Visualization: The Simple Tool for Even Greater Athletic Success

~ Erica Saint Clair

Our minds are one of the least discussed factors in success and failure. We think more of what weightlifting program to follow, what to do on our rest days, and what to eat than we do about how best to utilize the most powerful tool in our arsenal.

When it comes to personal records and maximal effort, our minds shy away because they like the neat and the organized. What they don't like is the dark place we have to go to in order to crank out our new personal records. Our minds like R&R, repeat and recycle. They don't like hitting the redline and trying to surge past it into new ground.

So if we let them, they plateau.

You may have found yourself a great coach and a great place to train, your technique is improving, your times are getting faster, your weights are heavier - things are progressing logically, for the moment. And then you ask yourself to push just a little harder, and out of the blue, your progress has flat-lined.

You find yourself stagnating away, even though you are doing all the right things for mobility, nutrition, muscle care, and supplements. You find yourself failing at the same weight, day after day, week after miserable week.

You think that maybe you should go more often, maybe you need a one-on-one class, maybe you need a different coach. You don't think that it is just your mind messing with you, holding you back.

But it is.

In 1984 the Russians realized that Olympic athletes who mentally rehearsed their sport experienced a positive impact on their performance. Since then the area has been widely studied. In the 1990s a researcher showed that just five minutes of mental visualization, versus five minutes of basic tasks yielded a significant difference in overall performance - and the dramatic increase in performance wasn't limited just to experienced professionals, the researcher showed that it applied to novices as well.

Just five minutes.

Another researcher showed that mere mental rehearsal triggered responses from the autonomic nervous system, which in turn improved athletic performance. It seems that the simple act of visualizing a movement, be it an Olympic lift, a desired gymnastic skill, or an overall performance, helps in the construction of schema.

Heck, one study even showed that people who carried out virtual weight training workouts increased their muscle strength by 13.5%. 13.5%! For simply thinking about lifting weights. That was almost half of the gains seen by the group that actually lifted weights (they saw a 30% increase in muscle strength).

So why does visualizing success work? It works because you imagine yourself performing whatever task with perfect form.

You see yourself lifting a new PR off the ground, you see yourself above the rings after a perfectly executed muscle up, or you see yourself running Pose method. And when you see yourself doing all of these amazing things, your brain is creating a neural pattern, one that your muscles will follow tomorrow when you are in the gym.4

The best part is that visualizing success isn't particularly difficult or time consuming (really, five minutes a day is like brushing your teeth one more time a day).

If you have the time, you can check out some great reading on sports psychology. I would recommend 10-Minute Toughness by Jason Selk, Finding Your Zone by Michael Lardon and David Leadbetter, An Athlete's Guide to Sport Psychology by Tony Reilly, or Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack.

But you can also just jump right on in. There is no right way to practice visualization, you can do it at the gym sitting on a stack of weights or at home under warm covers, in a loud bustling area or in a quiet out cove. You don't even have to put in five minutes, just put in whatever time you can.

During that time you want to mentally rehearse your movements, think about the bar coming to rest on your chest, the stomp and placement of your feet in your jerk, the sound of the weight crashing to the platform after you have successfully completed the lift.Set yourself a very specific goal, imagine achieving your goal, see yourself achieving your goal, see all of the detail with all of your senses. Hear your coach screaming, feel the sweat trickling down your forehead, smell the plywood, see the plates on the bar, taste the victory.

Like Muhammad Ali did each time before entering the ring, tell yourself, again and again, “I am the greatest.” Visualize your success, succeed before even attempting the weight for real. Let your mind work for you.

7 Essential Elements of Rest and Recovery

~ Jeff Kuhland, Coach

Rest and recovery are critical components of any successful training program. They are also the least planned and underutilized ways to enhance performance. You may not be aware there is a difference between rest and recovery or how to properly implement them bothIf you train for ten hours per week, you have 158 non-training hours or 95% of your time left for rest and recovery. Where is all of this “extra” time going and why do you walk into your workout dragging?

Most easily defined as a combination of sleep and time spent not training, rest is the easiest to understand and implement. How you sleep and spend this time is very critical.

