For pro athletes, staying at the top of their game requires as much mental and emotional stamina as it does physical strength.
Performance coach Alan Stein Jr. knows this better than most — he’s made a career out of training professional basketball players to stave off burnout by helping them build their mental endurance. During the years he spent working with elite high school athletes like Kevin Durant and later NBA stars like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving, Stein found that burnout was a constant challenge players had to train against. “My vantage point was very unique in that I spent 13 years working with high school players, a dozen or so I met at 14 or 15 years old, and watched them climb to the peak, which was playing in the NBA,” Stein tells me. “So I got to see everything it took to work toward the mastery of their craft and reach the top of the mountain.”
In the last five years, Stein has pivoted away from the NBA to coach corporate executives, taking the “specific strategies and lessons I learned from elite athletes, and showing folks how those same principles apply to their lives,” Stein explains. “There’s tremendous crossover between what LeBron does to prepare in season, out of season and before a game, and what regular people should be doing to prepare to excel in their lives.”
I recently spoke with Stein to discuss the tactics he describes in his new book, Sustain Your Game, and to get his thoughts on what the rest of us — read: not NBA superstars or C-suite execs — can do to better manage stress and avoid burnout ourselves.
Let’s start here: What do professional basketball players and people who are successful in their careers have in common?
Anyone striving for excellence in any area of their life has a profound respect for the basics and the fundamentals. They understand that in order to master anything, you have to master the building blocks to create that foundation. So they don’t skip steps, and they don’t leave the fundamentals in the rearview mirror.
In basketball, it’s things like eating a healthy diet, hydrating, stretching, strength and conditioning, skill work and watching film. That’s where they fall in love with the process and the daily behaviors. The same thing goes for business. If I’m in the marketing department of a company that’s got 1,000 employees and we’re trying to reach $50 million in revenue, what can I do today in my role to inch us all just a little bit closer to that?
How do these basics and fundamentals compare to bigger accomplishments and wins?
Most high performers in any walk of life, business included, have learned to detach from the outcome and embrace the process. Now, it’s okay to have goals. It’s okay for LeBron to say, “I want to win an NBA championship,” and it’s okay for a CEO to say, “We want to have 20 percent profit growth this year.” But once elite high performers establish those goals, they shift off of the goal itself and start paying much more attention to their habits, their mindsets, their daily behaviors and the systems and processes that will greatly increase the chances that their goals happen.
What are some of these systems and processes?
In basketball language, “unseen hours” are everything that takes place outside of the games. What you ate, how much you slept, how much you practiced, how much film you watched — all of that is done during unseen hours. And what you do during the unseen hours is directly related to how you perform when the lights come on. I apply that to every area of life. For example, if someone wants to get in better shape, all anyone sees is what they look like when they’re walking around or what you post on Instagram. They don’t see all of the effort it takes to make those changes, and doing all of those things behind the scenes is what gives you results.
Is this similar to the idea of being careful to not get too cocky and staying humble?
High performers blend humility with confidence. They earn the right to be confident because they put in the work, but they have a humility and an openness where they’re always coachable. No matter how high they’ve been performing or how successful they’ve been in the past, they’re always looking for ways to improve, ways to evolve, ways to grow. They’re always looking for an edge and never really feel like they’ve arrived. That’s where humility comes in. But they have very high self-worth and self-belief. They’ve earned confidence, but they don’t think they’re done yet.
How do “unseen hours” compare to an “off season” for players? And how can normal people find a version of that in their lives?
Players have a very distinct off season in the NBA. They have several weeks, if not months, where they can step away from the game, recharge and relight their fire. They can do some cross-training, spend time with their family and go on vacations. They can do some things to reduce their burnout that isn’t so easy to do in the business world. A CEO doesn’t have an off season. They’re expected to be on all of the time, and unless they have a strategy in place to step away, to unplug, to take time off, then burnout is inevitable no matter how much you love what you do.
Once people start to feel burnout, how can they deal with it?
The first step is an awareness of it and the acknowledgement that you’re feeling burnt out. Know that you’re not alone, and these feelings are natural. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get the fire back, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to pivot to something completely different. Sometimes you just need a little bit of a reset. But the very first step is admission and acceptance that you’re feeling that way.
Taken that way, is it fair to say that burnout isn’t always a bad thing?
I look at the initial stages of burnout as being information. It’s just a red flag; it’s a way to say, “Hey, you might want to refocus the lens a bit, because if you keep going down this path, you might not feel very fulfilled.” I don’t even look at it as a bad thing, it’s simply an alarm system that says, “You need to make some changes in your life.”
What should people who aren’t burned out but are worried about it happening do?
The best way to improve mental stamina is to reduce the temptation to be distracted by the past and anxious about the future. It’s about being in the moment, being present. There are so many cliches around the saying, “Be where your feet are.” But there’s truth to all of that. The way we drain ourselves emotionally is by looking over all the mistakes we’ve made and wallowing in regret. The past can be a great teacher and we should learn from it, but we don’t want to get stuck there.
How does being anxious about the future get in the way?
The future is always 100 percent hypothetical; it only exists in language and in our minds. So I find it exhausting from personal experience to be spending a lot of emotional currency in the past or in the future. Instead, the way to increase stamina is by being in the present moment and accepting it for what it is. There are plenty of present moments that aren’t preferred and that you wish would be different, but if you can just accept them, you increase mental toughness.
That makes sense, and in some ways, seems very simple. Do athletes and executives ever struggle with how basic some of these solutions might be?
Everything I’ve put into my books is very basic in principle, but none of it is easy to do. There’s nothing easy about detaching from outcomes. There’s nothing easy about not taking things personally. These things take practice and they take awareness and they take an ability to emotionally regulate, where you can step back, take a deep breath and be a spectator to what’s going on.
If we don’t practice these basic fundamentals, are we doomed to burn out?
When the work that you’re doing isn’t matching your interests and your values, that’s what will ultimately lead to burnout. When you’re in that sweet spot and you’re loving what you’re doing – we’ve all probably experienced that flow state where you just get lost in your work — it’s exhausting but in a satisfying way. But if you’re constantly putting in hours toward something you’re not enjoying, that’s when burnout will rear its head.