Paul Rabil On Building Strong Relationships and Overcoming Setbacks

The Premier Lacrosse League co-founder and CMO opens up about leaning into curiosity, prioritizing his well-being, and learning from failure.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Paul Rabil: I try to not look at my phone, and that’s a real struggle for me! I know that when I’m able to find my sweet spot morning routine, it’s wireless. I start by rolling out of bed and onto the floor for an extended back stretch. I’m a 35-year-old athlete after all. From there, I’ll brush my teeth and head to drink a full glass of water before starting the coffee maker. I love the smell of coffee roasting while I meditate – which is my next move. I’m exploring different forms of yoga nidra, a method of pratyahara, that’s been useful for me for checking in with my consciousness, senses, and range of emotions.

Small footnote: If you’re interested in trying the daily short and long-version yoga nidras, I use Molly Birkholm’s iRest practices for pain relief, healing trauma, sleep and daily living. Now, if I’m able to get through that, my day tends to be a lot better.

TG: What gives you energy?

PR: Discipline and progress – individually, relationally and professionally. This is mostly emotional, though I attempt to build processes around personal growth that gives me a pop of energy. And through all of that, I find myself happier and more effective. 

TG: What’s your secret life hack?

PR: Being curious. Curiosity is like a wonderful companion by your side. It’s your intellectual and emotional best friend. Curiosity lives in healthy debate, conflict resolution, compassion, empathy, and of course, linear learning.

TG: Name a book that changed your life. 

PR: The Dance of Connection by Harriet Lerner. I was going through my divorce and was recommended this book by my therapist. It helped me understand the infinite dimensions of relationships – how we’re all unalike, but how infinitely wonderful intimate relationships can be if we better our self-awareness, accountability, accessibility and meet our partner with profound empathy.  This makes its way into sports, too. Arguably more so than our romantic lives given the promotion of ego and the competitive locker room environment. If you can lead from the back, there are many breakthroughs yet to be realized in sports.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?

PR: I’m working on my dance of connection with my phone. It should not sleep with me, but we’re working through it together

TG: How do you deal with email?

PR: I have systems in-place, primarily leveraging google tech to star, label and schedule emails. Though I’ve found the best way for me to stay current is to simply mark my emails that require a response as ‘unread’. I wish we could do this with text messages, but that’s for another question. I rarely get to inbox zero as I typically face 5-10 emails per week that require deep work and concentration. I categorize those as 60 – 120 minute projects to completion. By the time I get that done, more begin to surface.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?

PR: One of two options. If I’m fatigued or running low on patience, I’ll do a breathwork or take a short walk. If I’m feeling stable, I’ll check in with my co-founder to see how he’s doing or visit with a colleague.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

PR: My burnouts typically come related to work and the natural flow of the seasons. Playing professional sports is as exciting as it is monotonous. Every day you hit the same drills for practice to hone your craft. Every offseason you plan for the next. On average, pro athletes playing careers last 2-3 years – and to sustain a career north of 15 seasons requires the ability to allow yourself to feel the fatigue, the burnout, the languishing, and then respond appropriately to get back on track.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 

PR: Just about every game I fail. I miss an open shot, make a bad turnover, or fail to get to my position within a specific scheme. Abby Wambach told me the key characteristic for high performing athletes is to have amnesia on the field. You’re at your best when you’re constantly performing in the present moment. 

Easier said than done…

My advice to athletes is to remember your practice. When you’re not hitting your shot, tell yourself how many times you’ve hit it before. YOU ARE CAPABLE. Actually, more than capable. How we react to failure is what makes us great. So given that, wouldn’t you want to be in this position?

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

PR: “There is peace even in the storm.” – Vincent Van Gogh

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

PR: I remind myself that priorities are the same whether I have a lot of work to do or very little. I’m only effective if I’m able to focus on one task at a time – and I prioritize my mental health, physical performance, relationships, and what needs to get done at work.

However, it’s also a priority for me to think about long-term strategy and be creative – both require time and space. So, every weekend I block out a few hours just to review and think critically about how I’m doing, what I can do better, and ways our business can continue to grow.

TG: What advice would you give your younger self about reducing stress?

