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The Reactive Mindset Athlete and Its Effect on Training

There's a concept that I've talked about before in reference to working with clients and athletes that I refer to as “The Reactive Mindset.” This mindset is one that keeps an individual from recognizing where they need to work until something traumatic occurs. For the most part, I've thought of this mindset in relation to recovery and rehabilitation. An easy example of this is an athlete who will only seek out a practitioner when they've had an injury long enough that it is finally impairing their ability to improve. The injury may or may not be getting worse, but the injury has gotten to a point that the hindrance and pain is now more of an inconvenience than going to get themselves taken care of. I believe the key word there is “convenience.” The reactive mindset is one of convenience.

Athlete 1- “I would rather train today than do active recovery, because training seems more fun.”

Me - “You know what’s even more fun? Continue to make progress.”

Athlete 2- “It isn’t that bad, so why shouldn’t I max out this week? I’ll probably be ok.”

Me - “Because you are not an exception to the rules of training and biology.”

Athlete 3 - “I can still do some training if I modify the movements and training. So why should I go get this injury checked out?”

Me - “That’s fine, but how long have you been modifying?”

Athlete 3 - “A couple months.”

Me - “Has it gotten better?”

Athlete 3 - “No.”

Me - “…then that’s why you should get it checked out.”

Taking a few days away from a movement makes perfect sense. I rarely advocate for a complete cessation of training if there are other areas that can be worked on and improved. Believe me, there are always other areas that can be improved. But it is important to immediately have a plan for the athlete’s return to training. Once you’ve taken a few days away from a movement, it can be easy to fall into a routine of continuing to not do anything constructive to circumvent the injury. Without a plan and schedule, the lack of responsibility to find ways to deal with the issue becomes more and more appealing.

Athlete 5 - “It still hurts. I guess I’ll keep resting.”

Me - “Then I guess you’ll keep not improving as an athlete.”

The convenience of doing nothing is addicting to this mindset. I’m not criticizing these athletes, because I have no room to criticize. We’ve all been in that situation under one circumstance or another. It is human nature to look for the path of least resistance. Hell, it’s the nature of physics itself to look for the path of least resistance. Is there any reason we should expect our brains to work any different than the fundamental properties of the universe? Yes, there is. That reason is because, as athletes, we all have a higher purpose in mind when we show up to train other than simply finding the path of least resistance. The fact that we show up to train at all is evidence that we’re willing to choose a more difficult path.

The choice to be in a proactive mindset when it comes to taking care of your athleticism and fitness is a constant process. Most importantly though is that it is just that: a choice. By contrast, the reactive mindset requires no choice at all. The reactive mindset is the default setting imbedded in us. Instead of choosing to do something productive about an injury, it is far easier to remove other potential options that the injury would require of us. The proactive mindset, however, is one of accepting responsibility over convenience.

The truth is, we must constantly choose to be responsible for the circumstances we find ourselves in, as human beings and as athletes. Understandably though, this can be exhausting. Imagine finally making the choice to find a coach, pay to join that coach’s gym, get your program, and show up (on time) for months on end. You do all of this to participate in a sport that, despite you being passionate about it, often kicks the shit out of you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Then, one day, you get hurt. You now have to make an extra choice (or choices) just to get back to making all of the choices previously mentioned. It’s a conundrum. It seems to go against human nature. You are now being asked to choose to put in extra time and work just to get back to all the other extra time and work you were already choosing to do before. Add in all of the other responsibilities of life on top of that on a daily basis, and it is easy to see why someone would be willing to choose a path of less resistance.

