3 Guiding Principles for Every Athlete

Novice or world champion, these truths will keep you on the straight and narrow in fitness.

Watch any large group of people and you almost can’t help but be overwhelmed by the vast spectrum of different body types, backgrounds, goals, and experiences. I see all kinds of people in my own coaching practice; young and old, athletes, doctors, and soccer moms. I’ve realized that there are a few things I wish I could tell every single trainee on earth, whether they’re on their first couch-to-5K program or a world champion Olympic lifter.

Everyone is responsible for deciding who they want to be and for taking ownership of their path to get there. [Photo credit: J Perez Imagery]

Pin Down Your Reasons

You probably began training for either aesthetics, health, performance, or some combination of the above. You wanted to look good, feel better, or make the varsity team. These are all good motivators, but they’re too vague to focus your training and too wishy-washy to motivate you when you’d rather pound Funyuns and marathon Game of Thrones than hit another set of five squats.

At the very least, we need to dig a little deeper. What total are you looking to hit at your next meet? How exactly do you want to look? By pulling out something more specific and tangible, you can move toward finding a program, choose meaningful metrics to monitor progress, and start moving in the right direction.

This is where most people stop, but with you, I’d like to take this a step farther. If you want to progress quickly or beyond a basic level, to the point where you have to make sacrifices and reevaluate yourself, you’re going to have to get personal. Like Brandon Lilly recently asked on Facebook:

“What does a PR total add to your life?… When you really break it down, what does a PR cost your life (family, studies, other hobbies), and how much is it actually worth?”

It’s a great question that you must ask before it’s too late. It’s a terrible feeling to mindlessly plow through greater and greater performances, striving harder and harder, only to hit a serious setback, get rocked back on your heels for a while, and wonder to yourself: “Why am I even doing this?” To get to answers that last, you might have to change the questions you’re asking:

  • Is there anything enjoyable or motivating about the training itself?
  • Is there anyone counting on you to succeed? Do you get respect, admiration, or work as a result of what you’ve accomplished?
  • Are you doing this out of fear of failure or some other negative outcome?
  • If you stopped training or dieting tomorrow, what would you lose? Would you be happy?
  • Does it reinforce your self-image? Can you respect yourself if you’re not a “fit person,” and would you lose respect for yourself if you fell off the bandwagon?
  • Do your fitness habits define your social group? If you don’t post your session on Instagram, did it count?

Your reason will be different from anyone else’s. More important, you will almost certainly not be proud of all of them. Among your reasons may be a need for recognition, a fear of being exposed as a fraud, or dissatisfaction with your body image. That’s okay. You can’t make an informed choice until you acknowledge them. Like the weird aunt who gives everyone socks at Christmas, you can’t ignore them, and when your training or life takes a sour turn, you never know which motivation will get you back under the bar… or how much you may come to depend on your crazy aunt.

“That Guy” Doesn’t Matter

No matter who you are, at some point you’ve reached outside yourself for a target to strive for, wisdom to follow, and guidance. This is perfectly normal—no one is an island—but I have never met anyone who did not, at one point or another, fall into the “that guy” trap. “That guy” is a catch-all for any mental shortcut that points to another person as an answer (negative or positive) to a question:

  • “That guy is awesome and he did it this way, so that’s how it should be done.”
  • “That guy is awesome despite following an inflammatory diet. Don’t follow him- he’s special (and probably on steroids).”
  • “Why trust the advice of anyone who’s not as fit as you? Those eggheads aren’t worth listening to.”
  • “Why trust the advice of a world class athlete? Their advice is useless to the average Joe.”
  • “That guy (celebrity fitness personality) agrees with what I’m saying. Are you saying they’re wrong?”

I have heard all five of these sentiments (more or less) used in the same argument, and not one of them is valid. At best, each individual case may be an example of a larger truth. At worst, it’s outright wrong. If “that guy” is right, he is right because his position is correct, not because he happens to believe it. Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics. Dr. Oz occasionally says things that are actually worth listening to. Accepting a dumb idea or rejecting a good one because of its source may mean wasted time or missed opportunities.

This gets to the heart of why we do this even when we know it’s wrong: it’s lazy. Instead of doing the hard work of figuring out what works for you, sorting through first principles and honestly assessing what you need to do to get better, you just do what someone else does. It’s an easy out. If it works, great! If it doesn’t, you can blame it on bad genes, steroids, whatever you want.

If you’re just getting started, you probably don’t have a grasp of the first principles or how your body responds to training. That’s fine, just find a good coach. If you don’t have the time, money, or interest and just want something to do, understand the limitations of that approach. Pay close attention to your training as it progresses. If it works, great! If not, move on and find something else. In either case, your experience says nothing about “that guy’s” program or about you. Take what you’ve learned, find another program, and get back at it.

Fitness Isn’t Faith

If there is one bit of advice I wish I could get every trainee in the world to understand at every level, it would be this: never allow your pursuit of fitness to become a religion. Fitness isn’t faith, health isn’t holy, and dogma is no substitute for discipline.

Faith is a “strongly held belief… based on spiritual apprehension rather than truth.” Don’t believe. Be convinced. If you believe a program, diet, or exercise works, carefully consider why you’re using that word. Does the evidence and your experience overwhelmingly support your position? Or is it because the program lines up with your preconceived notions of right and wrong? Has your raw, organic, barefoot lifestyle actually improved your health and sporting performance, or have you equated “natural” with “good” and assumed it must be working?

We don’t need JP Sears’ “Ultra-Spiritual Life” to remind us how overwhelmingly self-righteous people can become about healthy behaviors. Being healthy (however you define that) doesn’t make you holier-than-anyone. You are making a choice to achieve certain goals for your own reasons. This is one reason I refuse to refer to foods as clean, and want you to strike this concept from your mental dictionary. Not only is clean eating impossible to define, but it implies other foods are unclean (and, by association, that the people who eat them are unclean as well).

Dogma, “a set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true,” is a losing battle. The perpetually weak lifter who swears by the Westside Method or the dadbod paleo proselytizer has missed the point on two levels. First, to borrow a term from Dr. Jonathan Haidt, dogmas “bind and blind.” Once you believe them, you’re doubly committed because your reputation or self-esteem are at stake for having been duped. Worse, they lead you to ignore outside evidence, even when it appears that a different approach could get you better results. On a deeper level, we’ve all heard the adage that “a good program done 100% is better than a perfect program never started.” We all know it, but we somehow think that making only half of our workouts or slacking on our diet will work as long as we bask in the warm glow of dogma. Discipline will trump dogma every time.

“Everyone” Includes You

Regardless of where you’re coming from or where you’re going, everyone has to face their reasons for doing what they do. Everyone, at one point or another, will make the mistake of outsourcing their critical thinking to “that guy” or “that idea,” and we are all better off when we catch ourselves doing it before we go too far down the wrong path. Everyone is responsible for deciding who they want to be and for taking ownership of their path to get there. Yeah, “everyone” means you… and it means me, too.

Temper your mind:

Can You Train Mental Toughness?

Motivate your clients and your business:

How to Be a Successful Fitness Business Owner