A few months ago, a fellow coach came up and asked me a question about professional athlete training. He was telling me that several of his athletes were asking him how professional athletes train, specifically what they do to get them to the professional level. This is all in hopes that his athletes could replicate their process to obtain professional athlete status. I was pretty impressed with the inquisitiveness his young athletes were demonstrating as it seems to make sense to emulate something or someone who has achieved a certain level of success you desire. On the flip side, any high-level success, such as becoming a professional athlete, has many layers to the process. Simply just copying a pro athlete’s workout does not guarantee you the same level of achievement. Unfortunately, a lot of people are sold on the delusion that if you simply do x, it will lead to y, i.e. drink this sports drink and you will play better, take this supplement and you will gain professional results from your workout, etc.
What Does it Take?
When looking at what it takes to be a professional athlete, we should examine physical components and mental components. We will start with the physical. Professional athletes demonstrate a high level of skill and proficiency in their specific sport compared to most others. Many of them have a high degree of natural talent, but most have worked to develop that level of talent. This work comes in the form of comprehensive workouts that lead to functional development, eating well to assist in their athletic progress, astounding amounts of sport specific practice time, and balancing proper amounts of rest time/recovery work to maximize their growth.
When we look at the mental variables of becoming a professional athlete, the list is much more comprehensive. As mentioned above, most professional athletes possess a high level of talent, but it is their constant drive to be the best they can be that brings them to their level of achievement. The mental side to this argument deals with approach and focus. Most professional athletes demonstrate a high level of commitment to their development and sport. Day after day, month after month, and year after year, these athletes have a disciplined approach that solely focuses on their ability to perform better and more consistently. This includes time on and off the playing surface. Their lives are spent in preparation to be the best. Distractions are eliminated from their lives that take away from the focus to achieve performance goals. Time and other opportunities are sacrificed (like going out with friends, going on vacations, etc.) to be the best that they can be at their sport. These athletes are accountable to their time and work ethic; they generally do not make justifications for actions or inactions that do not positively contribute to their development. Not only do these athletes avoid distractions, but they have a steadfast determination and drive to achieve their goals.
What Does This Mean for You?
If your goal is to be a professional athlete, understand that this is a lofty goal. It is not impossible, but only a very select few earn that tag with many reaching for it. The process to achieve this goal is not a “once in a while” or “when I feel like it” plan. This is an everyday, all of the time venture to always be the best you can possibly be, physically and mentally. You need to outperform yesterday.
Physically speaking, you need to develop your sport specific skill set. Before you do that, it is time to have an honest conversation with yourself. How talented are you to begin with? Athletic talent is not evenly distributed and this is not the time to satisfy your ego with delusional thoughts. If you cannot objectively assess your weaknesses, regardless of how they make you feel, you will not achieve. Yes, your talent can absolutely be improved through hard work and dedication, but not everyone is destined to be a major league whatever. If you are a 5’5,” 190-pound defensive lineman who runs a 5.4 second 40 as a junior in high school, professional football isn’t in your future. The sooner you face that reality, the better.
Regardless of the sport you play, there are certain physical variables you can work on every single day to achieve your goals. They are outlined below:
1. Train your body in preparation to be the best possible to perform your sport specific task. No one workout or exercise is the end-all, be-all answer! Your workouts should be comprehensive, covering both sport specific movement exercises to simulate performance-like events that you will be expected to complete at the highest level, as well as general athletic movement exercises to optimize overall athletic development and health. Both avenues build towards functional movement patterns to ensure increased performance. Whether you are gaining strength, explosive speed and power, increasing mobility, or a combination, training your body to perform at its peak is nonstop. Although you will take recovery breaks every so often and you will change the approach you take towards your workouts depending if you are in-season or out, your workouts don’t end
2. “Practice until you can’t get it wrong.” Whether you are an outfielder working on your swing, a quarterback working on your throws, a center working on your post move, or a midfielder working on your crossover, you need to put in countless hours perfecting your craft. Most sports have numerous actions and movements that can be broken down and practiced, so you will always have things to work on. Don’t just practice something until you are able to do it correctly. Practice it until you can’t get it wrong. (See “The Misnomer of Muscle Memory” post for more information).