Recovery, however, refers to techniques and actions taken to maximize your body’s repair.These include hydration, nutrition, posture, heat, ice, stretching, self-myofascial release, stress management, compression, and time spent standing versus sitting versus lying down. Recovery is multifaceted and encompasses more than just muscle repair. Recovery involves chemical and hormonal balance, nervous system repair, mental state, and more.

We have different systems that need to recover. These include hormonal, neurological, and structural. Our structural system includes muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Muscles recover the quickest because they receive direct blood flow. Tendons, ligaments, and bones receive indirect blood flow and therefore can take longer to recover and be more susceptible to overtraining stress.

For most, the goal should not be set for perfection or include exactly correct levels of each factor - leave that for professional athletes to strive after. Our goal is to prioritize life and maximize performance without personal sacrifice. Kick back, relax, and enjoy an evening out with friends. Order your favorite beer and get the ribs as this may mentally benefit you more, allow you to unwind, and put you in a better place to perform as opposed to another solitary night of broccoli and chicken. Life for an athlete who sacrifices everything for the sake of performance can very lonely and tiresome.

A balanced combination of rest and recovery along with proper diet and exercise should be a part of any fitness regimen. Unless you are competing at an elite level, you should follow the follow the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of your time can be spent focusing on diet and exercise, while twenty percent should be left for enjoying life. In other words, don’t let yourself get too wrapped up in perfection.

Below we will break down the subcomponents of rest and recovery to provide you with better insight on how to improve performance and overall quality of life. A healthy and happy athlete not only performs better, but has the ability to give time and energy to others also.

Elements of Rest and Recovery

1. Sleep

Sleep is the most important time to recover. Adequate levels of sleep help to provide mental health, hormonal balance, and muscular recovery. You need to get enough sleep, which isbetween seven to ten hours for most athletes. Everyone has individual needs based on their lifestyle, workouts, and genetic makeup. 

  • Hours slept before twelve at night are proven to be more effective than those slept after.
  • Sleep in the most natural setting possible, with minimal to no artificial lights.
  • Wakeup with the sun if possible.
  • Fresh air and cooler temperatures help to improve the quality of sleep.

2. Hydration

Drinking adequate amounts of water is critical to health, energy, recovery, and performance. Athletes tend to be very attentive to hydration levels close to and during competitions, but keeping that awareness during training and recovery times can make just as large an impact. Water helps all of our functions. A few examples are more efficient nutrient uptake, lower levels of stress on the heart, improved skin tone, and better hair quality.

The simplest way to check hydration is to look at your pee. If it is clear to pale yellow you are hydrated. The darker and more color in your pee the less hydrated you are and more water you need to drink.

  • Water is the best way to hydrate.
  • Sports drinks are only needed for before, during, and after strenuous training or completion, don’t drink them simply because they taste good.
  • Flavorings, Crystal Lite, and other additives simply give you system more to process and cause it further strain. Stick to adding a lemon or lime.

3. Nutrition

Everything you eat has the ability to help heal your body, or to poison it. This may sound strong, but alcohol and processed foods contain toxins and are harmful to the body. I do not like to recommend a specific diet, but eating clean and balanced meals in moderation is proven to be effective to remain healthy and increase performance. Dairy and wheat are processed differently by everyone and you need to educate yourself on these topics and how they personally affect you. Some people process these food items very well and have no side effects, while other people have slight to severe autoimmune reactions. Start with a paleo dietas your base template and add to it based on your experiences, not what you read by others.

Food in our society goes far beyond fueling the body, so it is not always such a simple choice. We go out to dinner, and most social events have food. The key is achieving balance so you get the results you want, but can also function as a normal person and enjoy life.

  • Create a meal plan and shop ahead for the week.
  • Have healthy snacks readily available that you enjoy.
  • Plan ahead for dinner out by helping to pick the place you’re eating and looking at the menu ahead of time.

4. Posture

This is one of the least focused on areas in the American culture. We on average spend more time sitting than any other country in the world, and as a general trend have bad posture. This is not a restful position; sitting or standing with bad posture is harmful. It can lead to back or neck pain, specifically for those with desk jobs.

