To really set you up for success, you must take time to align the five aspects of the body: nutrition, mobility, stress, rest, and sleep. Paying attention to all five will help ensure the body is calibrated and able to perform when it’s time.
As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex White of Peak Human Performance.
Alex White is the Co-Founder and Head Performance Coach at Peak Human Performance. A world traveler, born and raised in Columbus, Coach White found his passion for working with athletes at an early age. He has been helping people achieve excellence for over 15 years. A former college and professional athlete, Coach White uses his life experiences both in and out of the arena to educate, motivate, and inspire those in search of a higher level of physical and mental performance. Coach White is married to the love of his life and has two amazing daughters.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
We didn’t have much as kids growing up. We learned to be resourceful and creative. There was always a high value placed on education and hard work which benefited me later in life. My mom worked in a Chinese American restaurant in the late 80’s while going to college so I grew up in the kitchen learning about various cultures and experiencing the unifying effects of food, what things tasted like and how to prepare them.
The school year was spent bouncing from sports team to sports team and the summers were dedicated to summer camps and swimming. Back then, club sports were nothing like they are today. There were no “sports performance” trainers for youth athletes at the time so everything you did for “training” was on your own and was based on workouts from bodybuilding magazines and Olympic track workouts.
My father’s side of the family was filled with highly competitive track athletes and having spent most of my life in or around a kitchen, I had many years of knowledge and experience about training and nutrition over my peers by the time I got to high school.
From an early age, I was drawn to sports. It kept me busy and out of trouble and I had a knack for moving my body. I loved the team environment, the physical challenge and the constant feedback from male role models.
In high school I began to get serious about one main sport which was football, and pretty much cycled through other sports just for the conditioning experience. By the time I graduated high school, I had received 9 varsity letters in 5 different sports: football, track, basketball, swimming, wrestling.
I wasn’t much of a student my freshman year. I think I just assumed I’d play sports and chase girls but after bombing the first half of my freshman year and getting put on academic probation I got serious. By my sophomore year I was on the honor roll and taking AP classes.
Seeing progress affirmed the work I put in both in the classroom and on the field. Of course, my main focus was on sport. I could feel progress with every practice, see from game to game, and could review from one season to the next. Developing new skills, getting stronger, getting faster, and learning to control my body to gain specific outcomes was addicting. By the time I became a college athlete, I had built my entire identity on being just that: an athlete.
At 22 years old, I suffered a contact injury that would later end my competitive athletic career. Due to my ego not wanting to be “hurt” and a lack of clear guidance on what I was actually experiencing, I would continue to train for several months eventually leaving me unable to do simple things like walk, sit, or even stand. For the next two years, I spiraled battling depression, anger, and prescription pain meds.
There were several moments throughout my youth where I was challenged to be mature but none of them affected me as deeply as getting injured and losing my identity. Looking back now, I would say that experience is what actually forced me to “grow up.”
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
I never thought of myself as anything other than being an athlete. I always loved the training and comradery of the team environment more than the competition. I played to win but it was always for the guys around me. There wasn’t ever anyone in my life who said, “you should strive for this.” It was more of something that just happened and frankly looking back I was good, but I was never “great.” If that were the case, I would have had a different outcome.
My mother’s family wasn’t a huge sports family (aside from OSU football) so my successes on the field were recognized but never the focal point. By my Sophomore year, I started receiving recruiting letters from colleges and that’s when it became clear it could be an opportunity. Prior to that, college wasn’t something I had thought much about since I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. But, the idea that it could be paid for made it far more appealing.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
It may sound cliché but my mother was a huge part of helping me become who I am today. She taught me from an early age to think independently and analytically. She would always ask me questions about “why” or “how” I was going to do something. There was never a straight answer but always a follow up question. Although frustrating for a kid, it was incredibly valuable later on in life.
Although my father wasn’t the greatest influence, one thing I did learn was to never fear challenging the social norms or the establishment. There is nothing to be lost by asking for what you want or questioning the status quo. There have been many times in my life where just asking for what I wanted led to opportunities that would have otherwise never been an option if I had just accepted “no” or “that’s just how we do it.”
Of all the people in my life while growing up, my grandfather had the biggest influence on me. I remember him as the strong silent type, crafty with his hands, very intelligent, and always with an appropriately timed one-liner joke or smile to make you feel good.
He impressed upon me the importance of making “the best decision you can” with what you have in front of you. He taught me how choices always lead to positive outcomes if you do the work and make the most out of them. Looking back, I see this as the beginning of my mental stamina “training” and establishing the values of maintaining a strong mind.
