Does Competitive Attitude Help Persevere With Exercise??

Research explores the characteristics of mentally tough exercisers.

Posted Sep 02, 2016

When the images of the athletes from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games stream to our living rooms, we marvel at their physical prowess and mental toughness in the face of competition. Take Andrea Hewitt, a triathlete from New Zealand, who despite her triathlete husband’s unexpected death from a cardiac arrest at the age of 31 last November, trained hard to place seventh at her Olympic race. Or the US 5000m runner Abbey D’Agostino who fell in her heat only to get up to finish despite tearing her anterior cruciate ligament. She left the track in a wheelchair to be hospitalized. Ironically, D’Agostino gained a place in the final race due to the circumstances surrounding her fall, but was unable to participate as her knee was too seriously damaged. Her mental toughness to finish her race, however, gained the attention of the sporting world.

In this world, athletes need confidence, focus, commitment, resilience, and perseverance—mental toughness—to persist through demanding physical training, to endure setbacks, to face hard competition, and to cope with constant, unexpected challenges.

Exercising for fitness does not necessarily involve a competitive aspect similar to sport. However, many women drop out only after few weeks or do not exercise enough to gain health benefits. Do we lack the necessarily mental toughness to persevere with our exercise programs? Can we exercisers learn something from the athletes who are not quitters?

In their study, Crust, Swann, Allen Collinson, Breckon, and Weinberg (2014) assert that mental toughness is, indeed, important “in adhering to exercise, coping with setbacks or circumnavigating barriers to exercise” (p. 444). These researchers studied how mentally tough exercisers, think, feel, and behave to persevere with exercise programs. They interviewed seven British exercise leaders (four men and three women) and seven regular exercisers (two men and five women) who exercised an average of 9 hours over 5 days per week. The participants were asked to describe the characteristics of a mentally tough exerciser.

The mentally tough exercisers had very clear long term and short terms goals that they were very motivated to achieve. While no specific examples of such goals were given, the exercisers emphasized that fixed long-term goals got them through their exercise regime even if they did not always feel like exercising. The short term goals, such as goals for each exercise sessions, were flexible. The leaders also emphasized the importance of clear goals.

The mentally tough exercisers reported being self-motivated individuals who did not depend on feedback from others. Like athletes, these exercisers were fiercely competitive and turned their workouts into competitions against themselves, other exercisers, and even their instructors. These descriptions reminded me of exercisers who can be seen in the ‘front row’ in cardio-based group exercise classes such the Soul Cycling where it is possible to create a climate of competition. These types of exercisers prefer exercise choices where it is possible to exercise consistently with high intensity without concern for safety or proper technique. As one leader noted:

“They almost want to do everything at 100 mile an hour in almost every exercise, as quick as they can, you know. They come to the sort of higher intensity classes that we do. But if you put them into more of a Pilates situation, for example, where the focus is on slow, controlled movement and it’s quality of the movement and not quantity, I think they find that difficult and to some extent, wouldn’t enjoy it” (p. 448).

The mentally tough exercisers had an intense self-focus as they concentrated on reaching their desired exercise intensity. Some avoided social contact with others to ensure an effective workout. One interviewee stated: “While I’m exercising I don’t talk to people or anything” (p. 449).

With self-focus, the mentally tough exercisers were very committed to their exercise routines and prioritized exercise in their lives. They were characterized as ‘no-nonsense’ people who did not look for excuses to skip workouts. One exerciser reflected that mental toughness is “overcoming your normal excuses ... because there are 1001 excuses why you can’t [exercise]. I think sometimes MT [mental toughness] is just getting yourself there in the first place” (p. 453). Exercise was viewed as a job that needed to be completed no matter what. In the face of adversity, the tough exercisers persisted steadfast: “It’s like I won’t give up; I won’t let it [hard exercise] defeat me” (p. 453).

