: loading the muscle beyond its normal capacity to promote muscle growth and increase strength

progression: continually altering the stimulus by changing the acute program variables (the choice and order of exercises, intensity, volume, etc.) to produce long-term gains

specificity: matching the physical conditioning program to the physical demands of the desired sport

Kay L. Cross, MEd, ACC, CSCS, president of Cross Coaching & Wellness in Fort Worth, Texas, is a certified business and personal coach, an IDEA Master Personal Fitness Trainer and a motivational speaker. She can be reached at

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About the Author

Kay Cross, MEd

Kay Cross, MEd IDEA Author/Presenter

I have retired from personal training to return to my passions: painting, dance and coaching. I am a professional artist specializing in watercolor and pastel. I am also a creative life coach helping people discover their true self and passions again to live their purpose. You can find my artwork at as well as information about my coaching services. Kay L. Cross, MEd, ACC, CSCS, president of Cross Coaching & Wellness in Fort Worth, Texas is celebrating 29 years of business. Kay is a trained and credentialed life coach through the ICF. She is a national presenter and author of more than 60 published articles. Are you following your passions? Are you living your dream? Is your life full of good things? Are you listening to your spirit? Kay conducts coaching sessions by phone and can coach clients anywhere in the world. Visit us today at