Where Is Your Mind?

This article was originally published in our April 2009 newsletter.


There’s more to exercise and training than just doing it. You’ve got to get yourself to the gym or on the road to do the training in the first place. By far the most important “muscle” in training is the brain. Your brain, or more specifically, your mind, can make or break your training program. We spend hours with our athletes working on helping them to motivate to train hard. For up to three hours a week, we have great success. The other 165 hours are a crapshoot; some do well and some fail completely.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of a new mental-training book by my friend Eric Horst last month. Some of what he wrote on the function of the conscious and sub-conscious mind really made sense to me and I think it could make a world of difference for some of our athletes. He wrote how conscious thought leads not only to your behavior but also to the subjective quality of your life. In effect, you recreate your life each day according to the thoughts you hold in your head. This is along the lines of the Buddha’s wisdom, “what we think, we become.”

Too many of us let thoughts of the past consume our conscious mind, and then imagine a dismal future based on an extrapolation of the past. It is essential to your future success to let go of these negative thoughts. But it’s not as easy as that. Your normal “way of thinking” may be anchoring you in rough seas. Your thoughts at any given moment are never neutral, they are either productive or counterproductive, they are either helping or hurting you. Each of us has a dominant mode, either a “doer mind” or a “critic mind.” Which one are you?

The Doer Mind:

– Forward thinking and process oriented

– Goal oriented and builds toward that goal

– Positive tone, finds enjoyment in each moment

– Spend more time working on thoughts and ideas, less time gossiping and complaining

The Critic Mind:

– Dwells on failures of the past

– Chronically analyzes and judges, looks for flaws in self and others

– Obsesses on bad results and apparent barriers to future progress

– Characterized by negative attitudes and self-doubt

– Looks for “downside” in all situations

– Frequently critical of others, controlling

– Have a “bad situation” that they “have no control over”

Recognizing which one you are (we are all combinations of both, but have tendencies toward one side or the other…) is a good starting point. Let’s say you are a critic, and are trying to get fit for a triathlon this summer. You are likely focused on how slow you run, rather than the fact that you have a nice bike and have been able to ride most days this spring. You likely looked at the course map and spotted all the terrain that is hard for you, rather than the nice, flat 5 mile stretch to the finish. You remember cramping up last time, and you’re worried it’ll happen again, which it probably will… You get the idea.

Understand that no matter how well you train, there are things both good and bad that can happen. It is important, too, to understand that the vast majority of successful people, not just athletes, are of the Doer mind, recognizing the reality of the situation, but acting positively toward their intended outcome. They seek success rather than trying to avoid failure.

How you approach your goal is paramount to your chances of success. Are you trying to get fast, or are you pretty sure you’re going to be slow again this year? Are you going to lose weight, or try yet another diet that probably won’t work? Becoming a Doer is hard work, and will require tremendous attention. The benefits will become apparent if you can turn that corner. Give it a try.

That Was Then…

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One of the first questions I ask new clients is “How much do you weigh?” This question is reserved for the part of the interview when I actually get them to say that they want to lose weight, working through the euphemisms “tone-up,” “get back in shape,” and “feel better” until they get to the REAL reason they’re in the gym. I almost never get a straight answer. It’s usually something like, “I used to weigh 120,” to which I respond, “So did I. How much do you weigh now?”

See, the past is the past. What you did in the past certainly affects what you can do today, but is rarely a predictor of what you will actually do. You are older now than you were then, almost certainly fatter, and you probably have “deserved” your way out of a few too many workouts. So, we start with a clean slate. We start with today.

I have always liked the Buddhists. At first it was the haircuts and the cool clothes, but more recently, I have come to like the idea of being present and mindful. Thich Nhat Hahn (It took me like 10 minutes to spell it right, and don’t you dare ask me to say it…) talks about our obsession with the past and the future, and out total disregard for the present. Funny, because the only one of the three we can affect is the present. You already messed up a bunch of stuff in the past, so put it behind you – you can’t un-mess it. In the future, you’re going to be better looking, richer, and smarter, right? Not unless you do something about it right-damn-now.

Also, you’ve got to take control of the things you can really control (yourself), and relinquish control over those things you can’t (everything else). So what if your wife bakes brownies at 9pm? Is it really her fault if you eat them? So what if your kids are begging you to go to McDonald’s? Even if you’ve not yet explained diabetes to them, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to get a McFlurry. Cultivate will. Make decisions in favor of your health. We talk a lot about how each decision either moves you toward or away from your goals. Only by making mindful choices that you’re certain will lead you in the right direction can you actually change your course.

You’ve got to stay on top of it, too. We hammer pretty hard against the idea that you “deserve” things. Just because you ran 4 or 5 miles doesn’t earn you half a pan of brownies (and I speak from experience.) Let’s see…4 mile run – burn 400 calories. Eat half a tray of brownies – take on 1700. Deserve too many treats and you’re gonna diminish your ability to run. OK, so you only do it once a week. Plus a glass of red wine to help you relax after sitting around all day at work. There’s your 3 pounds a year per person that Americans are expected to put on in the next decade. In ten years, and you know it’s coming like a runaway train, that’s 30 pounds. It’s going to take the world’s best trainer and a panel of nutritionists two years to get you back to today’s weight.

If you like where you are, build a house there. But if there are things you need to change, change them now, not tomorrow, because it’ll never be easier than it is today.