About a decade ago, Alan Ma burst into my office and proclaimed, “There is no such thing as balance if you want to be an elite tennis player!” I think the world of Coach Ma and have seen up close his ability to develop world-class tennis players. So while I was a bit thrown off by his demonstrative proclamation I thought it wise to consider it closely. Over the next week, I watched his players closely. Top 200 tennis players and top collegiate players left it all on the practice courts... and then I would find them sitting on the steps of their apartment reading quality literature. Red clay-stained stories from Roland Garros seemed to be accompanied by reflections on visits to artwork at the Louvre. The intensity on the court was relentless. Commitment to sound nutrition and off-court conditioning was seemingly, superhuman. Yet some semblance of life outside of tennis seemed to be happening.
Balance may not be a prerequisite for achieving athletic excellence, but it certainly appears critical to maximizing and sustaining it. Having interests beyond the playing field seems to serve as an innoculator for the stresses of sport. This is illustrated in part by recent research by Mandy Ruddock-Hudson and her colleagues on injured Australian Football League players. When faced with a long-term injury, athletes who have passions outside of sport and social connections beyond their immediate team cope better with injury and progress well towards healing. Injury can lead to a loss of self-identity and a sense of helplessness… athletes with greater life balance are able to find fulfillment and feelings of control during challenges in their sporting life.
Balance is a performance enhancer. Rest and recovery has become an essential piece of high performance in sport. Post-workout recovery has gone from a nice idea to high science in the physical training. Post workout massage, nutrition, sleep cycles, and activities are all core to building a better athlete. One would be remiss to ignore mental recovery if high performance is desired. Cognitive science has illustrated that concentration can be viewed as a limited resource that requires refueling on a regular basis. It is reasonable to suspect that a change in focus that is provided by positive life passions outside of sport can serve as Gatorade for the mind. A distraction from competitive obsession allows for different intellectual resources to be engaged and mental resources to be refueled.
The intent of Coach Ma’s statement is evident in great athletes. They bring focus and intensity to every ball hit on the practice court and every point of the Grand Slam match - Anders Ericsson’s notions of deliberate practice are fulfilled to the greatest extents. The literal content of the statement could easily be misperceived. Do not confuse intensity for lack of life balance (see Ericsson’s 2003 review article on achieving expert performance and note “Effort Constraints”). In elite sport, the downtime between practice and competition is great. Curiosity towards endeavors outside of sport and relationships beyond the locker room, replenish the mind. The pro’s pro builds a dynamic life that allows for great efforts on the field and fulfilling replenishment off of it. Balance surrounds the competitor. It is valuable to high performance and it is also well-lived life.