How to Train Like an Athlete in Sport and Life: 5 Basic Principles
Athletes are impressive, aren’t they? I often marvel at what they can accomplish with their bodies.
They aren’t average, and that is particularly true of athletic champions.
How do athletes achieve these incredible results?… They train intently and intensely.
Do they do anything different from the average guy or gal?… Yes.
Can their training process be used to help non-athletes?… Also yes.
Training like an athlete isn’t limited to those competing in sports.
Their holistic approach to physical and mental conditioning benefits performers in various fields, from business professionals to musicians and artists.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how to train like an athlete and why their methods differ from others.
Additionally, we’ll explore five essential principles that can be applied universally to train like an athlete and win.
How Athletes Really Train
Athletic outcomes are easily seen and celebrated. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
What we don’t see is what athletes do for the months or years leading up to a big competition.
Below I want to highlight a few of the major categories that athletes prioritize in their training.
Ones that the average Joe might skip.
Note to athletes that aren’t winning: You might be skipping one or two of these yourself!
- Athletes don’t haphazardly engage in workouts year-round.
They aren’t interested in general fitness.
Instead, they meticulously follow a structured plan known as periodization.
This plan divides their training into distinct phases, such as the off-season, pre-season, and in-season.
Each has different goals, different methods to achieve them, different intensities, and different measures of success.
This approach ensures athletes peak at the right time while minimizing the risk of burnout or injury.
At the game’s highest levels, everyone is fit and fast and strong and all have tremendous sport skills.
What separates many of them is their mental strength.
For this reason, athletes engage in mental training to build mental toughness, focus, and resilience.
Mental toughness can be defined as being better and more consistent than your opponent in remaining determined, focused, confident and in-control under pressure.
Note that mental toughness isn’t something that you either have or don’t have.
Like strength and speed, it is how much of it you have relative to your opponents that matters.
For this reason, athletes will work with sport psychologists or mental performance consultants to improve their mindset and emotional control.
- Athletes train with intensity and effort.
The more success an athlete has, you can be sure of their intensity and effort.
Three time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is a great example of this.1
The Rams call it “the AD standard” when evaluating players in the draft.
Can they bring the intensity to training that Donald does? Justin Lovett keeps a list of “AD’s body count.”
15 players who have tried — and failed — to complete a workout with Donald since Lovett was hired in 2020 as the Rams’ director of strength and conditioning.
Athletes embrace the pain of training as an essential part of growth and progress.
- Athletes understand that for their physical training to be maximized, nutrition and recovery play critical roles.
They manage their diets to ensure they receive the necessary nutrients to meet specific physical goals while staying adequately hydrated.
Nutrition is a foundational element in performance.
Food is fuel.
All that hard work in training is undermined without the proper nutrition to support growth.
So athletes make nutrition a priority.
- Sleep is also prioritized given its tremendous impact on recovery and performance.
This cannot be understated!
One of the biggest differences I’ve seen between high and low performers is sleep quality and duration.
“How much sleep is enough?” is a terrible question.
As a high-achiever, why would you want the bare minimum of this free and powerful performance enhancer!?!
- Athletes are relentless self-evaluators.
They continually assess their progress by tracking relevant performance metrics, including speed, strength, endurance, skill development and progress towards goals.
Adjustments to their training plans are made based on these assessments, with the ultimate goal of consistent improvement.
This consistent self-evaluation reflects their commitment towards goals, and keeps them accountable on a daily basis to the ideal process to achieve them.
Why Do Athletes Train Differently?
The quick answer is because results matter.
Athletes are fueled by an unwavering commitment to win.
Unlike casual fitness enthusiasts who may work out for general health, athletes are driven by a singular ambition: to excel in their chosen field.
This relentless pursuit of excellence is the driving force behind their unique training methods.
In order to achieve this, specialization in a single sport or discipline is necessary.
This specialization requires highly targeted training to master specific skills and movements.
Their training is laser-focused, which distinguishes them from individuals with broader fitness goals.
In addition, athletes face intense competition, often at the highest levels.
