The Thanks Giving Zone Boosts Performance

A mindset of persistent thankfulness can help you find and stay in the zone.

This one took me forever to really understand. I mean, really. Gratitude? Sounds like some hippie-dippie nonsense. What does it have to do with you, your fitness, your strength, and your goals? Why bother?

Is the much-touted “attitude of gratitude” something you want to develop as you go about training your body and mind into its peak potential? I say yes, and not just because it’s that time of year. And lest this sound like Pollyanna, I’d go so far as to say that, although gratitude is wonderful to share with those around you, it’s also one-hundred percent, unapologetically selfish.

Gratitude as a Tool for Progress

We have a whole holiday dedicated to gratitude, and to me, that means two things. For one, on some level, we all acknowledge the importance of gratitude. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t all be getting together every year, keeping the Butterball company in business. But it also means that we need a reminder. We need a whole ritual, days off, and family and friends to support us in remembering to be grateful. It doesn’t come automatically, and it doesn’t always come naturally.

Gratitude is an emotional force that few have learned how to harness. Many of us know how to use emotions like anger or pride to give juice to our workouts and in our lives, but not many of us know how to use a basic attitude of thankfulness to further our goals. It’s like the thigh bone of a beast that we haven’t yet realized we can use as a weapon, so it just sits there while we beat our chests and ineffectually throw rocks at the monkeys across the watering hole.

I submit to you that gratitude can be harnessed in common, everyday situations to help you navigate your way through your workouts, on good days and bad—to help get you in the zone and keep you there. It’s a force like any other, and if you know how, you can make it work for you. And as Bluto said to Flounder in Animal House, it don’t cost nothin’.

When Things Are Going Your Way

Imagine it’s one of those rare perfect days, when you have one of those rare perfect workouts. It’s sunny, but not too hot. Your favorite shorts and t-shirt are both fresh out of the dryer. Your music sounds better than usual in your earbuds as you proceed into what happens to be your favorite day in your cycle at the gym. You’re hitting it hard, feeling the swell, the endorphins, your heart-rate going up, the sweat breaking, and you think yourself, yes, this is why I do it. And what’s this? A new personal best, without even trying all that hard. Absolutely nothing or no one can stop you. And everyone notices it, too. All eyes in the gym are on you, and you could get phone numbers and dates just by looking at people. Hold up a particular brand of deodorant, and they’d line up to buy it. For whatever reason, today is your day. You’re in the zone, and you know it.

I’m sure you’ve found yourself in that state of grace from time to time. Some days are just perfect. Some workouts are perfect. I don’t know exactly how that works or why, but I do know that your mind will probably take it way too seriously, become way too big headed, and be genuinely surprised when the perfection ends unceremoniously a few hours later with a stubbed toe, an argument with a spouse, or finding out Jamba Juice is out of spirulina or whatever.

But the point is, those perfect workouts do happen. And that can be the easiest time to pivot into gratitude, if you can manage to get over yourself. Sure, you can just let your ego take credit for everything good in the world, but if you do that, you’re also going to blame yourself when things go wrong. And things will always go wrong, eventually.

Being grateful when things are going well seems easy, until you remember it isn’t about your ego. [Photo credit: Precision CrossFit]

The key to maintaining that state of flow is shifting from the attitude of “I’m so wonderful,” to “thank you.” To be clear, I’m not talking about addressing yourself to any sort of higher power, unless that happens to be your thing. And I don’t mean addressing your gratitude to your parents, your high school coach that really “got” you, the kids who made your shoes, or any other specific persons. The most effective attitude of gratitude is non-specific. It’s a feeling, an emanation outward, a simple acknowledgement that countless forces had to align to make your perfect day happen, and that your perfect day is fleeting, so you’d better appreciate it while it’s happening.

If you can settle into that feeling, something beautiful happens. You relax. You don’t need to grasp at the good stuff and get anxious about making sure it never goes away, or run around trying to make sure everyone knows how wonderful you are. That just gives away your power, puts a leak in the boat, and short-circuits the flow you found yourself graced with. Unless you can relax into it and accept it without attachment, even good stuff can become a curse. So next time you’re having a day like that, try an experiment. Resist the urge to take a picture and post about it on Instagram, or whatever you do to show off. Instead, take a deep breath, sink into the feeling, say “thank you” (to no one in specific), and keep doing what you’re doing. See what happens. You’ll likely find you have more power, more energy, and a greater depth and breadth of deep relaxation. The state of flow will last longer, and over time, become more accessible.

