Q & A with Chris DeWolfe, Exercise Psychology
Chris DeWolfe was a classmate, roommate, and friend of mine at Acadia University where we both studied Kinesiology. Chris continued on with his education at UNB where he has just completed his Masters in Sport Psychology. I was interested to see what Chris had to say about applying sport psychology to general exercise programs, or fat loss/muscle gain lifestyle changes.
Lets get started. Chris, you just completed your Masters in Sport Psychology. Tell me a bit about your research, you must be relieved to have your final presentation completed and presented.
First of all, I want to thank you for reaching out and asking me to be a part of your blog. I am definitely relieved to have my masters degree completed.
For my Masters degree I researched the effect that self-talk has on endurance performance. Self-talk is basically anything that we say to ourselves. Sometimes our self-talk is positive “I’m doing great”, other times it is negative, “I’m so tired”, and it can even be neutral, “what am I doing after my workout”.
Although many people think that negative self-talk can hurt your sport or exercise performance, there is research that shows it can be motivational. For my research I looked at how negative self-talk can be motivational. Specifically, I looked to see if people can get motivation from their negative self-talk by interpreting it as a challenge. For example, if your negative self-talk is “My legs are dead” you could challenge it by saying “but I will push through it”. Basically it is the idea that if someone tells you that you can’t do something, you are motivated to prove them wrong.
The final conclusion for my study was that challenging your negative self-talk can be an effective way to deal with negative thoughts when you are fatigued. So next time you are at the end of your cardio workout and those negative thoughts creep in (as they always do), you can try adding a statement to challenge it. Here are some common examples:
My legs are tired, but I will push through it.
This is tough, but I will give my best effort.
I hate cardio, but I will make the most of it.
What exactly is Sports Psychology? When did you first become interested in the field, when did you know you wanted to research it?
My specific area in the field of Sport Psychology is applied sport and exercise psychology. In this area, I look at different interventions or strategies that can help individuals improve their sport/exercise performance through improving their mental game. The mental game that I work to improve includes things like confidence, motivation, anxiety, focus, and well-being.
I became interested in this area during my undergraduate degree at Acadia University. As an athlete, I knew that the mental factors were a huge part of sport and I wanted to know how to improve these factors. Most people know that the physical factors (strength, speed) are a big part of sport, but I was interested in helping athletes/exercisers reach their full potential through mental skills.
Have you ever used Sport Psychology on yourself or in your own sports or exercise routines?
Without a doubt I apply what I know to my own sport and exercise routines. For example, at the gym I am very aware of my own self-talk, and have developed a set of cue words to direct my attention and increase my motivation. But a great thing about mental skills is that they can apply to sport/exercise but also to many other parts of life. As a student, I’ve definitely used what I know about proper goal-setting. I’ve also learned relaxation techniques that can help whenever I feel stressed or nervous.
How would the application of sport psychology for a newbie in the gym trying to lose 30 lbs differ from the work you did with varsity level athletes?
If I was working with an individual who wanted to lose 30lbs there are a few things I would consider. First, I would like to point out that wanting to lose 30lbs is a better goal than just “losing weight”. So many people set the goal to lose weight, but you really need to set a specific, measureable, but realistic weight to loose. When you say you want to lose weight, you really have no set criteria as to if you reached your goal or not.
The one bit of advice I would give to the individual is to set a deadline for when they want to lose the 30lbs. This helps keep the individual accountable. Otherwise, the individual could say they are reaching their goal if they lose 30lbs over the next 20 years. Another good idea for this individual is to let someone they are comfortable with know about their goal and keep that person up to date with the progress. Letting someone else know about your goals helps accountability, and when you are successful in your goals the praise you receive from that person can be very motivational.
As for the difference between a beginner and an elite athlete, there are a few important considerations. The first is that a lot of elite athletes have some of their own techniques they use for their mental game. I would ask this athlete what they currently do, to find out what works, and to work with them to improve their existing techniques.
The other major thing, is that goals have to be challenging but attainable. I clearly would not give these two the same goal. I would make sure that the goals were achievable for each person. Giving too easy of a goal is not very satisfying to achieve, but too difficult of a goal can be very discouraging. If you think about your biggest accomplishments, they came from things that were difficult to achieve, but that you completed. To get that feeling of accomplishment, you need to complete challenging tasks.
What are some techniques or advice that you would recommend to the average Joe/Jane if they had previously committed to a healthier lifestyle, fell of the wagon, but now say they are truly committed this time to making a change for the better?
