How to Think Like a Winner to Reach Your Fitness Goals

It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest champions possessed some sort of supernatural physical power us mere mortals couldn’t possibly achieve. But that’s not necessarily the case!

woman holding dumbbellsWinning often comes down to your mindset, and if you can develop champion-like habits and mentalities, you can accomplish more than you think. So whether you’re a competitive athlete, an amateur athlete, or just someone looking to stay active long-term, why not adopt fitness motivation strategies used by the best of the best? (We’re talking olympic athletes and professional competitors, people.)

Here, leading sports psychologist Jim Afremow, Ph.D, author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, shares his insights on reaching your personal fitness goals by scoring a winning attitude.

What are some key reasons people don’t reach their goals?

People often fail to achieve their athletic or fitness goals because of maladaptive thoughts and beliefs such as, “I don’t have the time,” “I don’t have the energy,” and “I don’t enjoy exercise.” Others are so impatient to get results that they over-adhere to their exercise regimen and end up failing altogether — either by burning out or getting injured.

How can someone avoid the self-destructive mindset?

First, stay in love with yourself. Regular exercise is one of the very best things you can do for your physical and mental health. Exercise will help you to feel more vitally engaged in life. Don’t think you have the time? You are worth the time! Realize that there’s pleasure and pride to be had on the other side of the discomfort you feel at the beginning of a workout. Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and think of exercise as your time to shine!

Second, make a total commitment. How much are you really willing to put in to achieve what you say you want most in life? Champions refuse to let anyone (think, peer pressure) or anything (like physical discomfort) get between themselves and their big-picture goals. When their motivation falters, they rely on their commitment. They are also not too proud to get help or support when needed.

How can people set more effective goals?

To start with, you have to decide what you really, really want. Identify your ultimate goals and then focus on daily acts of excellence. A “win the day” attitude will help you get past the daily distractions and obstacles. If you set a firm goal for today of getting to the gym or hitting the trails, then your favorite time-wasters cannot prevent you from exercising. Ask yourself, “How am I getting better today?” What you accomplish today is what gets you to tomorrow.

If you’re an athlete, is there a difference in mindset when you practice versus when you compete? 

For a champion, prime time is all the time. To become a clutch performer, practice to the edge in training by treating a point in scrimmage the same as in a playoff game. So when the real situation happens, you’ve been there and done that because it’s just like practice. Prepare like everything’s on the line, rather than waiting to “psych up” on the big day.

So, what role does the mind play in actual competition? How important is gaining control of your thoughts?

The mind always plays the lead role in a competition. In the words of basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Your mind is what makes everything else work.” In fact, the difference between one’s worst and one’s best performances always hinges on mental performance. If you are involved in “stinking thinking” on the inside, then it will reflect on your outer performance. Recognize negative thoughts and feelings, but don’t buy into them. Instead, rehearse positive self-talk. Think, “Yes, I can!” Or, “Be a champion!”

What are some common misconceptions about history’s greatest competitors, how they approached the game, and how they got to the top of their sport?

One common misconception about champions is that they are born with a winning mentality. That is, they have a natural abundance of confidence, concentration, composure, and commitment. However, there is no “champion’s mind” gene. All of us can and should learn to think, feel, and act like a champion. Mental skills can be developed similar to physical skills.

Another common misconception about champions is that everything comes easy for them. Realize that all champions have lost and made more mistakes that you can count. Do you mentally give up after just one loss or tough game? Champions will celebrate what they want to see happen more often, and when they lose, they don’t lose the lesson. So, if you make a mistake, learn from it and confidently move forward. Just listen to what Michael Jordan said: “I have failed over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”

Tell us a little about Zen, which you talk about in your book, and how it should factor into the successful athlete’s life? What are some methods for tapping into it and who has used it successfully?

Scores of elite athletes and coaches, such as MLB all-star Shawn Green and NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson, have utilized Zen principles and practices for peak performance. Like “the Zone,” Zen is hard to put into words because it’s about a wordless state of mind. However, one key component of Zen is being mindful in the moment. One’s focus can be on the past (think, “the last shot”), the present  (“this shot”), or the future (“the next shot”), but where does one’s performance count? In the present moment. Always strive to focus on what you are doing in the moment to the exclusion of all else. Walking or sitting meditation is an excellent method for clearing the mind of extraneous thoughts and tapping into the pleasure and power of the present moment.

Burnout is a big deal when it comes to staying active or staying in the game. What are your favorite habits and strategies for avoiding burnout, both mental and physical, to stay in the game longer or simply not lose that drive to remain active your entire life?

Write your fitness or sports goals, along with any favorite inspirational quotes or pictures, on a whiteboard and place it in a location where you can see it daily for direction and motivation. Read biographies of great athletes and coaches to learn how they succeeded. These champions can serve as your “coaches at a distance” and help you move through hard times to reach your top goals.

Also, make sure to also relax your body after you max your body. Recovery days, social activities, fun hobbies, deep relaxation, power naps, and good sleep are critical for avoiding burnout and staying on a positive track.

Finally, what’s the best piece of wisdom you learned writing this book?
The motto I developed while writing The Champion’s Mind is, “Think gold and never settle for silver — personal best is your ultimate victory.” Champion yourself by thinking gold and living your life to the max.

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