When the Cards Are Stacked Against You

We all have perfect days, but we all have terrible ones, too, when all forces seem to be working against us. You oversleep and have to rush your morning. It’s raining, hard, and your only clean gym clothes are your too-short, too-blue shorts and the faded, cutoff Bob Marley t-shirt you can’t remember why you ever bought. One of your earbuds is busted, so you can’t even find refuge in your favorite motivation playlist. You’re tired, your form is poor, and everyone’s looking at you like it’s your first day picking up something heavy. And it’s leg day of all days, and no one really likes leg day, do they? You have to grit your teeth just to get through a workout that should be easy.

Maybe yesterday was one of your perfect days, and suddenly here you are, back at the beginning of the maze. When things were going well, it seemed like that’s how it would be from now on. You figured out life, once and for all, right? When things are going terribly, it also seems like things will be that way forever. But neither state is permanent, and neither one is worth focusing on. More importantly, both states are transparent to gratitude.

It may seem easier to tap into gratitude when things align in your favor, but maybe not. It may just make your head even bigger. In fact, bad days can be an even more powerful portal into gratitude and flow. After all, your ego has already taken a big knock. What do you have to fall back on? What can you look toward that you can be grateful for, and what inner resources might emerge when you stop whining and start looking? With that simple inner gesture, you can do a mental one-eighty, and not only break the “bad day” trance, but discover new insights and abilities you may have had locked away in a corner of your mind and never even suspected.

For one thing, it’s a great opportunity to see that maybe you’re not so in control as you thought you were, and not in a bad way. Trying to have nothing but perfect days, as a way to protect your delicate vanity, is no way to train mental toughness. It’s fear-based, and ultimately futile. Mental toughness doesn’t mean everything is always great; it means you are unphased, strong, powerful and relaxed no matter what is going on around you. I’ve even deliberately worn clothes to the gym that I thought looked ridiculous, just to force the issue for myself. There are plenty of little tricks you can do to undermine your fearful little ego in all its hiding places, and force yourself to develop an indestructible inner equanimity, no matter what’s going on around you.

In the process of daily ups and downs, gratitude is the great equalizer. It reminds you that whatever is going on right now isn’t the whole of reality. And because of that, those bad days are as much of a blessing as the good ones, maybe more so, because they force you to dig deeper. And that, in turn, is all the more reason to be grateful for them. The process compounds itself. When you start to see there’s always a reason to be thankful, you see that bad days are in the flow, too, and that it’s really just you interpreting them as bad. More little portals open into the zone, and you start to realize you can get there from anywhere.

mindful weightlifter

Gratitude is the great equalizer, allowing you to see good days and bad as all part of the flow. [Photo credit: J Perez Imagery]

Hardest When You Need It the Most

I suppose you could take a look at these examples and say, hey, this is pretty mundane, everyday stuff. What about when I lose a loved one? When I get into a car accident? When I get married, or receive a Nobel prize for discovering a new chemical element in my home laboratory? I would say that all the same principles apply to those extreme situations. But those are rare, and should they happen, they’ll likely put you into a sort of altered state anyway. A mother can lift a car up to save her infant child in a temporary mania of superhuman strength, but we wouldn’t call that strength training. I’m talking about cultivating an everyday gratitude that you can develop and make permanent, not a once-a-year or when-crazy-shit-happens gratitude.

Gratitude takes practice, like everything else worth developing. The most important thing is to remember to do it, and that can be hardest when you’re hypnotized by a bad day, which incidentally, is when you need it the most. But also like every other trait, the more you practice it, the easier it gets. And if you start by being mindful of it when it’s easy, it’ll be more accessible when it isn’t.

Like most aspects of mental training, the problem of gratitude mostly comes down to resistance. It’s not so much being grateful as it is getting rid of all the stuff in the way of being grateful, clearing out the mental and emotional junk so you can start programming yourself, and not just allowing yourself to be programmed by whatever is going on around you, a slave to circumstance.

For most of us, there’s plenty of that junk in the way. That’s why when it comes to any kind of mental training, I say start at the root. Hit the inner enemy where it lives: in the deep, chronic tensions and stresses that you carry around with you everywhere you go. That’s the stuff that gets triggered and activated on a bad day, and makes it seem so hard to be grateful. It’s also what tempts you into a limited, ego-clad response to good things happening, which also short-circuits gratitude. Clean the window of your perception, and you’ll find you never left the flow. It’s always been there, all around you, all the time, and always will be, if you have the eyes to see.

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