Write Like a Champion: 4 Performance Frameworks Stolen From Elite Athletes

Content marketing never ends. As long as your company wants to grow revenue, earn market share, and build relationships, there will always be posts to write, launches to prepare for, ebooks to edit, pages to audit…

It can start to feel like you’re on a treadmill. And the problem with being on an infinite treadmill is that, at some point, you’re going to get so tired that you will fall off.

Content marketers need to be able to maintain strong performance (read: produce high-quality content) over a long period of time, just like elite athletes.

Here are four sports frameworks that I apply to my work as a content marketer at Animalz. They’ve helped me create the optimal conditions for high-level performance whilst making my work enjoyable and sustainable.

1. Periodization, To Avoid Boredom and Burnout

If you work really hard all the time, you get overtired, apathetic, and dull. The solution to overwork and boredom is to create variation in your work and alternate more intense periods with rest.

Nobody can constantly train or perform at 100%. Periodization is a training framework based on the concept that rest is essential to improving performance. Dr. Anthony Turner, Associate Professor in Strength and Conditioning at Middlesex University, explains that a key difference between professional and semiprofessional athletes is the way they behave after training has finished. While professional athletes go home and rest, semiprofessional athletes go off to work and, crucially, miss out on their recovery time.

In periodization, athletes typically use a three-to-one ratio of training to recovery. They’ll spend three weeks gradually increasing the intensity of their training. In the fourth week, they do reduced training — ‘unloading’ — before starting the cycle again. Athletes also vary the volume, intensity, and frequency of their training. 

A three-to-one ratio of training to recovery.

Periodization allows athletes to: 

  • Improve their fitness and skill level. Training ‘adaptations’ (where you acquire a new skill or upgrade your level of fitness) take place during recovery.
  • Steer clear of the physical and psychological effects of overtraining. Periodization involves scheduling rest so their minds and bodies have a chance to recover.
  • Avoid accommodation. Variation stops the body from being able to get used to the training routine. The constant challenge means muscles keep learning and growing, and the athletes don't get bored.

At Animalz, we typically deliver articles on a monthly basis. I embrace this rhythm by arranging my schedule, so the ‘lighter’ work falls at the bridge between the end of one month and the start of the next. During those few days, I’ll take care of things like revisions, planning, admin, or work on some low-effort content, if possible.

Working at an agency means I get the chance to write for different clients across different industries. But I also like to add some variation by having my own “writing focus” each month, where I pick a skill to work on in all my articles.

I spent my first challenge month working on improving the hooks for my introductions. I started by focusing on researching and reading to come up with different hook techniques. As I completed assignments that month, I spent longer than usual on each introduction and experimented with the new techniques. 

I dedicated one month to the visuals of my articles and working on different ways to break up chunks of text. Another to taking a course run by our in-house productivity expert, Tim Metz. Each week, the course got us to break up our routines and complete a different productivity experiment.

Once, it was sentence variation. I spent far too long manually counting the length of each sentence before discovering the Hemingway editor, which I now use in all my articles.

The monthly challenges don’t take up too much time, but they give me three benefits: 

  • Make sure that each month I add more skills to my repertoire
  • Stop me from getting overwhelmed or tired as I do the extra work to upskill myself (because the challenges are small and manageable)
  • Provide variation from month to month, which keeps life interesting even if I stay on the same client accounts

2. Failure-Focused Debriefs, To Aid Learning

Just like elite athletes, content marketers need to adapt to changing circumstances and improve over time. The best way to do that is by analyzing past failures and implementing learnings from them.

Formula 1 teams always debrief after each race. Take the team of world-record holder Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes. Although Mercedes recently broke their 8-year streak of constructor’s championship wins, they were awarded the title of ‘biggest in-season development’ for their 2022 car. Mercedes has several debrief-style meetings throughout the week, but they hold the biggest one every Monday after a weekend of racing.

The team celebrates and applauds wins but spends the majority of the debrief analyzing areas where they weren’t successful — whether that be a bungled pit stop, the wrong tire choice, or a power unit issue. Team principal Toto Wolff emphasizes the importance of studying failure, and Hamilton argues that failure is “100% necessary” for greatness because it’s where you build strength. After analysis, they implement their learnings by creating an action plan for how to improve the next week.

A study on the performance of Olympic athletes found that experiences of adversity are opportunities for development if they are “carefully and purposefully harnessed.” When you analyze your failures, it also encourages you to operate with a growth mindset where you treat challenges like experiments rather than pass/fail tests. 

Though it might feel less comfortable, spending more time thinking about your failures than wins will help you perform better 

I keep two documents with different types of feedback:

  • A praise doc with positive comments from colleagues and clients
  • A learning doc, where I keep feedback about things I need to work on

I spend much more time in the second document than the first one — adding to, reviewing, and implementing the feedback. As well as criticisms of my writing, I also add feedback about other aspects of my job: ideation, reporting, project management, and communication with customers.

