10 Tips for Battling the Grind

Preseason is a grind.

Whether you’re in the professional, university, or youth levels, the opening weeks of the season are a challenge. And that goes for players, coaches, other staff, and administrators. Schedules are packed, we’re putting the finishing touches on a season worth of planning, and the combination of excitement and high-intensity workloads are demanding. There’s simply no let off (which is why this post is three weeks in the making). It’s a time for action.

Without a plan of action, the early weeks can present a seemingly unconquerable burden.

There’s a reason it’s called the grind. Look it up in the dictionary and you’ll find a rather punishing first definition: “reduce (something) to small particles or powder by crushing it.”

That’s brutal!

As we grind our way through life’s obstacles, we inevitably suffer a reduction of energy. We’re not speaking strictly of physical energy either. Mental, emotional, and spiritual energy are gradually depleted as well.

However, just like the loss of physical energy, we can take action to replenish our mental, emotional, and spiritual energy. In fact, it’s necessary to do so. Failure to do so leads to burnout, a state of exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

Embracing the Grind

Thus far, we’ve painted a rather bleak picture.

If we’ve established anything, it’s that 1) the grind is inevitable, 2) it consumes our energy, and 3) failure to care for yourself in a holistic manner can lead to burnout. The definition I listed doesn’t exactly inspire hope either.

That’s where a secondary definition of the grind comes to our aid.

While the first definition concerns destruction, the second is a more positive concept: “sharpen, smooth, or produce (something) by crushing or by friction.”

Built into the definition is the idea that the grind serves us by the adversity we encounter, our willingness to suffer for a cause, and the knowledge that we can come out better than when we started. It’s a loaded idea. By embracing the grind, we’re giving ourselves permission to chase something great or bigger than ourselves. We’re acknowledging that there’s a difficult path in front of us, but also that we’re up for the challenge and willing to put in the work to achieve our objective.

Here’s some more good news…there are healthy ways to embrace the grind and fight off burnout.

When writing The Soccer Parenting Handbook, we had an exclusive interview with the internationally acclaimed youth development guru, Tom Byer, who gave us this gold nugget of a quote: “Burnout and overtraining don’t come from the amount of time that you're practicing. It comes from the pressures that are put on the kid to perform.”

Pressure to perform is unavoidable. In all honesty, this is something we should crave, because it does signal that we have some highly desirable talent to offer. It’s a privilege to carry that burden of expectation, not a right.

However, when we let that pressure warp our minds, moving us from a process-oriented approach to a performance environment driven by external and internal judgement, we stray from the path, losing our passion for the journey and joy of participation.

We can let that external pressure cause internal turmoil or we can use it to reinforce the point that we have something great to offer if we’re willing to fight for it.

My deepest regrets in life are those times I let external pressure overcome my personal resolve for action and ruined my enjoyment of things I cared about. Processing expectation, pressure, and the grind of the journey are mental skills that need training, just like our player’s technical work. A framework and reps help us establish small habits that pay huge dividends over the course of a lifetime. Think of it as a compounded interest in the mental skills and character development departments.

If you’re feeling the pressure of the preseason grind, know you’re not alone and the suffering is temporary.

But I don’t want to leave you there. This is not Coach Scott’s preachy way of telling you to “rub some dirt on it.” Rather, I want to leave you with some concrete tips for self-care to sustain you on the journey.

Here are 10 tips to help you sharpen yourself through the daily grind and develop habits that cultivate an environment conducive to peak performance.

1) Sleep

I’ve got a confession…when I’m struggling with the grind, sleep is the first thing to go. Functioning at a reasonable level on 3-6 hours of sleep is something I can manage over a short period of time. That said, I feel the physical and mental fatigue after a couple of days. Recovering from those days of highly strenuous activity can take more than a week if I don’t give my body and mind a proper recovery. In the end, lost sleep is my short-term solution to overcoming obstacles, but the long-term cost adds up.

There’s more science on the topic than I can mention here, but making time for sleep has to become a higher priority in my life. If you have a similar reaction to stressful phases in life, join me in the battle for more and higher quality sleep. You’ll live longer and better position yourself for peak performance.

2) Proper Diet

Stress can lead us to throw self-care to the wayside, searching for convenience to gain time. Stress eating and poor dieting are two common concessions during particularly stressful times.

Again, this is not my area of expertise, but the general idea to convey is that food is fuel. Low-quality food or failing to meet daily calorie needs (higher or lower) carries short-term performance and long-term health consequences. If this is an area where you struggle, Food Network has 10 healthy meals for under $10.

3) Exercise

37% of Americans are obese, the 14th highest mark in the world. Only 20% meet the recommended 30 minutes of exercise per day.

Sleep, dieting, and exercise are the trifecta of physical health. Good habits in these categories are best started in times of lower stress, but then the key is maintenance when times get tough. Remember that exercise doesn’t have to be time in the gym. Walking and playing with your kids (or siblings and friends for the childless readers) are low-strain activities packed with physical and psychological benefits. Since this is largely a soccer audience, find a pickup game or adult league in your area. A couple days of play each week will work wonders for you. Time in nature carries additional benefits too, which makes the coupling with exercise all the more powerful.

4) Enjoy the company of family and friends

This is my go-to. Spending time with family recharges me almost instantly. It’s a chance to pull my mind away from the demands of work and give that mental energy to my loved ones. Unlike work, my time with family replenishes my energy levels. Playing living room soccer with my kids will inevitably give me a second wind.

Our loved ones support us in difficult times, keep us in check when we consider bad habits, and give us a sense of belonging that transcends the daily grind. You’re more than the sum of your work actions. Family and friends help you see that.

