Why is it that athletes and fitness enthusiasts with the same physical strength, technical skills, equipment and nutrition perform differently and achieve different results? When all else is equal, top performers have a specifically designed mindset that allows them to show up when they’d rather not, endure intense training, rest when needed, cope with enormous pressure, and commit 100% to giving every ounce of effort they have. Were they born with this unique mindset, or is it a skill that can be developed like any other?

Sport psychology studies the four mental toughness skills—motivation, confidence, concentration, and emotional and physiological control—that athletes use consistently, in conjunction with training and nutrition, to give them the ultimate performance edge. Whether you are a personal trainer, group fitness instructor, coach or mind-body wellness professional, the information and techniques discussed here will help your clients to enhance their performance and give them the best shot at realizing their true potential. Be sure to use them yourself—and enjoy the benefits—before you teach them!

We’ll begin with motivation and then move on to confidence, concentration and, finally, emotional and physiological control (using the power of music). For each mental toughness skill, you’ll learn a variety of techniques that have been shown to create an optimal mindset for performance.

Motivation: Want Success More Than You Fear Failure

When it comes to motivation, we aim either to seek pleasure or to avoid pain. In sport psychology, we use the terms need for achievement and fear of failure to describe these two motivational styles.

People who are motivated by a need for achievement and success place themselves in challenging situations that create opportunities for growth. They don’t like failure, but they’re not afraid of it and are thus willing to risk it. On the flip side, people who are motivated by fear of failure still try very hard but choose less challenging tasks, as a way of protecting their self-esteem—even though this approach can be detrimental to their long-term motivation and overall results. Top performers learn not to let fear control them. They develop the mental discipline to effectively deal with their fears and focus all of their energy on achieving the success they want.

Strategies for Overcoming Fear

Use these strategies to maintain high levels of motivation and get top results in your own training and with your clients:

Change the way you think and feel about your fears. Let’s look at the popular fear of not measuring up. For people with a negative interpretation of the social comparison inherent in sport and fitness, it’s important to change perspective by concentrating on the benefits of training with others (Shields & Bredemeier 2009).

When I’m teaching an indoor cycling class (you can adapt this for any class, training session or personal workout), I choose a moment and ask my participants to look around and find one person who portrays positive and high energy. Next, for one song or exercise set, I instruct riders to match or beat their person’s level of effort. During this song (and usually for the rest of the class), two things happen: (1) participants who don’t feel great feed off their person’s energy and step up their performance, and (2) people who do feel energetic and positive want to get picked, so they too step up their performance to stand out. Everyone benefits and successfully experiences a positive aspect of social comparison in sport and fitness.

Make success and achievement your most dominant thought. Our reasons for wanting success determine how we act in the moment of truth. In my consulting practice, I ask athletes, fitness enthusiasts and businesspeople two questions: (1) “What do you want?” and (2) “Why do you want it so badly—how will it improve your life?”

Think of a personal training client who is faced with 5 more V-ups, 5 more miles or 5 more seconds of one-legged side plank. Only with a strong, meaningful and clear vision will he know why he is embracing temporary discomfort and fighting to complete the exercise. And only with a powerful purpose will a client be able to put her fears aside and muster up whatever energy and resources she needs to work as hard and as smart as she possibly can to make her dreams come true.

Once your clients have a strong vision of what they want, have them strategically post a picture or an affirmation that reminds them of their vision in fear-producing places. I have found this very helpful.

Both of these strategies—changing the way we think about our fears and concentrating more on our vision—create mental space for high levels of motivation. In this mentally tough state, we can push ourselves a bit more each day, fight for daily success, and stay committed to achieving the results we want.

Confidence: Highlight Strengths and Improve Weaknesses

Confidence is the belief in our ability to meet the demands of a given situation. Performance accomplishments are the greatest source of confidence. When a client has a great training session, it boosts his confidence to attempt a new and slightly more difficult challenge next time. But what makes a great training session? Although people tend to look only at results, I propose asking two questions that focus more on the process of performance. Here are those questions, which your clients and participants can ask themselves as they work toward their performance goals:

For information on positive self-talk, two styles of concentration and the power of music, please see “Mental Toughness Techniques for Peak Performance” in the online IDEA Library or in the June 2015 issue of IDEA 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.