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How To Become A Professional Athlete

Do you have the dream of competing at the highest level of the sport you love? To see that dream realized, let me tell you what you may not know about what it takes from my personal experience with athletes at the highest level worldwide. Then keep reading for some tips on what you can do now or encourage the next generation to do as well.

When we watch our idols in sports we often only think about the glorious wins and want that same spotlight. But what does it take to be a professional?

It can help to consider the word, “professional”, first. It means you have selected something as your full time profession to give time, effort, and investment as a career. For most people that ends up being 8+ hours per day, multiples days per week, and 40+ hours per week working at that profession. The same applies for being a professional athlete. While other jobs also demand physical and mental health and performance, being a professional athlete requires you to get the maximum out of your body and have the mental ability to perform your strategy under high pressure situations on a big stage.

Ever thought of giving 40 hours per week to training your body, practicing your sport skill, and doing different recovery behaviors or things that help you mentally recover?

Not only that, have you ever dedicated the remaining 164 hours per week to make sure every bite of food, every drink you have, every social gathering, every bed time, or everything you view in the media is positively helping you develop, recover, or perform.

This leads you to make decisions that others are not willing to make because it is too costly. It leads you to building a team of trusted professionals to help you reach the top. It leads you to tracking and assessing as much as you can to find the blind spots and help yourself gain an edge over competition. It means investing whatever will help you grow and improve.

In business this sounds a lot like entrepreneurship right? Entrepreneurs have to leave the “safe” job where they are secure member of a large number of employees with good salaries and pension plans. To truly develop and scale your own bushes, you have to make a leap and some point and go all in, take the risk to bet in yourself and believe you will build a team and get help along the way.

So the cost is great, but if you have the raw talent, discipline, or work ethic, you can become a pro athlete. All 3 qualities are not required. Tom Brady was famously drafted late in the NFL draft, which basically means the team had low expectations for him. Look at him now, he retired as the winningest quarterback in the NFL with 5 super bowls because of his grit, determination, competitive drive, and work ethic to learn how to develop the best strategy to use his own skill set and bring out the strengths in his teammates.

How many Olympic medalists come from poor upbringings and just worked super hard for years and years until they finally attained their dreams? Pretty common story in Olympic Sports.

Many of the Indian badminton players I work with came from villages where the income of the average person is lower than most wealthy nations can imagine living on. But with passion and multiple years or hard work, experience in many many competitions, and a good support system, they are not some of the best in the world.

The cost is great, but you can do the things necessary to change your game to work to becoming the best pro you can be.

What can you start doing now to become the professional athlete you want to be?

Here are 9 things you can start today.

Play multiple sports

Why is this first? Playing multiple sports develops a better overall athleticism and prevents injuries by getting a mixture of movements. It is well established that selecting a single sport to do for the rest of your life puts you at a higher risk if injury. Why? Every sport has its own repetitive movements and if you do the same things enough times you are bound to create asymmetries, imbalances, stiffness or injury at some point. Even once you reach a higher level of sport where you do have to select, it can really help your recover mentally and physically to play a different sport on rest days or in the offseason because it is different. Parents, expose your kids to as many sports as possible and choose a sport together with your children when one rides to the top.

Move well first, then build performance.

If movement is faulty then trying to put volume, weight or stress onto that movement will only increase risk of injury in the long run and make it harder to change and come back from. For example, a bad squat can lead to more stress on the knees and hips, thus leading to knee, hip and back issues. Not only that, a poor squat technique will decrease your performance even if it doesn’t hurt because you can’t generate much power, speed, or efficiency with poor movement. Correct your basic lower and upper body mobility, motor control (balance), and technique before laboring it heavily in a weight room or sport. This is also a call to coaches to have a higher standard or movement practice so that you are not just settling for less to allow players to move with power movement patterns.

Weight train.

ALL athletes and ALL sports, and ALL people and ALL ages can benefit from weight training.  Whether you are a marathon athlete or a weightlifter or somewhere in between, everyone needs to weight train. The exercise selection and volume depends on you and your goals and the outcomes you need. The best in the world do a little something every day and have at least 2 more significant weight training sessions every week throughout the year, even in season. Women, you can be stronger, have better bone density, and more size is not required if you train right (but we can add muscle if you need it). Children can even weight train sub-maximal loads to encourage better bone, muscle and tendon development long term and they can receive the gift of learning how to be strong and stable in any position from a young age so that professionals like myself don’t have to break down bad technique and slowly rebuild it the hard way. To stay injury free as you play and play and play, weight training is an important piece of making your body stronger and more resilient.

Practice. A LOT.

There are no shortcuts to building a high level of skill. Any any profession, you have to get a LOT of reps at it and maintain it for a long time to do any skill in your sport on command when you want to. Tennis players and table tennis players can hit the ball at crazy velocities and out so much spin on it, their opponent can’t return it. NFL quarterbacks can hit a small coin from far away. Footballers can bend a ball through the air around a mass of players into the goal with pinpoint accuracy, seemingly defying physics. Pitcher and bowlers can do things with baseballs and cricket balls that make a 30% strike right for a batter look amazing. Badminton players can hit the shuttle at fast or slow velocities with crazy accuracy and reaction timing using every centimeter of the court. You don’t get this skill he accident or only by natural talent. It is acquired by countless hours of consistent practice. And to maintain the highest precision you need keep practicing to maintain that skill, even once you reach the top. Become a student of your game. Watch film of yourself and others. Find your weaknesses and practice them until they are no longer weak. Practice your strengths to make them when your opponents fear most. Practice different scenarios and strategies to find out how to win in any situation and prepare your mind to be calm clear under pressure. Get other players and coaches in on it to find your blind spots and work on them together in practice.

