Thinking like an athlete

In Australia, it’s a common social behaviour to respond when someone says “you’re an athlete” to deny and self deprecate oneself  down to just being some form of low grade gym goer.

This is a common problem in our country, where “tall poppy’s” are cut down. Perhaps it comes from our heritage of being outcasts from England. At any rate, it’s a well known social norm, for people to generally be overly modest (shall we say) about their position in life and society, or their community.

The resulting issue here being that we typically don’t stick our heads up and stand proud for fear of being ‘cut down’ socially or by our peers.

So what does this mean for the beginning athlete?

Thinking like an athlete is not as easy as you’d think. Some might describe it as being disciplined, watching every meal, tracking every work out, religiously abiding to the coaches prescription. Some might describe it as thrashing through every single workout, never missing a session, relentlessly training and focussing your entire life towards the desired athletic outcome.

Consider this though. Thinking like an athlete could be about thought, not the actions that result of that thought. All that was described above are actions, behaviours even, that would be the result of the athlete attempting to model what they perceived would be the actions and behaviours of an elite athlete.

It’s reasonable to me, to consider the beginning athletes mind not dissimilar to their body and skill. In that their thinking and the subjects of those thoughts require time, experiences and training to develop to an elite level.

I’d consider it actually impossible to develop elite level thinking while still accumulating a personal understanding of athletic training impacts and activity.

Clearly there’s a huge discussion and classification about what the various thought and emotional models apply during an athletes development, but lets start with the most obvious.

As usual, my discussion below will be from the perspective of a weightlifting / powerlifting coach, who focusses on sports preparation for those and other sports.

As a beginning athlete, there are two primary focal points that the coach will try to develop. Technique (skill) and Position (mobility). Resolving questions about, “can the athlete execute the required movement?” and “can the athlete actually get into an effective position(s) in order to be efficient.

This ultimately will mean, that developments in the athletes performance will be derived from that, rather than significant improvements in strength, stamina, and so on.

The athlete, should similarly be thinking in terms of “am I developing my skill here”, “can I detect my bodies position in space and can I adjust it to meet the technical requirements of the movements?”.

It is often a challenge for beginning athletes, to not be thinking in terms of “am I getting stronger?”, “am I lifting more weight or moving faster?”.

Therefore, ‘understanding’ from the athlete, that they are tasked with acquiring skill and mobility rather than significant leaps in strength or otherwise is critical here.

The long game
Short term gains are often used by coaches to support good emotional postures for athletes, as well as help with motivation and track development. That said, it is inevitable that there will be a plateau or two of varying degrees as well as ‘bad days’.

Particularly in the case of weightlifters and powerlifters, where the development path is many years long, bad days can take a toll on the athlete (and the coach). The long game, is a mental position where the athlete recognises that the upcoming competition, the dud workout, the three weeks of no visible PR lifts, are all just merely milestones on a much longer journey.

The beginning athlete has to come to emotional terms and understanding that one bad lift, one bad workout, a bad cycle even, is still a forward step in the overall journey. The athlete has to reconcile this for themselves and allow themselves to reset and refocus to learn from that experience and use it to advance.

In the end, every coach and athlete combination will yield a different set of requirements of a mental model for the athlete. This model obviously will change and mature as the athlete becomes more advanced, and their relationship with their coach matures and enrichens.

Consider then, as part of your training that challenge, turmoil, defeat and success all contribute to how you “think like an athlete”. Consider also, that your emotional and thought models should be forged in the fires of challenge and training. That your mind, your strength and your behaviours are being trained just as much as your body is.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking like an athlete

  1. adamgilbert says:

    I did this exact thing several times last year (2013) when having a scan and when giving blood. The doctors & nurses respectively always say: “you do realise your pulse rate is 39?”. This is apparently normal for me having taken notice of my usual resting pulse when giving blood each time. However it seems unusual enough to prompt them to ask more questions and enquire as to what I do in my life.

    They asked me what I do to achieve this, asking “are you an athlete?” to which I say “no, I just play basketball and run regularly’. I certainly don’t think of myself as an athlete but I do look after myself and exercise regularly enough that it clearly has a positive impact, in a fairly measurable way in my heart function.

    Good side effects beyond just being more effective in basketball and keeping slim 🙂

    • Ben says:

      Hey Adam, thanks for the comment. I’d consider you an athlete, but of a different breed. This comes from my definition of athlete, being “any human, undertaking an athletic endevour”. But noting that there is an element of “grading” if you will. From an Casual athlete, through to a beginning trained athlete, all the way through to elite grade or professional grade athletes.

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