The mentally tough exercisers drew satisfaction, even pleasure, from pushing their bodies to exhaustion. One exerciser explained: “I’m always going for the hard option. But you can see with the people that pick the easier option first before even trying maybe the harder option, whereas I’ll always start with the harder option” (p. 455). Pain was an important indicator for a good (hard) exercise session. As one exerciser put it: “If I’m doing something and it’s really hurting I’m thinking this is really good” (p. 450). Another exerciser reinforced the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality: “I like the feeling of you know, when you’ve worked hard and you’re sweaty or you’re aching already and you know the next day you’re going to wake up and it’s going to be a struggle to get out of bed!” (p. 453).

Such a commitment to hard work, however, can also have a dangerous side. For example, an extreme devotion to exercise led to overtraining (doing extra sessions, adding extra intensity after having missed a class or not performing at the intended intensity level). One exerciser explained: “If I’ve had a bad session then I’ll do an extra one at the weekend or something to make up for it” (p. 453). A leader added:

“They will do over and above and sometimes I say well, maybe you need a rest day today and I’ll be training someone else and I’ll see them on the treadmill sort of thing, you know. So in actual fact, they’re quite hard to rein in at times” (p. 453).

As a result, these exercisers also tended to disregard injuries or did not take time to recover sufficiently before returning to training. For example, one exerciser confessed:

“I’ve struggled with coping with the injury. I’ve come back from injury too quickly and pushed myself too hard, too soon and I’ve then got re-injured and that has been a massive, that’s actually taken a lot longer to get over” (p. 454).

Some coped with injuries by continuing to exercise the non-injured parts of their bodies instead of resting: “If I’ve hurt my left leg then my arms are fine and my stomach’s fine so there’s no reason not to exercise those bits” (p. 454). Another added: “You’re never that injured that you can’t exercise something” (p. 453).

As seriously committed and competitive exercisers with very high self-expectations, mentally tough exercisers like many athletes were also very self-critical. They were continually looking for ways to improve themselves and set higher goals and thus, were not satisfied staying with one workout very long. One instructor reflected: “They’re thinking always about how and what more they could do to get better in losing weight or increasing their fitness levels. They don’t seem comfortable with keeping what they’re doing for a while. They want to move on to the next step” (p. 454).

At the same time, the mentally tough exercisers were remarkably resilient. One leader explained: “the people that are mentally tough, if they don’t see a change straightaway they’ll still keep working towards it” (p. 453). Despite the inevitable setbacks, the mentally tough exercisers stayed positive “thinking about how good they would feel about themselves if they completed a tough exercise session” (p. 454). Even pain was modified into a positive: ‘I suppose it’s in my mind I’m thinking that before I felt it was pain, but now I’m thinking it’s more, it’s feeling tough, it’s more like, like I say, discomfort, so I give it a different name’ (13). Many exercisers reported having high tolerance of pain that they “just block out” and “work through” (p. 453).

As the ability to ignore pain might already indicate, the mentally tough exercisers were ‘less emotional’ or reported controlling their feelings to work hard. As one exerciser described:

“I think if you’re mentally tough and you’re that driven you maybe don’t allow yourself to have a broad range of feelings because you’re trying to be tough and like you’re trying just to do everything as well as you can, like you ignore feelings, that you ignore maybe your body or your mind telling you that you’re tired or can’t be bothered or, I don’t know, feel sad or fed up but you actually ignore that more, whereas people who aren’t as mentally tough will probably just accept their emotions maybe and give up or not do—or not try as hard” (p. 455).

Based on these findings, mental toughness definitely helped the exercisers to commit to clear exercise goals and persist with high intensity workouts. They were motivated by a competitive atmosphere where they could stand out. Self-focused, these exercisers tended to ignore pain and exercise injured. Interestingly, the instructors in this study identified more women than men as epitomizing the mentally tough exerciser.

Although the exercisers in this study were committed to their exercise programs, mental toughness was not without problems and it should not be uncritically celebrated as a tool for every woman exerciser. The mentally tough exerciser also stood in stark contrast to the self-compassionate exerciser, another strategy for motivating women to exercise I introduced in my previous blog (Overcoming the Biggest Loser Effect).