He also talked to me seemingly at every opportunity about medicine and the human body. He was always secretly trying to recruit me to become a dentist and follow in his footsteps. I would always laugh but I think that’s what started my interest in how the body worked.
It wasn’t until years later I would come to appreciate the connection between the mind and body on a deeper level. Not just through my own recovery but through conversations and observations of those I would eventually work with.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
One that stands out was a lesson I learned about knowing my role and doing my job. I was playing inside linebacker and we were in the RedZone. It was 4th down but instead of kicking a field goal, the other team decided to go for the 1st down. They had successfully run the ball through the inside all night and the guys up front were not doing well.
Our coach signaled in the coverage and I was responsible for telling the defense the play. Instead of telling them the play he called, out of frustration (and ego), I gave them the play for an inside gap blitz. Of course, on the next snap, instead of rushing the middle they ran a play-action pop screen. Because I made the call for everyone to rush the inside, nobody was in a position to stop the pass. So, not only did they get the first down, they scored.
I don’t think I had ever heard a grown man scream like that in my life. Not only did I get benched, but we also went on to lose by 3 points. To make matters worse, after watching tape the next day, it was clear that if we’d run the play he called, the matchups would have been perfect for that coverage.
It was a huge lesson in trusting the process, relying on my team and doing my job.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
In life, at every level as you climb, the competition gets better. It’s like Super Mario Brothers, every level you advance the villains get bigger, faster and more difficult to beat.
In sports, everyone gets bigger, everyone gets faster and everyone gets stronger at the next level. In life they become smarter, more resourceful and better connected.
In sports, focus on developing your mind and your body. Seek out great coaches to challenge you and help you grow. Don’t avoid your mistakes, learn from them. Continue to put yourself in positions to play against the best and be humble when you lose.
In sports, learn to develop communication skills, critical thinking and the ability to take negative feedback and turn it into improvement. These skills will positively affect your life far beyond the game.
Being great at a sport requires physical skills no doubt but do not neglect your body in their pursuit. Things like nutrition, sleep, and learning to manage stress well will only help your body develop into the machine it needs to be.
Developing a high level of physical and emotional self-awareness to know the difference between pain and injury is also invaluable. The concept is not explained nor developed enough in people. It is difficult when you are young but learning to understand your body can mean the difference between a successful career you choose to end and a career that is ended for you.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I am a co-owner of a training facility near Dublin, Ohio called Peak Human Performance. For the last few years, I’ve been focused on building an incredible team, an amazing facility and developing outstanding programs for our clients. Although we do work with some professional athletes our primary clientele are school age athletes, business owners and active families; the kind of people who are driven to succeed.
For five years we’ve been building a program called the 8 week challenge. It is nothing like traditional programs of its kind. Over the years we’ve been able to extract best practices and habits of the most successful people and convert it into a private training program we call 60-LEAN.
60-LEAN is a training system that provides participants with the support, guidance, and accountability to be “all-in” on their health for 60 days. We use our “3 Pillars of Performance” model to create laser focus on self-development which helps clients upgrade their mindset and develop habits, skills and techniques to achieve their highest mental and physical performance. The three pillars we focus on are mindset, the body, and training.
60-LEAN was developed for people who know they’re capable of more but who got off the path along the journey of life for whatever reason, kids, career, etc. This program is for people who need a jump start, who want to work hard but just need a real plan designed around their lives to follow. It’s for people willing to develop new habits, leave excuses behind, and become the best human being they can be.
We are really excited about this program because we know it works and because it’s helping clients gain long term results for peak performance in every aspect of their lives.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
The first strategy is visualization. If you put yourself in a situation before it occurs, you are empowered to decide how you want to perform when it’s time. Before I enter a situation that may cause stress, I prepare myself by asking, “how can I perform at my highest level when “X” happens?”.
The second strategy is to be hyper-aware of my physical state. It’s incredibly important for me to stay connected to my body at all times. It is an incredible mechanism, but it doesn’t come with a user manual like the one you get with your t.v.. This means in order to be effective, you need to see, feel, and experience as many situations as you can to help you learn what every sensation or feeling means so you can learn how to direct it.
The third and most important strategy is learning to create space from the problem. Something happens, now what? Instant reaction? By creating space before you react you are able to calibrate an intentional response. We coach people to do this by taking a deep breath and analyzing what is actually happening in front of them.
If someone starts getting worked up but they never stop to collect their thoughts, they likely keep making worse and worse decisions with poorer and poorer outcomes. Perfecting this technique comes with time and experience. The more stressful the situation, the better the opportunity to craft your skills in responding with intent.
