OpEd — Our Gyms Should Train Mindset Too

November 13, 2020 by
Photo Credit: Mindset Rx’d (instagram.com/mindsetrxd/)

In a recent Op-Ed entitled “An ‘11th Component of Fitness?’” the authors suggested that mindset should be treated as an inseparable part of our definition of fitness. I’m going a step further. Our gyms should actively train mindset, just as they train strength, flexibility and stamina. Not only is mindset a foundational aspect of health and fitness, but it’s also one which facilitates the development of all others.

The Connection between Mental and Physical Health

It should be obvious to every reader, but the conversation around mental health is changing. Charities like Movember, Mind, and World Mental Health Day have drawn awareness to what is lacking in today’s society. Apps like Headspace, Waking Up, and Calm have shown that more and more of the population is in search of freedom from non-serving mindsets. And of course, the rise of functional fitness-specific mindset coaching services speaks to the fact that athletes are seeking mindset training for both health and fitness purposes.

Mental and physical health are inseparably entwined. Just as diabetes is a metabolic problem that makes you feel bad, so are anxiety and depression. Mindset training isn’t just for those who are “lacking” health though. There’s a wonderful continuum created by CrossFit called the “Sickness-Wellness-Fitness Continuum” which details the expanse from physical illness through physical fitness. There is a mental health continuum too. The mental health continuum doesn’t stop at an absence of illness/injury but continues to represent mental excellence too, similar to CrossFit’s model.

Some History

More and more athletes are seeking to find their competitive advantage through eliminating their mindset limits. Consider this example: In 1954, Roger Bannister was the first human to run a mile in less than four minutes. Before this, doctors considered the task impossible; a barrier which was the endpoint of human potential. Yet a year after Bannister’s success, 5 others had broken this “limit.” Nothing had changed in training, nutrition or recovery. What had changed was just a belief. The limit wasn’t physical, but psychological. The fastest mile now stands at 3 minutes and 43 seconds. Human potential is bounded by mindset.

When you ask an athlete to recount one of their best performances, they usually won’t tell you about their technique or strategy (hard skills). They will tell you about soft skills like work ethic, positivity and adaptability. Yet the average athlete spends 100% of their time focused on developing their barbell cycling, aerobic capacity etc., and 0% of the time developing their mindset.

An example more relevant to the world of functional fitness is that of the development of CrossFit Games athletes. In 2007, the winning CrossFit Total score in the female competition was 530lbs. In 2020 Toomey put up 890lbs. Annie Thorisdottir’s solitary muscle up in 2009 was heralded as a monumental achievement. In 2018 Kristi Eramo completed 30 in 2 and a half minutes.

The human body hasn’t changed, but the belief of what is possible has changed. Beliefs hold physical performance back, or they free it up. If we are seeking to push what humankind can achieve, we must train our mindset like we train our bodies.

Why Mindset Matters for Everyday CrossFitters 

To think mindset limitation doesn’t happen as much to the average gym-goer is wrong. Their personal beliefs are limiting them from training consistently, fuelling themselves appropriately and ensuring they do their mobility work. Their potential too, is limited by beliefs. This is something boxes must come to address. The reasons a box member doesn’t progress is certainly not because they’ve reached their physical limit, it’s because they lack the mindset needed to address their nutrition, or their individual weaknesses. They know what they should do, but don’t do it. It’s not an information problem, it’s an implementation problem.

What’s more, training an athlete’s mindset in a structured way gives them resilience for outside life too. Just as developing physically prepares us for the rigors of an active life, training our mental health and fitness stabilizes us against the inevitable knocks life throws us. I’ve lost count of the number of times an athlete I work with has said that training their mindset has made their career development, divorce, Covid-19 experience, or loss more bearable. Good mindset training is transferable.

Switching lens and looking at the average athlete experience, we have to realize that every coach-athlete interaction is already shaping the athlete’s mindset. Whether we like it or not, all coaches are unintentionally coaching mindset now. Coaches should have access to a basic mindset toolkit which gives them the ability to guide athletes on the conversations they are already having. From “how do I stop myself from thinking negatively in this WOD?” to “I struggle to stay in my lane” to “I can’t keep my nutrition consistent”, coaches are having these conversations day in and day out. Athletes want guidance.

But Can CrossFit Coaches Do It?

A common objection to coaches providing mindset coaching is that they’re not psychologists. They’re not exercise professors, cardiologists, or physiotherapists either, but that doesn’t prevent them from guiding the basic fundamentals of movement and health. I’m not suggesting a recent L1 coach should be laying athletes down on a chaise-longue and parroting Jungian psychology. I’m suggesting they should be able to coach athletes on the basics of goal setting, positivity, self-talk, and beliefs without relying on hearsay, anecdotes or good intentions.

Once we incorporate proper mindset training into our boxes, it’s not just athletes who will benefit. Coaches and boxes can distinguish themselves from the image of the traditional gym by adopting mindset work, therefore increasing membership consistency, member retention, and ultimately profit too.

What embracing mindset coaching gives us is a golden opportunity to guide our athletes to a fitter, more resilient and healthier future. Dedicated mindset coaching in gyms gives us the opportunity to lead the conversations around human potential and also health. We are faced with an opportunity: what CrossFit did for physical health and fitness over the past couple of decades, we can now do with mindset fitness and health. We must incorporate mindset training into our gyms.

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