Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to meet one of my idols in person, Eric Helms PhD, CSCS, USAW L₁. The alphabet which follows his name is not what makes him a legend, it's his genuine desire to have rational conversations and to better understand how we can best help people to be healthy, strong, and reach their fitness goals while prioritising mental health.
His seminar was broken into two parts, Auto-regulation and Nutrition. I'd like to talk here about his fascinating insight into how auto-regulation can be best used to make programming more flexible, enjoyable, and effective.
Psychology of Motivation
Eric began by giving due weight to the psychology underlying our physical endeavours. We know that those who do something for the experience perform better than those who are more goal motivated. In fact, even introducing an award for an activity in which somebody was already interested has been seen to result in less passion for that activity.
Knowing then that reminding ourselves of our goals can actually be, somewhat counter-intuitively, harmful to our reaching them, what can be done to give us the best chance of getting where we want to be? Enter, self-determination theory. SDT is a macro theory of human motivation and has been shown to foster physical activity, predict intrinsic motivation, and improve performance. In essence the theory recognises the importance of *autonomy*, *competence*, and *relatedness*. As with almost all categorisations the boundaries between each can be blurry, but they are well enough defined that it is worth exploring them individually in relation to coach / athlete relationships.
First and foremost it's important that an athlete is given an opportunity to define their own goals. Without this crucial initial step the coach and the athlete may well be mismatched in expectations and as a result the selected journey is going to likely be the wrong one. A technique discussed was that of "motivational interviewing" which is just to say the recursive probing of "why?", much like a 5 year old, as a tool to get to the heart of what an athlete wants.
With a target established a good coach will guide an athlete towards it, giving the athlete choices that grant them agency but don't allow for consequential mistakes. This distinction can be thought of as similar to the difference between a captain steering the ship and dictating the direction, and a navigator influencing the route and providing suggestions based on the current data.
On a base level we all recognise the futility in trying to show how smart we are. If we are truly prioritising the athlete's longevity we need to see that, beyond establishing trust, bombarding them with raw information is not helpful. When guiding the athlete we should also impart an understanding as to why a particular decision may be desirable. One can then go a step further by providing resources with which the athlete can do their own research and learning and increase their level of competence and subsequently confidence in the process.
It can be difficult to keep foremost in the mind that we truly want what's best for others, but maintaining a level of compassion when a client asks a question, rather than condescension, is key to building up their self belief. Self-esteem is yet another very important ingredient in accomplishing life-goals. Coaches should not be dictators ruling with an iron fist, they must serve as mentors aiding the athlete through their own journey.
In my experience this needs the least explanation as it makes immediate sense to people that immersing oneself in a culture of fitness and having that support network is *very* helpful in increasing chances of success. There is an element of accountability to others, but remember that ultimately we can only ever be accountable to ourselves. More than that, relatedness is what gives us identity, and while identity can cause many problems it is core to being a human. We must respect our nature and use it to our advantage. We are all telling ourselves a story about who we are, what we've done, and of what we are capable. If we can shape that story by joining a group of other athletes each reenforcing positive behaviour then we should do so.
Unfortunately for scientists eventually theory must interact with the real world if it is ever to be useful. This is where we recognise that the ideal rarely exists and compromises must be made. The motivational hierarchy gives due respect to practicality and serves as a framework to what we can expect to see in actual people.
This is where most people start their road to long term success. Basically, we just want to win. What winning means to any individual can vary a lot and is the aforementioned goal-setting discussed in *autonomy*. Ultimately, whether winning is losing 30lbs or placing 1st in a Nationals Powerlifting Meet, we begin our journey with a focus on this end goal.
As a step toward sustainability we hope an athlete moves away from a purely goal-oriented mindset and into a state of mind where gradual improvement is the primary driver. Taking genuine pleasure from the progression towards the finish line removes the need to reach it as fast as possible and removes the reliance on hitting that very specific target.
Enjoying the process itself is the most potent way to positively affect the chances of maintaining a healthy lifestyle for the long term. Even self improvement can prove unpredictable; injury, illness, or even just ageing; each of these factors could result in self-improvement no longer being possible. If we want to keep going through our 60s, 70s, and beyond, we must anchor our enjoyment to the actual activity itself.
Love of the process is the purest way to sustain a healthy lifestyle and is untainted by outcome. It's difficult to get here, but once this final step you are in the best position to maintain your new habits.
How This Relates to Auto Regulation
Auto-regulation is a philosophy for training that takes seriously the fact that athletes are human beings, not input / output machines. It is somewhat meaningless to say that you "do auto-regulation", much like saying that you "do periodisation". AR can be applied in many ways, but importantly it is a way of providing the trainee with:
- Autonomy: giving them the ability to adapt their training to how they feel
- Competence: giving them the tools to assess their performance and make data-influenced calls as to how to proceed
- Relatedness: as a coach an element of the job is always to make the feel cared for
It would be worth diving into the applications of auto-regulation, but I'll leave that for another post.