As a sports psychologist, I regularly ask athletes and exercisers of all ability levels how often they work on training their mind alongside their body. For a long time, many would look at me with a dumbfounded expression, wondering what on earth I was talking about. But recently that's been changing.
Across disciplines and abilities, more and more athletes are understanding the power of working on their mental game. For those performing at the highest levels, the mental side of sport is critically important to their performance.
But for the rest of us, we can get as much benefit in learning how to begin training the mind while we exercise as those seeking a mental advantage in a professional competition. After all, the mind sets in motion what we believe we are capable of (or perhaps more importantly, what we believe our limits are), directs our decision-making and connects us to underlying meaning and purpose.
In turn, this can help forge a greater commitment to maintaining an exercise routine, increase overall satisfaction during workouts and help us gain broader perspective of how effective exercise is on our overall state of wellbeing.
Here's how any athlete or exerciser can get started.
1. Prime Your Mind Before You Sweat
Priming is fancy psychological language for using a specific set of thoughts as you prepare to exercise. Now, this may seem self-explanatory and relatively straightforward, but ask yourself: How often do you go through this process of aligning your mind before your workout begins? Be honest. My guess is not often. But that can change with a few quick steps.
There are three main actions involved in priming your exercise:
- Be clear about what you are about to do.
- Focus on how you plan to direct your attitude and attention as you do the work.
- Understand why this particular workout session is important in the larger scheme of your health and wellness.
Understanding what you are about to do sets the intention for the workout itself. Far too often we hop into an auto-pilot approach to our exercise routine, defaulting to repeating stale workouts merely because they are familiar to us. Staleness doesn't help us grow and isn't satisfying. Being clear about the details of your workout sets guided intention from the get-go, helping you avoid the default mode.
"Often the hardest part of any workout is that six-inch space between your ears."
Focusing on how you plan to engage in the work helps shape your attitude and thinking patterns. This is a tremendously important and an often-neglected part of mental training. You need to become your own coach regarding setting your desired attitude and determination before you begin. This will increase commitment and help you blast through when you get tired or you need to stay dialed in when the intensity picks up.
Your "how" could be any number of things: "I'm going to stay strong yet relaxed," or "I'm going to counteract any negative thoughts with positivity." No matter your approach, how you do the work is equally as important as the work itself.
Last but certainly not least, understanding why this workout is important to your overall health and wellness helps foster a deeper connection to the underlying meaning and purpose of staying committed by aligning with your longer-term goals. Identifying your "why" helps keep your goals in mind and reinforces the larger plan that's in place.
Making your "why" clear also helps you gain a better understanding of what it is you are ultimately searching for. For so many, exercise and sport is a process of self-discovery. It's helpful to remind yourself of that from time to time.
2. Notice How You Talk to Yourself During Your Workouts
Often the hardest part of any workout is that six-inch space between your ears.
Mastering your self-talk begins by bringing awareness to the thoughts, appraisals and narratives that float through your mind during exercise. One of my favorite sayings is "You cannot change what you are not aware of." It all starts there.
Begin by noticing what your thoughts are:
- How does your thinking about exercise differ based on your mood?
- What do you tell yourself when you're entering a challenging part of a workout?
- What changes or shifts may happen in your mind when you begin to fatigue?
- How do you talk to yourself at the end of a workout?
- How much influence do you have over directing your internal voice?
There are so many potential places to begin evaluating your own mind as it unfolds during exercise. The most important starting point is to simply bring awareness to what's already happening.
Keep a journal about what you notice yourself thinking during your workouts so you can develop strategies to strengthen your mind with specific self-talk in future sessions.
3. Reflect Mindfully on Every Session
Implementing mindfulness into your daily routine has never been easier, given the wide array of apps and websites offering guided practice.
For athletes, mindfulness has been linked to a number of other encouraging outcomes in research, including in an October 2017 study in Mindfulness, from helping injured athletes deal with the recovery process, to improving the likelihood of tapping into flow state, to reducing anxiety related to performance.
More than anything, mindfulness is about connecting to the present moment and learning how to control only what you can control.
A great time to practice is immediately at the end of your workout. Take a few minutes to catch your breath and reflect on your exercise to bring the awareness of self-talk to light. This can also help guide you toward shaping your attitude and intentions for your next sessions.
Outside of your workouts, practicing mindfulness does not need to be cumbersome or overly time intensive. The benefits can begin with as little as five to 10 minutes per day of consistent practice over several weeks.
The beauty of your mind is that it is 100 percent trainable. But this process requires discipline and commitment alongside your physical training.
For more on developing specific sports psychology training, check out my course, Unlock Your Athletic Potential, on the meditation app, Insight Timer.