When The Going Gets Tough...

...The Mind Gets Going

running

They say that the most important muscle in fitness training is the one between our ears.
But what happens when that 'muscle' wants to throw in the towel and quit?
Who better to ask for advice on the matter than Sports Psychologist Dr. Greg Cartin.

Dr.Cartin is the founder of CG3 Performance Consulting, which provides sport psychology consulting services to athletes of all levels and ages.

1. Your website states that between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. Please could you expand on this concept a little further and tell us how that space can affect our ability to stay focused/committed to a goal and performance? What would be a typical 'stimulus' and a typical 'response' in practical, day-to-day training?

This is an important quote from the psychologist Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning. It is important to me as it was my first introduction into the concept of mindfulness.

Most of us go through life on auto-pilot, mindlessly attending to whatever it is we are trying to accomplish. Distractions are everywhere in this day and age of technology, and we have become skilled at attending to many things at once. Developing our moment-to-moment awareness, or creating some space, allows us to respond in more skillful, mindful ways. Without awareness of what it is we are feeling or experiencing, how can we expect to respond in a skillful manner?

For example, we have evolved to tense up when we sense danger, fear, or anxiety, yet in sport and performance these innate responses can be problematic. Mindfulness allows us simply to choose more skillfully when we face challenges, be they fitness-related or not.

2. Why do we lose motivation in our training sometimes?

Goal setting is a popular technique used in training, and research shows that those who set goals are more inclined to achieve success. The problem with setting goals (lose weight, break a PR, etc..) is that if the goal is too long-term, or if it is not realistically attainable, we can lose interest quickly. By setting more immediately attainable short-term goals, we are more likely to stay motivated.

3. What are some of the most common reasons why we want to quit sometimes?

Some people lack the patience necessary to attack a long-term goal such as weight loss or improved fitness. When we don’t see those immediate results and we have been putting in hard work, we are more likely to quit. Any type of improvement takes discipline ant patience. If we can remain in the present, and develop our moment to moment awareness, the desire for future results will wane, and we can carry on towards our goal.

4. Why is there such a stigma attached to quitting?

We learn early at home or in school that quitting is a sign of weakness, and we have evolved as a species by weeding out our weaknesses. Success doesn’t come without discomfort, and quitting is often viewed as the easy way out when we face adversity. Staying the course, grit, and perseverance are all traits that work for us in our quest to achieve our goals and keep us from quitting when things become difficult.

5. If eliminating negative thoughts is nearly an impossible task, how can we deal with them?

Our issues in performance come not from the thoughts themselves, but simply from how we chose to respond. Thoughts are not real, nor can we control what we think. If I were to ask you to spend the next minute “not” thinking about the color green, my guess is it would be a struggle to accomplish this. Athletes find it a relief to know they don’t need to control or eliminate thoughts; that instead they only need to change their understanding about the nature of thought. Mindfulness allows us to explore our thinking and learn that our thoughts can come and go and we don’t need to change, block or follow them.

6. In your blog you mention mindfulness in the context of golf shot preparation. How can we use mindfulness [i.e. awareness of one's own thoughts] in our training preparation?

When we are struggling to find motivation to do something as simple as getting off the couch, mindfulness allows us to choose more skillfully. Instead of making decisions strictly based on desire (rest, comfort) we can learn to make choices in service to our values. Also, when we are pushing ourselves to our physical limits, rarely are we having what we would deem “positive” thoughts. When we are experiencing this kind of physical pain we hear that voice inside our head that usually tells us to call it quits. When we are able to be mindful about this type of thinking, we are much more likely to ignore that negative voice and keep pushing on.

7. How can we use mindfulness to prevent us from abandoning the trip to the gym at the last minute?

Human beings are wired to seek pleasure and avoid discomfort. For most of us going to the gym is not usually a pleasurable experience. If instead of seeking immediate pleasure (watching TV, eating, drinking etc..) we were able to mindfully make every choice in service to what we value (health, dedication, etc..) we would make it to the gym much more often. My definition of mental toughness is making every decision, regardless of the level of discomfort, in service to the things we value most.

8. In terms of actual performance, what is the best way to react to unhelpful thoughts during our training? How can we dig-in when our body is screaming for us to stop or persevere when our performance isn't as good as we want it to be?

In my opinion, the most important skill we can develop as it relates to our performance is awareness. Being fully aware of our thinking in times of stress will help to remove some of the power that negative thoughts hold over us. Using anchors (a verbal or physical cue that can keep us grounded in the present) like the breath or simple mantras help us remain focused on the task at hand and can help when we need it the most.

9. Can repetition of positive thought eventually change our inner-thought process, leading us to almost 'automatically' persevere? And if so, what techniques can lead to that turn-around?

There are some who believe in the power of positive-self talk and thinking to help with performance enhancement, but again, I’m more of the philosophy that we cannot consciously or through any kind of mental exercise control our thinking. In the end, if we can begin to view our thinking in a more mindful way, with less judgment, then we may no longer be tied to it in a negative way.

10. If we train for an event and perform poorly, how can we find the motivation to start training for another event?

Failure provides a great opportunity to learn and grow. Success does not come easy. When we change our relationship to failure, really embrace that it is part of improvement, we can move on to the next event with excitement.

11. How do we develop a selective memory so that we can move on to the next chapter of our training?

If we are of the mindset that we create our reality moment to moment, then memories of past experience (good or bad) serve us no purpose when it comes to enhancing our performance. Confidence comes from within, and if we really too heavily on our past circumstances to create confidence, then we may be waiting a long time. Savor the great memories of past performance, but don’t use them as a motivator. Challenge yourself to find enjoyment in what it is you are doing right now. Challenge yourself to find enjoyment in the activity itself, and not always view training as a means to an end. This is how we stumble upon our most productive mental and physical states!

12. Final question, which we'll end on a slightly less-serious note. Give us your three worst excuses for why you've missed a training session.

I currently use my children’s activities as my most common excuse for missing training sessions.

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I think I was much more creative back in high school and college. Too much homework was a popular one I believe when we had off-season lifting sessions. But the worst (best) excuse I ever remember using for missing a rainy, cold, soccer training session in high school was because I had to take my grandmother to dinner for her 75th birthday!

Dr. Cartin has an extensive background in both youth development through sport and sport psychology consultation. After completing his Masters in Counseling Psychology from Boston University, Dr. Cartin spent 5 years as a Counselor to high school athletes at Somerville High School in Somerville, MA. It is here where he developed his passion for helping athletes not only improve in their specific performance realm, but to also navigate through the sometimes difficult adolescent years.

Upon completing his doctoral work, Dr. Cartin founded GC3 Performance Consulting While specializing in mindfulness techniques to enhance performance, Dr. Cartin consults both teams and individuals and can be reached though his website www.mindfulmindset.com.