Unlike the self-critical tough exerciser, the self-compassionate exerciser embraced unconditional self-love and body acceptance, relied on other people for support, and avoided competition and comparisons. She reflected on how and why certain exercises are done, not simply working out hard and to push to pain.

The self-compassionate exerciser, while preferring long terms goals, needed to be relieved from restrictions such as goals for each exercise session, whereas session specific goals did motivate the mentally tough exercisers to workout.

Where the tough exerciser treated her workout as a job to be done and enjoyed pushing her body to its limits to meet higher and higher goals through intense exercise, the self-compassionate exerciser enjoyed exercising out of joy without obligation.

Both exercisers reflected on their workout experiences, but where the self-compassionate exerciser focused on feeling the specific needs of her body, the mentally tough exerciser compared her performance to her achievements in the previous session. Both exercisers emphasized resilience, but the self-compassionate exerciser was motivated by self-acceptance whereas the mentally tough exerciser was motivated by achieving her clearly set goals.

Both approaches to exercise are meant to inspire women to continue to exercise. However, mentally tough exercisers require quite different styles of instruction from self-compassionate exercisers. Crust, Swann, Allen Collinson, Breckon, and Weinberg (2014) suggested that mentally tough exercisers who value high intensity exercise and competition need challenging, constantly varied workouts but with reinforcement of technique. They further recommended carefully designed workouts where these exercisers can focus on the non-injured parts of their bodies.

According to Rogers and Ebbeck (2016), self-compassion required a non-competitive, non-judgemental, diverse, and inclusive class environment. Instead of competition and hard work, the focus should be doing one’s best and accepting one’s own limitations in a positive social interaction with other students.

So which approach is the best? Which approach inspires more women to become and stay physically active? Both Crust, Swann, Allen Collinson, Breckon, and Weinberg (2014) and Rogers and Ebbeck (2016) suggest mental toughness and self-compassion are strategies that inspire some women. Neither strategy is necessarily superior to the other, although the self-compassionate approach seems to lead to less injuries, less self-criticism, and more questioning of the negative external pressures to exercise.

There might not be a universal best practice, but rather various ways to love or hate to exercise that we have learned from the fitness industry, from school physical education, or elsewhere in life such as competitive sport. Such behaviors can also change during our lifetime. Competition, however, motivates mentally tough exercisers whereas it is the aspect that the self-compassionate exerciser tries to eliminate. What should be role of competition in exercise classes? Should it be left to the sport fields?

Some group exercise forms, such as CrossFit that proclaims itself "the sport of exercise," already embrace competition (see my previous blog "Is CrossFit a Feminist Issue?"). These exercise classes can be a perfect setting for the mentally tough exercisers. However, anyone can exercise at high intensity level without competition. For example, by learning how to execute each exercise technically correctly one can reach high intensity levels. This requires awareness of what one’s own body needs. Therefore, competition is not a necessarily condition for a high intensity workout, but can result in injuries when one constantly competes at the limits of one’s physical ability without the experts—such as coaches, athletic therapists, nutritionists, or medical personnel—who support the athletes’ quest for high performance.

Many of us might not fully embrace either the mental toughness or the self-compassion approach to exercise. However, we can consider using aspects of each to increase the enjoyment, meaningfulness, and effectiveness of our workouts. For example, we can use self-focus to learn better technique and increase intensity by doing the movements more effectively and safely. We can become more resilient by participating in multiple physical activity modes to find the type of exercise that works for us. We can learn to reflect on our own needs and then commit to an appropriate exercise routine and intensity that, without causing pain, gives us results while appreciating and valuing that other exercisers’ achievements can be different from ours. Exercise does not need to be sport.

Works Cited:

Crust, L., Swann, C., Allen-Collinson, J., Breckon, J., & Weinberg, R. (2014) A phenomenological exploration of exercise mental toughness: Perceptions of exercise leaders and regular exercisers, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 6:4, 441-461.

Rogers, K. A., & Ebbeck, V. (2016). Experiences among women with shame and self-compassion in cardio-based exercise classes. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 8(1), 21-44.