  • Find a chair that is ergonomically correct.
  • If you struggle to sit upright use a foam roller or ball in your back to give you a tactile cue and help force good posture.
  • Don’t lean to one side or on an object for support while standing.

5. Stretching

You need enough flexibility to move well and remain pain free. Include dynamic stretching in your warm-ups while saving static stretching for after your workouts. Go through my previous articles that included screens on the squathip hinge, and ankle movement. Attempt to self-identify tight areas and work on them. Don’t get caught doing the exact same stretches you’ve always done. If you don’t know any new variations look through the previous articles, attend a yoga class, or check out Kelly Starett's Mobility WOD.

6. Self-Myofascial Release

Tight muscles and trigger points sometimes need assistance to return to healthy normal tissue. Read my article on foam rolling for more information.

7. Heat, Ice, and Compression

Use these techniques for recovering from injuries or a very stressful training or racing experience such as a road marathon or the CrossFit Games.

Spending some additional time focusing on rest and recovery can pay dividends beyond additional training time. It’s essentially legal performance enhancement, yet people don’t take advantage of it because it takes time. Dedicating additional time primarily to the three categories of sleep, hydration, and nutrition will increase your output ability, decrease recovery time, and lower your risk of injury. It’s the trifecta that all coaches and athletes aim for, yet most people miss the mark because they don’t want to dedicate time to the little things that matter most. Don’t ignore your body until it becomes too late and you’re forced to take unnecessary time off due to injury, burnout, or worse.

Yoga and Sports: A Winning Combination

~ Nicole Crawford

As yoga’s popularity has increased, I see more and more athletic programs using yoga-inspired movements. I think this is wonderful, and have absolutely no problem when people call these movements by Westernized names other than their ancient titles. I’m pretty sure the trademark symbol does not exist in Sanskrit.

But every so often, it’s nice to see yoga acknowledged for its athletic benefits. A new study that was released in the International Journal of Yoga provides more evidence that when it comes to flexibility, yoga is the name of the game, even when that game is soccer.

The new research aimed to show that just ten weeks of yoga would increase balance, flexibility, and joint angles (JA) measures in collegiate soccer players. To test their hypothesis, the research team formed two groups of athletes:

  • One group of baseball players performed their usual sport training (which included non-yoga flexibility work) for ten weeks.
  • The other group of soccer players did the same, but added in two hour-long yoga sessions per week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Before the testing period, the researchers assessed flexibility in all the athletes. Then, after ten weeks, they did the same assessments. These tests consisted of three categories:

  1. Flexibility, assessed with a shoulder flexibility and sit-reach test
  2. Balance, assessed with the stork stand test
  3. Joint Angles, assessed by right forward lunge, downward dog, and chair

At the end of the study, the yoga group subjects showed significant improvements in ankle dorsiflexion, knee flexion, hip flexion, and shoulder extension. The subjects in the yoga group also demonstrated more balanced positioning in the chair position.

Overall, the yoga group improved in flexibility and balance, whereas the non-yoga group actually declined in some areas. For example, as shown in the figure below, the yoga group significantly improved in the seat and reach assessment, whereas the non-yoga group decreased performance over the ten-week period.

The researchers suggested that the loss of flexibility and balance in the non-yoga group was due to the specialized training the athletes underwent during the testing period. For this reason, they made the following conclusion:

To maximize the training opportunities, activities that more effectively improve athletic performance are critical. Because sport is a multi-dimensional endeavor, athletes may consider taking part in activities that optimize the specific dimensions of fitness as well as the aspects of the multiple dimension of performance.

I am curious as to how this experiment would have turned out if the athletes had participated in the same sport, since baseball and soccer require different skill sets. But overall, this study suggests regular yoga practice has an impressive ability to impact balance and flexibility in high-level athletes. I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt for everyday athletes and weekend warriors, either.

Ramp Up Your Warm Up: Prepare With Purpose

~Ramy Saleh

How do you approach your warm up? If you’re like most people, you come into the gym, spend a couple of minutes on the rower or the Airdyne, do some dynamic stretching, air squats, push ups, and boom – you’re good to go.