Build the best nutrition behaviors from a young age or start now.

Lots of people are willing to give hours and hours in practice or in the gym, but few are willing or are even aware of addressing the food and drink they have. I see so many aspiring athletes and individuals sabotaging all their hard work and their recovery with fast food, junk food, sweets, alcohol, imbalanced macros, or too much of “mom’s home cooking”. Some athletes go in eating this out of complete ignorance, not knowing they they could feel absolutely amazing compared to how they regularly feel now if they ate differently and they would perform better. Others eat these things because they have emotional attachments to unhealthy foods to help them cope with stress, or they have social pressure, or they may have some perception that healthier food just doesn’t taste good or right. Personally if taste is an issue, you just haven’t explored enough or tried hard enough to create delicious meals with better ingredients and portions. Are unhealthy food and drink wrong to have 100% of the time? Not necessarily. Sometimes it is a conscious decision that helps you connect with loved ones, mentally refresh from the grind a bit, or it is the only available option you have to eat while traveling to keep from starving. Sometimes it is a special occasion or you just legitimately love the taste of something and just want to have it once in a while. But as a professional athlete you are not a mass production car made for the masses. You are a fine-tuned formula one racer and now one can imagine just putting normal unleaded gasoline into that engine. That’s a sure way to MASSIVE inefficiency and basically sludge in the pipes just slowing you down. Same goes for consistent poor nutrition. Your body is a system of averages. If the average food and drink are positive toward the physique (leanness), weight, performance and recovery of your sport, then your body and the way you move and feel will reflect that. But if the average of what you eat is more than what your body needs to burn (too many calories) or if the quality of food choices is not great then your body will reflect that in how you look, mice and feel. And to be clear, no amount of training, matter how long or good or intense the training program is, it can’t fix a broken diet. I aim for a 90/10 rule with my athletes. Eat well and in the right quantities most of the time and have a few treats here and there and you will be overall good to go. This helps you stay lean and have a good lean body for sport. It doesn’t require you to be too restrictive, eat boring food, or be socially outcast. It gives you freedom to make and discover awesome healthy food anywhere in the world and also indulge a bit here and there. Athletes generally benefit from a high protein diet, usually 1.2-2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Then fill in the carbs and fats according to calorie goals or just satisfied (not too full), and get multiple servings or fruits and veggies daily. The more consistent athletes are at this over the long term and short term, the better they look and recover and they better the feel over the longevity of their career. Specifically when it comes to injuries, if you have good nutrition behaviors in place, you can bounce back faster. How are you doing with nutrition? Is this a big gap for you that is holding you back? How do you need to be more consistent or optimize more?

Prioritize sleep.

Sleep duration and quality has been trending down with modernization, development, media and technology. It is the missing foundational piece for many athletes that is making them struggle to recover, stay injury free, or perform at the highest level mentally and physically long term. Sleep is the number 1 recovery tools mentally and physically. Many athletes I have worked with have become leaner, decreased anxiety, improved performance and accuracy, decreased injury, decreased stiffness, had more energy and mental clarity, without changing anything else but sleep. For example, by increasing the average sleep from 5 hours to 7.5 hours increase our average recovery by about 10% an elite group of badminton players. That’s huge to be 10% more recovered than your opponent in any given day. Most people need around 7-8 hours of sleep, which me a you need enough time in bed in order to sleep that long. What is keeping you from sleeping?

Build in regular recovery behaviors every day.

To be the best in the world, recovery habits can’t be a response to pain or stiffness or injury. They have to be a daily habit practice. Sleep, stretching, mobilizations, soft tissue work, compression, ice bath, sauna, breathing exercises, chiropractic, message, prehab exercises, laughing or gathering with people you love, playing other sports or games, getting out in nature, prayer, journaling, reading. This is just a list of some common recovery behaviors to restore your mind and body. When stacked together over time you can find your most effective recovery routines that help you feel your best as your push your body to the knife’s edge of performance without getting injured.

Embrace hard things.

Rather than trying to avoid hard things or just complain when hard things happen, embrace it. Every hard experience gives you an opportunity to grow and respond with good character, even if you fail. Failure is a part of sport, but the process of mastery and winning is super rewarding if you embrace every little challenge. Every moment is a chance to be 1-0 on the day. Sometimes the hard things come from people. As the proverb goes, “Just as iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another.” That sounds like a gritty, rough, painful sounding process but you ultimately come out sharper and more useful (better and a man or woman in and out of competition) if you are humble enough to want and take feedback, even if it comes as a rebuke or pep talk. Every loss and every hard piece of advice or criticism can have truth within it that can help you grow. How do you need to embrace hard things better?

Recruit your team.

No gets to the top or stays here alone. They have a support team around them. Family members, friends, coaches, trainers, chiropractors, doctors, nutritionists, dietitians, mental coaches, athletic trainers, physios, mentors, sport science professionals, spiritual support and community, sponsors, administrative staff,  and others are all a part of a support network that help you manage the business of optimizing your performance for as long as you can for a successful career.

That’s 9 things you can start doing right now to become a professional athlete or things you can do as a professional athlete to improve what you are always doing. You don’t have to do all at the same time. Start with one and build win you are ready, welling and able to embrace the change to change your game one consistent step at a time. Which one seems the easiest for you to tackle first?

Do you need help making any of this happen and want a performance coach in your side to help you change your game to get to or stay at the highest level? Reach out to us at LinnFit Coaching to help you optimize your training, nutrition and recovery programs and behaviors with online remote coaching.

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