If I can pause in between downs, and ground myself then my mind is clear to think and see what’s happening in front of me. Playing with emotion is important but playing in a “the zone” with a sense of calm and mental clarity is vital for consistent success.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
This is a great question because it combines two of the pillars we teach: mindset and body. I love teaching and using a “box” breathing technique. Think about the four sides of a box and each side represents the length of time for each part of the breath. The inhale, the hold, the exhale, and the final hold prior to breathing in again.
I will start with 3x3x3x3 but as I get into the groove, I change the times for various sections like exhaling for 9 seconds then holding my breath for 12 seconds prior to inhaling again.
This sequence would look like: 3–6–9–12 starting with a 3 second inhale.
This practice helps regulate breathing, calm the nerves, and center your mind to the present moment. Give it a try in any situation where you need to focus and bring your best effort.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
Focusing on breathing is the best way to ground yourself and become connected to the present moment. Presence is usually what’s missing when focus is lacking. Many clients find it hard to focus because they are caught up in the future and what needs to be done or in the past lamenting over what has already happened.
With practice, this technique can become a powerful grounding tool to realign someone to the one thing that matters most right now. This is useful going into anything from a training session or a competition to a board meeting. It really is the same preparation for all high-stakes situations.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
To really set you up for success, you must take time to align the five aspects of the body: nutrition, mobility, stress, rest, and sleep. Paying attention to all five will help ensure the body is calibrated and able to perform when it’s time.
Consider this, how hard and for how long can you actually train if your stress levels are insanely high and you aren’t resting? How can your body regulate the hormones for weight loss if you aren’t eating or sleeping well?
The body is an incredible machine and if we treat it right, we get the right responses. The problem is that humans are very dynamic and life is always changing. This means whatever happens externally can have a major impact on what’s happening internally unless we learn to regulate efficiently. It’s easy to skip over this step, but it’s paramount to achieving peak performance.
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
This is absolutely true. Habits aren’t created overnight and oftentimes they aren’t even created with intention. Most people just do things because that’s what they learned from an early age or because it’s what worked for them before.
Successful habits are refined and reevaluated.
The first habit I have had to cultivate was as a way to improve my nighttime routine. I am naturally a night owl but for well over two decades of coaching and playing sports myself, I had to adapt to be up and ready to train sometimes as early as 5am on the field or in the gym.
Going to sleep is never an issue but getting to the bed can often be a battle. Even to this day, the demands of owning a small business and raising a family make getting to bed at a reasonable hour a challenge.
As I am sure many other high performers experience, there is always “one more thing” that needs to be done. The phrase “just a few more minutes” usually is a bad sign! The key for me is to stop before I even start. To accomplish this, I adapted a habit I learned from Arrianna Huffington.
When I get home from work, I put all of my work stuff to “bed.” My phone is no longer glued to my hand or in my pocket and rests on a docking station in the dining room away from our family space. If I need to check an email or send a text, I open the device after the girls have gone to bed and it is with the specific intention of accomplishing that singular task. Once complete everything goes off again.
This subtle change in breaking the habit of staying “connected” at all times allows my mind and my body to be present in the moment and wind down naturally for the night making it much easier to get to bed at a reasonable time.
The second habit helps me meet my daily water intake goal of 4 liters. Clearly staying hydrated is important as an athlete but as I have gotten older I’ve begun to feel the physical effects in my body and joints when not hydrated.
Drinking enough throughout the day can be a challenge when you’re busy so the habit I created was to drink water like I was in a drinking competition at key moments throughout the day. The goal is 1 liter at four diffent times; when I first wake up, right before I go to bed, during my daily training session and the last one comes right after my afternoon meal. Anything else I get throughout the day is a bonus.
Although seemingly juvenile this “chugging” approach has been highly effective and entertaining. Whenever I tip back an entire liter of water in a matter of seconds the facial expressions of onlookers is usually one of slight confusion like, “wait, did that just happen” followed by amazement.
This habit has become so ingrained in my daily actions that my oldest daughter instinctively started doing it, which is pretty funny to see a 2-year-old chug a 12 ounce sippy cup of water. I guess at least this way we know she’ll always be hydrated!
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Intentionally planning out, step by step your routines for key transitions in your day is the best way to establish new habits. Bad habits are typically part of a sequence. The objective is to become aware of the sequence and replace the bad habit with a better one.
As an example, if the habit you want to change is staying up late, it’s usually tied to another sequence like watching tv or checking your emails. Instead of opening up the phone or computer to scroll social or start working, I removed the technology from easy access by putting everything on a docking station in another room.
Taking this style of approach is likely to help you unwind after a long day far more than drowning out your thoughts in another episode on tv or scrolling your Facebook feed.
Journaling is also a very powerful tool for reflection. Reviewing your past actions and their results helps you see what works and what doesn’t. By doing this you can decide with intention the actions you want to keep if they benefit you.
