Emotions, Mindset, and Habits
I am looking forward to watching the world’s best compete at this year’s summer Olympics. These athletes are the best of the best. They have optimized the skill, strength and speed required to be the top in the world. I wonder, at this level, if the difference between winning or not winning comes down to something that is not even physical. Perhaps it comes down to mindset.
These athletes are strong not only physically but mentally as well. Consider the pressure they are under, the obstacles they have overcome, including training during COVID with all the restrictions that went with it. Overcoming adversity, pulling off a come-from-behind win, setting new records, this kind of success begins in the mind. We can all benefit from this kind of mindset.
We can learn and be inspired by these elite athletes, who have trained both their bodies and their minds to be able to accomplish the unbelievable. They have learned to channel their emotions and to control their mindset. They achieve success because their discipline becomes a habit.
Emotions have a very physical connection. As a new cyclist, trying hard to keep up to my husband, (“to stay on his wheel”), we came to a steep hill and I recall being suddenly washed over by a feeling of “I can’t do this” and it literally constricted my throat. I began gasping for air and I couldn’t catch my breath. It was very scary, which made me even more upset and I was gasping and crying and still not catching my breath. The only solution was to calm down. Knowing that I am still prone to that reaction, I always have to keep my thoughts and emotions in check.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize the emotions you are feeling, manage them, and avoid being overwhelmed by them.
If we struggle to deal with negative emotions, we will struggle to achieve our full potential. However, when we understand how emotions affect our mindset, we can build strategies to overcome challenges, such as positive self-talk, mindfulness and self-compassion.
The brain naturally defaults to negative thoughts. The theory is that the brain is biologically wired to scan for threats as a survival mechanism. It is most important for your survival that any possible threat is perceived so that it can be dealt with. That means the wandering subconscious mind will be looking for what is wrong.
In sport and in life, we need to be aware of how negative thoughts may be limiting our performance. And we need to have a strategy to battle through them and succeed.
Positive self-talk can be a powerful weapon to harness and steer our limiting, negative thoughts. If we internalize negative self-talk, it can become a huge performance roadblock. What separates the best from the rest, is the the ability to steer one’s inner monologue in the right direction, away from the doubtful subconscious mind. The best athletes can reframe things. They have short memories for poor plays or performances. They get over things quickly.
Overcome self-limiting thoughts by saying “I can” and “I will”.
It is helpful to have a “mantra” that you repeatedly say to yourself during a challenging time. “I am strong”. “I can do it”. “I’ve got this”. Or as Dory put it, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming”.
Find your mantra to intentionally keep your mind on the positive.
Mindfulness is the ability to maintain attention and laser-like focus under pressure. If you let the mind wander, it will scan for threats. Our brains default to the bad stuff that happens to us rather than the positives. Mindfulness develops the cognitive control to prevent the wandering mind and its negative thoughts from filtering into your subconscious.
A few excellent ways to develop mindfulness include:
Breathing is key to any stressful event, relaxation, recovery, sleep and athletic training in general. It is important to learn proper belly breathing technique – allow the diaphragm to lower, fill the the lungs from front, side and back, keep the shoulders down. Work on slowing the exhale to twice as long as the inhale. Aim to take less than 12 breaths per minute.
In stressful situations, try the “I am calm” breathing. On the inhale, say to yourself: “I am”. On the exhale, say: “calm”.
Mindful breathing, rather than breath-holding, is key in strength training as well.
Be aware of any negative thoughts and learn to clear them. This is a mindfulness concept called equanimity. You can acknowledge the thought and allow it pass, without reacting negatively to it. For example, if my back is hurting while I am cycling, I acknowledge the pain, but I don’t waste emotional energy getting angry about it. In a sense, I make peace with it. And I try to find an alternative posture or technique or change my resistance and cadence. Acknowledge the emotion and let it go so that you can remain focused on the task at hand.
Mindful immersion is relishing mundane tasks. It seems we always multi-task while we workout or do chores. We are listening to something, watching something, and checking social media. Can we just be present with ourselves while we do the mundane? Be present while you fold the laundry, wash the dishes, workout or go for a run. This is also an excellent opportunity to express gratefulness. The Bible tells us to “Pray without ceasing”. This is being mindful of Our Creator, Sustainer, and Giver of life.
An excellent resource for practicing Mindfulness is the Muse headband and app for monitoring your brain waves, heart rate, posture, breathing and sleep quality. I have no stake in mentioning this, but I just think it is a good product and that they also provide excellent resources. Check out choosemuse.com
When you fall or fail, or things don’t go according to plan, having self-compassion is key to building resiliency. It is even more powerful than self-talk.
Self-compassion means having grace on yourself instead of beating yourself up. It helps you move forward instead of run away.
A long term outlook is more important than short term perfection. Consider what happens with New Year’s Resolutions. People lay out a plan to get into shape. As soon as they can’t stick to the plan perfectly, they give up (probably because the plan was too ambitious in the first place).
Don’t beat yourself up and don’t give up. Get up and move forward in the best way that you can.
Self-compassion is not self-pity. Self-pity says “Poor me, I may as well have a bowl of ice cream and give up”. Self-compassion says “I will get some much needed sleep and I will be stronger for my workout tomorrow”.
Most of the general population is trying to stay in shape while juggling multiple commitments such as working full time and raising a family. There are seasons in life. We have to have self-compassion and realize it is not going to be perfect. We need to do our best and keep trying. Accept that hardship is going to be part of the journey. I want people to be fit for life, which means it is a long journey. Have self-compassion and keep going.
What really helps us to keep going? Is it the inspiration we get when we check our IG feed on #MotivationMonday? We can all use some inspiration from time to time, right?
Dr. Marc Bubbs explains it well in his book “PEAK. The New Science of Athletic Performance”:
Inspiration is a momentary spark in a willingness to engage. But, like lighting a match it fizzles rather quickly. You can’t rely on inspiration to achieve your dreams. But inspiration can lead to motivation, “a desire or willingness to do something”. But the embers of motivation inevitably burn out as well. You won’t be inspired and motivated every day. But they act as catalysts to help develop the discipline you need to show up every day, to train hard, to eat right, to prioritize recovery, to get your sleep and to build the right mindset. Discipline is crucial to success in sport, but it too is not a limitless resource. You don’t have an endless supply of discipline. But discipline helps you to build habits, and habits are where the difference is made.
Inspiration -> Motivation -> Discipline -> Habits
Habits are defined as actions triggered automatically in response to contextual cues. An example is, you put your seatbelt on when you get in the car. You don’t need inspiration, you don’t need motivation, and you don’t need discipline. You just do it; it’s automatic. Once you have achieved automaticity, it starts to feel strange or uncomfortable if you deviate from the norm.
Habit-formation provides the best strategy for promoting long-term behaviour change. No more looking for #insaquotes and #fitspiration. You may not feel motivated or disciplined to train, but you will do it. Consistency over the long term will get you results.
I have a client who very easily forms good habits. It doesn’t matter if there is a snowstorm or if she is tired after work. She goes to spin class on Tuesdays because, well, it is Tuesday. And I could say that for each workout she has planned for each day of the week.
You can read more about habits in my blog called Examine Your Habits.
I will watch the Olympics this year with a new appreciation for both the athletes’ physical fitness and the mental habits required to be the best in the world. Maybe the inspiration will lead to some new habits of my own!
I’d also love to help bring out your “inner athlete” so that you can reach your goals and live a healthy life. Fill out the contact form for your free consultation.