Gavin Lang: Self-Mastery and Sustained Performance for Sportspeople
By Nick Allen 21/02/2019 12:00 am

I started guiding 15 years ago and I thought I’d achieved my dream job. “Find something you love,” the saying goes, “and you’ll never work a day in your life.” This was my truth, and I was living the dream. But then I overdid it. I didn’t rest, my body rebelled, and I burnt out. My body was so broken that I had to stop guiding, with no prospect of returning. Staring at a future in which mountains were absent, I found myself resenting the sport that I loved and, more significantly, I resented myself for not taking better care.  

This article covers some mechanisms that enable me to maintain a high level of performance and balanced life. Applied to your sport, I hope it will help you sustain your performance.


Rapelling the Eastern side of the Remarkables, onto easier terrain | Credit: Gavin Lang, First Light Guiding

Defining Burnout and Self-Mastery

Athletic burnout occurs in the absence of adequate rest and recovery (both physical and mental) and can be described as the body’s response to chronic sport-induced stress. In other words, burnout happens when you push too hard, for too long and your body breaks. I had the symptoms: I felt constant low-level pain, I was disinterested in my sport, powerless and felt useless. It rocked me to the core. 

Confronting me was the fact that I had allowed my sport to dominate my life. I had lost the balance I needed to sustain long-term performance and achieve adequate levels of rest and recovery. In retrospect, this lack of balance occurred because I knew neither myself and what I needed, nor my limitations. I didn’t know when I was pushing too hard, or why. It was a lack of knowledge that precluded the possibility of adequate rest and recovery. I needed to understand what was going on inside. 

For me, this is the essence of self-mastery. Knowing myself, understanding what I want (and why), and what I need (and why). This enables me to maintain balance and sustained performance, no matter the situation. Instead of allowing the demands of sport to dominate, self-knowledge lets me understand my motives, prevent burnout and identify the type and amount of rest I need. These days, I err on the side of caution — I’m playing the long game.


Walking to Ama Dablam basecamp | Copyright: Gavin Lang, First Light GuidingExercise Outside: See What’s Happening Inside

People know that regular exercise plays an important part in staying fit. Experience has taught me that you need to exercise outside if you want to stay healthy and understand yourself: the first step to sustained performance. 

It would be nice to boast that I work out all the time and have a killer gym routine that will turn you into a world-class athlete. However, I don't – gyms are not my idea of fun. I have the essential gym equipment in my garage, but for me, getting outside is one of the best things I can do for myself. 

Going into nature effects positive changes to your state of mind and gives you the perspective you need to maintain balance. Clinical studies show that exercise in natural environments (rather than indoors) is better for you. When you go outside, your body releases positive hormones, reducing physical illness and stress, and improving your self-esteem and sense of well-being. In other words, our bodies know at a cellular level what we so often forget: that nature, greenery and the outdoors are good for your mind, body and soul.

Experientially, I know this to be true. Exercising outdoors creates a sense of calm. My anxiety and stress levels decrease, allowing for mental recovery. Most importantly, this state gives me space to reflect, think and process. Low-level anxiety is unnoticeable until you take it away. 

Getting outside helps me understand what’s happening inside. In nature, there is so much that you can’t control. Sometimes, I experience hints of anger at worsening weather, moments of craving for a safer place, or the desire to damn the high freezing level when the snow is soft – I’ve seen this in others too. Outdoor activity tends to draw out whatever is going on inside. In these moments, I discern my motivations: what I want, and why. 

I realise that not everyone has easy access to the mountains. Gym work is good, but it's important to regularly get outside, amongst nature. And not just for an hour or a half a day, but also for overnight trips, even if it’s on your own.  


First Light Guiding | Copyright: Gavin Lang, First Light Guiding


Push Mindfully: Understand Your Motives

Knowing your limitations and what you need (and why), is key to sustaining high levels of performance. For me, this is most apparent on those days when I internally resist the idea of exercising – when I feel a bit off. It's tempting to push harder, as people popularly advise. In these moments, self-mastery is about knowing when to rest (acknowledging your limitations) and when to push (acknowledging what you need): the second aspect of sustained performance.

It goes without saying: exercise is essential. However, how do you determine when it's best to push through the inertia, and when to take it easy? It's important to note this resistance and not to ignore it. Find a place of calm from which to observe your thought processes and motives. Seek to understand them.

We can place our motivations on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, you’ll find an unhelpful set of motivators: conformity to people’s expectations, recognition from others, and the desire to protect your ego. We can call this an ego-orientation.

Sunset views from Pioneer hut complete with 'Snowlady' | Credits: Gavin Lang, First Light GuidingIn my experience, the desire to protect my ego presents a significant obstacle. The ego, an internal construct, is a monkey-mind that keeps grabbing at everything, but never finds satisfaction in anything. People operating with an ego-orientation commonly report the loss of pleasure and a lack of fulfilment. Research shows that athletes are much more likely to burn out when working in this space. Jim Afrenow, a well-known sports psychologist, writes: “There can be an overwhelming sense of emptiness for ego-oriented athletes after accomplishing their top goal because they are looking in the wrong place to find personal happiness. They can only wonder, ‘What next?’ without ever discovering a satisfactory answer to their question.” The inability to find an answer results in an agitated imbalance that undermines a person’s sense of self-worth – conditions ripe for burnout. 

