Stop to continue: Five essential steps to descending after a big competition

After a stonking weekend of sport, with so many events coming to a climax, it is worth remembering the importance of the lull after the storm. For the French national team, Angelique Kerber and Novak Djokavic there is the thrill of victory. But for Croatia, Kevin Anderson and Serena Williams, for England and Belgium, the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal a few days before, and for many other football teams and tennis players a week or so ago – they will be feeling a different emotion – the disappointment of defeat.
“You climb to reach the summit, but once there, discover that all roads lead down. “
Stanislaw Lem
After big competitions, a phase of restoration is important. Mental and physical effort, commitment and energy will have been spent at a cost. The body is not a machine that you can expect to just keep working away without a drop in performance. When it comes to performing at your best, the investment of full effort creates the height of the zenith, and regardless of the outcome, whether positive or negative, the recovery period needs to reflect the height of the zenith created. This means that for the tennis players or football teams exiting the first round, the need for recovery will be less than those players or teams making it all the way to the finals. The moderating factor here, is expectation. Teams such as Germany (potential winners) are likely to have experienced a lower low than teams such as Panama (happy to score a single goal). This expectation will intensify the lull post-event, because we are multi-dimensional being, where the emotional strain interacts with the physical strain.
The length of phase of restoration will greatly depend upon the schedule. For the tennis players aiming to perform at the US open they have a four week window to prepare. But jumping straight back into full training straight away is a risky strategy without some recognition of the need to recover. Football players typically are already back into pre-season training by early July, but the World Cup overlaps for many. In this instance the club management would be wise to ask the players to take their rest and report for training after a recovery period. The risk of having their best players missing or being a little rusty early in the season is greatly outweighed by the risk of them picking up injuries from overtraining or falling flat in the main season.
The physical recovery is exemplified by a disproportionate number of injuries in football players during the preseason period. The likely reasons attributed to high training intensity, sudden change in training intensity from closed season to preseason. All of these causative inputs need to be carefully considered when retraining players returning from an intense competition.
But the need for mental recovery is just as relevant as physical, players should take the time to switch off. Sabine Sonnentag, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Mannheim in Germany, finds that the inability to detach from the day job during a holiday, leads to clear symptoms of burnout.
The recovery will feel different whether victorious or defeated, but actually the constructive steps to aid restoration are very similar. Here’s five ways to invest in full recovery;
1. Prioritise a hot de-brief, to capture the thoughts, realisations, lessons in the moments when your memory of the events are clearest. Make some notes or reflect with a coach or psychologist. Parking your thoughts will allow you to switch off quicker and more completely
2. Create the conditions for the body to fully physically recover. So take those lie-ins, have an afternoon sleep, where you fancy it to actively step down.
3. If you have trouble ‘slowing down’, then find a recreational pursuit that isn’t too physically demanding, preferably fun, but prioritise doing something that’s different from what you’ve just come from
4. Invest in activities that occupy your time in a productive but unfocussed way, such as going for a walk, reading a book, doing puzzles. This keeps the brain and body busy but in a freer way.
5. Balance time recovering on your own and connecting with friends and family to recharge your batteries in different ways, to benefit from the quiet time, but also benefit from the social support.
I interviewed Adam Conlon, army captain and disaster relief operative for the podcast (it’s a gem and we’ll share it with you in a few weeks), he talks about how the military have built in steps, post tour to decompress soldiers before they land back on the ground at home. He shared an insight how the staff who help them with this process, wear fatigues on their lower half and a civilian style polo shirt on their top half. The symbolism is there to help soldiers ‘step-down’ towards normal life. This type of thinking and action should be applied to recovering from any peak performance.
“Hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.”
Ralph Ellison

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