On the day of my 30th birthday, feeling reflective, I sat down to ponder thirty lessons that I have picked up in my thirty years of life. As good a time as any to take stock and see where we’re at, I thought. But I thought too much, and spent a whole year mulling over my thirty lessons, as if I were now writing a definitive guide for living or something. So, I started again and here we are. These are just some things I have learned, among many others, that would have been handy to know ten years ago. Most of them are a work in progress.
1. We shouldn’t over-think things
If you’re going to write a post for your blog just write it. It doesn’t need to be perfect, there’s no such thing anyway. The perfect moment to take action never arrives.
The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed. Steve Pressfield, The War of Art
2. Other things we shouldn’t do all the time: Worry, Feel guilty, Beat yourself up, Compare yourself to others, Care what people think
Although these thought patterns are human nature they can lead to internal strife and hold us back. We should certainly hold ourselves accountable for or actions, and we can use the negative feelings we have as motivation for positive change, but our sense of self-worth should never be on the line. This can trigger shame; the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. The best piece of advice you would be lucky enough to receive is: Be kind to yourself, forgive yourself.
3. Mistakes and failures are part and parcel of living and learning
I have slipped up in spectacular fashion over the years, and I can predict with certainty that I will do so again. What I have learned is to forgive myself for making mistakes. I’ll always do my best but when the next one comes along, I’ll learn from it, and get over it.
4. We shouldn’t always lend so much credence to our thoughts
I mentioned this in a previous blog post about mantra’s. You are not your thoughts. We often have irrational, sometimes catastrophic, usually self-defeating thoughts. I don’t know why it happens, but it does, and I’d go as far as saying it everyone experiences this. I’ve benefited greatly from not over-identifying with thoughts.
5. There are no pre-requisites for worthiness
Self-regard should not be conditional. Bréne Brown, a research professor who has spent years studying authentic and wholehearted living, presented her findings in a famous TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ and in many subsequent books. One of her deepest insights is that those who feel a sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of it.
The important thing to know about worthiness is that it doesn’t have pre-requisites. Most of us, on the other hand, have a long list of worthiness pre-requisites – qualifiers that we’ve inherited, learned, and unknowingly picked up along the way. Most of these prerequisites fall in the categories of accomplishments, acqusitions, and external acceptance. (“I’ll be worthy when..” or “I’ll be worthy if…”) Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
6. Continually practicing self-awareness is key to living a considered life
Paying attention to your yourself, examining how you think and behave, is a necessary element of personal growth. Asking questions of myself is a useful tool in this self-observation. Did I overreact in that situation? Was I actively listening in that conversation? Was I unfairly off-loading my frustration on someone else? Self-awareness begins with a sense of curiosity about the emotions we are feeling, instead of burying them into the depth of our subconscious.
7. Knowing your core values takes the guess work out of living
We all live by a certain set of values, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Your values might include Health, Family, Connections, Authenticity, Career. I never really thought about it much until I was given a nifty Goals Journal which included the task of narrowing my core values down to the top 3. Identifying and reminding myself of them has helped me to align my daily habits and behaviours accordingly.
8. We are always responsible for our emotions and how we interpret external events
Stoic philosophy contains many valuable lessons to help us deal with the realities and certain misfortunes of life. One of the central teachings of Stoicism is that problems are created not by events in the world, but rather how we interpret those events. Our judgements about people or events are responsible for how they ‘make’ us feel. Nobody, and nothing, in and of itself, truly makes us feel anything.
If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now. Marcus Aurelius
9. Psychological factors can drive physical pain
When we physically injure ourselves, we feel pain. But the experience of pain itself does not mean that there is tissue damage. The biopsychosocial model explains the multi-faceted nature of pain, and how emotions, sensations, cognitions (beliefs about pain) and social aspects are involved with persisting pain. This means that if you are dealing with chronic/persistent pain, following a physio plan to correct a mechanical problem is unlikely to resolve the issue without addressing the underlying or coinciding psychological component. Emotional trauma is often manifested as physical symptoms, known as psychosomatic symptoms.
10. Meditation is a powerful tool to train the mind
A meditation practice is without doubt the most positive habit that I have incorporated into my daily life in recent years, with the help of Headspace. It has helped me with;
- my ability to stay focused on cognitively-demanding tasks
- general present moment awareness
- stress resilience (reducing emotional hijacking, and recovering quicker when it does happen)
- not feeling like I am in a rush
- connection and empathy towards others
People often say that meditation ‘isn’t for them’, that they aren’t good at it, or that they don’t have time. The point of meditation, however, isn’t about being good at it. It’s the practice of sitting down with it that counts, sticking with the discomfort and that urge to break from the stillness until the mind eventually calms down, gently bringing your attention back to the present every time it wanders off.
