The sports psychology of academia
Feb 10 2014. A good friend of mine recently sent me an article entitled, “The Sports Psychology of Academia”. Being someone who enjoys sport, the article immediately appealed to my competitive nature. As I started reading this piece by Dr Kate, I thought she had totally hit the nail on the head.
Academia is a sport. Like a triathlon with three legs – swimming, cycling and running – our careers are governed by our ability to plan, execute those plans and communicate the outcomes.
What I really enjoyed about the article, was the way Dr Kate uses the anology of academia as a sport to explain that we can all benefit from a little sports psychology while establishing our careers. Just like in sport, there are many elements of our careers that we can not control, potentially causing us a lot of anxiety and angst. However just like success in sport, there are many elements that we can control. In turn our overall success is guided by our actions and attitude at times when things may not be exactly going to plan.
Since academia is an endurance sport, and a career in science is all about endurance, burn out is a real risk, and one we should endeavor to prevent. Also, if we are constantly focusing on the things that go wrong and let the feeling of being trapped or stuck overtake, our job quickly loses its enjoyability. So how can we keep our heads in the game, to have long, positive and successful careers?
As Dr Kate states, “…most of us understand that in sports, we can’t actually control whether we win or lose (insert of things that can go wrong: players who want to break your legs, referees aweful decisions, injuries). We can only control our preparation leading up to, and our reaction to game conditions.”. Likewise, we can’t fully control whether we are successful or not in our experiments, our grant applicatons, our job interviews, or our collaboration proposals. But there are many game conditions we can control, to have a positive influence on the overall environment and our individual experience.
As Dr Kate goes on to say, “The best athletes re-calibrate their understanding of success: success is less about winning or losing, and more about whether they played their best game. How did they prepare for the event? How did they handle adversity, including bad luck or unfairness? Were they proactive or reactive in the face of their opponents? Did they put in maximum effort?”
Let’s think about this.
What can we not control? A few things that Dr Kate mentions:
- Whether laboratory materials are delayed, backordered
- My job stability
- Grant and award review committees and their decisions
- My collaborators’ priorities
- My mentor’s priorities, commitments, responsiveness
- Journals’ manuscript decisions
- Crappy luck – like things breaking or not working in the lab
Now is the part where our attitude drives us towards success. Dr Kate states, “We can control only ourselves and how we react to given situations”. For everything listed (and everything I can think of, for that matter), there is something positive that can be done – whether it be chasing things up, gentle reminders, or reshifting importance. It is not about controlling the thing itself, but rather the environment and our attitude.
In short, the key to optimising performance in sport<work<life, is to focus on what you can control, and let go of what you can’t. It is not necessary to fixate on one thing and let it impede your progress. This is for sure how you lose the race. With a million things on the plate, it isn’t hard to start focusing on something new while you wait for others to return to you. The tricky part is to mentally shift and to stay positive. While its more natural for some of us than for others, this is something that can be practiced. Maintaining some happiness in our non-work lives is also important, for example spending time exercising, watching movies, going to the beach or doing other things we love. This only helps to make us more fulfilled, while by default ensuring that we are refreshed and therefore more productive in our triathlon styled career.
I also liked that Dr Kate discusses how hard we are on ourselves when we don’t achieve our often near-impossible goals (for example grant success rates as low as 2%). Its only recently I became self aware that I am ridiculously difficult on myself, much more than anyone else is. Since academia attracts perfectionists, chances are I am not alone in this. Its difficult to get anywhere if there is someone constantly giving you a hard time, and worse if you are doing this to yourself, because you can’t escape yourself! But if you always try your hardest, what more can you ask for? For this reason, my new goal for self development in my career is to not stress the small stuff and to try my hardest everyday to be the best I can be. I can not to better than my very best. The rest is out of my control, and besides, if I always knew what was going to happen, life would be pretty boring.
Another thing to consider is that although academia is a sport, it isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about giving it your best shot by continuously putting one foot in front of the other. Although winning all of the time would be nice, its neither possible nor realistic, nor essential to our happiness. If I prioritize a range of elements that contribute to my happiness, from food to sport to my family, a lot of these things come before my job. A career in science is all about endurance, and if you spend your whole race-time sprinting, then soon enough you’re going to get puffed out. As my husband likes to remind me, “slow down, you go faster”. So plan for the unexpected, it will only help; but don’t forget to keep it all in perspective and keep up a positive attitude —