Written by Nina Wilder
If attaining optimal health and fitness was as easy as following a meal and workout plan, trainers and coaches would likely cease to exist. There are a billion and one places on the internet where someone can look up proper nutrition and workout regimens, so lack of knowledge is not the real barrier for the average person to see success in this department. So, what is the problem? There is no one answer – but largely, it can be boiled down to self-limiting beliefs.
A few weeks ago, a client told me she couldn’t stop “stuffing her face because she’s lazy and unmotivated”. Intuitively, giving her a meal plan doesn’t seem like a good idea. Telling her that overeating is contributing to her weight gain is - obviously - something she knows already. Overeating happens for several reasons: emotional cues, stress, or plain old habits. Overall, however, the problem here is her belief that she can’t stop eating. She says she “can’t stop”. It’s this belief system that needs to be tackled first and we approach that by coaching for a growth mindset.
Growth mindset was a term that was first coined by psychology professor Carol Dweck in 2007. As opposed to having a “fixed” mindset, where a person believes that their intelligence and capability are unchangeable, a growth mindset is the belief that one can improve. Having a growth mindset has been shown to increase performance simply because the person is more focused on learning and developing their skills rather than getting stuck in self-criticism and defeat. It makes sense when you think about how the brain functions like an engine with our thoughts as the steering wheel. If we think that we can’t do something, the brain will go in that direction and find evidence for why we can’t; this cognitive distortion is called “filtering”. Conversely, in a growth mindset, if we think we can find solutions, the brain will look and inevitably find them.
Building a growth mindset takes time, and to coach a client towards this, coaches need to break it down into strategic steps that considers the needs and abilities of the client. Each step has to be simple, short and easily integrated into the client’s routine. This takes into the account the basic principle of habit building: a habit must first be established before it can be perfected. For instance, a client will likely be more consistent if all they have to do is a simple 60 second action every morning.
Since the goal is to orient their mind towards more affirmative self-talk, the action can be “write down 5 things you are proud of about yourself.” This simple task, while seemingly insignificant, can actually open up a new neural pathway in the brain that orients the client towards feeling accomplished. Interestingly, when we feel we’ve achieved something, we are actually more motivated to keep going. There are, of course, many other 60 second actions we can give; it can be writing down one or two things we want to accomplish in our day, five things we’re grateful for, or even a one-minute meditation to build self-awareness and emotional resiliency. Once there has been consistency, the client can then build on these habits by taking a bit more time or booking more moments in their day where they check in with their thoughts. With enough time, the client will start to think more constructively and notice an increased willingness to take on more challenges.
One of the best examples I had was when a client came to me desperate to lose weight. She had a problem with mindless eating and drinking most nights of the week, couldn’t exercise consistently and was seriously considering getting a gastric sleeve because she “failed every program she had been on”. I resisted the urge to immediately throw her into yet another fat loss program because she already demonstrated with her history that she was not ready for a program. Her mindset was “I fail every program” and knowing that, how was I to expect her to be successful at this one if we didn’t tackle that thought pattern first? Instead, we implemented a very simple morning task; every morning after she woke up, she was told to do a short meditation. There was one caveat: she could not look at her phone before the meditation with the reason being, she would get stressed immediately from seeing work emails.
After doing this short and simple habit for a couple of weeks, she noticed that she was able to approach a large chunk of her day with a sense of calm and increased self-awareness of what she was thinking. She also started to feel a sense of accomplishment because, finally, she was able to be consistent with a program. After a while, she was able to expand this morning routine to include a healthy breakfast and morning cardio. This is the effectiveness of building a growth mindset
Having a growth mindset is powerful for effective change and long-term success. It gives us an ability to overcome challenges, be consistent with our actions and ultimately change our habits towards a healthier lifestyle. For clients who struggle with self-limiting beliefs & negative self-opinions, rather than throwing them into a program, giving them a path to building a growth mindset is the most effective first step.