Think Your Way to Improvement


As athletes look to build their bodies and their craft, particularly during the offseason, it can be easy to get lost in the repetitive “grind” of the process. As off-seasons become shorter and shorter, many athletes find themselves in a race against time to improve.

Despite significant research supporting the benefit of rest, a culture of “no days off” has left many athletes battling time and fatigue in the pursuit of improvement. But what if there was a way for athletes to shift their mindset to accelerate improvement? A 2007 Harvard study suggests that simply by reflecting on the benefits of their training, and bringing these thoughts front of their conscious mind, athletes can experience accelerated improvement. Call it “reflecting your way towards your goals”.


In 2007, Harvard professor Ellen Langer studied hotel maids who had unhealthy ranges of BMI, blood pressure, and body fat. These maids had similar measures in these categories to people who don’t get enough exercise. The interesting thing was that these maids were on their feet all day, and generally hauling around heavy cleaning carts. Their job was actually designed for fitness, with the average maid getting more exercise than the US surgeon general’s basic recommendation. So why were they so far from fit?

Langer decided to split up 84 maids into two groups. The first group was the “control group” and she didn’t tell them anything. The second group was the “test group” and she told them, “that they were getting more than enough exercise” along with how many calories they were burning on an average day! That’s it, she simply shared this information with the second group.

The results? One month later, group two (the informed group) had on average lost weight and saw a 10% drop in blood pressure. Simply by being told that their job should improve their health, their health got better!


The study shows that two people doing the same task (in this case, cleaning hotel rooms) can achieve significantly different results with a simple change in mindset.

For athletes the key takeaway here is simple. With all the work you put in, you need to “pay-it-off” by finding time to reflect and celebrate the work you’re putting in. The research shows that just by being aware of the results your work is creating, you can improve your results significantly.

There are a number of ways to pause and reflect on the work you’re putting in including:

  • Journaling: after every session writing down what you achieved, where you improved, what you’re working on
  • Constant Feedback: Establishing a culture of constant communication with your coach or trainer, starting each work out with the goals for the session and then summarizing each and every workout with what was achieved
  • Daily Goals Check-In: Revisiting your goals daily and carrying them with you at all times
  • Micro-Goals: Breaking down your goals into weekly, daily, even hourly formats

Reflection is an important component in performance, in sport and life. Through reflection we have an opportunity to measure ourselves, tweak our approach (if necessary), and take stock in the work we’ve done.

Keep reflecting and keep talking to yourself about your great progress. The science shows that this type of mindset improves … well improvement!





Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. 2007. Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science 18, no. 2: 165-171.

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