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Trend: exercise psychologists

Training your mind is the latest wave in exercise services.

Mastering the mind is no longer a practice reserved for elite athletes. While trainers help carve your core and nutritionists reset your diet, those with a focus on fitness are now seeking a different kind of expert, too: exercise psychologists.

In fact, Sharon Chirban, Ph.D., a clinical sport psychologist in Boston says that weekend warriors and high-performance athletes (with full-time jobs) make up a good portion of her client base.

For good reason, too: “The person who is training for a marathon may have some of the same things going through their mind as someone training for the Olympics, but the competition level is different,” says Jamye Shelton Pelosi, Psy.D., who has a specialty in sports psychology.

After all, at a certain point, we all realize that mental preparation—or how we handle performance anxiety—impacts how we do.

The elite have long known this secret, even if they don’t realize it. “High-performers who say, ‘I’ve never practiced mental skills, I just stay focused’ are using skills—they just aren’t aware of them,” says Shelton Pelosi.

But no matter your activity of choice, the right mental skills can help you conquer a variety of athletic endeavors. “I talk to a lot of athletes about overcommitting to a training plan,” says Chirban. “Triathletes, for example, can get into overtraining situations and not know when they should be resting to stay fresh and competitive.”

By teaching positive self-talk, mindfulness, and acceptance, exercise psychologists also help clients see injuries as challenges, not massive setbacks. “Acceptance isn't an endorsement. You can accept the situation without liking it; acceptance frees up some energy for self-care.”

But the ultimate prize of exercise psychology: that performance edge.

If someone wants to podium at a triathlon or drop time in a marathon, Chirban might talk through mental blocks and address struggles with a particular part of the race, like the swim portion, she explains.

Like physical skills, though, mental skills have to be practiced. Below, a few tricks to infuse into your own training.


evaluate the situation.

'Zoning out’ isn’t enough, says Shelton Pelosi. “You have to be able to evaluate what’s going on and choose what’s helpful.” If you make a mistake or feel pain, aim for open awareness without judgment. “Tell yourself, ‘OK, I notice how I’m feeling, I’m going to adjust, and that’s that.’”

learn to breathe.

By slowly inhaling to fill up your belly and exhaling to release air, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which by nature calms you down.

do a body scan.

As you stretch, check in on each part of your body in your mind, suggests Shelton Pelosi. Noticing if your hamstrings are tight or your shoulders are sore can help you make necessary tweaks.

reframe self-talk.

The three main types of self-talk are negative, positive, and neutral, says Shelton Pelosi. “All three can motivate, but negative self-talk isn’t great long term.” Training yourself to have a mix of neutral and positive self-talk will help you get to where you want to be, she says.

visualize.

Mentally picture yourself perform in different situations with flexibility, says Shelton Pelosi. Just be realistic: “It’s not picturing yourself hitting a homerun every time, but rather seeing yourself down in the count and finally getting the hit to get on base.”