11. We should remind ourselves to appreciate the present moment
We tend to spend a lot of time preparing for and worrying about the future, at the expense of living in the moment. It’s not that we should opt for instant gratification, working towards something can give us purpose in life, but as Eckhart Tollle says ‘The power for creating a better future is contained in the present moment: You create a good future by creating a good present.’ Mindfulness is about more than meditation, it’s about being present in whatever activity it is we are engaged in.
12. Having a morning routine is the best way to kickstart the day
If I wake up in a rush to get out there door, I end up chasing the rest of the day, whereas sticking to a morning routine physically and mentally prepares me for the day ahead. It usually looks like this: Get up, 5-minute Journal, 15 minute stretch/joint mobilisation, 15 minute meditation with Headspace, breakfast, bathroom stuff, out the door. Getting up an hour earlier than I have to is key to carving out the quiet space needed for this.
13. If you don’t take control of your social networking use, it will take control of you.
Checking your phone can quickly become a compulsive behaviour, which is not surprising considering that there are thousands of engineers behind every phone screen, designing their apps to create psychological cravings and keep us checking, and scrolling, and checking. There is increasing evidence to suggest that social media is not good for our physical and mental wellbeing. A couple of years ago, I spent 7 days off the grid in the Amazonian jungle in Peru. I actually experienced withdrawal symptoms for the first couple of days of the digital detox, but felt amazing for it by the end of the week.
14. Busyness and productivity are not the same thing.
We attach status to being busy, in the mistaken belief that business equates to your value. But being the last person to leave the office at the end of the day doesn’t make you better at your job. It says more about your time efficiency and load management, and maybe the value you attach to the perception of others. Refer to lesson 2.
15. It’s better to be early than on time.
I always thought that going to the airport to catch a flight was an inherently stressful event. Nervously willing the queue at security on, forgetting to take my bottle of water out of my bag, cursing as the bag gets held up for a check, then running down the terminal, sweat beating off me, bags flying everywhere. Then one time I was earlier than on time, and it was lovely.
16. You should back up your laptop regularly
A lesson we usually learn the hard way. At some point you are going to lose all your stuff, probably especially if you’re in college. With a project deadline looming. Do your future-self a favour and back up your laptop, and your phone. Like, now.
17. Three great ways to clear the head; journalling, going for a walk, talking things through.
It’s impossible to implore yourself or someone else out of a bad mood, but there are things we can do to help us deal with negative feelings. We rarely carve out the space in our days necessary to process our emotions, thus it is often when we lie down in bed at night that our minds take off. The psychological benefits of externalising our thoughts, whether it is talking or writing, are well known. It seems that this is about more than venting, rather the key to the positive health effects is in interpreting our experiences and better understanding our emotions.
18. Cultivating our own movement practice is essential to feeling good in our bodies.
In a modern world in which the need to move for survival has been largely removed, we must combat sedentary living with regular physical activity. If we take a normal day and think about how much of it we spend sitting, well, it’s most of it. Getting to the gym a few times per week is a good start, but movement is a nutrient that needs regular feeding if we want strong, supple and healthy bodies that will serve us until we’re a hundred. Biomechanist Katy Bowman makes the case for setting up our environment and routines so that movement is a normal part of our day-to-day lives. It is equally important to find something that we enjoy or it won’t stick. Yoga, hiking, martial arts, bouldering, field sports, swimming, gymming, there’s something for everybody.
19. The best foundation for any sport is a wide-variety of physical activities.
It seems logical that to become better at your sport you should train that sport as much as possible. If you are a hurler, hurl, if you are a football, football, and forget about everything else. But for youth athletes, a wide-ranging movement practice is the best foundation for any sport. Despite the evidence supporting late-specialisation for sports, early-specialisation is still pervasive. The demands of hurling and Gaelic football on the joints are very similar, it’s no wonder that we see young GAA players picking up serious hip and knee injuries so early in their playing careers. For the youth athletes we need to prioritise physical literacy over fitness capacity.
20. Injuries in sport are most commonly a load-tolerance issue.
When our bodies are exposed to workloads that exceed the tissue’s load-tolerance capacity, we end up with injuries. That’s what the epidemic of injuries amongst our youth athletes today comes down to, and the solution comes from addressing both sides of the equation. a) We need to monitor and manage the loads the athlete is expected to deal with, i.e. playing for your club, county, and school/college is probably too much. b) We need to build resilient bodies that can handle the stress placed on the joints, specific to the demands of the game, i.e gradually progressive running loads, multi-planar strength, mobility, and motor control.
