by BRUCE DOUGLAS
I’LL always remember the words of my old Borders rugby coach Tony Gilbert, in my first one-on-one meeting with him in August 2002. I arrived expecting to talk about my tackling, scrummaging or ball carrying, and be shown video footage to illustrate how I should be doing things differently. This was not the case.
Tony questioned me about my interests away from the game and my career plans for after rugby. Did I play any musical instruments? Did I enjoy studying and will I be doing more of it? What are my relationships like with parents, friends, girlfriends and teammates? How do I spend my spare time? After about an hour of this he hit me with a phrase that has stuck with me, and something that current professional athletes from all sports should bear in mind: “There’s nothing more boring than a rugby player!!”
He went on to explain the need for outside interests and influences and that I should be working hard to develop those, in order to develop myself as a person. This in turn would make me a better player.
Whether he knew it or not (and I suspect he knew it), Tony’s advice was based on solid psychological research.
Motivation and its effects on individual performance and well-being are heavily studied topics in my current profession, organisational psychology. Research by Bunton & Brewer (2014) has looked at the specifics of individual motivational orientation, and the subsequent effects on performance and well-being. The studies have produced some findings that sportsmen and women should take heed of.
After undergoing a battery of psychometric tests and evaluations, individuals were clustered into groups based on their motivational orientation. These were: WORK, those with a high interest in work, occupation and career; FAMILY, those with a high interest in personal relationships; HEALTH, those with a high interest in health and fitness; and finally, HOBBY, those with a high interest in non-work pursuits. In all measured categories (work performance, job satisfaction, physical health, mental health) the HOBBY orientation group came out on top, and the WORK orientation group came bottom.
All participants were doing similar jobs, in similar industries, working similar hours and therefore faced similar stressors in the workplace. Considering the motivations of the top performing HOBBY group and the bottom performing WORK group, there is clear value to the professional athlete – whose hobby has become work – of understanding these findings.
The negative side of a WORK orientation is that when work is the most important thing to you, you will be more heavily affected by the negative aspects of it, than someone with a different orientation.
The positive side of the HOBBY orientation is the ability to buffer negative aspects of work, due to the change of focus (mental rest), and the positive stimulation that the hobby provides.
Simply put, stress impacts individuals based on their perception of the stressor. For those to whom work is the most important aspect, work stress will produce internal negativity. Conversely, resilience to stress is improved by having a different focus of attention, and through participation in an unrelated activity that creates internal positivity.
Internal negativity leads to negative behaviours – unhealthy food choices, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, drugs, bad relationship management, irritability – and consequences such as poor sleep quality, weight gain, ill health, hangovers and reduced performance. Internal positivity leads to positive behaviours – lower alcohol, smoking and drug use, healthy food choices, positive interactions with others – leading to better quality of sleep, improved health and higher performance.
Sportspersons suffering a loss of form regularly state that they have ‘fallen out of love with the game’. I suspect this is often due to a high work motivation, and a lack of outside interests. The science would certainly say that is a strong possibility. The hobby, which they loved growing up and dreamed of competing at the highest level in, has become not only the main focus in their lives, but their only focus. The pressure to perform is great and any setbacks, mistakes and injuries have a huge psychological impact. With nothing to buffer this stress, the internal negativity will grow, until work (sport) provides a positive input. This can take a while, and be dependent on aspects out of the athletes control (selection, competitors, weather, injury).
I was lucky to have my chat with Tony so early in my career. Between my first professional game for Edinburgh in 1998 to my last for the Barbarians in 2015, I learned to play the bagpipes and speak French, and gained qualifications in food & wine, tiling & bathroom fitting, psychometric testing and organisational psychology. I also picked up a hobby whilst playing of working part-time in executive search. I suffered various professional and personal highs and lows during my rugby career, but this variety of interests and activities has allowed me to maintain perspective, develop my resilience and avoid significant negative behaviour choices along the way.
Whilst my passage out of professional sport was not easy, with a lot of luck, some help from friends and colleagues and a little hard work, I believe I have made transition as well as anyone. I now run my own consultancy (www.confidas-people.co.uk) specialising in management team due diligence for mid-market private equity firms; and I have a new hobby, back where it started, as forwards coach for Heriot’s Rugby Club in Edinburgh.
In conclusion, if you’re a professional athlete, a lawyer, accountant or whatever, if you want to maximise your performance at work and well-being in life: MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A HOBBY!
Always remember, there’s nothing more boring than a rugby player!!