As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
I agree that being in a flow state is an experience but I wouldn’t say that it’s pleasurable. In fact, I would actually say that it doesn’t feel like anything at all. It’s more like being in a trance, completely calm, where you don’t feel anything at all.
Being in a flow state is about being 100% present in the moment. Everything slows down but in reality, you are analyzing and executing at a very high level. You just see things as they are unfolding and responding with an insane level of precision.
In a game, there are only so many things the opponent can do. They often occur in strategic patterns. The more responses you perfect in training, the quicker you become at seeing the patterns emerge and the faster you are able to respond to them.
For a mom with young kids, this is seen in mastering the weekly schedule. Between work, school, club teams, practices, travel schedules and everything else that goes into making life work behind the scenes of an active family especially when something unforeseen comes up.
For a business executive this is seen during a strategy session, or a negotiation. Being in a flow state is all about executing or adapting to meet the needs of the plan. It’s about thinking quickly and most important calmly.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
Meditation is something I have done in different ways over the years. There are two ways I have found to be the most beneficial.
The first way is via guided meditations. My wife turned me on to an app called Insight Timer. There are a ton of courses and single sessions on there which are great. I like to find one for the morning and one for the evening before bed.
The second way has been the most consistent and most effective. It’s simple but it isn’t easy in the beginning. I start by listening to a specific song that has no words, sitting still with my eyes closed then allowing my thoughts to wander, like an energetic dog on the end of a leash.
Once I realize I’ve gone down some really random path of obscure thoughts, I acknowledge them, agree they have no value, and recenter myself back to the present moment by concentrating on my breathing for a few breaths.
This process happens over and over again multiple times in a 10 minute session. When I am done, my mind is essentially tired of “running around” which makes it much easier to focus. The hardest part is not over analyzing the thoughts I have during the session. As humans we search for meaning in everything but in reality that is seldom the case.
I have used the same song for 8 years (Paris Sunrise #7 by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals) and listen to it on repeat. I have listened to it so much that now, no matter what I am doing, the moment the track goes on and the first notes are played, I instantly feel at ease, my breathing slows and I lock in. It’s really kind of amazing.
Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
Many people struggle with mindset because their values are defined or aligned with how they measure their success. To perform a simple audit of your values, identify if they are internally focused (be honest, work hard) and are associated with things in your control (telling the truth, giving your best effort). If they are externally focused (looking pretty, being popular) and not in your control (focused on what other people think) you’ll often fall short or struggle trying leading to negative self-talk (I am not good enough) and a lowered self-worth (I am not worthy if nobody likes me).
The main point I am trying to drive home is this: intentionally decide on what YOU value most in your life and how you will measure yourself along the way. Don’t worry about anyone else. Design goals with your values in mind and it will be far easier to create a positive feedback loop that will lead to long term success and positive self esteem.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My life is actually very busy in an organized chaos kind of way. Over the last few years, my family has grown substantially. I am a husband and more recently a father of two little girls. I have always been dedicated to giving back to the youth through my work with young athletes. For several years I have been a middle school lacrosse coach and prior to that I was a mentor at a camp for young men who had lost their fathers in active duty.
Most recently I have begun shifting my focus to developing my skills as a motivational speaker for student athletes and business leaders. I believe the skills I have developed through my own personal pains have given me great insight. I also believe it’s my duty to pass along knowledge and perspective to help others along the way.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
The quote is actually the last stanza from a poem called Invictus. The poem had a tremendous impact on me during my darker period in life and reminds me daily that I always have the power to choose. It’s in some ways an ode to my grandfather’s early message to me.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I would love to have a private breakfast with Will Smith. I grew up watching the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and I was always interested in his success not so much because he was famous but more because of his development as a person in spite of his fame.
Fame and attention as well as money and access do incredibly damaging things to people. A quick look across the broad (and public) history of famous athletes, actors and businessmen and this is quite clear to see.
Over the years he seems to have become a quality husband, a loving father and a deeply self aware person which one can only imagine is hard to do with the pressure of living up to the demands of being “Will Smith” the global brand.
I would love to discuss with him the depth of his transformation, the pitfalls and challenges he faced with his own ego along the way and the battles he faces still to this day.
I am personally curious about his dealings with racism throughout his career, which I would imagine are prevalent and far reaching as a black man who’s had unprecedented success in a majority white global economy in an industry controlled and dominated by, well, not black men.
Finally, I would love to learn about his new found “freedom” as he’s seemingly escaped from under the thumb of being Will the brand and has started to become Will the person. This is something you can see him challenging and exploring with his new expressive and creative ventures.