Sunday, February 01, 2015

What Tom Brady teaches us about training and improvement

Thanks to several recent articles on Tom Brady's approach to training, fitness, and game planning, I have a renewed appreciation for his approach to his vocation and have gleaned some lessons that made me think about my own approach to the same.

Greg Bishop's piece in Sports Illustrated in December gave deep insights into Brady's meticulous approach and utilization of experts. This is what I think separates Brady from the rest: 

"Brady is a quarterback whose daily schedule, both in and out of season, is mapped clearly into his 40s. Every day of it, micromanaged. Treatment. Workouts. Food. Recovery. Practice. Rest. And those schedules aren't just for this week, this month, this season. They're for three years. That allows Brady and Guerrero to work in both the short and long terms to, say, increase muscle mass one year and focus on pliability the next."

Brady has a three-year plan, and his annual calendar revolves around his end-goal: peak performance at the end of January-- playoff time. How many of us have three-year goals? What do you want to be better at three years from now? 

There is also recognition that there are different seasons in his life which need different plans. His off-season diet is different than his on-season. "He subscribes to the 80-20 theory -- but it's not 80 percent healthy food, 20 percent unhealthy. It's 80 percent alkaline, 20 percent acidic." (What does that even mean?)

I've focused on weight training this winter, packing on some pounds to do so. Last winter (2013-2014) was record cold and I had a body fat percentage less than 10%, I was cold all the time and miserable. I'm happier this winter. In the spring I'll do less weights, begin training for a 5k, and get a bit leaner.

Brady's utilization of experts is also to be admired. Surround yourself with people who will help you achieve your goals. This piece by Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post contains an insight:
Brady utilized a sports psychologist as a sophomore in college. 
"He sought out a sports psychologist, to whom he whined that everyone else got reps with the first team, while he only got reps with the second string when it was third and eight. “What’s wrong with that?” the psychologist said. “If you can do it when it’s third and eight, everyone knows you can do it on third and four.” It was a piece of advice he never forgot — the rosetta stone to everything that happened after."

Brady is also willing to explore wisdom outside the conventional paradigms. Among quarterbacks or baseball pitchers, icing your sore arm down after a performance is just run-of-the-mill. Brady got tired of this. He turned to "a 49-year-old California native with a master's degree in traditional Chinese medicine."

"(Guerreror) showed Brady how the muscles in his forearm had, through lifting weights, become short and stiff and how that led to soreness when he threw. Together they worked to make those muscles longer and more flexible -- "more like rubber bands," says Brady, "so I can throw thousands of footballs and not worry."

This influenced how I think about my own weight training more than anything else I've read or listened to in 2014. I have several bands and several adjustable dumbbells, the resistance you get with both is different, and I have found that I tend to have more injuries with weights than I do with bands. It's tricky to build the right combination of bands to give you the same resistance as a weight, and you don't know what the measure of resistance is, whereas it's easier just to pick up a 35 pound dumbbell and know it's 35 pounds. Bands are often seen as the easy way out that you do when you're traveling or don't have a gym, but now I see there's practical long-term benefit. What use is it if I build my strength to pick up my 60 pound six year old but am in pain after doing so? 

In general, there is not a complete overhaul of what Brady does every year. His three year plan involves consistent activities each year. You've heard of the 80-20 rule and that you should focus on the 20% of activities that give you 80% of your results. For Brady, the focus is now just the two percent: 
"(His throwing coach) and Brady work to refine less than 2 percent of the QB's overall skillset. That's it."

He's gotten the macro down, now only two percent need constant refinement. 

There is also a spiritual element involved that can't be detached from the physical: 
"There's something else that Guerrero and Brady remind each other of all the time, a philosophy of sorts. It could also be interpreted as spiritual: 'Balance in all things.'"

This is often something I try to keep in mind. Balance does not mean assigning equal time and priority to every task, that's a recipe for failure at all tasks. But it does mean that you need to find the right mix and not neglect a holistic approach. If I don't take a day each week to rest and intentionally stretch, I am shortening my longevity and short-circuiting any gains I might see. If I don't set work aside when I get home and focus on my family, my work will suffer because I'll be aware of my unhappily neglected household. I'm trying to focus on mindfulness each day-- focusing on my posture and breathing while recalling all the ways I've been blessed and am thankful, and meditating on truth from Scripture. I have a philosophy that I adopted from an obscure source that I find helpful: "Nothing extraneous in mind or body."  

I've read various articles over the year that describe Brady's other natural abilities, things that can't be coached. He has a competitiveness that borders on the insane. He supposedly has "eyes in the back of his head," meaning good peripheral vision and an innate awareness of when his blind side is being rushed. This ESPN piece suggests Brady also has a sort of photographic memory, remarkable for a career football player, being able to recall specific plays and game plans from years ago, long forgotten by the coaches who drew them up.  

Brady seems to be able to lead with intensity without alienating his teammates, something many greats like Michael Jordan were notoriously unwilling to do:
"Evans describes Brady as the 'most humble superstar I've ever been around,' and if that sounds convenient, he isn't saying that about Drew Brees or Shaun Alexander, superstar former teammates who happen to be two of his better friends. Brady's preparation, how he works, bolsters the way his teammates view him."

So, I glean a few useful things from Tom Brady: 
1. Set goals for the medium-term, like three years. Remember that longevity is important. 
2. Make a plan for this week and this month with a view to what's important X months from now. This should be within the goal of #1 above. 
3. Find the right balance, remembering that years have distinctly different seasons. Don't neglect the emotional and spiritual components of your physical training or the physical aspect of your emotional and spiritual life. 
5. Seek expert help outside your paradigm. Read from different sources as everyone else, for example. 
4. Get the macro mechanics of your job down so well that you can only focus on the micro (2%) going forward. 
6. Be someone your teammates respect and want to be around. Life is a team sport, make it more fun for everyone. 

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