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The athlete’s routine: what is it and why does it matter?

Whether it’s when we eat, see family or friends, or when we work, we all have routine in our lives.

These events may seem inconsequential on their own, but built up over time they influence every facet of our lives.

Few are more aware of the power of routine than professional athletes, for whom repeated good behaviours create the marginal gains that can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Below, Athlete Career Transition (ACT) Performance Psychologist, Odette Hornby explores the broader significance of routine for athletes, and how athletes cope with adopting new routines as they transition from sport into second careers in business.

What does routine mean for athletes in sport, and why is it so crucial?

Odette Hornby: Routine for athletes in sport is essentially the framework that allows them to prepare themselves mentally, physically, technically, and tactically to perform at their best.

Routine can take on a very structured form for many athletes. For example, they might have a specific gym session and technical training session scheduled for 9am, and everything is meticulously planned out in terms of what they need to do and when they need to do it. It's not just about training either - nutrition, rest and recovery, and social activities are all planned and scheduled around training sessions.

Nutrition stands out as an essential for athletes as they’re always searching to make even the smallest gains in performance. This means that they need to be strict with what they eat, when they eat, and how much they eat, based on their training and competition schedules. Essentially, their entire day is mapped out around their sport, and this planning is done well in advance.

Athletes know when their competitions are and work backwards from there, designing their routine to build up to these events. It's not just a matter of showing up to training sessions; everything they do is carefully put together and executed to maximise their performance. It's a lot of work, but it's necessary for athletes to be at their best when it matters most.

What are the differences between routine in the athletic world, and routine in traditional work settings?

OH: The differences are quite significant. In elite sport, you usually know what your schedule looks like in detail for weeks in advance.

However, in a typical nine-to-five job, that structure intensity doesn’t exist. You might know what tasks you have to complete, and you know what needs to be done. But how it gets done and what that process looks like is generally up to the individual worker themselves. Also, a day in the office can change course at a moment’s notice, if a meeting gets called, or an event goes on for longer than was planned.

As a result, athletes need to be very adaptable and able to pivot their routine quickly to suit the needs of an organisation that they go into. They are challenged to create their own routine when they're no longer given one.

Another issue arises if athletes forget to take care of themselves in the midst of work.

They may miss break times because they're so involved in what they’re doing, and that can have negative consequences.

Can you explain the challenges that athletes face as they move from a sports-based routine into routines in traditional workplaces?

OH: The transition can present many challenges for athletes. A primary challenge stems from that structure change discussed above – it causes uncertainty and disruption, undermining

productivity and generally leading to the athlete feeling lost.

Athletes may not be used to the processes you need to go through in order to find out what they have to do. It may be a long time before they figure out how to work to their best in new settings, without that concrete plan in place to follow.

The flexibility of a traditional workplace can also prove problematic, as athletes can find it tricky to nail down a work-life balance. They can end up working far longer and more inefficiently than they are used to, leading to burnout and stress.

Beyond this, the transition can also lead to identity questions for athletes. After dedicating their lives to their sport, athletes may experience a sense of loss when they leave their athletic routine behind. Going into a workplace where they don't have the same structure can amplify these feelings, causing them to question who they are and what they're doing. This can lead to imposter syndrome, where they feel like they don't belong in their new environment, or that they’re not equipped to succeed in their new roles.

Overall, the transition from a sports-based routine to a traditional workplace can be a difficult one for athletes. It requires a new level of self-discipline and an ability to adapt to a different way of life. However, with the right support and a clear plan in place, athletes can successfully make the transition and find huge fulfilment in their new careers.

How does ACT help to manage this change?

OH: The support provided by ACT helps athletes to understand the struggles they're facing. We work with them to create a routine that suits their new situation.

The focus is on setting out their day so that they can give themselves blocks of time for specific tasks and take breaks in between. This helps athletes to create the structure and routine that they need.

ACT sits down with athletes to understand what's not working for them and to identify the difficulties they face in creating a routine. The athletes are encouraged to set time boundaries, rather than letting activities pile up. We underline the importance of taking breaks and physically moving away from their desk areas during those breaks in order to give their minds a refresh so that they come back ready to work.

Overall, ACT helps guide the process, but it's up to the athletes to put it into practice and maintain that structure and routine in a different setting. These practical handrails create clarity and focus, which bring their own mental and physical benefits for athletes.

Does the athletic routine help athletes to be more successful in traditional working contexts?

OH: Absolutely, having a structured routine can definitely benefit athletes when transitioning to more traditional work settings.

Athletes are used to having a clear understanding of what needs to be done and when, so they are able to be more productive and focused in their work. This drive to achieve is deeply ingrained in them, and they bring that same level of dedication and focus to their jobs. They are very competitive and are always striving for results, which can be a great asset in the workplace.

In traditional work environments, being competitive can sometimes have negative connotations, but for athletes, it means having a structured and methodical approach to achieving goals. They are able to see the bigger picture and understand what steps need to be taken to reach their objectives. This level of discipline and focus can be a great advantage in any workplace, especially those that require a lot of attention to detail and a high level of productivity.

Overall, the skills and mindset that athletes develop through their athletic routines can be incredibly valuable in traditional working contexts. It allows them to be more productive, goal-oriented, and focused, which can lead to great success in their careers.

Athlete Career Transition

Athlete Career Transition (ACT) exists to help former athletes find successful second careers after sport.

We are with athletes every step of the way with a world class support programme that enables individuals to manage their own journeys.

We build transition readiness, identify skills and augment resources so that former sportsmen and sportswomen can move away from the playing field but continue as elite performers.


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