Why Get Organized for Optimal Performance?

“Camping is so much work! All we’re doing is organizing, cleaning up and putting stuff away” was a recent observation of my husband’s. My family and I spent the B.C. long weekend camping. While it was lots of fun, deciding what to pack, and how to set up camp was also a challenge in order to develop a system to keep things organized and not lose stuff. Of course, not being expert campers like many of our campsite neighbors, we forgot plenty of things like a rope to hang our wet towels between trees, and noted what we should bring, and leave behind next time. With more practice, the potential countless decisions around something like a weekend of camping get easier and more efficient. What are the top priorities and which things are less significant in the decision-making tree? Furthermore, the better we get at organizing anything in our lives, the less stress we’ll experience and the more mental capacity we have to focus on other things around us.


As athletes, countless decisions go into pursuing potential, and optimizing performance.There are the more significant choices like what races to do or what coach to work with down to smaller decisions around the daily details around training, nutrition, and recovery.  While constantly juggling the work-life-sport balancing act, ranking the importance of each decision can be easier for some than others. Either way, when we waste too much time on trivial decisions or on decisions that don’t really matter (e.g. should I wear my smurf or my superhero underwear today?) then the result can be neural fatigue, depleting our energy and leaving less energy for the more important decisions and for what really matters to us in terms overall and daily priorities.

In this age of information overload, the processing of every decision we make such as what to pay attention to and what to ignore comes at a cost to our brain. Neurons are living cells so when they’ve been working hard we experience fatigue.

Attention is a limited resource. With brains that evolved to focus on one thing at a time we often have more things to keep track of than our brains were designed to handle. This is also why optimal performance often happens in sport with an in the moment, simple focus, with a well-rehearsed and practiced mantras or cue words. These types of mental tools leave no room for analyzing the past or fretting about the future. Perhaps this is why many of us enjoy the pureness of the single-minded focus we experience while training, playing, and competing in sport. The rest of the time we are often in a multitasking state demanding our attentional system to focus on several things at once – we read email and talk on the phone, or watch TV while social networking or studying for an exam.

When our brains attention constantly flips from one thing to another, there is a neurobiological switching cost. For example, ever wonder why scrolling through your social media feeds can leave you feeling more fatigued than recharged afterwards? It can be a process of constantly deciding what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Since our attention is a limited-capacity resource, our brains function best when we start a task and stick to it. So how does all of this relate to performance? Here are a few points to consider as you organize your life around sport in the name of maximizing your brains attentional capacities, and optimizing your overall energy and performance.

  1. Organize your physical environment to take the burden off your brain. While we all have varying degrees of cleanliness, home organization and tolerance for messiness, it is hard to disagree with how frustrating it can be when we misplace our keys, wallet or goggles for swim training on the way out the door in a hurry. And of course, we often misplace things, even if we have a regular keeping place for them, when our attention has been distracted elsewhere. While this may be a work in progress for most of us, the more we can organize, keep our belongings together in functional categories and have a regular place for them in our physical environment (e.g. camping gear, workout gear, keys, glasses, phone or even files on a computer), the less energy we’ll waste looking for things. This also applies to being on the road for athletes. As someone who has traveled to many races with a bike on planes, it is essential to develop an organization system for finding things, packing, and not losing things while away. Good organization of time and things reduces anxiety and stress, and allows more time to focus on performance and what matters most!


  1. Clear your mind by writing things down as often as needed. As I wrote about in a recent post, writing things down can be an excellent way to process ideas, plans, and reflections and literally take the mental load off your brain. For example when I progressed from a runner to a mountain biker to an Xterra triathlete, the list of gear and equipment to maintain went up substantially for each sport. Making of list of what not to forget or what routine to follow on race day was and still can be a simple example of getting it off your mind so you can relax, sleep well and know you won’t forget anything as long as you go over the checklist again on the way out the door. The same goes for organizing your race plan into manageable mental chunks and focus segments. The less conscious decision-making you need to do during a competition, the more your brain can focus on auto-pilot and more energy can be put into performing. Keep in mind this is a practiced and continually refined process with time, patience and experience.