For every level of improvement that we are looking to attain though, we have to be willing for the responsibility that comes with finding out how to achieve it. Not only do those choices look different as the years go on since athletes gain experience and move forward in their careers towards new goals, but its also an ongoing daily practice as well. We will constantly have to choose, every day, to not take the path of least resistance. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge advocate of being strategically lazy. I have said this for years. I think that we should find ways to make our lives easier, but it must be an easier life through efficiency and not a diminishment of quality. Greater efficiency in our lives, to an extent, equates to more time and energy that we free up to use elsewhere. However, at the end of the day, there are some choices that simply have a limit on how efficient we can make them. The choice to be proactive about our health is one of them. My work at Unrivaled Strength has been, in part, an effort to remove the friction in the process of getting athletes taken care of. I want to reduce the effort needed to make the proactive choice. However, an interesting aspect that I’ve noticed recently is watching the reactive mindset expressing itself in the attention to detail for training when there is not a current injury. Over the last year and a half, I’ve slowly expanded the work that I want to do with athletes to include corrective exercises and movement analysis. It is work that I’ve always done before, but it was a regular part of my practice. I’ve found that the severity of injuries can be diminished when the movement is corrected with means other technique cueing. This isn’t groundbreaking news. Any coach worth their weight in kilo plates and a shiny new barbell will tell you that if a lifter moves with better technique, then that lifter will be less prone to injury. However, not every coach is going to be able to recognize why their lifter isn’t able to execute the proper technique that the coach is trying to teach them. Yes, there are many amazing coaches out there who will disagree with me heartily about this. I understand. However, there are numerous coaches who do not have your expertise and experience yet. Those coaches are still learning. That’s where I come in. For someone like me, who views the movement analysis and exercise correction as a puzzle, it’s an interesting and engaging process. The ability to watch someone and analyze where the breakdown in movement is truly occurring, where it stems and what to do about it is something that I have worked on for over 15 years. It is simply a different vantage point from coaching. The end goal for a strength coach is to teach the proper movement and finding the best way to overcome the hurdles of learning. My end goal is looking for the hidden impairments that keep the athlete from being able to express what they’ve learned. I find it fascinating to be able to watch someone’s movement pattern, hear them tell me what their complaint is, and then be able to work backwards to identify what needs to happen to help resolve the issue. I feel like a far less impressive version of Sherlock Holmes if he were to consult on squat mechanics and shoulder instabilities instead of mysteries and crimes.

As interesting as I find all of this though, I am equally frustrated by the lack of buy-in from many athletes when I tell them what to work on and educate them on the “why.” As I saw this happening more and more, I began to connect the dots with the realizations that I had made previously in regard to the reactive mindset when applied to injuries. The lack of responsibility over one’s choices doesn’t apply only to the times when we are injured and want to take the easier path. This mindset finds a way to manifest in every aspect of training. I believe that this is what I’m seeing with athletes when it comes to their lack of interest in movement analysis and correction.

Please understand though, moving “well enough” to not be currently injured is not good enough. Having current success with how you’re moving doesn’t mean you’re moving successfully.

When I worked with sprinters several years ago on their mechanics, I would often get push back from the high-level athletes when I made corrections. They told me that they were “already fast”, they set records, etc. Why should they change anything? I would tell them, “Just because you’re really good at doing something wrong, doesn’t make it right. You’re succeeding despite your movement, not because of it.”

You know which athletes got better in the long run, the ones that decided to make the choice to make changes. All of those athletes, high level or not, showed up each class and put in the same amount of time. Not all of them made the same choice on what type of work they were going to do during that time. I didn’t realize it then, but what I was seeing was, once again, the difference between the reactive versus the proactive mindset athletes. To be blunt, the reactive mindset athletes wanted to show up. That’s it. Based on their actions, that was as far as their responsibility went. What I watched in those training sessions was that those athletes didn’t want to work at being faster, they only wanted to show up and to be told how good they already were. The athletes with the proactive mindset showed up looking to get faster and to learn. Those athletes were the ones who, not only were eager to do the work you gave them, but consistently made it a point afterward to ask for more. In hindsight, I’ve been surrounded by examples of this for my entire career and I’m only just now starting to see how it all fits together.

Making the daily choice to be responsible for your athleticism is not an easy thing to ask of anyone. Mistakes are inevitable because we are human and fallible. The choice is, however, simple. However, do not confuse simple with easy. Coach Dan Bell once wrote on his white board in the training area for all of his athletes to see, “Does this action move me closer to my goal? If yes, do it. If not, don’t.” This highlights the simplicity of choosing between convenience and progress. By asking the question, we are providing ourselves with the opportunity to rise above the reactive mindset which yearns for the ease and addictive comfort of inaction.

The goal of being proactive, whether it is with movement correction, skill learning, or training is not about being perfect. That’s unrealistic. The purpose is to constantly be looking for those areas of 1% improvement and increased efficiency. Sometimes getting better is about continuing to do what you’re already doing so that the benefits have a chance to continue to grow and take hold. Those times are when the athlete must be diligent and patient, and they must trust in the process. In other cases, movement needs to be corrected and recovery needs to be better managed. Those instances are where the athlete needs to remind themselves that there is a bigger picture, and they must continue to have an open mind. When the opportunity to increase their efficiency comes along, the athlete with the bigger picture in mind will be able to proactively make the choice to learn how to get better. The reactive mindset will be left behind to continue struggling with the addiction of convenience.

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