Season 01 : Episode 08
Fergus Connolly is a performance expert who has worked with professional sports teams around the world. Fergus sat down with Erin and Kristin and talked about how he believes that the role of sport is preparing people for the challenges of life. He has made a career out of working with all different types of athletes, special operators and personnel. Fergus has published two books on performance and team dynamics and has a really good insight into not only how athletes can train and perform better, but simultaneously prepare themselves for life after. Fergus gets into the dangers of specializing in one specific area and how that may be our greatest threat to adaptability. Fergus is amazing at is creating models for navigating the world which can help us understand how we as humans and athletes can evolve, adapt, and come out better on the backside of performance.
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[2:23] Fergus has worked in a wide variety of different sports, and he is not a big fan of specialization, because he thinks that is the greatest threat to adaptability. He thinks that for humans to survive and thrive, they need to be able to be adaptable to many different kinds of situations, which ultimately makes humans resilient.
[5:08] “It’s normal to be abnormal.” Fergus thinks the world would be boring if we were all the same, so we should embrace our different-ness.
[5:45] Fergus’s education background is not necessarily what would traditionally set him up for his current career. His father was a wood worker and his mother was a housewife, and they were great role models for him. When he was a kid, he wanted to become a teacher. He initially studied woodworking and construction, but he really spent most of his time in the library reading about physiology and sport, which was becoming his true passion.
[7:20] Fergus idolized soccer players when he was a kid.
[7:50] Fergus finished college by the time he was 21. Then, he wanted to get his PhD so that people could call him “Dr.”, and got his degree in computer optimization. He says that getting his degree in something that wasn’t necessarily his passion was the beginning of a future full of where interesting things happened is when paradigms meet.
[9:30] While he was studying for his PhD, he started a weekly practice of purchasing all of the newspapers he could find and find articles highlighting coaches and sports teams doing interesting and exciting things. He would look up the coaches, contact them, and ask if he could come observe them and ask them questions. This practice turned into the beginning of a network of visiting teams all over the country, and the coaches started to find out about him, and would contact him when they had questions about what other teams were doing, or would ask him what he knew about cutting edge treatments or methods in sports performance.
[12:00] Fergus started working with specific soccer and rugby teams, and then eventually moved over to the US and started working with professional football teams.
[13:00] Fergus’s career trajectory has been fairly circuitous, where he didn’t necessarily formally study what he ended up focusing on in his career. Kristin and Fergus talk about the anxiety and pressure that young athletes and students feel when trying to plan their careers, and the expectation that they should know what they want to do in their career while they are in college.
[15:15] If Fergus were now to talk to his younger self, he would say to not worry enormously about a structured career. He thinks the world is no longer structured as much in the way it used to be- where before you went to school to learn the skills for a specific job, and now you go to school to learn more of a skillset.
[16:45] Fergus thinks you should think about two questions: “Who are you?” and “Why are you here?” That way you will find your passion, and thus you will find contentment.
[19:00] They talk about how to find financial security when trying to actually realize the goal of living a life of passion and contentment. Kristin points out that athletes who do in fact specialize for years in their sport have trouble when they retire to transition to something that fulfills their passion while also earning enough money to sustain themselves.
[20:40] When athletes or high performers in other arenas step out of their sport or their “hamster wheel”, they often come out not quite understanding who they are or their all-around purpose.
[22:30] Erin talks about how she was an over-specializer in her sport, and how this led her to be 100% all-in when she was training. If someone had tried to talk to her about having balance or preparing for the future while she was training, she wouldn’t have listened. Fergus talks about how being this singularly focused is understandable, and that this is the price so many people pay. He does think, though, that there is a different way- that athletes can learn to have a different mindset. He’s seen it in people in the military who have an obsessive mindset who do not have a mindset that is very helpful or realistic in the real world.
[26:15] Fergus thinks high achieving athletes and others (in the military, CEOs, etc.) need a “guardian angel” of sorts to help guide them while they are in their most intense training phase. That type of person would help them realize when they are in the red zone and need to pull back a bit. He and Erin talk about how that type of person is also important after athletes are retired and no longer in an environment with a coach in charge. Fergus thinks those people should be there to help empower you to take control yourself.
