The power of human connections

I’d never considered connections in much detail before.  By that I mean human connections.  The tangible ones you make in everyday life.  Being a professional, in a position of employment, you don’t often appreciate the human connections you have in your vicinity, nor use them to full effect.  Only when you’re out in the big wide world as an independent agent, do you really experience the power of human connection, and the art of using it to full effect.   

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A recent phase of long standing professional connections contacting me for pieces of work, plus new connections offering some exciting opportunities, have caused me to reflect and be grateful for the power of human connections;  how they can further our professional development in areas of expertise, or even enable us to grow in areas we hadn’t necessarily considered.  Undeniably, working independently has opened my eyes to a world of new connections, some I’d hope to make myself, and achieved, others spontaneous and several through a mutual connection who recognised areas of commonality.

Described as ‘the art of the action of linking one thing with another’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2019), developing human connections certainly are an art, particularly when you want to use them for real impact.  The ‘action’ of linking one to another resonates with me as, however new connections have been made, there certainly seems to be an art to it. 

These reflections have prompted me to put some thoughts together on making connections and how my scientist brain has had to further develop the ‘art’ of making them.   Note, this is not a ‘how to make connections’ list.  Merely some personal observations from my recent development in making connections.

As a process, the power of human connection was highlighted initially to me when I started my own business and proactively used my existing connections to help establish contact with people in areas, I knew I needed to develop, or wanted to pursue a new interest in.  From here, opportunities and connections escalated.  At one point it was too much, a little overwhelming and I had to reign myself in as my ideas from conversations with new connections were taking over my ability to stay focused and prioritise my work flow.  I had commitments to deliver pieces of work and didn’t want to be in a situation where these circumstances were compromised by being over committed.  In short, I had to understand the art of managing connections, old and new, and how to prioritise new ideas and work flows from such connections. 

As I discovered, whilst motivating, it’s also quite exhausting meeting new people a lot of the time.  Having focused conversations, listening, responding, reacting to ideas in the moment, all require a certain amount of focused cognition, so I learnt quite quickly to space out new connections. It helped that the new connections I was making weren’t all face to face.  A lot of initial conversations were over the phone, so I could take some time to quietly reflect after the meeting.  

Of course, there’s always the financial element to consider when making connections.  Nevertheless, I was surprised at how kind and accommodating new connections could be when financial gain wasn’t involved.  I used this as my gauge.  If someone was asking for money from the outset or didn’t seem overly interested in my development, skill set or I didn’t feel they had my best interests at heart, I quickly moved on.

The beauty of the art of making connections is that it is infinite.  Where a pursuit of information and knowledge may end when you’ve gleaned sufficient information for your task or project, there is always the next topic to learn or develop and a new connection or contact required.  Fundamentally, the need for making new connections or revisiting old ones, never receives closure if you’re motivated to be in a persistent phase of growth and development.

So, what closing messages would I like to convey as to the power of connection?  There are a few and I’ll try to be brief!  

Accept a link might not work at first, or only for a short period.  Some connections are a ‘pilot’ for what’s to come.  Learning and being aware of how to gauge what works for you or doesn’t is part of the art of human connections.  Accept short and long term connections and be patient and accepting during the process of finding, making and establishing a them.  As an example, I knew I needed a new mentor of late and was becoming a little frustrated in how and where to make the right connections.  Yet patiently waiting for the ‘right’ connection has enabled me to find someone who very well suited for what I need at this stage in my career.  Also, consider the fact that, whilst you may have free time at a particular point, that doesn’t mean the people you’re trying to connect with either know that, nor are they equally available.    

Engage with possibilities and keep an open mind.  A connection may not seem to be what you’re hoping for, but when you meet and get a dialogue going, there’s typically scope for benefit for both parties.  This might not be immediately obvious, but keeping an open mind helps you observe your interaction and reflect on how it may support you.

Be modest.  Having humility in your connection’s will help in establishing new relationships and ensure people will want to corroborate you.  Being overly confident may persuade new connections that actually, you don’t need any help.  Again, the art comes in displaying skills in direction and confidence without overstating yourself too much.      

Finally, be grateful for having the time to embrace opportunities to engage with new people and organisations, particularly in areas novel to you.   Be thankful for those connections you have made and how they may support you in future endeavours.  In short, practise the art of making connections at every opportunity and you never know where it may lead…...

 Dr Sarah Gilchrist, 2019

Quality assurance: the mundane but necessary friend

Using my experiences of directing physiological laboratories for the English Institute of Sport and more recently, my role as a reviewer for BASES laboratory accreditations, with a year to go to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, here’s my take on why quality assurance (QA) is so important.

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Quality assurance: the mundane but necessary friend

Calling all laboratory users! What’s your most valuable asset in your laboratory?  It goes without saying that your team are pretty fundamental, but one aspect of your laboratory, which underpins everything that you do, is your reliable, yet slightly mundane friend, quality assurance. 

Not known for being the most fun party guest, quality assurance is a crucial element for any laboratory setting, as it serves to provide robust standards for equipment performance. 