5) Take a Step away from the Field

Soccer’s a lot like life. There are highs and lows, spells of extraordinary performance and results, as well as times when nothing seems to go right and you can’t buy a win. Those wins seem to generate their own energy, but losses…they can hit us pretty hard, especially if we’ve neglected mental training in our developmental pathways.

When losses pile up, exercises aren’t working out as planned, or we are consistently a step behind the run of play, we feel it. There’s added mental strain. Unsuccessfully navigating early negatives can lead to a downward spiral that’s seemingly impossible to get out of.

In addition to training the mental side of the game (there are several excellent sports psychologists on Twitter and LinkedIn), one counterintuitive move is to step away from the field. Not permanently or even for a prolonged period. Remember, this is about fighting through the grind, sharpening our talents while under duress.

Being intentional with your time away from the pitch is one of the easiest ways to relieve stress and deliver some much-needed joy to your life. This advice runs contrary to the “put your head down and battle through the obstacle” approach, which often means spending more time on the field practicing. Making time for socializing, hobbies, or anything you enjoy that isn’t directly related to your work can re-energize you for periods of performance. And again, you are not your work. Carve out time to be you.

6) Laugh

We all need some Chris Farley and Will Ferrell in our lives. If you haven’t watched Psych or Brooklyn 99, you’re missing out. I hear Ted Lasso is worth the cost of a 15th streaming subscription too (I’m going to break soon).

The psychological benefits of laughter are well-researched. From stimulating your organs to improving your sense of personal satisfaction, taking time to laugh, be it with media or relationships, is a great way to break the monotony of daily life. It’s full of short and long-term benefits for your psychological and physical well-being. Plus, in difficult spells, it serves as a reminder that tough times don’t last and that there is joy to be had in life.

7) Pray and/or Meditate

For religious readers, this one is straightforward. We pray to develop our relationship with God. The end goal is to spend eternity with God, so we embrace the opportunity for relationship through prayer, maintaining the connection and understanding of purpose even in difficult times. When the grind is especially difficult, prayer helps us see the suffering in a new light, reframing our interpretation of the present to fit the bigger picture, which is seeing our dependence on God and the opportunity for spiritual development through adversity.

Notice the and/or between pray and meditate. Religious can certainly mediate too, but there is a need for non-religious to meditate in an attempt to see the present as fitting with an end goal. One of the beauties of religion is the structure provided. For non-religious, structure is still necessary, but the end and means need to be clearly defined. Meditation is a way to exam your thoughts and actions within a larger overall framework. When deviation from the course occurs, mediation brings you back to core principles and should realign your thoughts and actions with the you you want to be.

8) Futurecasting

We love a set plan. Predictability is comforting because we know what’s about to happen and how we plan to respond. Change and uncertainty sit at the other end of the spectrum for most people. Why? In most cases, it’s down to a perceived lack of control over our life or a lack of confidence in handling the unexpected well.

Taking some time to plot out objectives for the immediate future and connect those ideas to the future you can alleviate some of that stress and anxiety. While plans might not go exactly as intended, well-thought-out personal itineraries can offer direction in the midst of uncertainty, refine purpose, and offer direction towards a specific end even when pivots are necessary. As US President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Futurecasting helps us process the present and build towards a concrete, though moveable, point. For more information on futurecasting, including how to work backwards when planning, check out Brian David Johnson’s interview on The Art of Manliness podcast.

9) Focus on Someone Else

At times, we’re so stuck in our own heads and consumed with our own trials that we’re oblivious to the needs of others. Limited awareness can negatively impact our relationships and force our focus further inwards.

Turning our attention to others pulls us away from our own egotism and helps us connect our thoughts and actions to something bigger than ourselves. Richard Branson gives some examples, including making time for important people in our lives and developing our listening skills.

10) Read

This one isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but making time for reading is a powerful weapon when battling through the grind. Reading itself may be a grind for you, and that’s okay.

Dedicating time specifically for reading reminds you that 1) our growth is process-based, 2) learning new and challenging things can be enjoyable, and 3) it’s possible to separate yourself from the grind. In fact, disconnecting, be it for reading, socializing, or pursuing a hobby, can help you come back to the pressing task with a renewed energy.

We persevere

As Robert Schuller so eloquently put it, “tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”

Achieving something great isn’t for the faint of heart. That’s because we have to expect adversity, be it physical, psychological, social, or any number of other means. Consistently stretching just beyond the point of comfort is a necessity in achieving the incredible, and that’s not something everyone wants, which is fine.

But if you’re one of the few who consistently shows up in difficult times, working through adversity in the pursuit of a grand achievement, congratulations. You’ve already taken the first steps.

Whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, remember that you still have to take care of yourself. Burnout is real. Psychological and physical tolls can reach irreversible levels. You can lose relationships with the ones who mean the most to you.

Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish or weak. It’s an acknowledgement of your humanity. It’s also a sign that you value things beyond your work, such as the spiritual life, relationships, intellectual curiosity, and hobbies. The daily grind will make its demands, but it can’t be the only, or even the most important, objective in our lives.

Managing the grind with outside interests and pursuits isn’t an obstacle to fulfilment. Rather, those core values and desires give meaning to our professional and playing pursuits.

A highly developed WHY is a powerful tool. It equips us with a greater understanding and inspiration for our actions and ambitions. When obstacles stand before us, our WHY powers us through adversity. Our vision of the present conforms to a greater purpose. We suffer, yes, but not needlessly or permanently. We are forced to dig deep into the recesses of our souls, but we come away with a greater sense of self-worth and awareness.

Most importantly, we know why we are willing to persevere through challenging times in pursuit of something great. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “the things we love tell us who we are.” Pursue the spectacular and embrace the sharpening offered through the daily grind, just don’t forget to take yourself and loved ones with you.