  1. Focus or daydream while minimizing multitasking. As already mentioned, it takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task than it does to focus. If you’re able to organize your time in a way allows you to focus for extended chunks of time, you’ll not only get more done, but you’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted afterwards. The challenge is that our brain’s attention is easily distracted by something new called the “novelty bias”. Multitasking is like an addiction loop as our brain becomes rewarded with dopamine bursts for processing new stimuli that grab our attention; think of constantly attending to notifications on your smartphone. I also remember the short period of time when I decided to work on my French comprehension by listening to the radio while riding my bike on an indoor trainer. An already boring task coupled with a challenging cognitive task did not work out well for my ability to stay focused on what I was hearing, my motivation to keep pedaling or my overall energy management! Neither, in my opinion, does reading or checking your phone while working out at the gym. This also relates to the fact that daydreaming also takes less energy than multitasking. I often enjoy the time I have to daydream while out on an easy bike ride or run without the constant interruptions that are hard to avoid at home or work. It is a great time to be creative, make new connections and naturally problem solve things that have been on our minds. Focusing and daydreaming both help to recalibrate and restore our brains while multitasking does not. Staying organized in order to focus on one thing at a time while ignoring all the potential distractions certainly takes awareness and discipline, but it will pay off in terms of brain power potential and ability to focus in your sport as well! I know I’m still working on it!




Un Nouveau Monde: Focus and Persistence will Pay Off!!

It takes a big commitment. You must start with the fundamentals and be prepared to go through hours of basic repetition. You’ll have to break it down and be sure you understand all the rules. You’ll spend hours learning from the masters of it before you’ll be even close to putting it all together fluidly yourself. You can’t fake it. You can’t pretend you’re better than you really are. In a way, your current ability is the ultimate test of the focused effort and work you’ve put into it.

After our recent Christmas vacation in Montreal, I once again appreciated my persistence to learn the French language. It started in earnest while studying as an undergraduate when I spent one summer in France and another summer in Chicoutimi, Quebec as part of my studies. It demolished any anxieties I had about public speaking in English. Without it, I wouldn’t have much of a relationship with my mother-in-law, who only speaks French, or as much interaction with others from the culture of tourtière pies, fudge, poutine, the selection of choice of cheeses and wines, dramatic hand gestures, and pursed “O” shaped lips 🙂

When first dating my husband, I would struggle to follow the conversation around his family’s dinner table, and often what I thought they’d been talking about was totally wrong! Meanwhile J-F accused me of being shy around his family! I would also be exhausted from “comprehension concentration” after hour-long lab meetings in French in my Psychology lab at the University of Ottawa.

But with continued practice, I’ve come out the other side into what feels like a whole new world at times. I don’t panic when someone addresses me in French. I can catch and completely understand a passing French conversation. I can follow a lively dinner conversation, pitch in my own two cents easily, and even catch most of the jokes now. Watching television in French is relaxing and enjoyable. I can differentiate the Quebec and France accents and even some differences in the accents around Quebec. I can make myself understood easily enough in French. I am FAR from perfect but I am confident enough to call myself bilingual at this point.

As with the challenge of learning a new language, there are many parallels to striving to reach our most challenging goals as an athlete….

1. You have to be motivated and be able to answer the “WHY are you doing it question! I live in Canada, and I think it would be great if everyone could communicate in both official languages, my husband’s family is French, I want to be able to communicate with and understand, and fully experience the French side of my country. I also love the challenge of learning it! “Life is a journey, not just a destination” – Aerosmith

2. You have to be okay with stumbling and making mistakes. You can’t master a second language as an adult without being comfortable with making plenty of errors. You’ll repeat them often, learn from them, and eventually get it right. You need to spend many hours of focused concentration to comprehend the language before you can even begin to speak it and make coherent sentences. Nothing comes easily, especially at first. As in sports it takes countless hours to solidify those neuromuscular connections for the coordination needed for any given skill, as well as the time needed to build endurance, strength, speed, and power! Patience is needed for both!