That would be enough of a warm up to tackle more than 90 percent of workouts if you’re a recreational athlete. But imagine if we could increase the quality of your training by 5-10 percent just by improving your warm up. Think about how that would add up after an entire year of training.

The mindset you bring to your warm up has a big impact on everyday performance. If you approach your warm up with a purpose, your training day will reach a completely different level.Structuring a warm up is important for developing this purpose. We can divide that structure into five distinct stages.

Are you warming up your mind along with your body?

Stage 1: Answer Why 

The most important phase of the warm up starts in your head. It begins when you open your training journal and review your goals. As humans, if something is not right in front of our eyes, we forget about it. That’s why it’s important to keep our goals in front of us all the time.

Start by reviewing your general goals. This happens by answering one question: Why am I here?

Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1:  You walk into the gym feeling exhausted and sore. You take the time to sit down and review your goals. You’re here right now because of one thing - you want to win. Having that in front of your eyes brings a completely different energy level and focus to your training. It is the small difference that makes a big difference.

Scenario 2: You walk into the gym feeling exhausted and sore. You put on your trainers, spend a few minutes on the rower, and mindlessly go through your dynamic stretches and mobility in an attempt to feel better. Then you jump right into it.

  • Which training session do you think will be more beneficial to you as an athlete?
  • Which training session is going to have more focus and intensity?  

Stage 2: Answer What

The questions don’t end here, though. After answering the why, it’s important to answer the what. What are you hoping to accomplish in this session? There are usually so many different elements during a training session that it can be difficult to focus. However, if we focus on just one element, it changes the dynamic completely. 

So for example, your focus could be, “I want to give 120% in the rowing intervals and walk out leaving nothing in the tank.” Or it might be, “I know I have a technical problem with my clean, and I’m going to focus on keeping the bar close every single time I clean it.”

Answering the what question gives us a small daily goal to work towards. The continual accumulation of these little goals will eventually take us where we want to go. This strategy gives us small victories to celebrate every single day.

Stage 3: Perform a General Warm up

The general warm up separates you from the outside world and tells your mind and body that training has started. It’s the time when you leave everything behind and shift your focus to the why and what. I tell my athletes the general warm up is like flipping a switch. The switch turns off everything else in the outside world and brings your attention to the task at hand.

"If you approach your warm up with a purpose, your training day will reach a completely different level. Structuring a warm up is important for developing this purpose."

The general warm up is simple in nature. Anything cardio-based will get the job done. A five-minute jog, a 1000m row or even 80-100 cals on the Airdyne will be more than sufficient to break a sweat and get you in a training state.

For some people, the general warm up phase may be same every time, because the habit gets them in that mentally focused state. Others prefer to do something different every time, as they like to have variety in their training. For me, it doesn’t really matter what you do at this point, just as long as it gets the job done.

Stage 4: Stretch and Mobilize

I can’t stress how important this phase is. This phase ensures that we’re going to hit all the right positions within our movements. For example, if you’re overhead squatting today and your shoulders and lats are tight, good luck keeping that bar in the right position.

The problem I usually see here is that people don’t spend enough time mobilizing a particular area. An athlete walks in the gym, grabs a band, spends twenty seconds in a single position, and boom – they think that they’ve mobilized that joint or area for the day. Well, I’ve got some bad news for you. You didn’t mobilize anything, and you just wasted a good twenty seconds of your life.

If you haven’t read Becoming A Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett, I encourage you to. In the programming section, Kelly mentions you need to spend at least two minutes in a position for there to be any positive effect whatsoever.

For this phase of the warm up, mobilize anything that’s tight or necessary to perform a task for the day. You don’t want to spend sixty minutes doing general mobility work before a training session. Save that for afterwards.

If pull ups are your weak point, adding them into your warm up routine will improve them significantly.

Stage 5: Work on a Specific Warm Up

The specific warm up is where the magic happens. For most people, the specific stage of the warm up is where you do the exercises to warm up for whatever task comes next, and that is absolutely correct. But the specific warm up stage has a lot more potential. Dan John says “If it’s important, do it every day.” I’ve found the specific warm up stage is great for working on weaknesses while the body is still fresh. 

