Peak Performance is a best-selling book written by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. The book breaks down the process of performing at a high level.
The main premise of the book, one of my favorite mental toughness books for athletes, is that stress + rest = growth.
Seems simple enough, but it’s surprising how many athletes shortchange the rest part of the equation, also shortchanging how hard they can work during the “stress.”
The authors provide a series of tools, many backed up by research and examples of high-performing athletes and organizations, that give you the ammo for performing at a higher level, more consistently.
There are some familiar topics and research for those fluent in this kind of reading. Deliberate practice, making your workouts automatic (aka habits). proper recovery, mindfulness training, and so on.
While the book is generally written with athletes in mind, there are plenty of examples for creative and business types as well. Ultimately, to perform like a champion, in the gym or in the office, comes down to doing intense, concentrated work balanced with adequate rest and recovery.
Peak Performance is a highly actionable book. At the end of each section is a summary of the key concepts, giving you the starting points to put your goals in to gear.
Here are just seven things that I took away from Peak Performance, including noteworthy quotes and passages, and my own thoughts and notes.
Where to Buy — Peak Performance
The difficulty of resting properly.
For a surprising number of athletes, particularly low impact endurance athletes like triathletes and swimmers, the difficulty is not in the training but “having the guts” to recover properly.
There are plenty of athletes (and coaches) who push and push in their programming, never allowing the athlete to properly recover and develop the improvement they are working far.
Sure, you might be working hard in practice and in the gym, but how well are you recovering between your workouts?
- “Stress demands rest, and rest supports stress.”
When it comes to finding that tricky balance, the authors recommend:
- “Alternate between cycles of stress and rest in your most important pursuits.”
- “Insert short breaks throughout your work over the course of the day.”
- Plot out in advance recovery periods after bouts of high-intensity effort and work.
- “Determine when your work regularly begins to suffer. When you find that point, insert a recovery break just prior to it.”
Don’t underestimate the effect of mental fatigue.
We tend to view fatigue and exhaustion in purely physical terms. How sore we are. How lethargic we feel. How tight and tense our muscles are. But mental exhaustion plays a pivotal role in your physical performance.
Ultimately, being stressed out, buried under commitments, or otherwise mentally exhausted, your performance in the gym and on the court will suffer.
- “Even physical challenges (e.g. performing a wall sit) can be impaired by exerting your mental muscle beforehand. Research shows that even if their bodies are fresh, the physical performance of people who are mentally fatigued suffers.”
- “’Stress is stress’: fatigue on one task spills over into the next, even if the two are completely unrelated.”
Chasing some struggle will help you improve faster.
While obvious, it is surprising how often athletes will avoid discomfort. They stick to their usual routines, get fed up and give up when trying to improve their technique, or otherwise get stuck in their ways and refuse to appreciate and persist through the struggle required to improve.
- “Growth comes at the point of resistance; we learn by pushing ourselves to the outer reaches of our abilities.”
- “In a series of studies involving middle school and high school math classes, students who were forced to struggle on complex problems before receiving help from teachers outperformed students who received immediate assistance. The authors of these studies summarized their findings in a simple, yet elegant statement: Skills come from struggle.”
- “The greatest gains often follow immense struggle and discomfort.”
- “When we succumb to the impulse for instant resolution, we miss out on a special kind of deep learning that only a challenge can spawn.”
Nerves and a little anxiety aren’t a bad thing.
Ever get nervous before a challenging workout? When you are about to try something you’ve never done before or that you know will push you to your limits? This is a good thing, the authors argue.
- “It signals that a growth opportunity has emerged. The little voice inside your head saying, ‘I can’t possibly do this,’ is actually a sign that you’re on the right track.”
Challenge your comfort zones.
As with everything, finding the right balance between challenge and comfort is key.
If your workouts never make you nervous, or you never have a little bit of butterflies before a big opportunity for improvement, it probably isn’t challenging enough.
- “If you feel fully in control, make the next challenge a bit harder.”
Similarly, if you are flying off the rails with anxiety and stress, that challenge might be a little too aggressive.
- “If you feel so anxious or aroused that you can’t focus, dial things down a notch.”
The power of framing anxiety as excitement.
Stress is energy when viewed as such. How you frame the anxiety, nerves, and stress before a big workout or big race or championship game make all the difference.
It’s not that elite performers are immune to the butterflies and nerves that often crater performance; it’s that they have managed to find a way to channel that energy into positive energy.
When anxiety and stress is framed incorrectly, or as something that is detrimental to performance, we try to fight it off, which only makes the situation worse, leading to tension and a sense that we are losing control.
Instead of trying to force yourself to calm down, framing the nerves as excitement (literally by reminding yourself, “I am excited!”) performance goes up.
High-performers interviewed during research for the book “all admitted to feeling stress, especially prior to big performances. But they also all said that rather than try to push the stress away, they welcome and channel it toward the task at hand.”
- “How you view something fundamentally changes how your body responds to it.”
- “Challenge yourself to view stress productively, and even to welcome it. You’ll not only perform better, you’ll also improve your health.”
Mindfulness training is your secret weapon for a killer mindset
Mindfulness is a tool that one of the biggest companies in the world uses to help keep their employees fresh (Google). Those who start practicing daily quickly report a clearer mind, better sleep, and an increased ability to mentally shut down at the end of the work day, leading to more rest and recovery.
- “It’s helpful to think of the meditation part as highly specific training for being more present at all times of your life. When you meditate, you are strengthening your mindful muscle.”
- “Researchers are finding that starting at just a few minutes every day, mindfulness meditation increases gray matter in the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex.”
- “By strengthening our prefrontal cortex, mindfulness allows us to recognize that we are having a stress response rather than automatically being overcome by it. It’s as if we are viewing our thoughts and feelings as a neutral observer and then choosing what to do next.”
Mindfulness training helps you recover faster.
- “Much like the elite meditators, the elite athletes were able to transition from stress to rest much faster than their more novice peers. Perhaps the adage that hard work separates the best from the rest only explains part of the picture. The best rest harder, too.”
Where to Buy — Peak Performance
More Stuff Like This:
Best Sport Psychology Books: Conquer Your Mind, Conquer the Competition. Looking to get under the hood of your mental game? Check out this collection of the best sport psychology books for coaches, athletes, and sport psychs.
27 Key Lessons from “The Mindful Athlete” by George Mumford. Mumford helped Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan become more present and mindful through meditation. Here are some lessons from his book on mindfulness for athletes.