3. You have to persist when it gets hard. Like physical mastery in sport, language mastery takes hours of practice, and it often gets tougher (e.g. converting all those classroom grammar lessons into conversational ability) before it becomes easier. Even at the highest level, the best athletes are always working to improve something when every edge in ability can count! And persisting at improving weaknesses is a challenging task! And if you’re getting into shape again, you may feel more sore and fatigued for a few weeks before you start to feel stronger and fitter!

4. You may never reach your ultimate goal but it doesn’t make the pursuit of it any less worthy! I have the goal of being perfectly bilingual, but my French accent will never be perfect. I will continue to make grammatical errors, and have difficulties expressing myself as well as I can in English. But its been worth it!! I have richer relationships I wouldn’t have had without it, it’s pushed me out of my comfort zones, I’ve learned about French culture from the “inside”, it has opened doors in many ways given me confidence that I can achieve things I set my mind too, even when it feels impossible at first. Similarly in sport, if we don’t win the race, make the team, or reach our highest goal our efforts are not in vain!

What to THINK so races go by in a BLINK!

It was early June in Buffalo, New York during the 1500m heats at the 1998 NCAA Division 1 Outdoor Track and Field Championships. As I ran I heard my 800m split time – 2:10 – only 2 seconds slower than my best 800m race time that season but I didn’t care. I just went with it and was feeling great. Then we were through the bell lap, around the bend and with 300m to go, usually too early to start kicking I couldn’t hold back any longer. My legs were begging to unleash another gear and I started a long kick towards the finish. The entire closely matched pack seemed to surge towards the finish together and it was a photo finish between five of us. It was the most effortless 4 minutes and 18 seconds I had ever run.

I recently finished a popular and well-known book in my to-read list called Blink by Malcom Gladwell. His well researched stories site examples of “thin slicing”, snap judgments, listening with your heart, and following your intuition in contrast to deliberate, fully thought out decision making. It got me thinking about how peak performance in sport is related to the ability to just trust what was termed in the book as our, “adaptive unconscious.” On race day, the work is done, the pre-race thinking and strategizing should be mostly decided. It is time to trust all the hard work, the training, the “studying” you’ve done and trust your experience to take you through each moment. When we can tune into that zone where we let our adaptive unconscious guide us, we make decisions before we’re even conscious of why we’re doing them.

So when is it important to really think about what you’re doing in sport? And when is it important to just go, keep things as simple as a blink, just trust your feeling?

I was observing the short track speed skaters in Calgary the other day as they were focused on praticing starts, which are particularly important for the 500m distance they race. They had instant video feedback on top of coach and teammate suggestions for how to tweak things. It was a practice they could break down their body position and try different things. A time to really THINK about what they were doing. Of course, come race day, it will not be the time to be adjusting race start position, it will be the time to just “put it all together” and GO when the gun goes off.

Achieving peak performance more consistently in sport is much like becoming an expert on yourself and your sport. To know yourself and your sport well enough to be able to make decisions in a blink during performance means doing much of the thinking beforehand. Thinking beforehand means preparing yourself mentally and physically for race-like conditions in training, methodically experimenting with technique, equipment set up, and pacing while training. At a race it means getting to know the venue, having a plan A, B, C etc for race day, being prepared for ANYTHING and ANYONE! Unfortunately, potential great performances sometimes get interrupted by unexpected scenarios or conditions that cause over thinking and overanalyzing, instead of just quickly refocusing, and maybe even resetting the goal for the day with the most positive focus possible.

Focusing on a few key, simple things on race day can get you in the zone to get your best effort in, AND be over the finish line in what CAN feel like a blink! When I think back to my 1500m race at the very end of my track running career for the University of Washington Huskies described above, it was after 12 years of running and racing on the track. Peak performances like that didn’t happen every day but with enough practice and experience – I’m guessing I’d run at least 100 1500m races to date at that point – it was the perfect opportunity against optimal competition to run a personal best. With the right preparation I was able to focus on many of the ingredients that characterize a peak performance -confidence, optimally relaxed and calm yet focused and alert, positive, looking forward to the competitive challenge, ready to trust my instincts in the moment, and perhaps most importantly – ready to have some FUN!!

One of the few times an Xterra run has felt almost effortless, the 2008 World Championships