For example: Imagine pull ups are a serious weakness for you. So you decide to put a small 1-6 pull up ladder in your warm up every single training day for the next six weeks. That’s 21 pull ups a day, five days a week, for six weeks. That comes to 630 pull ups by the end of the six weeks, and that’s just during the warm up. Do you think your pull ups will improve? Hell yes.

I’ve tried this countless times with my athletes and it works, no matter what the exercise or the weakness. If you do something over and over again, you will get better. And the best part is that you won’t even feel like it’s a lot of work because it only adds a couple of extra minutes to your warm up.

How to Develop a Warm Up Habit

The warm up is an important stage of your training that should not be taken lightly. Approaching the warm up with a purpose is a habit anyone can develop, but it will take time and dedication.

Here's my recommendation. Implement stage one for the next week. Make sure you do it every day and never miss a day. Observe what this does for your training. Take a note of how you're feeling and record it in your journal.

On week two, add stage two so that you are performing both stage one and stage two each day. Continue this pattern by adding a warm up stage each week onto your daily structure. By the end of five weeks, you will have implemented all five stages. Stick with all five stages for another two weeks, so that they become a sequence you perform automatically each time you set foot in the gym.

Breaking any task into small, manageable pieces makes accomplishing it simpler and easier. Beyond that, it all comes down to how determined you are to achieve your goal.

Endurance Athletes: The 2 Phases of Perfect Off-Season Prep

~ Shawn Gerber

I want your next season to be your very best, and I’m sure you do too. Capitalizing on your off-season lays the groundwork for a great season ahead. The off-season, or as I prefer to call it, the transition phase, is a time ripe with opportunity for long-term gains and consistent PRs. Who doesn’t want that?

Making the most of this time begins with adopting the right mental framework. This is why I prefer to talk in the terms of two phases:

  1. The transition phase
  2. The preparation phase

Discussing the off-season in these terms better prepares your mind for this time of year and helps you remain focused amid holiday distractions. Let’s take a look at each phase.


The Transition Phase

There comes a time every year where you are D.O.N.E., done. Your big events are in the books. Mentally and physically you are toast. You’re simply ready for a break. When you get to this point, it’s time to recharge and head into the transition phase.

What this phase looks like varies greatly from person to person. Typically you will step away from any specific training of any kind. You can be active if you want to, but there is no structure or obligation to do so.

How long your transition period lasts depends on a lot of things. I recommend somewhere between 1-6 weeks of time off, but the exact amount of time you need depends on:

  • Past training volume
  • Your personality
  • How well you manage stress
  • Family obligations

Ultimately you need to experiment to find your sweet spot. Personally, I try to stick to about 2-3 weeks. By the way, don’t forget to spend some time with your family during this period. They probably miss you.


The Preparation Phase

My favorite time of year comes next – the preparation phase. This is where the magic happens. Once your mind and body are back in the game, you can lay the foundation for a top-notch season.

A good training plan always moves from less specific to more specific as the season progresses. For example, if you’re training for an obstacle race, you’d move from building base mileage to workouts that incorporate obstacles or simulate race day scenarios.

The fun part of this phase is figuring out how to best prepare for the more specific workouts down the pipe. Here are a few suggestions.


#1: Keep it in Perspective - Have Fun

This bit of advice is the most crucial. You may be moving into more focused training, but remember to keep it in perspective. Most of us aren’t making a living doing this, so we might as well enjoy it, right? Have your key, non-negotiable workouts in place, keep your total training volume in check, but be flexible and relax, too. The sacrifices of race season will come all too soon.


#2: Address Injuries, Weaknesses, and Imbalances

The average endurance athlete is prone to overuse injuries. To some degree, it’s the nature of the beast. When you regularly exercise in a linear fashion (think just forward motion) your body makes specific compensations, which help you get better at your sport – temporarily. These compensations can also cause you to develop muscle imbalances and loss of mobility if you don’t stay on top of them. Left unchecked, they will lead to bigger injuries. For this reason, I advocate year-round strength and mobility sessions that focus on your weak areas.