[30:30] Fergus has worked with the 49ers, the University of Michigan, several other teams, has published two books, and he discusses how he has always been interested in sport. He has worked mostly with team sports or ball sports. He hasn’t necessarily pursued anything in particular, besides what interests him. When he worked with the 49ers, for example, the staff was looking for sports science techniques that could help with reducing injuries and using technology to track fitness and performance.
[34:30] Fergus’s strategy is always trying to figure out how to win or be successful. Instead of finding a tool and trying to adapt it to different situations, he instead finds a problem, and then identifies the right tool for the solution. He sees health as the number one tool that high performers need. In order to be successful you first have to have your health.
[37:00] We all draw on our experience and wisdom when facing any situation. Fergus has come up with “TTPP”- Tactical, Technical, Physical and Psychological components of competing at a high level, across all sports. Some people rely more heavily on different components, but they can come out performing the same. For example, he thinks that Tom Brady does not have the best physical component, but he is exceptional in the tactical and psychological realm, which gives him leads to great success.
[41:30] The role of genetics in performance in athletes. Genetics can get you to the startline, but they do not rule anyone out of high performance in any given sport.
[43:00] How athletes often forget that the tools and skills that got them to have great success in sport can be leveraged in life after sport. Erin talks about the “soft skills” that you build up and foster as an athlete are often forgotten or not translated beyond sport. Fergus talks about how in the athlete, military or corporate world, you have fixed goals. Once you leave that world, you no longer know exactly where you’re going, but you have the advantage of having had the framework of attaining a concrete goal. He thinks that people don’t enjoy the journey enough because they are worried about not being successful, and that the secret may be that high performers should really try to focus on enjoying the journey more the second time around rather than stressing too much about it.
[47:30] Erin asks, does Fergus prefer uphill or downhill? He prefers uphill, and that he’s learning to relax and experience more. He doesn’t regret the periods where he was striving and reaching for more, because he knows it was important to him to suffer more than others.
[48:00] How high performers often look for suffering everywhere, and truly revel in it. These high achievers look for more challenge than they really need to, and it often eventually gets in the way.
[51:30] How does Fergus see his role in the physiologic and performance side versus the psychological or “touchy feely” side of working with athletes and other high performers? He thinks you need to have a bit of both- he likens it to playing the piano- you need to be able to play all of the keys. One of his friends, Chris Borland, walked away from a career in the NFL after one year because of the risk of concussions.
[53:45] Even though most of Fergus’s work has been with professional athletes, it’s interesting to think about how many more athletes retire after high school or college athletics. He has met so many athletes when they are younger who think they absolutely have to take their sport to the highest level in order to support their families or other external validations.
[55:40] Fergus has taken an idea from Dave Grossman, where there are three types of people: sheep, sheep dogs, and wolves.
[57:30] The athlete identity- the idea that it may be healthier for athletes to identify with the sport in a different relationship. Rather than thinking of themselves as athletes, think instead that being an athlete is something they DO, rather than what they ARE. Fergus mentions as an example that Colin Kaepernick does not identify as an athlete, he instead sees it as something that he does.
[59:30] The role of social media in the perception of “perfection”. Fergus talks about when he was younger, he saw his neighbors’ and other role models’ failings and struggle, whereas in the modern world those failings and struggles are hidden and only the good is presented to the world. He has worked on taking this to heart and works hard to learn from his failures. He only sees a mistake as a failure if he makes it twice.
[1:02:30] What is true success? It’s a hard thing to measure. So many outwardly successful people have secrets that would likely not cast a shadow on their success.
[1:03:30] Some people are incredibly fortunate to find their passion early on in sport, but the struggle really begins when they leave the sport and start the journey to find a new passion.
[1:05:30] Fergus on the importance of not allowing strangers’ opinions really affect you.
[1:07:00] The role of sport is incredibly important in society- it prepares people for the challenges of life.