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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.


Attitude Toward Intensity


We have previously discussed the misconception that, for a masters athlete, intensity should be avoided. Barring specific health issues, all masters athletes need to train with relative intensity to unlock the full benefits of the program. Settling for maintenance training is often an emotionally and socially safe approach for masters athletes but not in their best interests. Avoiding intensity is a trap for both the trainer and the athlete.


Intensity is still the most important variable in the program, but understand that the trainer has a more difficult job in selling it to a masters athlete because of the common response, “I shouldn’t be pushing hard at my age.” This has to be overcome, because an Rx’d mindset where the athlete strives to complete workouts as prescribed (no matter how long it takes to get there or if they ever achieve it) and with the best possible performance (trying to beat previous scores) is the pathway to continued success, regardless of age. Being explicit with mechanics-consistency-intensity as the charter for applying intensity builds confidence because it guarantees that the athlete is kept safe and within the boundaries of current capacity. It is important to note that a younger trainer may often be prejudiced and not realize it—i.e., may just go through the motions with an older athlete and not demand best effort.


Dealing With Setbacks


Setbacks and injuries can have a more damaging impact on the masters athlete’s ability to continue training compared to a younger athlete. Any disruption in training requires immediate attention and a plan delivered by the trainer to regain confidence and capacity as soon as practical. A masters athlete who suffers a setback will likely put on a brave face, but there will be a lot of doubt under the surface, particular if it is a repeat injury.


Injuries are critical times that can dramatically de-motivate the athlete. There is a critical window of opportunity following the setback where if the athlete is given an effective plan, motivation levels will be maintained. Missing the window can lead to self-deselection from the program. It is very easy for older athletes to give up if they feel like they will not resolve their injury. The feeling of having to start all over again can be overwhelming. The trainer’s encouragement and support is crucial to helping older athletes overcome setbacks. It is vital that they remain connected to the group as much as possible. The longer they are isolated from the group setting, the more likely they are to give up. Factor this into any management plan and try to keep the training routine as normal as possible.


For example, performing their rehabilitation program in the class is significantly better than doing it in their own time. The social connection of the group is a powerful offset to any setback.


Role of the Trainer in Creating a Positive Attitude


The trainer tips the balance in creating a positive attitude, and mindset training should be a natural part of all coaching interactions. The trainer has an important role in resetting expectations regarding what is possible, and the stoicism, optimism and positivity brought to the table by the trainer are critical in keeping a masters athlete striving for improvement and progressing through setbacks. 


Mindset training should be part of each training day, and the trainer should check in frequently, ideally at every training session. At every opportunity, an effective trainer will be encouraging, motivating, challenging thinking and resetting expectations. The trainer also needs to be prepared to revisit the same problems over and over again, which is a normal pattern for a masters athlete, and very similar to training kids.


Negative Mental Attitude Is Amplified by Aging


A negative mental attitude interacts with age-related changes in a powerful way to undermine performance. The effect is that age-related physical decline in performance is amplified by mindset decline. It is possible for a masters athlete to continue to maximize performance within the physiology they have maintained. However, if they adjust their mindset to accept age-related decline (i.e., believe they are declining), this can accelerate the decline dramatically. This is why the trainer MUST coach mindset in the aging athlete.


A negative, and not uncommon mental attitude of “I believe I can’t because I am getting older” places significant limitations on what is possible, and the effect is exponential. Elite sport psychologist and CrossFit trainer Wendy Swift explains the potential impact of this effect using a numerical factor model as follows:


“On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being best possible and 5 being worst possible, if the athlete has a physiological decline factor of 2 (average decline with age), but mindset factor of 1 (positive mental attitude) the net effect is that their performance will decline at a rate of 2×1= 2. If the same athlete has a mindset factor of 5 (negative mental attitude) their performance will decline at a rate of 2×5=10, or 5 times more dramatically. Compare to an athlete that has a physiological decline of 4 (accelerated decline because they are diseased) but a mindset factor of 1 (positive mental attitude) their relative performance will decline at a rate of 4×1=4.”


This numerical model is just for illustration. In reality, it is not that simple or predictable. However, the concept is important to understand: For a masters athlete, a negative mental attitude can be an accelerator of negative aging effects if left unchecked.


Self-Awareness and the Masters Athlete


The trainer will encounter masters athletes who have poor self-awareness as a result of being in denial or delusion about their age and level of aging. It is important that athletes have an honest and accurate understanding of their current physical state in order to scale effectively, but that can be hard to achieve, especially for early masters who may be living in the past and unwilling to accept that they are older. This can also be significant for anyone with prior sporting experience or fitness who is returning to training after an extended break. Such athletes may have a false belief about their ability.


Masters athletes who have a false positive belief about themselves and their capacity are more likely to be injured from overreaching. Masters athletes with a false negative belief about themselves and their capacity are less likely to progress from under-reaching. It is the role of the trainer to ensure that athletes have true beliefs about their potential and physical capacity, thereby creating a foundation for success with the program.


With regard to the masters mindset, the major takeaway is that the trainer plays an important role in allaying the fears of a masters athlete and creating a mental platform for success based on true beliefs. To effectively coach older adults, the trainer should engage on a more cerebral level and include mindset training to create a positive mental attitude. A greater awareness of the typical thought processes of a masters athlete will set the trainer up for greater long-term success.


Reference – CrossFit Masters Training Guide