The preparation period is the perfect time to evaluate any nagging issues you had throughout the past season. Fix these issues now so you don’t have to deal with them mid-season. I recommend working with a good coach or physical therapist to dig in and figure out the best plan of action. Be sure to ask these professionals for a plan to use during your preparation phase. A balanced, durable athlete will continue to improve year upon year.


#3: Establish or Redefine Your Limiters

The off-season is also a great time to have an honest look at what is holding you back, and adjust your focus accordingly. For example, let’s say you are a triathlete who raced well all season. In the past, you worked hard to get your bike up to snuff. This year, you look at your results and notice that the swim was consistently keeping you off the podium.

"The preparation period is the perfect time to evaluate any nagging issues you had throughout the past season. Fix these issues now so you don’t have to deal with them mid-season."

Dig into that. Are your swim mechanics your limiter? Is it swim fitness? Do you lack speed? Endurance? Figure it out. Put your limiters on paper. Then focus on them, with a trusted friend or a coach if required. Once you’ve done that, test and retest throughout the preparation period as you strive to improve on these elements.


#4: Build Your Engine

There are two main training components that impact the success of your in-season training. Working on these components in the off-season helps you build a good engine later.

  • Endurance: Working on endurance is like laying a firm foundation. The more you develop your aerobic system, the more efficiently you process energy. The more efficiently you process energy, the faster you can go before going anaerobic. Plus, you will recover faster and get more from your higher intensity workouts. A good base sets you up for all this. Spend time on it during your preparation phase.
  • Threshold Output: There are many ways to skin the cat, but raising your output at lactic threshold gives you more work capacity to play with at the end of the day. For example, aerobic efforts are typically performed within a specific range (percentage) of your lactic threshold intensity. The higher your threshold, the higher your aerobic output will be. Work it good.


#5: Adjust Your Nutrition

Don’t try to maintain your race weight throughout transition and preparation. Gain some weight and take some stress off your body. It is often difficult to push the envelope of improving performance while cutting calories. That’s not to say it’s impossible – just difficult.

At the same time, don’t go too crazy. I'd recommend you stay within 2-4 percent of your peak race composition. Extra pounds take hard work to get off. Do yourself a favor and don’t make it harder than it has to be if you can help it.

Ready to crush your off-season? Good. Get after it.

The Science and Psychology of Motivation for Athletes

- Amber Larsen

What is motivation? What motivates us, me, and you? And I don’t just mean the basic definitions, but the science of how motivation works and the psychology behind motivation. In this article, we will go into what motivates us in life and in sports.

Defined: Motivation

Motivation is broadly defined as all factors that cause humans and other animals to behave the way they do. Scientists believe the hypothalamus provides the physical basis for pleasure in humans, which plays a large part in motivation.

The Hypothalamus and Limbic System

Hypothalamus means “below the thalamus.” The hypothalamus is involved in controlling certain body states including hunger, thirst, circadian rhythms, fluctuation of hormone releasethroughout the day, aspects of sexual activity, and body temperature. The hypothalamus is part of the limbic system.

The limbic system has connections to what motivates us based off memories and other stimuli. The system consists of the following structures: amygdala, fornix, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and cingulate gyrus. Experience of emotions and the interpretation of emotionally laden events or stimuli appear as a result of these areas being stimulated and their communications with one another. In addition, the limbic system may be important in our overall consciousness.

Achievement-Based Motivation

Achieving goals can become a powerful motivator in a person’s life. Some people live for reaching their goals. The need for achievement is their motivation to accomplish a challenging task quickly and effectively

David McClelland, his students, and colleagues spent forty years studying this type of motivation. They analyzed the personalities of those who demonstrated this need for achievement in entire societies. Those with a high need of achievement tend to work harder than those without it, are more future oriented, and will delay gratification longer.

