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Mindset training is an effective tool used by elite athletes to improve performance. In essence, it is about creating a mindset that supports success or positive outcomes. It involves using mental skills to achieve a positive attitude and outlook, which then correspond to improved training and competition performance. An athlete with an effective mindset thinks, “I can and I will.” 


Although typically associated with elite competitors, mindset training is applicable and essential for all masters archetypes. Masters benefit greatly from mindset training, and the degree to which the trainer develops mental skills is correlated to the degree of long-term success that they achieve with older clients. We argue that mindset training is even more important for an older athlete than for someone younger because there are more age-associated psychological factors that masters athletes need to deal with. A poor mindset dramatically affects confidence and program adherence.


Trainer Skills


The trainer needs to develop effective coaching skills in four key areas:


1. Identifying Negative Self-Talk


All athletes have an internal dialogue called self-talk. The trainer must be competent in assessing whether or not the athlete’s self-talk is progressing them toward their goal or taking them further away from it—i.e., helping (positive) or hindering (negative). Simple checks include, “Do your thoughts make you feel the way you want to feel?” and, “Does what you think lead to you acting in the best way?” If not, the trainer must be skilled at creating and teaching a better mental dialogue.


2. Thought Stopping


Thought stopping is a technique that trainers can teach their athletes to assist them in breaking a negative self-talk cycle. It involves teaching athletes to recognize when their internal dialogue is negative self-talk and then using mental or physical cues as a trigger to change the script. For example, the athlete recognizes that her internal dialogue is, “This is too heavy. I always miss at this weight.” The athlete’s thought-stopping cue may be to stamp her feet, prompting her to replace the negative thought with a previously practiced positive one such as, “Today I make this lift. Keep the bar close.


3. Goal Setting


Setting relevant goals with appropriate timeframes and clear milestones is an integral part of building a strong mental game. The trainer plays an important and hands-on role in guiding the goal-setting process.


4. Anxiety Management

Managing anxiety in a masters athlete requires the trainer to have experience with the issues with which masters athletes must contend. The trainer must be able to clarify risk and reward and adapt the program and its goals to the athlete’s risk profile. Anxiety is discussed further below.


The Anxious Athlete


Masters may have higher anxiety levels than younger athletes, partly due to the fact that there are more things to worry about (such as injury), and partly because they are a minority group in the gym.


Some of the common anxieties derive from a heightened fear of injury, being overly concerned about being a burden on the trainers and/or other clients, and being worried about not fitting in or standing out from the group. Masters athletes also have all the usual anxieties that athletes have in relation to worrying about poor performance and workout discomfort.


The challenging thing for the trainer is that to some extent the underlying fears of a masters athlete are real. There is a higher risk and consequence of injury, they do require more time to be invested by the trainer, and they initially do often stand out when first joining the group. The trainer needs to acknowledge the concerns without being dismissive and then provide the athlete with relaxation techniques to manage the anxiety created by the concerns.


Failure to address anxiety can lead to avoidance behaviors and a self-limiting mindset, particularly if anxiety about injury is not resolved. In some cases, it can lead to recklessness through acting out. For example, if an older athlete is anxious about being a burden, that athlete may not disclose injuries. Or, if the athlete is worried about not fitting in, he or she may overreach on weights to try to be the same as younger athletes. A skillful trainer will look for sources of anxiety and address them before they become limiting.


Self-Limiting Beliefs


Masters can be self-limiting due to errant beliefs about their physical capacity. Negative self-talk can be very loud for the masters athlete but also very well disguised—i.e., they may be very skillful at saying what the trainer wants to hear but internally thinking something very different. It is common for late masters to believe that they cannot improve because they are too old. Likewise, you will often hear an early masters athlete say that it is not possible to train hard when you have family, life or work commitments. Both of those things are self-imposed beliefs that inhibit progress.


This links back to the trainer’s skill at dealing with negative self-talk. What a masters athlete is saying to himself or herself must be identified and addressed if the athlete is to progress in areas that do not come easily (e.g., neurological skills). There is often a confirmation bias that causes athletes to be more likely to recognize evidence that supports the negative beliefs that they hold and ignore evidence to the contrary. There is also a feedback loop where athletes don’t practice things that they believe they can’t do and therefore they remain unable to do them, which in turn then gets used as evidence that they are not good at them. This occurs for athletes of all ages, but it is very common with masters athletes.


Rigid Thinking


Masters athletes are likely to be more set in their ways than younger athletes. We refer to this as rigid thinking, and in the training environment it presents as an unwillingness to try new things. Often the older athlete will draw on significant prior experience to form strong opinions about his or her own ability and potential. This can lead to conservatism and reduced expectations. The trainer needs to understand how current attitude and mindset are supported by previous experience and provide new positive experiences that challenge any self-limiting thinking.


Masters athletes are also more likely to use vicarious experiences from their cohort to support their beliefs. Said more simply, they will use other people of the same stage of life as evidence of what is possible. This can be positive or negative depending on who they use as role models. So, it is important that they are exposed to similarly aged role models with greater physical capacity.


Previous negative experiences (injuries, failures, embarrassment, etc.)—either their own, or those of others at the same stage of life—may limit the degree to which they apply themselves.


Reference – CrossFit Masters Training Guide