3. Fuel your body to get the most out of it. Knowing what your body needs to perform and develop at a high level is a must. What you eat is the foundation of your energy levels and how your body is constructed. Failure to put enough emphasis on how you fuel your body will have long-term consequences. (See “Food for Thought” post for more information).
Mentally, we need to have another honest conversation with ourselves. Do I have what it takes to develop myself to the status of professional athlete? Am I completely dedicated to this task or do I make justifications for not totally sacrificing myself for this? What’s holding me back? Honest self-assessment is critical, otherwise, you are just fooling yourself. Preparation is not just physical; we need to mentally prepare. Some examples of mental preparedness are:
doing something when at the time you don’t feel like doing it,
studying plays inside and out,
knowing signs and situational strategies,
paying attention during team meetings,
developing mental toughness and resiliency,
fearlessly self-assess and evaluate,
overcoming adversity and failure,
thriving in difficult situations as opposed to simply surviving, and
knowing your breaking point and getting beyond it
It’s Not Always What It Seems
Much of what we see in the professional sports world is constructed behind closed doors. Most of us are not privy to what fully goes on to prepare each athlete for their success. We assume that every professional athlete is the hardest working guy or girl and it is their unrelenting desire to be the best that got them to where they are. Like most things, this is not a universal truth, as seen below:
A few years ago, I had the privilege to visit our Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY and watch some of the training that our US female luge team completed. One girl on the team was working on her starts. This was the part of her sledding that needed the most work as she lost too much time on this to put her at a level to make the Olympic team. When going down to watch her practice, I was expecting to see her in the indoor ice practice course for hours, getting in dozens upon dozens of starts to ensure improvement to make this team. To my surprise, she was done for the day after a quick warm-up and just five reps of timed starts! This completely went against my perception of a National Team member who is an Olympic hopeful. Even with this practice routine, she still made our Olympic Team a few years later. However, it is not overly surprising that this athlete placed as she did: she received a “Did Not Finish” as she crashed in her third heat.
As mentioned before, talent is not evenly distributed. Some people have an incredible gift to perform their sport at the professional level without having to put in as much work as others to reach the same success. It is the all-time greats, the best of the best, that not only have great talent, but also the unquestionable drive to being the best. They are less concerned with beating their opponents but rather focus on beating themselves every day.
Lots of people have high-levels of talent. So much so that their talent becomes their worst enemy. When you have that much talent and achieve levels of success, complacency starts to creep in. You stop working as hard and think you have “made it,” not realizing that you still can earn more. Even the most talented athletes in the world reach a peak below their levels of potential and greatness when they don’t work on being the best they can be at all times:
Most baseball fans are familiar with former Met pitcher Matt Harvey and his ups and downs. From 2012-2015, Harvey was a dominating pitcher for the Mets (he sat out the 2014 season after Tommy John surgery). He has an extraordinarily high level of talent, starting the 2013 MLB All-Start game and winning the NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2015 with a fastball velocity at 98mph to compliment his plus slider. However, the last few years have not been as good for Harvey. Reports of off-the-field distractions started to come to light. In 2017, Harvey was reported to be out partying until 4am and was unable to show up to the game the following day, resulting in a 3-game suspension. A year later, he was caught partying in L.A. the night before a relief appearance of his which had less than stellar results. Combine these distractions with some injuries, and the Mets let Harvey go this year. Even athletes with unbelievable skill will fall when distractions draw their attention away from maximizing their ability.
If you’re looking to become a professional athlete, or just plain succeed to the fullest in any aspect of your life, it takes discipline. Discipline to have constant determination and drive to stick with the process of achievement. Discipline to avoid distractions that take away from our process. And discipline to overcome difficulties and failure. True success is not supposed to be easy; it is in the difficulty of reaching success which makes achievement worthwhile. The real risk to developing talent and reaching success is not in making things too hard, but in making things too easy. It is your positive approach, how your view your challenges and how you view your effort, that will lead you to success.