Updated: Dec 31, 2020
No, I’m not talking about all the Christmas food we’re all going to eat in the next few weeks. That’s going to be much more than one piece of cake. But let’s just pretend that’s not going to happen.. I’m talking about your mindset when you’re training. What do you tell yourself before a hard session? Or after you just finished a horrible interval and you have four more to go? Are you one of those who keep saying ‘No way!’, ‘Impossible!’, ‘It’s too heavy!’ or ‘too hard’? Or do you say: ‘Pff, that’s going to be a piece of cake!’?
What you say to yourself matters
Well, I belong to the second group. And not because of my superhuman fitness. I don’t possess that. I do have a Superman T-shirt, but that’s just for showing off. Anyway... It’s not about confidence either, although that’s very important, too. Most of the limitations you think you have are only in your head. So it’s hugely important how you think and talk to yourself before, during and after a hard session. The body reacts to what you think. When you’re sad, you feel sluggish, when you’re happy you’re full of energy, when you’re angry, you could smash a wall with your head. The same applies to your workouts. If you start a session thinking it’s going to be too hard and you won’t be able to give a good performance, your body will accept your attitude and hold back. Not to mention that telling yourself how horrible it is and how much it hurts during the session will make it seem like a never ending torture. How likely will it be then that you’ll want to repeat that experience? Hmmm..
On the other hand, you could do the following. Have a look at what you’re about to do (the pace and duration of your sprints, sets and reps in the gym, heavybag conditioning drill, etc.) and say: ‘This is going to be easy’. Or if you don’t want to go that far, say: ‘OK, this is going to be tough but I can totally do it’. Even if you don’t believe it, just say it. And repeat it. A lot. And once you start, and the pain comes and your body starts screaming how hard it is and how much this sucks, you keep repeating ‘This is easy!’ or ‘I can do this!’ Will this actually make your hard sessions easy? No. Hard sessions are hard for a reason. If you want real results, you have to put in the hard work. And hard work is, by definition: hard.
So what will this shift in your mental attitude do?
First of all, it will make it easier to get through the session, because now, instead of focusing on how much it sucks, you’re focusing on something positive: you’re doing it, so you CAN do it, so it’s not that hard after all, so maybe you can do a little bit more. Or you have a little dialogue with yourself, that goes like this: ‘It’s hard!’ ‘Nah, it’s easy!’ I can’t do it!’ ‘Of course I can do it!’ ‘No way!’ ‘Pff, piece of cake!’ It’s never gonna end!’ ‘I’m almost there!’... And so on. Time flies when you’re in good company.
Second, telling yourself that you CAN do something will eventually lead to better performance. Because, when you start your training saying you can’t do something, you’ve already lost. You’ve already given up. This will transfer to your performance, because what’s the point of pushing yourself too hard if you can’t do it anyway? On the other hand, telling yourself that it’s easy or doable will make you work harder because now, you can win (or finish the set, or achieve a good time). So don’t quit before you even tried.
Your facial expressions and posture can also influence how you feel and perform. Often times running coaches tell you to smile when you’re doing a sprint. Why? Because smiling relaxes the body and you need to be relaxed when you’re running. So don’t show how terrible you feel, because that’s just going to make things worse. When you feel like you’re going to die, smile. Or look someone in the eyes and pretend everything’s fine. Or imagine someone you admire is watching you. You wouldn’t want to appear weak in front of your idol, would you? So fake it. Till you make it.
If you’re doing martial arts, this is especially important. You cannot show weakness in the ring. Especially in Thai boxing. If you show that you’re hurting, you will lose. But you can only fight the way you train. So if you haven’t practiced your poker face during training, you will never pull it off in a fight.
Developing the habit
This type of thinking doesn’t come easily. It is a habit that needs to be developed on purpose and it takes time, but I can guarantee it pays off. And it doesn’t require any special investment either. Here’s what I used to do when I started.
The first thing is to know what’s coming and repeat to yourself before you start that it’s going to be easy or, at least, doable. That’s the easy part. Once the workout starts, it gets harder, because you’re so used to complaining and suffering once you start to feel the pain. So every time a negative thought arises, you consciously need to replace it with a positive one (like the mental dialogue above). If you have people around you, use that to your advantage. Look them in the eye and pretend you’re fine. When I was doing weightlifting, after a terrible set of high volume squats, I had the habit of racking the bar and laying my head on it, hiding my face so that nobody would see my painful expression. Then, once I started preparing for fights, I realised I needed to work on my poker face, and not just in the ring. So now I would do my squats, rack the bar and then immediately turn around so people can see me and I would pretend everything was fine. Sometimes, when it really hurt, I would even look somebody in the eye and say defiantly: ‘I’m fine’. (Those people were usually strangers who had no idea what was going on and probably thought I was crazy, but oh well.. Happens to me a lot..)
I also developed some cues, such as looking at the time or hearing the coach say how much time or how many rounds or intervals are left. Every time that happened, it would be my cue to say: ‘Easy’. Before, my automatic response would’ve been ‘Omg, that long!?’ or ‘How many more!?!?’ But I made it a habit to say ‘Easy’, no matter what the actual data was. Let’s say I’m running 20K and I hear I just passed 1K. Automatically, I say: ‘Easy’. Or it’s one of those horrible, hard 4 minute intervals, and I look at the time exhausted and realise that not even a minute has passed. Still, the habit kicks in and immediately I say: ‘Easy’. Earlier, I was scared to look at the clock because it made time seem to pass even slower. Now, it doesn’t matter at all. The more I look at it the more times I repeat it’s easy.
Piece of cake!
Last but not least, once the workout is finally done and all you want to do is sit down or lie down or just simply die, DON’T! Resist the urge, stand up tall, walk around, smile and say ‘Piece of cake’. This way you won’t be associating training with something horrendous that made you feel like you want to die. Yes, it was hard; yes, it hurt; and yes, you’re tired. But you did it. And you’re still standing. And you’re smiling. So now you can look forward to your next session. Or an actual piece of cake.
Nothing is easy. But everything is possible.