Optimism and aspiration - Two lenses with which to examine your training

Optimism and aspiration - Two lenses with which to examine your training

In George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, 1984, there is a concept called “doublethink”. Doublethink entails the simultaneous acceptance of two contradictory beliefs, and part of what sets it apart is that true doublethink requires no sense of cognitive dissonance, or internal conflict from the logical implausibility of holding these positions. Doublethink is essential for political indoctrination and thought control in the fallen world of 1984.

In fitness many people face a similar struggle, albeit not because an evil empire is attempting to exert mind-control on them. That struggle is between acceptance of failure, whilst striving for success. In less polarising terms, it is between pride in limited returns on large efforts, whilst simultaneously desiring more next time.

All-or-nothing thinking is rife within the fitness community and is a massive contributor to burnout or disengagement with training.
In the general population many people dive into their fitness journey when they are most motivated, and that motivation often comes from desires that can only be satisfied by results. If Sally starts training to lose 10kg for her wedding (hereafter “wed shred”), there is a proximal and meaningful external event driving her engagement. Chances are that a failure to lose the desired weight won’t just lead to a sense of failure, it will lead to her quitting training altogether. What’s more, I couldn’t blame her. Would you continue to engage in an activity that is difficult, sometimes expensive, and that detracts from time spent doing things that you might rather do?

Amongst powerlifters and recreational strength athletes, the people that I mostly work with, training is also about results. If you slave away for 8-10 hours each week in the gym on a program and after 3-4 months don’t add anything to your lifts, you’d be right to be disappointed too. Plenty of talented lifters quit during their first prolonged plateau, when the seeming grind of training appears to give limited or no returns for months on end and they can’t find much to be proud of in their efforts.

In the real world both of the above scenarios play out nearly every day. You won’t always get the returns on your training that you expect, or even that you necessarily deserve. Persistence in the face of this is necessary for long-term success, and it does take a special type of mindset, although not truly doublethink.
Successful and resilient trainees are able to consciously harness two modes of thinking. By being aware of which they are using at a time, when they are appropriate, and how they complement each other, they are able to make all training rewarding. For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to them as conceptual lenses.

The first lens is optimism, or the glass-half-full approach. An optimistic outlook allows us to say that “something is better than nothing”, and to look for minor successes amongst what might initially look like a failure.

The second lens is aspiration. An aspirational outlook allows us to be critical of ourselves in an effort to be better. Aspiration doesn’t accept ongoing mediocre results as a fait accompli, and allows us to ask the “what if” questions that help us explore how changing our approach could improve our outcomes.

So, what are the benefits of optimism?

Firstly, optimism helps us recontextualise failures. It is easy to consider training that doesn’t yield the intended result as wasted effort, but it often isn’t. For powerlifters, the exclusion of a programming strategy (ie, establishing that something plausible didn’t work) can help with future training. Just like solving a maze, every path that you rule out puts you closer to finding the one that works.

Again, thinking powerlifting, trainees can have a very successful training cycle under a number of metrics, and then underperform at competition. It’s possible to have improved technique, handled better loads for reps, made meaningful improvements to body composition, or any number of other valuable steps forward in the course of a training block, only to fall short of your goals on meet day. Optimism allows you to look back at training, extract the good, take pride in it, and move forward from failure. What’s more, failing to draw out these successes has a cost – they may be the foundation of future, successful training. Perhaps you could say “I was doing really well 4-6 weeks out from comp when I did x, but once I started doing y things went south”. In that case, you better keep doing x.

In the case of Sally’s wed-shred, not losing the intended weight is going to be frustrating, for sure. However, her future weight loss efforts might benefit from knowing that, for instance, certain dietary patterns aren’t socially viable for her, or that she struggles to resist palatable foods when she is stressed. Perhaps she learnt that certain forms of exercise are more or less enjoyable for her. Lessons like that can be built upon.

Being able to recontextualise failure makes us less afraid of it. It’s natural, when you invest a lot of effort and sense of self in a hobby, to find failure confronting. Acknowledging failures as an exercise in looking for clues to success is much less so, and an unwillingness to analyse your failures can lead either to whitewashing (persistence with failed strategies) or abandonment of the elements that were helpful to you.

Secondly, and building off of point one, is that optimism breeds self-efficacy. Routinely assessing your training as an abject failure is not a motivating or rewarding state of affairs. Finding wins in everything you do is. In goal-setting, it’s generally good practice to break up large goals into smaller goals that are process-focused. Part of the reason for this is that it creates a sense of micro-achievement for engaging in the behaviours that will carry you towards the outcome that you ultimately desire. In the case of fitness, finding aspects of the process that you have succeeded in reassures you that your efforts weren’t in vain and encourages further engagement so that you have the chance to get to where you want to be down the track.