21. The best training plan is the one you stick to
This is what I have learned from writing a thousand gym programs for others and for myself. A simple and doable program that you turn up for each and every week always outperforms a fancy program that is unsustainable. Dan John talks about Park Bench workouts vs Bus Bench workouts as an analogy to explain this approach to training. Bus Bench workouts are when we are in a hurry to make big gains, pushing the envelope and training close to failure. Park Bench workouts are just about turning up consistently, making slow and steady progress, not getting obsessed with the numbers. This is where most of us should be most of the time.
22. Nothing is worth a habit of not getting a full night’s sleep
I thought sleep was important, and then I read Why We Sleep by sleep researcher Matthew Walker. It turns out that good sleep is the single most essential activity we are responsible for towards living a healthier, happier, longer, more creative, and fulfilling life. Conclusive empirical evidence aside, I can attest that being tired all the time is not worth the extra hours spent awake at night. This Joe Rogan Podcast with Matthew Walker is really incredible and a must-listen.
23. We should pay attention to how the food we eat contributes to our gut health.
For years, I followed a diet consisting mainly of Weetabix, cheese sandwiches, and pasta. Grains, grains, and more grains. And a daily dose of dairy. The diet was Food Pyramid heaven, so I never thought to question the abdominal distension or the feeling of being bloated after every meal. People are quick to find fault with a Paleo/Primal diet, but going that direction and cutting out grains and dairy made my gut operate and feel healthy for the first time. Paying attention was the first step. I always tell my athletes that if drinking a whey protein shake makes them feel bloated and crappy, don’t drink it. It’s simple advice, but athlete’s, especially, often feel like they have to eat certain foods and supplements because they are told it’s good for them. What’s ‘good’ for one person might not be good for someone else.
24. Social connection is as important as anything for our wellbeing and happiness
We can’t go it alone. There is evidence to suggest that strong social connection not only improves your mental and emotional wellbeing but strengthens the immune system, and helps you live longer. Research shows that loneliness is on the rise, and our sense of community is by and large dwindling, making it more important than ever to make effort an effort to connect.
The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering. Bréne Brown
25. Coaching is first about understanding, caring for and serving your athletes.
There is truth to the maxim that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If you are coaching more to serve your own needs rather than the athlete’s needs, you will eventually be found out, regardless of how knowledgable you are. Developing emotional intelligence, self-regard, and practising humility is as much a part of a coach’s professional development as anything else.
It is human nature to seek validation, so one can easily fall into the trap of doing something to look good. If I have a feeling that I might be falling for this, it helps to check my intention by asking; ‘Am I doing this for myself, or for my athlete?’. It always has to come back to caring and serving your athletes first.
26. Strong leaders are not people pleasers
Trying to keep everyone happy is not robust leadership, and will eventually undermine your position. Ultimately, honesty and authenticity will serve your people better than people pleasing. We try to justify people pleasing to ourselves by saying that we are just being kind, when often we are actually avoiding conflict. We can still be nice to those around us, while remaining true to ourselves. Bréne Brown strikes again with a great mantra for this: Choose discomfort over resentment.
27. A lack of information is rarely the barrier to personal change
Telling someone that smoking is bad for them doesn’t stop them smoking. Similarly, a powerpoint presentation telling a group of athletes that eating vegetables is good for them will probably not make a difference. When it comes to helping people with personal change, it’s about connecting with them on an emotional level, tapping into their attitudes and belief system. Motivational Interviewing is a counselling method that helps people to activate their own internal motivation and resources to change. A common pitfall to avoid for those of us in the field of helping others is the expert trap, communicating that, based on your professional expertise, you have the answer to the person’s dilemma.
When dealing with people, remember that you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion. Dale Carnegie
28. Our capacity for focused attention has been eroded in today’s society
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the compelling case that the ability to focus on cognitively demanding tasks without distraction is one of the most valuable and increasingly rare skills in our economy. So congrats, in this goldfish-attention-span era, for your exceptional focusing powers if you have read this far down the blog post.
29. We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously
Taking yourself too seriously is a phenomenon that is easily observable in hierarchical organisations, or in individuals adorned with societally-perceived success. Indeed, in the right conditions, an inflated sense of self-importance can creep up on all of us. It’s worth remembering that you are no better or less better than anyone else. And, as we aren’t here for a long time, we may as well enjoy it while we can.
30. Music is magic
Music connects in ways that language can not, it is transporting, it can uplift and move people, it is a release from our worries, and as Plato says, music gives soul to the universe. The magic of music is powerfully illustrated in the documentary, Alive Inside, in which Alzheimer’s patients are literally transformed while listening to music they grew up with.
After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. Aldous Huxley
Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.