I would tell my younger self that I went through it, too. And it’s really hard. Having the comfort of knowing that I’m not alone goes a long way for me.

TG: Do you have any role models for living a thriving life?

Adam Grant is incredibly impressive and I’m lucky to call him a friend. His ability to listen, share feedback and compassion, while also actively seek the same from others…is remarkably admirable. 

TG: What’s your personal warning sign that you’re depleted?

When I sense that my body temperature is warming and patience running thin, I’ll recognize my decision-making ability is probably altered. 

TG: When you notice you’re getting too stressed, what do you do to course correct?

During a game, I’ll tap into a routine that will service as a reset. Think about a golfer’s practice swing before a tee shot or a basketball player’s dribble at the free throw line before her shot…it’s the exact same every time. That’s an act of meditation that can refocus you while you’re anxious and adrenaline pumping. 

The same strategies can be effective in the workplace.

TG: What’s a surprising way you practice mindfulness?

The background image for my lock screen on my phone has one word – “breathe”. Research shows that on average we check our phones 96 times a day. No better reminder than to deep breathe – through my nose and out of my mouth every time I unlock that damn device.

TG: How do you reframe negative thinking?

PR: Oh, this is a difficult one. When I sense that I’m heading towards a downward spiral I try to slide out of the emotional brain – that fear-mongering amygdala – then tap into my prefrontal cortex – the host of my logic. If I can do that, I can activate the appropriate self-talk and rationale assessment of what actually is happening.   If I’m unable to shift my mind, I’ll take a page out of dialectical behavioral therapy practice and either put an ice pack on my forehead to cool down or go for a short walk to activate those much-needed endorphins. For anyone struggling with coping or unwinding their negative thinking, I would recommend reading Alex Korb’s book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time

TG: What brings you optimism?

PR: A clear and present mind

TG: Fill in the blanks: People think I/I’m confident and happy, but really I struggle like everyone else.

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your sleep. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how do you sustain this habit?

PR: I use a sleep temperature mattress, called Eight Sleep. It has programmable temperature settings (I like to sleep at a cool setting) as well as built-in wearable tech so I can track my sleep performance. Gameifying sleep has led to greater motivation around education myself and trying new behaviors near bedtime. 

I’ve also been using the Headspace sleep pathway on their app for several years. Andy Puddicomb has a soothing voice that tucks me away before the end of the meditation.

TG:  Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve the way you connect with others. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how do you sustain this habit?

PR: I intentionally ask how someone is doing, and when inquired back, I focus on being honest – even if it means telling them I’m not doing well. This act of honesty that’s somewhat against the grain of expectation that “I’m doing GREAT how are you?!” has created more authenticity in my relationships. You know, asking for help used to be very difficult for me. Then when I started doing it, I found out that I was becoming more effective because I was getting the needed support, and unbeknownst to me, I was also building closer relationships with those who I asked. 

In the end, we all want to help. The gift of giving is the best gift we’ve ever been given.  

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your focus. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how do you sustain this habit?

PR: Several years ago, I began setting a timer on my phone for deep work. Sometimes for 50 minutes, and others for 20. Then I’ll set a 5 minute break before restarting. The act of setting an alarm encourages a better and more genuine focus for the task at hand, with the acknowledgement of rest and reset shortly thereafter. 

TG: What was the biggest turning point in your life?

PR: My divorce. It was also the most difficult moment in my life. At the center of my marriage was a predetermined set of beliefs I was living my life by – from my romantic and monogamous relationship, to the reassessment of my relationship with myself, family, friends and strangers.  I adopted a new view on sport – focusing more on the moment and the relationships in the locker room. 

At the time, I had been able to achieve most of what I had set my mind to – educationally and athletically. Though this time, while I wanted the marriage to work, the realization and acknowledgement of letting go ignited a major turning point in my life. One that has led to the prioritization of people.

TG: What’s your secret time-saver in the morning?

PR: Someone else share theirs with me, please.

TG: What’s your evening routine that helps you unwind and go to sleep?

PR: I tend to work hard enough during the day that when I get horizontal I can typically be into light or deep sleep within 15 minutes – though when needed, I prefer to dim the lights, have a room temp glass of water and book by my bedside.

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