Specifically, it ensures systematic measurement, comparisons with known standards and monitoring of processes, with the aim of preventing significant error in the outputs of equipment.  Not something you want occurring when supporting your athletes with a coach peering over your shoulder.  In the world of Sports Science, this equipment is mostly physiologically based, but the premise of quality assurance; its provision of vigorous measures in equipment reliability, validity maintenance and routine servicing,  has relevance across all disciplines and neither be ignored nor treated as inconsequential.   

Impact is another important factor to be considered in relation to quality assurance.  As a practitioner, assessing the impact of Sports Science support can be a predominantly subjective process.  Having a structured quality assurance programme for your physiological facility, allows you to display quantifiable improvements in the assessment of the athletes you are supporting.  Therefore, quality assurance serves as supporting data in the assessment of a practitioners impact to a sport/athlete.  

In the applied world, physiological laboratory equipment can often be deployed out to the field.  Nevertheless, placing significance on quality assurance procedures, both in the laboratory and out in the field, will hold you in good stead for being confident in your equipment when working in some extreme environments. 

Operational competence i.e. risk assessments, can also be demonstrated through quality assurance procedures, alongside the all-important, health and safety criteria.  In short, it is a crucial element for any laboratory setting.

So, how can you demonstrate quality assurance? Firstly, and more subjectively, is through employee behaviours and practices within your laboratory.  Taking responsibility for recording necessary data for quality assurance purposes and respecting equipment are fundamentals to all users of a laboratory, ahead of their personal objectives for their research.  Equally, reporting of equipment failure should be a priority of any laboratory user, alongside an accompanying proactivity to work together to get the problem solved! 

Formally, you can demonstrate good quality assurance practices through gaining laboratory accreditation status.  Here, in the UK, we use the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences Laboratory Accreditation process to accredited our Sport Science laboratories (https://bases.org.uk/spage-organisations-laboratory_accreditation.html).  This is a quality assurance activity that provides clients and service purchasers with a means of confirming the appropriateness of a laboratory to conduct physiological testing.  Benefits are, that it provides a mark of quality assurance to clients, research funders and the wider community, that illustrates the laboratory has undergone rigorous inspection by BASES and that high professional standards of practice have been achieved  (BASES 2019).  Having this process in place through an external organisation ensures objectivity, knowledge share and promotes continuous improvement in sports science standards. 

So use your most valuable laboratory asset well.  Nurture it, ensure it has everything it requires and respond to change if needed. Coaches and athletes will be the first to ask questions if laboratory equipment is substandard, so cover your back and ensure you’re one step ahead at all times.  Mundane as it may be, quality assurance is a fundamental skill to learn and maintain and central to your laboratory’s ability to deliver gold standard results. 

Are you ready for...parenting, working & training?

New to parenting and always liked to train? Wondering how you’ll fit in training, working and parenting? Juggling the juggle and wanting to avoid blunted training? My new Blog provides some advice on the pitfalls of training and working whilst adjusting to life as a new parent. Read on if this sounds familiar to you!

A client recently described their sudden decrease in running performance to me.  A catalogue of frustrating training sessions, cut short by a loss of power in their legs, an overall feeling of fatigue and yet, despite a multitude of investigations, both musculoskeletal and pathological, no definitive answer as to why they suddenly had started to feel this way.  Searching for answers, their Sports Medic referred them to me for an initial discussion.  With one question I was fairly certain that we had the answer to their woes. I asked,

 ‘Were there any significant changes in your life in the lead up to when you started experiencing these symptoms’?

 Answer; ‘well, I’d been training as normal for the past 2 years, maintained my normal eating habits, kept my 5am starts to train before breakfast and been fine, oh…, we also had a baby’. 

Bingo!  You see, whilst for any parent, the arrival of your offspring is a joyous occasion, one of the best, moments in your life, it comes filled with the blur of sleep deprivation, and a significant change to your usual routine, despite possibly your best efforts to maintain it!  Through the fog of sleeplessness, it can be hard to tell what is causing you to feel in a certain way and in this case, why training was proving tricky.  There is no doubt that poor sleep messes with your ability to think clearly!     

In terms of family time, this change to your normal routine is obviously all for the better.  However, trying to maintain your normal training regime, combined with work and chronic sleep deprivation, means the reality of those sleepless nights can take some time to manifest. 

Poor sleep can be a challenge for any parent, under any circumstances.  For those of us undertaking work, and pursuing a training programme, particularly an endurance based one where the stress on your immune system is high relative to other sports, the chronic reduction in sleep can mean your body will ultimately send signals that something has to change.  Think of your body as a car running on empty and you may, for example, experience feelings of loss of power or general feelings of fatigue.     

Now, I’m not suggesting that becoming a parent means the end of opportunities to maintain fitness or have any kind of exercise regime.  Far from it.  Important you do so, those small people are endlessly energetic and you need to be able to keep up!  However, the manner in which you manage your training around those nights of nappy changes, feeding demands, teething or ‘waking just for fun’, can have a serious and detrimental affect on your ability to perform in training and ultimately competition.   

So, what can you do to ensure you can manage training, on whatever level, around family and work demands?  Obviously, everyone is different and it very much depends on your circumstances, but below are a few tips to help you on your way.

