Whenever we hear stories about an elite athlete and their rise to stardom, without fail we hear about the tireless devotion to their sport and hours upon hours of practice. We are led to believe that they eat, drink, and sleep their sport, and it is on their mind every waking minute. This then leads us to believe that any moment not spent participating in, practicing, reading, or thinking about the sport is time that our more devoted competitors are passing us up. Taking a break from a sport is seen as weakness and flagging dedication. But is it?
Your Brain needs a Break
To answer this question, it is helpful to understand how our brain works. In order for us to develop any new skill, we have to get new information into our brains. We accumulate this new information through reading instruction books, coaching, practicing, and introspection about our performance. These processes are mostly conscious and effortful. Information first coming into our system is “raw” and needs to be processed. Believe it or not, a lot of this processing is unconscious and happens without our direct effort. It occurs when we are sleeping, and when we are not thinking consciously about our sport. There is scientific evidence showing that students who take a nap right after studying remember the information better than those who remain awake! Although you are sound asleep, your brain is still working hard at processing all of that information. Our brains have limited capacity for this raw information. the information already in the system needs to be processed before more information can be added. Anyone who has tried to cram for a test in school can relate. After a certain period of studying without a break, it seems like your brain is full and no more can get in. The same is true for learning sports skills.
How long of a Break
So, how long of a break (if any) do you need, and how will you know? A mental performance coach can help you with the details as they pertain to your situation, but there are a few clues. If you feel that you are putting in more than enough training and practice time but seem to be stuck, it may be time for a break. Athletes may experience this as a prolonged slump, or as a plateau that they just can’t overcome. This may present as a bowling average you just can’t seem to get above, or a defined level of performance in some other sport. As for the amount of time you should take off, it will differ for everyone, and will even differ within a person depending on the type of plateau or slump you are in. But one rule of thumb is, when you get to the point where you can go a day or more without thoughts of the mechanics or struggles of your sport popping into your head, you may be refreshed enough to return to your sport. This may simply committing to not thinking about or participating in any aspect of the sport between seasons. In more exceptional circumstances it may mean taking more time than that off. And for some, it may be no more than a few weeks. Rely on your mental performance coach to help you.
As a dedicated athlete, you may fear that taking time off from your sport entirely will result in losing skills and being even further behind. If you are truly in a position where your mind is sludged up with too much information, thoughts about mechanics, and frustration, I can assure you that the time off will be more valuable than adding more to the pile. As an illustration, consider an experience I had in bowling that I shared in a recent post (Mental Roadblocks: An Autobiography). I desperately wanted to get better at my game. I practiced constantly, and I can honestly say that nary an hour went by, EVER, that I didn’t think about my mechanics, my latest swing flaw, etc. Partly due to frustration and partly due to other life circumstances, I stopped bowling for almost 13 years. When I returned competitively to the game, I was instantly better than I was the day I quit! In my first season back, I recorded my highest career game, series, and average! Nobody will have to take 13 years off to get past a mental hurdle, but this illustrates how the mental cleansing was far more powerful than the effect of any skills declining during that time. Your mind will remember what to do!