When I was younger, all I wanted to do was study the human body. I was a sports addict and wanted to discover how to push the boundaries of human physical performance. How could people keep breaking records in marathons, sprint events and weight lifting. My final degree mark reflected how I allocated my time between the library and the gym.
However, when I went back to study my masters a few years later, it was psychology, not physiology, which grabbed my attention. I started learning about mental techniques and success lessons that could create the same results in minutes as months of training in the gym could accomplish. All of a sudden, the mind-body connection that everyone talks about was very real. In fact, after studying the body for so long, understanding the brain was remarkably simple. In fact, there are so many crossovers between physical training and mental fitness that I found myself applying the success lessons from physiology directly onto the brain, and the behaviour was remarkably similar.
If you are an avid fitness enthusiast, gym junkie or running fool, you will already be aware of many of these mental success lessons already without even have given it any thought. That is why people involved in sport at an early age are often able to go on to be competitive in other fields after their sporting career is over.
Check out below the success lessons I learned about the mind by training in the gym.
1 – Train the fundamentals.
In the gym, the fundamentals are exercises like squats and deadlifts, or cleans and snatches if you are a little more explosive. These are the exercises that build overall strength and muscle and give you the foundation of a strong athletic base. Experienced athletes get this and never forget their basic lifts. However, beginners often want to start by doing a hundred bicep curls of hitting the cable crossover… badly! In the gym, there is no such thing as an overnight success as it takes years to build a strong body.
The same happens outside of the gym. Successful people focus on the fundamentals of setting and achieving goals, keeping their promises and generally doing what it takes to win. However, how many times do you hear about get rich quick schemes, the latest app to boost productivity (I like 30/30 and Wunderlist!)or some other shortcut to success. Beginners need to focus on the fundamentals and complete their apprenticeship in their chosen field before trying to be the next big thing. There is no such thing as an overnight success, just someone who has unassumingly been working hard on the fundamentals for years.
2 – Failure leads to growth
I remember a shoulder workout years ago ending when I couldn’t even lift my arms and I shouted “I have nothing!” across the whole gym. Failing in the gym is almost enjoyable and a recognised step on your path to a better body. We even lift weights that are too heavy (negative reps) or add resistance to our running with tyres and parachutes to further encourage failure. Failure and exercise go hand in hand, and while we are training, we are looking to push our point of failure further and further to increase our overall capacity to work.
The difference is, outside of the gym, we tend to approach failure very differently. We see failure as weakness, not as the development of strength. We are embarrassed by our failures rather than being celebrated by those around us. We tend to avoid situations which are likely to lead to failure rather than continually pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone. Instead, we need to condition ourselves to do more than is comfortable. Push yourself to do one more rep, one more blog post, that extra sales call. If you aren’t failing outside of the gym, you aren’t trying hard enough.
3 – Plateaus happen
We have all been in the situation where training is going well then we hit a brick wall and progress halts. We can’t move onto the next weight or break into the next time group no matter how hard we try. For beginners this happens early on once the novelty factor has worn off and the neurology of the body has adapted, but for experienced athletes, these plateaus get in the way of progress. At times like this we have to change things up in our workouts, adding extra intensity, periodising our strength and power workouts or going back to some heavy fundamentals. We adjust our intensity and focus to help push through the plateau.
The same happens in real life. Success is not a linear journey and is filled with plateaus and correction phases as our success levels and effort equilibrate. Sometimes we get more success than our effort justifies, and sometimes it feels as though we are just swimming through treacle. When things slow down, and they will, this is where you need to keep up the effort, even increase it if possible. Focus on the fundamentals, make your to-do lists and focus on the tasks which will continue to move you in the direction of your goals. Eventually, and you are never quite sure when, you will reach your acres of diamonds.
4 – Routine and habits
Training is a routine for athletes. The alarm goes in the morning, they drag themselves out of bed and head off to the track/pool/gym while the rest of us hit snooze and roll over. For athletes, the gym is a habit and is part of their routine, blocked out in permanent marker in their diaries. These blocks of time don’t move for anything, and if you looked at their diaries over the past few years, you would probably see the same pattern recurring over and over again.
Strangely, we forget this in the real world. We seem to think that we can master something immediately without putting in the dedication of regular practice and commitment to learning. We even put things down if we don’t nail it first time. Success is all about developing good habits, doing the things that others won’t rather than taking the easy way each day. Sure, the snooze button is attractive, but will it move you towards your goal? We are all tired in the mornings and don’t always feel motivated, but successful people do it anyway because it is part of their routine.
5 – Nutrition is vital
Don’t get me wrong, I love chocolate. However, I know it isn’t going to help me get in shape and that moment I need to be a little bit stronger, fitter or faster, I don’t really want to be carrying around those extra pounds because I was lazy in the kitchen. Discipline in nutrition and diet is often what sets top athletes apart, especially if the aesthetics of the physique is important. If you have ever taken a tupperware container of food with you anywhere, you will know what I mean.
Your mental diet is essential to ensuring your success too. One of the traits of successful people is that they are all committed to continual learning and so as well as enjoying listening to Kisstory on the radio or reading the latest instalment of Twilight, they also spend time feeding their brain with content of better substance. Audiobooks and e-readers like Kindle make information on the go so easy now and there really is no excuse to be developing yourself continually so do yourself a favour and cut down on your mental candy levels and replace them with something more wholesome.
6 – Training buddy
They help push you for one more rep, give you confidence to try lifting a little heavier and help drag you out when you really don’t feel like it. Training buddies help boost your intensity and give you someone to compete with, pushing both of your results and performances. You want to seek out opportunities to train with people who are better than you as this will certainly make you a better athlete. Someone may be stronger than you, but you are fitter so you can both challenge each other.
Your personal network is your equivalent outside of the gym. Who do you associate with and spend your time with? They say you are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with, so look around you. Do you have people around you that challenge you to become more? If you are the cleverest person in your network, you need to get out fast before you get comfortable. Seek out opportunities to network with people more successful than you, whatever your definition of success is.
7 – Get a coach
I used to have a love-hate relationship with my coach. Behind all the screaming and shouting lay a lot of very valuable feedback which made me a better player. He could see things from the sideline that I couldn’t on the field. Being detached from a situation also gives you a different perspective than being in the heat of the action which helps make more sensible decisions. The job of the athlete is then to carry this across into the game.
Having a coach in the real world is not always such an obvious choice. We think we have to figure everything out for ourselves, which is crazy for two reasons. Firstly, we are in the game and limited in our view. We start to believe the voices in our head when they feed us excuses and limiting decisions. Secondly, we aren’t taking advantage of any specialist knowledge that already exists out there. Having a coach is vital to succeed in sport, and has the same impact outside of the gym too.
8 – Balanced approach
Athletes cross train for many reasons. Some want to develop strengths in other areas, others want to help reduce overtraining injuries and sometimes it is just nice to have a break from the routine. Training different exercises helps to develop a rounded physique and athleticism. No one really wants to be the guy that only ever trains biceps.
In life, we need the same approach. Think of the wheel of life and where your attention and focus goes. If you are only ever working on your career, how is this affecting your relationships and health? In business as well, people are constantly looking outside of their usual ponds for new inspiration. How can a huge IT company learn from a local greengrocer? What can a primary school teacher tell a CEO about staff engagement and motivation? Get outside of your normal comfort zone, develop a balanced approach to life and you’ll last and live a lot longer.
So there you go, the major success lessons I can think that link the body and mind. If we approached our careers, relationships, investments and life in the same way we trained in the gym, I have a funny feeling we would all be a whole lot more successful. And with that, I’m off to push myself to failure! Where’s my protein shake?