Athletes should think like scientists

When mental skills coach Carrie Jackson Cheadle works with athletes facing setbacks, she suggests they tackle their problems like a scientist: with curiosity about how to solve them.

David Otey, personal training manager at Equinox Sports Club New York, puts the attitude this way: “There's a wall in front of me, but there’s got to be a door here somewhere,” he says.

The approach embodies what’s called the growth mindset. People who adopt it recognize performance isn’t innate. Instead, it’s something you always have the power to improve. In fact, obstacles are an inherent part of the process, says Matt Berenc, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in Beverly Hills.

For some people, this framework is instilled from a young age. But with practice, anyone can overcome a default reaction and learn to respond more curiously instead, says Cheadle, Petaluma, California-based author of On Top of Your Gameand the upcoming Rebound. Here’s how this applies to common fitness hurdles.

The setback: An injury

The default reaction: Coddling your injured body part—or pushing through the pain until you make the problem worse.

The curious comeback: The smart athlete investigates and addresses the underlying causes for their injury while they heal, Otey says. Maybe a strength imbalance caused your muscle strain or lifting too much, too soon led to tendinitis.

Of course you should talk to your physical therapist or Tier X coach for tips, but you can also explore on your own how other athletes rehabbed similar issues. At the same time, work on other skills that boost performance, Cheadle says. If you can’t run, for instance, study race strategy, strengthen your core, or hone your visualization practice instead.

When you’re back at it, actively rebuild confidence in your just-healed body part. For example, step or start each exercise with the “weaker” leg first. “That will enhance and refocus the fact that this is OK, this has healed,” Otey says.

The setback: A poor performance

The default reaction: Drowning in disappointment—or pretending it never happened.

The curious comeback: First, let yourself feel disappointed for a set period of time, maybe a day or two. “When you just fight against what happened and don’t accept it, you don’t allow yourself to be open to the feedback that will help you improve,” Cheadle says.

Then, do a post-performance analysis by disentangling your emotions and breaking down the entire event. (Ask a coach or friend for help if you’re too involved to see clearly.) Curiosity can help you look more objectively at where things went wrong, Cheadle explains.

Still, chances are something also went well. Note the pluses and aim to repeat them. For the rest, think through how you can alter your approach next time.

The setback: Loss of motivation

The default reaction: Going through the motions—or stepping back from training altogether.

The curious comeback: Try something completely different, Berenc says. Your goal now isn’t to address physical shortcomings, but to reignite your spark for movement. Burned-out runners could try kickboxing. If you’ve lost the love for heavy weights, tinker with an Animal Flow or equipment-free routines.

You can also seek a deeper motivation. Ask yourself why you train. Once you’ve answered the question one time, ask why, then ask why again. It’s often the fourth or fifth why that reveals your true purpose, Cheadle says.

For instance, your goal might be to lift heavier or run faster. If you ask why that’s important, you might realize it’s to feel a sense of accomplishment. Maybe that’s important to you because it gives you a sense of purpose. Touching that deeper reasoning often provides new energy and can open up the possibility of a different route to the same result.

The setback: Life stress

The default reaction: Feeling overwhelmed—or letting those stressors keep you from the gym entirely.

The curious comeback: Delve deeper into the origins of your stress, Cheadle says. Start by listing all the facts about your situation. Say you wind up identifying 10 sources of stress at work and home. Instantly, you have a better grasp of understanding why you feel the way you do.

From there, consider the coping mechanisms you’re employing. There are four primary coping strategies: problem-focused (figuring out how to handle a difficult client or a bad boss); avoidance (getting out of the situation entirely—say, quitting your job); emotion-focused (addressing not the stressor but the response, through something like deep breathing exercises); and support-seeking (asking for help).

Each can play a role in managing stress when you apply them at the right times. Consider which you’re using and whether another might be more effective. If you get stumped, think about the advice you’d give a friend in the same situation—that can help you approach things more objectively, Cheadle says.