Examining how to improve my sports performance

Beer league ice hockey goaltender

Photo credit: Denise Calhoun

If I’m not watching sports, then quite often you’ll find me playing sports. That’s right, I try to be pretty active in sporting activities, and for years now I have played hockey regularly — that’s me playing goalie in the picture above!

Despite the pandemic, and the fact that I haven’t been able to play in my regular beer league since March thanks to hockey rinks throughout my area shutting down, I’ve tried to stay busy and active.

After about a five-year hiatus, I began running again over the summer and have spent the fall taking part in virtual 5ks to keep me busy. I can’t ever say I love running, but I’m motivated enough now to extend myself to the point where I’m running 10ks or even longer by next summer. I’ve already registered for next year’s Bay to Breakers, a famous 12k run through the streets of San Francisco.

If you’re someone who loves to play sports, like me and you’re starting to take your sporting activities more seriously, it makes sense to think about how you can begin to take your performance to the next level.

It’s something that we’re all capable of making happen but it takes effort and work in the right areas. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit recently, so based off my own activity, here are some of the things you can do to achieve that.

I’ll preface this by saying I’m no gym rat, nor am I a fitness guru. The point of this is hopefully to encourage you to get in shape, or stay in shape, during this time without organized sports, because I’ve had to motivate myself to do the same.

Besides, it’s a pretty nice way to pass the time until we can get into the stadiums again.

Improve how you fuel your body

First of all, you should think about the way in which you fuel your body before and after workouts.

It’s often a good idea to have plenty of carbs in the lead up to an extensive workout. But if your focus is more on trying to build muscle, then your focus should be on lean protein. It’s important to tailor your diet and approach to fueling your body based on what you want to achieve.

I admit that I am sometimes not good at this. After all, I do play in something that is affectionately called beer league, and that term is taken seriously by many of my teammates. 

But I’m always reminded about the importance of diet when I am disciplined enough to carb-load before a run, or to cut down on processed foods for a week. What you eat makes a big difference, and even small changes in your diet — not the finely tuned diets that pro athletes follow, just more careful monitoring of what you eat and drink — can make a difference between huffing and puffing toward the finish and breaking that personal record.

Work on the mental and psychological sides of sports

One thing that can sometimes be overlooked is the way in which sports are influenced by psychology and the mental side of things. It’s key that you think about how this happens and what you can do to start sharpening your mental approach to playing the game.

How much does this matter when you’re doing something recreationally? Well, it depends.

I play hockey for fun and to have a good time. That’s my No. 1 priority — after all, I’m paying someone to be there, not the other way around. That said, if I let in a big goal that costs my team a game, you’d better believe I think about it a lot and it bothers me!

Being in the right frame of mind to tackle physical activity is more important than you might think, even at the recreational level. If I’m not in the “mood” to take on the three miles I planned to run, then it’s undoubtedly going to be more difficult. If you care to improve, then focusing on the psychology of sport is a key aspect.

LA Kings 5k finish

Dedicate time to recovery

You definitely need to give your body the time to recover after a big game or event. If you keep pushing yourself too hard without taking the time to rest, you’re only going to cause your body problems.

Injuries will become more common and your overall sporting performance will suffer. So if you want to do better, you also need to rest a little more.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t like warming up and cooling down — I tend to think, foolishly, that it’s a waste of time, especially when I’m trying to cram a run into a busy day of work. 

But as I get older, and the nagging aches and pains get more pronounced and persistent, I’ve come to realize how much more important rest and recovery is. Recently, a friend introduced me to a foam roller — I never really knew how to use it before, but I’m starting to find it helpful in stretching and dealing with soreness.

Ten years ago, stubborn old me would probably have dismissed it as stupid. But hey, you live and you learn, and that’s true with playing sports, too.

Work on the muscles you feel are most important

Strength training is something that’s important in most sports, but which muscle groups you should focus on will depend on what kind of sports you’re doing and what your role within the team is.

This is something that you’ll have to figure out for yourself depending on what you play. For some, getting big pecs might be appealing and useful, while for others might be more important to improve leg strength instead.

I’ve never been a huge muscle guy — instead, I’m more focused on leg strength and, frankly stamina. Believe it or not, having huge muscles doesn’t really prepare you to run a half-marathon, and having the stamina of a horse won’t win you any weightlifting competitions. 

For what I do as an athlete, light weight training and harder cardio-focused exercise is what works well for me.

Keep your workouts varied

Bringing variety to your workouts is more important than you might think.

If you’re not varying your workouts, you might be missing out on activities that’ll help you with your sporting performances. You’ll also be much more likely to become bored and less interested in the training that you need to be doing in order to keep performance levels high.

In my case, I find that 30-45 minutes on an elliptical trainer helps greatly with my stamina. But I also find it painfully boring, so I don’t do it every day (at least, I didn’t back when gyms were open regularly). Doing various cardio workouts, going for a nice long hike, or even joining my wife in her yoga classes can make a huge difference in keeping things interesting.

A nice dose of hard work and commitment will help you to start enhancing your performance and you’ll gradually see the fruits of your labor as you go along. I’m reminded of that every time I achieve something that I’ve never done before on the running trail or at the rink.

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