An example of achievement-based motivation comes from research done on medical students. A study using focus group discussions with ten male and nine female students who scored higher than an 85% on all their tests was used on this study. The results established that the students were dedicated to going to lectures, prioritization, self-learning, learning in groups, mind-mapping, learning in skill labs, learning from mistakes, time management, and having family support. Non-academic factors such as sleep deprivation and homesickness also played a role in academic success. Achievement-based people tend to make sacrifices and make their goal their “life,” so they work around the things that may not be related to their sport, academia, or whatever they are motivated to do. They spend their time learning how to get better and be effective.

Achievement makes some people content and happy. On the other hand, failure can produce pain, sadness, and unhappiness, which can lead to avoidance behaviors. In athletes we typically find two types of successful motivations:

Intrinsic Motivation: Defined as a construct and desire to be competent and self-determining. These athletes are usually self-starters because of their love of the game.Intrinsically motivated athletes are more likely to maintain effort and consistency across practice and competition. 

Achievement Motivation: These athletes wish to engage in competition or social comparison. All things being equal between two athletes, whoever has the higher achievement motivation will be the better athlete because of the desire for competition. 

Coaches: Understanding Motivation

The understanding and utilization of different types of reinforcement and punishment will help coaches motivate their athletes. As far as which type of motivation is used, that depends on the coach’s ability to understand the athlete, his or her emotions, and his or her personality.


Positive reinforcement is the act of increasing the probability of occurrence of a given behavior (a target behavior such as correct footwork), which is termed the operant, by following it with an action, object, or event such as praise. 

Negative Reinforcement also increases the probability of occurrence of a given operant by removing an act, object, or event that is typically aversive. For example, if you have a CrossFit competition team you want to get to regionals and they do well on the clean and jerk, you don’t add additions to their WOD on that day (such as a miserable cash out like 100 double unders or 100 pull ups).


Punishment is designed to decrease the occurrence of a given operant, that is, negative behaviors such as mistakes or lack of effort. Positive punishment is the presentation of an act, object, or event following a behavior that could decrease the behavior occurrence. For example, some gyms reprimand their athletes for dropping barbells with no weight on them from overhead because it prevents this behavior from becoming habitual (not to mention preserves the equipment).

Negative punishment is the removal of something valued, which can take the form of revoking privileges or playing time. 

Coaches will use both forms of motivation, but the positive approach is arguably better because it focuses on what athletes should do and what they are doing right. Reinforcement increases task-relevant focus rather than worry focus. A task-relevant focus facilitates reaction time and decision time. A successful experience colors the athlete’s view as positive, which can lead to approach behaviors. Approach behaviors or approach motivation indicates the propensity to move towards a desired stimulus. 

Prior research has already shown that positive affect (or positive motivation/reinforcement) promotes cognitive flexibility. In a study published in Psychological Science, they extended motivational dimensional model to the domain of cognitive control by examining both low- and high-motivated positive affect on the balance between cognitive flexibility (our ability to adjust to behavior in response to a changing environment) and cognitive stability (our ability to change behavior in the face of distraction). Low and high approach-motivated positive affect would indicate the intensity of the positive affect on a selected individual in regard to approach motivation. Results concluded low approach-motivated positive affect promoted cognitive flexibility but also caused higher distractibility, whereas high approach-motivated positive affect enhanced perseverance but simultaneously reduced distractibility

There are many things that motivate us. Are you trying to find a reason to workout in the morning? Goal setting is usually the best way to do it. Having a goal you want to reach, such as “I want to increase my snatch weight by ten pounds in eight weeks” or “I want to lose ten pounds of weight in two months,” is an example of an achievement-based reason to be motivated. For those who are finding it difficult to find a reason to start fitness, go sign up for an event. Someone newer to CrossFit can easily sign up for a novice event. Those who want to get into adventure racing can go ahead and sign up for a race. The point is, find a reason to do something or you may not be motivated to do it. And don’t do something for someone else or you will likely not keep up with it. Be motivated to do it for you. 

The Science Behind Why "I Think I Can" Actually Works

- Graeme Turner

"I think I can, I think I can...” We've all heard the story of the Little Engine believing it could puff right over that hill. We've all heard Henry Ford’s famous quotation, "Whether you think you can or you think you can’t - you're right.” But have you considered there could actually be a scientific reason for why this works?