 Manage your fatigue

·       Accept that you’ll be tired.  Listen to your body and prioritise sleep where you can. 

·       If you’ve had a particularly bad run of poor sleep then keep training to a minimum.  Don’t overly stress your body when it’s trying hard to maintain its basic functions on very little sleep.  Remember, tiredness will hit you like a steam roller at any time, so use opportunities to get good sleep when you can. 

·       Boring as it sounds, early nights will become your sanctuary and don’t beat yourself up about not socialising.  In time, this will all balance out, you just need to prioritise your health if you want to parent, work and train effectively!

·       Parenting is hard, especially with younger children, and combined with working and training, you’ll be struggling to ‘juggle the juggle’ even more so if you don’t listen to your body. So, for a while, get as many early nights as possible! In other words, get your sleep and downtime nailed.   

Training focus

·       Keep training to base aerobic sessions, particularly when you’ve had a few bad nights’ sleep in a row.  Being out in the fresh air (or gym, pool, bike etc.) will help to wake you up, but don’t train for too long or at too hard a level. Just 30 minutes gentle exercise will not only help maintain fitness, it will wake you up without going overboard on the challenge to your body’s immune system.  In time, you can increase the volume and intensity but I come back to the point of listening to your body and making sensible choices based on how your sleep is going in any given week.

· Use the reduced time to train as an opportunity to do more prehabilitation (injury prevention) exercises.  That way, when you can increase your training volume, you’re in a better physical position to manage your training load. These exercises can mostly be done at home too, making it an ideal training session around family time.  Seek advice from clinical experts as to the best exercises for you. 

 ·       As you prioritise sleep, it might be better, for a while at least, to swap early morning training for a session later in the day.  This doesn’t have to be a hard and fast rule, but 2-4 sessions spread over different times in the week is better than 4 lots of 5am get ups following sleepless nights. 

 ·       If you are female, then there is a hormonal aspect to taking it easy in training.  Your body needs time to recover from pregnancy, and also, if breastfeeding, associated circulating hormones means you’re still at risk of injury. So be cautious and seek medical advice before trying anything new or if you feel unwell or injured.

Nutrition and Hydration

·       If ever there was a time to ensure you’re eating the correct foods, it’s when you have to look after yourself in order to care and be responsible for a tiny human.  Of course, the odd takeaway won’t do any harm, but on the whole, try to eat a healthy, well balanced diet as this will stand you in good stead for surviving the sleep deprivation phase alongside a training regime.  You’ll feel more energised and prepared for work and training from eating healthily compared to energy sapped from a diet of takeaways and ready meals.

·       Don’t rush out the door to try and fit training in before breakfast.  Ensure you have a light snack/protein shake if you are training in the early morning and fuel up post training with appropriate levels of carbohydrate and protein.

·       Above all drink plenty of fluids (water, decaf tea/coffee, herbal teas).  Regular and often fluid intake throughout the day will help maintain sufficient hydration.  Avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol intake. 

·       In terms of vitamins, ensure you have a good ‘food’ intake first and then think about adding in a supplement to help, particularly in the winter months.  If you’re a competing athlete, always check on ‘Informed Sport’ ahead of taking any supplements (www.informed-sport.com) and remember the risk is entirely yours if you decide to take any supplements.

Complimentary therapies. 

·       Not for everyone, but the demands of training alongside a busy work and family life, can often lead to niggles and these can potentially lead to injuries.  If possible, try to get a sports massage to alleviate any niggles. 

·       Acupuncture can help and stretch too, particularly if you are post pregnancy or breastfeeding.

As a summary, take on board the fact that you can revert back to your old routine once the baby phase has passed.  Giving yourself the break, or change in training load, may also help your body grab an opportunity for some recovery from your usual training demands.  Remember, it’s hard in a sleep deprived state to recognise where you might need to make some changes with regards to training, work and home life.  Seek medical advice where you can if experiencing any symptoms or illness or injury, as it’s better to nip something in the bud than ‘hope’ things improve without making any changes.  Above all, enjoy your new phase in life and embrace the joyful challenge of juggling the juggle!   

Interested in completing a professional doctorate? Some tips here from a blog with University of Kent

Having recently passed my Professional Doctorate in Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Kent, they asked me a few questions on why I decided to complete a professional doctorate, the advantages of achieving one and how I managed to complete it whilst also working in the high performance sport industry,

https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/unikentsportsci/2019/04/11/sarah-gilchrist-professional-doctorate-graduate/

Are you ready for....?

In light of my expertise in managing sleep and downtime practices, I offer insight into being ready for some ‘energy challenges’ in the workplace. In these first two blogs, I tackle the energy sapping demands of ‘pregnancy’ and ‘academic study’ whilst also delivering for your employer. Be it full or part time responsibilities in the workplace, both scenarios offer challenges to your ability to perform optimally at work. I offer some practical solutions to help guide you through the fog…

https://www.theperformanceroom.co.uk/blog/ready-forpregnancy-workplace/

https://www.theperformanceroom.co.uk/blog/ready-studying-workplace/