The systems and processes I’ve created have all come from mishaps that I recorded in this document. At the start of every month, for instance, I go through a routine for setting up each of my articles. I created this routine because one time, as I was about to outline an article, I realized that I didn’t have a key bit of information from the client. I had to push back the deadline for the piece while I waited for their response. That ‘failure’ went into the document, which pushed me to find a method to prevent it from happening in the future. 

The failure-focused learning doc makes sure I learn and grow from things that go wrong rather than repeat the same mistakes over and over again. It’s also helped to change my mindset at work. It takes away the pressure I put on myself to get things absolutely perfect the first time. Instead of obsessing over first drafts, I focus on implementing feedback to create exceptional second drafts — which feels much easier and healthier.

3. The Buddy System, To Protect Against Typos and Loneliness

Two heads are better than one. Having a second person look over your work will always make it better.

The golden rule of underwater diving is never dive alone. The buddy system means you have someone to double-check your equipment with before you dive and save your life if something goes wrong. You dive and explore together, so if one of you has an equipment malfunction, gets sick, or is attacked by a shark, someone is there to help you out.

Even most sports we think of as solo ventures are a team effort. Behind each Formula 1 win are hundreds of engineers and a strategy team.  Roger Federer’s three trainers were “the secret to his success.” And Paralympian Ellie Simmonds credited two of her childhood mentors with helping her become a world champion. 

It’s difficult to be a specialist in more than one area. An Olympic sprinter who’s also acting as a dietician and PR manager won’t be able to give their full attention to their training. With a team approach, everyone can focus on their role.

When you have multiple people working together, you get a variety of perspectives, which brings more creativity. In joint decisions, confidence and accuracy collide, so you end up with the best outcome. A team is also a support system that helps you combat the risk of loneliness and isolation.

Before submitting my Animalz application, I read through it about five times. I then asked my family to check it before hitting send. They found typos that I had missed.

Now I’m lucky enough to work with editors and copyeditors, so I don’t have to pester my family so much. But I believe it’s always beneficial to get a second pair of eyes on everything — especially written work.

I also use a text-to-speech tool to read my articles back to me. Of course, the tool doesn’t give an opinion on the content as a human reviewer would. But it reads out what I actually wrote, as opposed to what I think I wrote, helping me to spot mistakes I’ve missed.

Another buddy system that helps me is a group of freelancers I joined for the first time a couple of years ago. The group gets together on a call every month to share wins, complain about clients who didn’t pay on time, and give each other advice. Even though I’m now a full-time employee, as a remote worker, I still face some of the same issues as freelancers. There’s the freedom and the challenge of organizing my own time, combined with the potential for disconnection and loneliness.

Our host, Claire, prepares questions. We journal for a few minutes on each one and then discuss our answers. We often don’t have time to cover more than two or three prompts. We all have so many things that we didn’t share with anyone during the month, so in these sessions, it all comes to the surface, and the discussions just flow.

Now we also chat between the meetings about everything from details like daily planning to big-picture stuff, like switching careers. I honestly feel the work I do wouldn’t be half as good, and I wouldn’t feel half as happy doing it without this support group by my side.

4. Pre-Race Rituals, So You Can Focus Anywhere

Michael Jordan’s ‘lucky’ shorts. Tom Daly’s poolside knitting. Serena Willams’ bouncing routine (five times before the first serve, twice before the second). Many elite athletes have a set of habits they follow to help them get ready to perform. 

Aside from the superstitious and spiritual sides of rituals, they are beneficial because they force you to focus. Rituals also act as a buffer against uncertainty and anxiety, which puts you in a better position to respond and make effective choices.

I really capitalize on the remote part of my job by traveling a lot. Generally, I go on a trip at least once a month — whether that’s a short hop to the UK to visit family or to a different continent entirely. While I love traveling, it means I often end up working at random times and in random places. I need rituals to help me get into ‘writing mode’ regardless of where I am or what’s going on.

My ritual is pretty low-maintenance, and it mainly just consists of having certain objects around me, but it helps me to focus my mind. Besides my laptop, I need to have my notebook at the ready — even if I only use it about 20% of the time — and music playing.

I also like to drink maté while I write. Yerba maté is a drink similar to tea that's popular in South America. You create a small mountain of leaves in the cup and then drink several cups by repeatedly topping up the maté with hot water from a thermos. Drinking maté helps keep me at my desk because it removes the excuse that I have to get up because I need to make a new drink. I find the process of pouring the water and slowly sipping extremely calming.

My work set up: makeshift standing desk, notebook, and maté

Engage Your Superhuman Passion

A common theme I noticed while researching this piece was that, as much as they want to win, so many elite athletes have an evident love for the process of training and competing. That’s what makes them able to do unusual, incredible things. The long-term training, practice, and work are sustainable because they truly enjoy every day.

I know my passion for writing and learning is what gives me the energy to put in the work needed to be a good content marketer. To capitalize on my passion, I use systems to make the parts of my job that I don’t completely love easier and faster. That way, I can spend more of my time on the parts that I adore and keep my motivation high.