Thirdly, optimism allows us to engage in the boring parts of a process. That might seem counterintuitive, but it’s absolutely true. Sometimes, the most direct route towards your goals is actually a little circuitous on paper. You might want to PB your squat, but if hip pain stops you training productively for long when you do a lot of squatting, doing some rehab and rebuilding around your limitations might get you there sooner than continuing to attempt the most direct training approach – squatting a lot.  When faced with the choice of doing something contrary to your desires, the optimist finds a reason to enjoy it (“it’ll help me in the long run” or “I’m learning some really useful stuff”).
Similarly, what is optimal in training is rarely entirely the same as what is feasible. Being able to focus on the upside of a compromise is the definition of optimism. Say that, due to work commitments, you can only train 3 times a week for a couple of months instead of your regular schedule of 4 times a week. The optimist sees that as 3 opportunities to get better, whilst a pessimist might fixate on the reduction in training frequency as an obstacle.

By now you should be pretty convinced that looking on the bright side is beneficial. It’ll make you better at analysing your training, help you engage with it better and for longer, and carry you through the parts that might be less enjoyable. However, there’s a limit to the benefits of looking at things through rose-tinted glasses. Failing to acknowledge how you could do better risks settling for mediocrity, or accepting avoidable failures. That’s where aspiration comes in.

I’d define aspiration as optimistic forward-thinking. Aspiration is what drives us to set goals, to imagine ourselves differently (hopefully better) and make the course-corrections necessary to get us there. I prefer the term “aspiration” to using “self-criticism” or “pessimism” with optimism in a yin/yang fashion because it implies purpose. There are numerous benefits of adopting an aspirational mindset.

Firstly, as I’ve already said, it fuels the level of self-critique necessary to see lasting improvements, and prevents you short-selling yourself. It’s easier to lean into self-criticism when instead of just saying “here are the ways I am bad”, you say “here are some opportunities to improve myself”. What’s more, if your goals are important or exciting to you, identifying these weaknesses should be exciting too. If you don’t believe your weaknesses to be immutable, then each self-critique is actually trailblazing on your way to the next goal that you’ve set.

Secondly, aspiration is at some point necessary to break plateaus. Most powerlifters can identify inflection points in their career, in which renewed progress was sparked by a qualitative change in how they engaged with the sport. For myself, choosing to hire a coach and surround myself with powerlifters took me from a roughly 180kg squatter to a roughly 230kg squatter in about 2 years. Part of what prompted that change was dissatisfaction with my results, in spite of my efforts, and recognising that I could be better if I had more direction. Aspiration allows you to assess your current state, your desired state, and weigh the changes necessary to get there against your desire.

Thirdly, aspiration is important to motivate us to commence and continue training. At the outset, nearly all of us start training with a vision of ourselves as different from where we begin. Whether it’s to be bigger, leaner, fitter, healthier, or anything else, having a valuable carrot dangling at the end of the training stick is important. A change in self concept has also been identified as a predictor of successfully maintaining significant weight loss, too. If we can aspire to and relate to a different state of being, it goes a long way to moving us towards it.

For those who are committed trainees, aspiration fuels ongoing engagement. The belief that continued effort and experimentation can yield you further progress and learning, and that you desire further betterment, is critical. Without that, most people would eventually give up. What’s more, aspiration is important for keeping your horizons high enough for you to reach your true potential. Many people would consider their journey finished and their potential fulfilled at their first significant plateau, and without having explored all options for further progress, were they to lack a vision of themselves as being more.

I’m not advocating for absolute naivety – there are limits as to how far anyone can and will progress. You should make realistic value judgements about how much you are willing to invest in training and how desirable further returns are.
However, there is evidence that your beliefs can impact your results in training and because I find this so fascinating, I’ll share some. Take this study, in which subjects believing that they had good/bad genetics for aerobic training influenced their results more than whether that was actually the case. In another study, national level powerlifters were subjected to baseline 1RM testing. 2 weeks later, after being deceived to believe that they were taking “fast acting steroids” (actually saccharin pills), they re-tested, adding on average about 30kg to their baseline total. They completed a further 2 weeks of training (with continued fake steroid use), before testing 1RMs again. Half of the participants were informed that they had been taking a placebo, whilst half weren’t. Those who were made aware that they had been using a placebo regressed to within 2.5kg of their baseline 1RMs, whilst those who continued to believe that they had been using steroids made further, albeit small, gains.
What the above demonstrate is that beliefs about your training potential matter, and whilst it’s a far cry from believing that you are on PEDs, confidence that you can continue to gain is certainly important if you want to be the best that you can be.

So that’s aspiration – it fuels and softens self-critique so that you can be better, it begets the belief that you can be more, and keeps you engaged in the training that you need to reach your goals.

I believe that your default lens in training should be one of optimism. Always look for the positives first, embrace your successes, and do your best to enjoy the training that you do. In your reflective times, either between sets in preparation for the next, or after training, is when you should consciously use the lens of aspiration. This is where you say “what can I do better next time to be better” and “when I look around me, who embodies what I want to be? How am I like them and how am I different to them? Why, and what can I do about it?”.

To conclude – I want to bring back doublethink. To simultaneously be satisfied with results less than you desired, whilst still wanting more, doesn’t require mutual contradictions of belief. Instead, it takes a mindset that separates and preserves the positives from the negatives, sees the negatives as avenues for progression, and an ability to reimagine yourself better than before.

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