A Growth Mindset Helps Newbies to Exercise

Apr 22, 2018

It’s not hard to retain confident exercise enthusiasts who love your classes. The greater challenge is to keep timid, anxiety-ridden individuals, the ones who may need movement the most—and who may become new “followers” if given half a chance to gain a little confidence.

As a group fitness instructor, how do you accomplish this? One way is through understanding mindset. Do you know, for example, why some people don’t bound into your class, eager to take on the front row? It’s not uncommon for people to have exercise phobia or feel ashamed or embarrassed.

Psychology drives (or impairs) our motivation to exercise. According to Len Kravitz, PhD, the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at the University of New Mexico, there is evidence (Trost et al. 2002) that “the primary psychological factor associated with exercise adherence is a person’s physical self-efficacy.” In other words, a person’s level of success is determined by his or her confidence in completing an exercise movement or program.

When a fearful individual takes the monumental step to try your class, it’s your goal—and responsibility—to provide a positive experience that encourages that participant to return again and again. As Kravitz states, “The influence of the exercise professional in empowering clients to ‘succeed with exercise’ is vitally important to exercise compliance.”

Empower your participants by helping them shift their mindset.

Understanding Mindset and Community

I could never do that.

It’s too hard.

I don’t like doing those movements.

Sometimes, people feel as if their ability to exercise or to execute a movement pattern is limited. They may even believe they were born lacking certain abilities and can’t change that. Often, they don’t even want to try a movement, or they quit an exercise entirely. (Note: This discussion isn’t referring to people who’ve just had knee surgery and can’t jump, for example.) Reluctant participants may possess a fixed mindset. As their fitness leader, you want to help them nurture a growth mindset (see the sidebar “Growth Mindset Theory” for more).

Before you implement specific mindset strategies in your classes, look at the larger picture. Consider the human desire to feel a sense of belonging. People attend group exercise with a shared goal: fitness and health. They hope to connect with others and be moved by powerful music. They want to belong, feel connected and have a strong support system, like a family—their fitness family.

Here are some strategies to help you build a stronger sense of community in your classes:

  • Get to know your participants.
  • Share personal stories.
  • Laugh and have fun.

Coaching Strategies to Develop a Growth Mindset

What are some practical things you can do to gain the trust of those brave souls who made it to class? How can you help them gain confidence? According to Stanford professor Carol Dweck, PhD, a researcher in the field of motivation, you must encourage participants to relish their progress as they trust the process (Dweck 2014). Emphasize progress, not final achievement. Dweck suggests reassuring and praising students by focusing on “the process [they] engage in—their effort, their strategies, their perseverance, their improvement.” Here’s how:

Support intrinsic pride. Rather than emphasizing calories burned or inches lost, promote how good exercise feels. This sends a powerful message that validation should come from within. For instance, try saying, “You worked hard today; be proud of yourself!” and “Ahhh, we feel better now than when we walked in.”

Encourage risk-taking. Build challenges into your class by introducing safe progressions. For example, you might say: “When you’re ready, try it in a staggered stance or on one foot.” Or offer a new choreography challenge by saying, “We’ll test out some new moves with several layers for you to choose from.”

Teach resilience by example. Talk openly about your own failures and how you overcame them. In a private conversation with a discouraged participant, use encouraging words; for instance, “I know planks seem really difficult right now, but as you keep practicing them, you’ll be able to hold them longer. You’ll see.”

Implement the “yet” concept. Help participants build the confidence to keep trying, so they feel less concerned about the negative consequences of making mistakes. If you say, “We’re not there yet,” it implies that everyone will keep working toward a desired goal. The word “yet” has a lot of power in relation to motivation. “Yet” encourages continued effort (Dweck 2014).

For more coaching strategies, please see “Shaping Minds, Shaping Bodies” in the online IDEA Library or in the November 2017 print edition of Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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