Peak vs Sustainable High Performance

The distinction between peak performance and sustainable high performance is an important consideration in order to simultaneously promote health and wellbeing.

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There is common and frequent discussion related to the pursuit of peak performance.  This is often described as the representation of the pinnacle of human achievement and the optimal goal in performance.  Often there are suggestions and recommendations regarding training towards a specific goal or event with the intention of attaining peak performance at the time of the competition or circumstance.  There is an implied drop off in training and ability following that for which the training has been focused.  A typical and visible example would be an athlete training towards the annual championship or, perhaps more notably, Olympic competition.  Common amongst these considerations is the emphasis on the particular event or goal with less, if any, emphasis on the ability to perform at a high level over an extended duration of time.  Furthermore, health and wellbeing may be neglected, at least to a degree, in the process of training at the required high level.

While the concept of peak performance may have merit within the realm of a craft of limited chronologic duration, there is much less benefit to this approach within those domains that require the ability to perform at a high level over an extended duration of time.  When longevity of the level of performance is an important consideration, the ability to sustainably and consistently be at one’s best becomes a relevant element for evaluation.  This applies equally to non-performance areas of life, such as being at one’s best in various roles, such as a partner, parent, or friend.

In pursuits, such as the healthcare profession, in which performance over an extended duration of time is necessary, it become essential to incorporate sustainability of performance.  This requires the development of additional skills, beyond those specific to the craft, in order to ensure that one is able to continue to be at their best over the necessary duration of time.  The concept of sustainable high performance, included within the core elements of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete, forms an important framework for this factor.

In addition to development of the craft specific skills, the pursuit of sustainable high performance is reliant upon training mind-based and body-based skills and strategies which are incorporated within the polyvagal informed toolbox.  These resources provide the ability to leverage our biology towards achieving our fullest potential from a performance perspective and also promote the skills and strategies necessary to pursue health and wellbeing, including optimizing recovery.  The importance of these goals and the foundational skills have been discussed in past articles.  Furthermore, through training and development of these resources, it is possible to integrate these skills across all domains of life, thereby promoting the ability to be at one’s best in any and all aspects of life.

From the performance perspective, it is important to recognize that there are instances in which the pursuit of our highest possible potential with less emphasis on sustainability may be appropriate.  Such a scenario may involve leveraging biological states towards more sympathetic dominant states, at least at certain times and for limited durations.  It is also important to acknowledge that we are able to perform at a high level, perhaps even close to our highest level, while in a sympathetic fight state.  Though this may be successful in the short-term, it requires, as Michael Allison illustrates in his work, a higher expenditure of metabolic resources and will not be likely to lead to a high level of performance over an extended period of time.  Given the higher metabolic costs, there is an increased likelihood of deleterious effects, such as injury.  At times it may be necessary to intentionally enter into such a sympathetic state in order to perform at our best, however it is also important to understand that this requires greater resource expenditure, thereby necessitating additional emphasis on recovery when possible.  These concepts have been detailed by Michael Allison, particularly in relation to the sports performance realm.

The optimal scenario, particularly for performance over an extended duration of time, is an emphasis on the necessary resources to pursue sustainable high performance through implementation of the polyvagal informed toolbox.  Such a strategy allows for greater ventral vagal stabilization, thereby not only promoting sustainable high performance but simultaneously respecting the importance of the pursuit of health and wellbeing.  By developing these skills and strategies, we are also able to intentionally perform within sympathetic states in select situations and pursue sufficient recovery following such scenarios.  This paradigm reflects the recognition that peak performance is not necessarily aligned with the pursuit of health and wellbeing.  In contrast, the promotion of sustainable high performance provides the foundation from which we can pursue the goals and objectives that are of most importance while ensuring the ability to be at our best over an extended duration of time and simultaneously promoting our health and wellbeing.

Through an understanding of the importance of sustainable high performance, the polyvagal informed skills and strategies of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete can be employed to leverage our biology towards the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and performing at our highest potential across any, and all, domains of life.  

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.

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