Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

On performance science and deathbed goals

Dr Craig Duncan giving his talk after formal dinner

On Wednesday 9 August 2017, it was one of Australia’s leading sport scientists that visited Warrane. Dr Craig Duncan, internationally recognised in the area of performance science and human performance, has worked with big-name teams such as the Socceroos, Matildas, Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers and NSW’s State of Origin team. He came to talk to the boys about maximising performance both in sports and in life.

“If we define performance…in sport, we talk about it being fitness minus fatigue, so it’s the balance between those two,” started Duncan. “However I think for you, and for everyone in life, we need to perform. So what I look at it as, is performance equals your capacity (and your capacity is you going to university etc, building up that capacity), minus the noise (and the noise is everything that takes away from that). So my area is really about managing that noise.”

Duncan’s story

Duncan told the boys his story, which was when things began to change for him. He explained that back in 2013, he was doing well in life, but the team he was working with weren’t doing so great. It was making him feel depressed and unwanted. One day amongst this he worked out a little too hard, and began to feel intense chest pain. Over the next few days, exercise always led him to more pain – chest pain, jaw pain, arm pain – a shock for a very fit man. He took Nurofen, thought it’d be fine, and finally saw a doctor with his wife’s encouragement.

Long story short, Duncan was admitted to intensive care for three weeks in a potential deathbed situation: he’d suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection. In this time, Duncan realised that his job was to look after the performance of others, and yet he was neglecting his own. He had thought his life was going terribly but he realised that being on your deathbed is worse.

For him, surviving was a second chance at life; and he feels that since then, he has experienced real success. “Real success for me is sitting down and identifying: what is your deathbed goal? When you’re on your deathbed and you can ask yourself the question ‘Have I had a good life, or have I had a bad life?’ and you know what that good life is… I never want you to have to go through such an experience to be able to realise that life is really good and we’ve been blessed with so many opportunities in our lives.”

Duncan went on to tell the boys the secret of maximising their performance in life: it is about building up their capacity, while managing the ‘noise’ or the things that distract from this.

Building capacity

So how does one build their capacity? Duncan had some ideas for the boys.

“In this stage of your life it’s fantastic: you’re performing in your studies. But how are you looking after yourself? I just want you to think about your capacity building; your tutoring; playing your sports… keeping yourself fit and healthy. But what’s taking away from that? Are you monitoring that? I spend my whole life monitoring people because I’m about maximising their potential to perform. If we don’t look at that side of the equation, we’ve got problems.”

On a very practical level, Duncan told the boys that this could mean self-monitoring on a physiological level. At university age, a necessary good was sleep: “Are we maximising our sleep?” he asked them. “I know you’re young men, you’ve got study…and sometimes that’s not going to happen, but there’s ways of being aware of that. If we just increase our awareness and identify: ‘Where are we in our optimal performance zone in each day?’, your world is going to be a much better place.”

Another practical hint was a few minutes of daily reflection time. “A goal of mine now is to help people understand each day where they’re at… One of the best things you can do…is the daily reflection: five minutes in the morning; a daily meditation is so powerful. Because we have one life here, and we’ve been given one opportunity to maximise what we have. You have enormous potential, beyond what you could ever imagine. And we have this one life to make the most of it… and the younger you can work that out, the better we’re going to be.”

Managing noise

Duncan told the boys: “Build up your capacity as much as you possibly can. But if you’re building up noise as well, your overall performance is not going to be maximised.”

So what is this ‘noise’ that needs to be managed? It’s the other distractions of life, which are often easily dealt with by knowing where you’re headed. “Knowing where you’re going, and being in your optimal performance state, and understanding where that is, every day of your life,” he described.

He said that one day the boys might face a tough time at work, where things aren’t going as they’d like. But as long as work didn’t encompass all their goals – as long as they also knew their “deathbed goals,” they’d be okay. They’d be okay, knowing that life is still good despite work stresses, and that other things are more important.

“The old days it was a nine-to-five job: now people are expecting more. It’s like every career has become like medicine where they work 24 hours nearly…high-pressure jobs! However there is more to life than that,” said Duncan.


To finish up, apart from nominating himself as honorary Performance Manager of Warrane, Duncan had some last words of wisdom for the boys.

“There is this capacity you have – enormous capacity – but if you’re building that at the same rate you’re building the noise on the other side, you’re not going to maximise that performance… If you can start doing at this stage of your career, at university, and having that balance, you’re going to make such a difference to those of you who are fortunate enough to have children. Those unborn children will know a father that has that in balance…”

“You don’t want to wait until you’re 46 years of age, and you’ve been told to stop and smell the roses since you were 20, and it takes multiple heart attacks for you to do that. Because I’m blessed – I shouldn’t be here… So that is my message, that we really have untold potential… All of you are going to do fantastic things… We’ve got one thing in common, we are going to die. So if we can live this life as best as possibly we can, then whatever afterlife you believe in is going to be much, much better.”

(Photos from the evening are available here)

[Warrane College offers a lot more than just student accommodation at UNSW: find out about some of our other guest speakers.]