Your brain's number one priority is self-preservation. If it doesn’t function your body dies. So above all else, it prioritizes it's own protection. Your brain knows what it needs (and doesn’t need):

  1. Oxygen
  2. Fuel
  3. Avoidance of Trauma or Impact

As you can see running a sub three-hour marathon doesn’t appear in this list.

The brain subconsciously uses a number of pathways including the sympathetic nervous system (the "fight or flight" system) to enforce these priorities. Two pathways that are of interest from an endurance and athletic performance perspective are the vagus and golgi nerve pathways.

The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is actually part of our parasympathetic nervous system, which controls all organs except for the adrenal glands (part of the sympathetic nervous system). Specifically of interest for us athletes, the vagus nerve lowers cardiac output. Ever wondered what actually controls maximum heart rate? That's the vagus nerve.

When the brain senses (or more importantly "believes") it is at risk - through, for example, decreased oxygen in the blood - it will decrease cardiac rate, essentially slowing us down so that more oxygen and blood glucose is available to the brain rather than the muscles. Basically, our brain slows us down whether we like it or not.

Interestingly, your brain will also produce serotonin when your body works hard. But this "runner's high" isn’t actually meant as a reward; it is our brain's way of trying to relax us so as not to work so hard.

Golgi Nerve

The golgi nerve controls the maximum contractional force of a muscle. Ever heard stories of people who never went to the gym becoming trapped under a car and suddenly lift a 100kg engine block off their chest? They tear muscles doing it. When this happens, the brain (survival mechanism) is overriding the golgi nerve.

As a personal trainer I used to see this a lot. A client would struggle to do eight bench press reps and then quit. So, I'd say, "Lets do four more. I'll lift the weight off you, and you just lower it." And then that's is exactly what we would do - four more reps. Except I wasn’t lifting it off, and sometimes I wouldn’t even be touching the bar. But the brain was placated. It no longer felt at risk due to a bar being dropped on its blood supply (heart) or crushing its air supply, so the client's muscles were allowed to do the work.

Another example: ever tried standing in front of a box and you really want to jump onto it, but something stops you? You squat down a bit, but physically can't jump? That's your brain stopping your muscles from contracting in order to protect itself from possible trauma.

It is pretty clear how this applies to endurance sports. In simple terms, if our brain doesn’t believe we can do something and thinks it is at risk, then it will slow us down and make us less powerful.

Overcoming Our Nervous System

So how do you overcome the parasympathetic nervous system? Is it as simple as just being like the Little Engine and saying, "I think I can"? No, although that doesn't hurt. Saying something doesn't mean you believe it, and frankly your brain has no reason to trust you. You need to convince your brain that it is safe.

Here are three tools you can use to retrain your brain and push past your current limits:

  1. Push the limit past failure in a safe environment. Do interval-pace and repetition-pace reps. Hard anaerobic efforts that push the boundary serve to convince the brain that it can safely allow the heart to operate at a higher level. This retrains our vagus nerve.
  2. Do forced reps. Like the fake spotter, forcing reps with the help of a partner will also help placate the brain. In addition, negative reps, as well as over-speed work on the bike, on the treadmill, or in the pool all help convince the brain our muscles can work harder.This retrains our golgi nerve.
  3. Believe. Self-belief is a hard thing to implement, so first try trusting someone else. One thing I see in high performers in both business and sports is not a belief that they "can," but more of a lack of belief that they "can't." In other words, high performers don’t have a strong self-belief, but they have a distinct lack of self-doubt. They trust in the science and their belief is in the logic. What is additionally interesting is that when I train these high performers, they are also the least likely to ask, "Why?" Asking why often indicates that doubt exists, which is then used by the brain to validate protecting you.

I like the quotation from the Spinervals guy (who also did a sub-nine Ironman at Kona) Troy Jacobson: "You pass out before you die." It is often said that endurance sports are 70% mental. As you can now see, this is medically true. Training the parasympathetic nerve pathways can improve our performance more than hours and hours of comfort zone training.