To separate themselves, they must go beyond the basics and continually push their physical and mental limits.
Their training reflects the need and desire to gain any possible advantage over their competitors.
Athletes care a lot about the outcome.
As former NY Jets head coach Herm Edwards emphatically said many years ago, “You play to win the game.”2
Add to that the tremendous investment in training and performance anxiety is often a natural response.
This doesn’t mean you’re broken.
Fear, doubt and caution are normal responses to the threat of losing.
They also increase the chances of losing.
The more you care and the bigger the event, the more likely anxiety is to show up.
This challenge necessitates mental training to maintain composure under the spotlight.
The ability to perform under pressure requires specific attention in an athlete’s training.
The ambitious goals athletes have to win drives their meticulous planning and unwavering commitment over extended periods.
The details of their training either move them closer to their goal or farther away.
There is nothing that doesn’t matter.
5 Basic Principles on How to Train Like an Athlete
Now that we’ve discussed how athletes train and why their methods differ, let’s review five essential principles that can help you train like an athlete (whether you are one or not):
1. It starts with Setting Clear Goals
Athletes begin their journey with a crystal-clear, specific goal in mind, whether it’s conquering a marathon, mastering a musical instrument, or achieving excellence in business.
Defining your objectives and breaking them down into smaller, attainable milestones provides a roadmap for progress.
This may be every week or month to monitor progress.
Then most important are the specific daily goals, written as behaviors to accomplish, that provide the specific action steps on how to get there.
Most people know this. Athletes do it with an intensity and attention to detail.
2. Embrace Periodization
Like athletes, you should consider the timing of your efforts.
Avoid the pitfall of continuous, unrelenting effort.
Instead, balance intense periods of work or training with sufficient rest and recovery.
This approach prevents burnout and optimizes your long-term performance.
I know this may be in contrast to popular opinions of successful entrepreneurs like Gary Vee to “work your face off.”3
Most are unable to sustain such an intensity.
I believe he is rare in his work ethic.
So know yourself and monitor your energy levels. Periodization can help immensely.
3. Engage with Intensity and Effort
At the same time, within each of these periods, Gary’s emphasis on effort is spot on.
A willingness to work and experience discomfort is a daily requirement.
Become willing to experience this pain in service of your goals.
4. Prioritize Mental Conditioning
Whether your goal is a promotion, mastering a musical piece, or excelling in your field, mental toughness is paramount.
Be intentional about developing psychological skills such as focus and mindfulness.
Engage in deliberate practice.
Develop effective self-talk strategies.
A strong mental game is a cornerstone of success.
5. Monitor and Adjust
Much like athletes, regularly assess your progress.
Monitor the performance metrics that are relevant to your goals.
If you fall short, avoid the urge to forgive and explain why they occurred.
Instead, understand where you may have had control in these results and make an adjustment to achieve them the next time.
Training like an athlete extends far beyond the boundaries of sports; it’s a mindset and approach that can enrich the lives of individuals striving for excellence across diverse domains.
Athletes’ unwavering commitment to structured training, mental conditioning, and goal-oriented practices provides us a template to achieve our own goals and dreams.
By incorporating these five fundamental principles into your journey, you can elevate your performance and progress toward your own peak of success, whether in sports, business, music, or any other pursuit.
Now that you know how to train like an athlete, the challenge is in what to do first and taking that action.
Unfortunately, this is where many get stuck.
Thinking about it, consuming information, problem-solving and staying in their head without taking action.
You don’t have to be one of those people.
Take the active steps and actually train like an athlete with us inside Success Stories.
See you on the inside!
- Barshop, S. (2023, September 23). Rams DT Aaron Donald won’t be slowing down anytime soon. ESPN. https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/38479964/los-angeles-rams-aaron-donald-not-slowing-down
- Topdoggjb. (2013, January 22). Herm Edwards You Play To Win [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5-iJUuPWis
- Gary Vaynerchuk Fan Page. (2022, June 30). Work Your FACE OFF For The Next 24 Months” (and see what happens) – Gary Vaynerchuk Motivation [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkhjFLwQfug