PERSPECTIVE: autumn 2016

By practicing sport psychology’s pillars of mental toughness, we can realise our true potential.

As a former competitive athlete at the international level, at a very young age I had the privilege to work with some of the best coaches in the world. At the time I had no idea how much these relationships and experiences would impact the rest of my life, and my career in fitness.

I’ve always been intrigued by the psychology of performance. When I was 15 I heard Zig Ziglar quote Henry Ford, saying ‘If you think you can or you think you cannot, you are probably right.’ These words have stuck with me ever since.

I believe that, as fitness professionals, we are influential coaches with the power to affect people’s lives at a far deeper level than we may realise. Each interaction with a client or class participant is an opportunity to build their mental capabilities as well as their physical ones.

I would like to share some lessons learned from coaches and mentors that I continue to practice daily.

Top performers, from elite athletes to fitness enthusiasts, have a mindset of resilience that allows them to show up when they’d rather not, get the work done, cope with pressure, and commit to giving their best every time. In sport psychology this is known as mental toughness, which includes commitment, confidence, concentration and control. Learning techniques to build these mental skills will enhance performance and give you your best shot at realising your true potential.

Commitment is rooted in motivation. As human beings, we are motivated to either seek pleasure or avoid pain. In fitness this can be thought of in terms of need for achievement or fear of failure. People who are motivated by a need for achievement place themselves in challenging situations that create opportunities for growth. They dislike failure, but they are not afraid of it and thus will take risks. On the other hand, people who are motivated by fear of failure still try very hard, but choose less challenging tasks in order to protect themselves from embarrassment, injury, physical stress or disappointment. Everyone has a level of fear: the difference lies in our ability to overcome it. This is the mental side of training.

Confidence is the belief in your ability to meet the demands of a given situation. Through positive experience and accomplishments, you build confidence in your abilities. Setting realistic expectations and goals is therefore important. Running a half marathon may not be on the cards today, but walking for 20 minutes is the first step towards a bigger goal. Focusing on what you can do, rather than what you can’t, increases confidence and sets you up for future opportunities.

Concentration is the ability to focus the mind on the task at hand. The body will move where the mind leads it. The capacity to focus, without internal debate, makes room for optimal motivation and positive emotions. It takes practice, however, to be aware of your thoughts about working out, both while you’re doing it and afterwards.

Physical and emotional control is our ability to maintain composure, even when faced with adversity. We think with our entire body, and that is reflected in our outcomes. When you feel emotionally strong, you will be physically strong, and vice versa. Everyone faces failures and has bad days – the key is to not let a setback destroy your motivation. Putting it into perspective and remaining focused on your vision long-term will keep you on your path.

Research supports the belief that ‘getting your head in the game’ actually does have a psychological and physiological effect on outcomes. This is true for you and your clients. Be conscious of your thoughts and focus your mind in the direction you wish to go.


Helen Vanderburg, BPE is co-owner of Heavens Elevated Fitness and Yoga, and Fusion Fitness Training in Calgary, Canada. A former World Champion synchronised swimmer and member of the Sports Hall of Fame, in 2015 she was named Canadian Fitness Presenter of the Year. Helen is also a Master Trainer and education developer for Schwinn Cycling, BOSU and Total Gym. helenvanderburg.com