Once you’re observing your motivation, ask yourself: what do I want and why, and what do I need and why? You need to maintain balance and fitness if you want to sustain long-term performance. However, let’s say you realise that you also want to gain access to an in-group, want your mates to see your Strava entry, or want the scales to read a few grams lighter. These desires could indicate that on occasion, you operate with ego-orientated motivators and run this risk of burnout. Pursuing self-mastery means acknowledging your limitations, including your need for recovery. 

Simon reaches Lendenfeld Peak (3197m) after three attempts | Credit: Gavin Lang, First Light GuidingWhen I experience that inertia toward exercise, I've learned that it’s often best not to push myself, but to allow for recovery. In the past, I’ve tried pushing through, only to find that my body just revolts – which invariably resulted in injury. If your mind is not in it, your body won’t follow. 

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum – the mastery orientation. Here, you’ll find a positive set of motivations come into play: the desire to develop yourself further, the determination to make decisions that line up with your core values and sense of self, and the drive to pursue something purely because it interests you or gives you enjoyment. Afrenow explains that people with this approach “generally appreciate everything about the process of striving for personal excellence, regardless of the end result.” Research shows that people who live in this zone, driven by the desire for self-mastery, are less likely to experience burnout but more likely express higher levels of satisfaction. I have found this to be true.

You are returning to the moment where you've observed your motivation. Let's say you realise you need to keep fit and maintain balance, but you want to push through merely because you love exercising and for the joy of being outside. These desires mean it's likely that you're operating with a mastery orientation. With nothing to prove or to be, you’re in the perfect place from which to push.  

Key to the mastery orientation is a focus on the process (rather than the result), and the pursuit of personal development. With these motivations, you are less likely to overdo it and are more likely to make decisions that are good for your long-term performance. It means your head’s already in it and your body will follow, giving you higher levels of satisfaction. Pushing yourself mindfully, from a place of peace and joy, you’re more likely to avoid burn-out and enjoy the rest you need to sustain your performance over an extended period.

It takes courage and determination to dissect your motives, feel into them and work through them. However, it is a process that gives you the footing you need to sustain your performance and enjoy your sport.


View from Mt Cook | Copyright: Gavin Lang, First Light Guiding


Allow Space: Intentionally Prioritise Restorative Activities

When choosing to rest, we need to allow space. Rest and recovery often require more time than we realise, and the ability to rest effectively is the third key to maintaining long-term performance. To rest well, you need to be intentional and give yourself time. For me, I’ve found that if I spend seven days in the hills, I’ll need to block out at least seven days before and seven days after for rest and recovery. During this time, I intentionally prioritise restful work and restorative physical activity.

It doesn’t mean I take a holiday. Far from being inactive, I use this time to get on top of paperwork, render photographs and develop my business – work I can do while physically resting. However, I am always conscious of the need to maintain a healthy balance. If I spend a bit of time on the computer, I’ll make sure I get outside or call family or friends for a catch-up. 

I also make time for restorative practices like yoga and meditation. As established earlier, outdoor exercise is essential. That's why I set aside time to go for rock climb in the afternoons, or an easy walk or bike ride — activities that give me time to think and reflect. Best of all, I do some gardening. I grow my food and working in the garden is both very grounding and exceptionally gratifying. It’s also very popular with my wife. All these activities are intended to get my head into the right space – a space from which my body will follow. To achieve this, you need to be intentional. 


The early hours of the morning in the Linda Glacier | Copyright: Gavin Lang, First Light GuidingEat Well: The Foundation of Sustained Performance

Good food is foundational to sustaining long-term performance. At home, I eat mountains of fresh salad: spinach, coriander, avocado, balsamic vinegar and olive oil is one of my favourites. 

In the mountains, I endeavour to continue eating healthily, filling my body with high-quality food. Healthy food options are often overlooked in sport, perhaps because they are perceived to be inconvenient or difficult to prepare. As a result, people deprive their bodies of the nutrients they need, when they need it the most. Attempting to maintain balance at home and away, I believe in the importance of proper nutrition, even in the mountains. For a long time, I dehydrated my food and prepared meals packed with veggies and free from chemical flavours and preservatives. With Radix, I no longer need to do this, which is a significant time saver. 

I founded First Light Guiding to provide much more than an exceptional guiding service. My goal is to support self-development, healthy eating and mindfulness in my clients. My Self-Mastery through Mountaineering course is the only one in the world to use mountaineering as a vehicle for exploring these and many other topics and the results are astounding. The path need not be daunting, but it does require action on your part. 

Words and Photos by Gavin Lang. Edited by Nick Allen.

Gavin Lang | Copyright: Gavin Lang


Gavin Lang of First Light Guiding is one of New Zealand’s premier mountain guides. Passionate about helping people achieve their most challenging mountaineering objectives, he's been guiding in the Southern Alps of New Zealand since 2004. Mountain guiding in New Zealand is notoriously demanding, not least when Gavin adds annual expeditions to South America and the Himalaya. Through it all, Gavin helps his clients achieve their highest potential physically, mentally and emotionally while adventuring in some of the wildest and most difficult terrains on the planet. 

Widely known as one of New Zealand's leading mountain photographers, Gavin feels privileged to combine his two passions: photography and guiding. He and his family live in Wanaka. Gavin loves to eat wholesome organic food and practice mindfulness.

Gavin's favourite meal is: ***Expedition | Asian Style Wild Alaskan Salmon .

Follow Gavin on Instagram and Facebook.


Radix meals | Credit: Gavin Lang, First Light Guiding