A lot of times the people who fail at living a healthy lifestyle are trying to change too much too fast. I would let this person know it is great that they are committed, but would make it clear that it is a process that takes time. Changing your lifestyle is not an easy thing to do, but it can be done. I would look into how things went before for that individual to get an idea of what went wrong. Then I would work with that individual to come up with a series of short-term goals in order to reach the outcome goal of a healthy lifestyle.
It is also important to address the things that get in the way of goals, and what things can make it easier. For example, if this person had a roommate who is also eating junk food, it might be worthwhile to see if the roommate can do something about that. Ask yourself, what all happened before I engaged in healthy or unhealthy behaviours? Then try to limit the things that led to unhealthy behaviours and increase the things that promote health behaviours.
A lot of people joining a gym feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and even anxious (judged) by current members. I believe that hiring a good trainer can help but what else do you think can help someone become more confident in themselves and their purpose in the gym?
The question on being intimidated at the gym is a great one Mike. A lot of people do struggle with this. A trainer can help, one of the areas where a trainer helps is with instruction. A trainer will let the person know about proper technique so that the individual can at least feel comfortable that they have knowledge of that. I recommend for anyone joining a gym to go on the internet and learn the proper technique to some exercises BEFORE they get to the gym. That way, they can have a plan, and go to the gym feeling confident in the exercises they will perform.
The other part on this, is to judge success and failure on yourself. In a gym setting, it is very easy to compare yourself to others. However, you cannot compare apples to oranges. If you just started at the gym, it is likely and reasonable that you will be behind the people who have been going. Success is not measured how much you lift compared to the person beside you, it is how much you lift compared to what you lifted yesterday. When we compare ourselves to others, our self-talk can easily get negative. We can beat ourselves up by saying “I suck, I’m weak, etc.” The next time you catch yourself doing this, you should ask yourself, “would I say these things to another person who is just starting at the gym.” Usually the answer is no; we are a lot harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else.
*Pause, reflect, read the last paragraph over gain, love this one Chris*
When I was just beginning my own fitness journey I found that I had to be willing to push myself in order to see progress, do you believe in mental toughness in the sense that pushing yourself physically also makes you stronger mentally?
I think a good saying with the connection between pushing yourself physically and mentally is “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable” If you find success in pushing yourself physically, it can help the mental side of things. As you make it through all out exercises, you learn that you have done it before, so you can do it again. However, there is a fine line. It is also easy to get burnt out when you are constantly pushing yourself to the max. A good approach could be to set a certain day of the week where it is your day to go all out. I believe it is important to have days where you are working out, but maybe doing it for enjoyment rather than full exertion.
I love the saying ‘you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,’ can you speak a little more on that?
Haha, I did use that quote in my pervious response. I think one of the things with sport psychology is being prepared. If you know you are going to do an all-out workout, plan for it in advance. This could be setting up cue words for when you’re tired, or an image you want to picture in your head to motivate you until the end. That way, you are prepared for the “uncomfortable.” It is still going to be tough, but you will have the tools needed to achieve it. Sport psychology/mental toughness is all about dealing with the uncomfortable.
One word of advice I would like to share is that you learn more outside of your comfort zone rather than in it. If you do things you are comfortable with, it is because it is already learned. When you are doing things you are uncomfortable with, you are in the process of learning and improving. Try to find the balance of uncomfortable but manageable.
What is one thing that the readers can start doing right now to help their performance in both sport and general health and fitness?
One piece of advice I would leave you with is to focus on the small steps. Far too often athletes/exercisers know what the big picture is that they want to achieve. It could be winning the final championship, or losing 50lbs. But how are you going to do that? When you focus on the process, the outcome will happen. For the person wanting to lose 50lbs, keep that in mind as your big picture, but have the small picture too. For example, the small picture could be spending 30min on the treadmill at a certain speed four times a week. When you focus on the process of doing that, the outcome of losing weight will happen. When you focus on the big picture without a process to get there, you are really trying to get to the end destination without any plan or map.
Also, when starting to think about the mental side of sport/exercise, just check in with yourself to develop a sense of self-awareness. Ask yourself “am I focused, motivated, relaxed, nervous, confident, etc”. Notice how your mindset is when things are going well, and when they are not going well. This will give you an idea of your own performance mindset. With this awareness you can know what things need to change to get from a poor mindset to a great mindset.
Thanks for reading!
If you have any questions for Chris you can reach him on twitter @dewolfec