From modest garage gyms to full-scale training centers replete with sports medicine staff and a host of active recovery options, there are some important qualities that all great training environments share.
These shared traits have nothing to do with physical things like the brand of barbells and weight sets or whether your gym has jerk blocks or not. What really separates the good from the great are the attitudes and practices of a gym’s athletes and coaches.
This article will detail three practices common to athletes in all great programs, from the local, grassroots level through to the international level, and you can use them to positively influence the group dynamics in your gym. (The individual psychology of achievement and motivation are important topics for another article.)
A Culture for Success
These guidelines really pay off by creating an environment of motivation and moral support that helps athletes stay hungry for success and persevere through any bumps in the road.
1) Pay attention
You should pay attention in a few key ways. Firstly, the most important way is to pay attention with the intent to learn.
If you talk with some of the best athletes from any sport, they’ll all tell you the same thing. They never stop learning and trying to improve.
These athletes didn’t wake up one day suddenly to possess superior skills and ability. Even the legendary greats, like Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky, are known for their intense dedication to perfecting their craft.
In the wise words of Aristotle, “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Excellence isn’t an outcome. It’s a process—a commitment to continual improvement, and not just of physical ability. It’s a process that values every experience as an opportunity to learn and improve in a holistic sense.
As you accumulate more knowledge, you’ll be able to relate and connect information in new ways.
Something that you might not have understood previously or may have brushed off years ago may finally make sense in a breakthrough moment of eureka.
This approach requires you to pay attention to your attitude. Specifically, be humble and stay positive.
Humility is not the same thing as being meek or sheepish. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that, even if you make it to the top, you’re never too good to learn or improve, because someone will surpass you if you choose to rest on your laurels.
Similarly, being positive isn’t about fake smiles or inauthentic praise. On a personal level, positivity means approaching training and competition with purpose and determination, which is easy to do on your own when things are going well.
But during those inevitable times of frustration, whether it’s a series of overly-grueling workouts, a poor performance, or setbacks due to injury, your teammates and training partners are invaluable assets to help keep you on track.
This camaraderie is a two-way street, so make sure to pay attention to those around you. You and your training partners sense and feed off each other’s vibe, so avoid bringing down group morale by focusing on the negative.
Celebrate accomplishments without becoming complacent and, especially during tough times, remind each other that tomorrow is another day, carve out lessons to propel you forward, and commit to coming out on top.
2) Pay your dues
Early levels of competition have become littered with participation trophies and blue ribbons, and promising talent receive high praise and are fast-tracked to high-stakes competitions, skipping over important developmental stages. (This series details effective solutions to this problem.)
These over-inflated rewards and recognition teach athletes to equate “success” with extrinsic reward and devalue the contribution of one’s effort to a good performance. They don’t teach you to pay your dues.
Athletes become conditioned to believe that they don’t have to try very hard be rewarded (i.e. succeed). In addition, they fail to develop the perseverance and grit needed to endure the time and inevitable struggles they’ll face on the road to higher levels of competition.
One of the best things for athletes, beginner and elite alike, is to surround themselves with top athletes and others working hard to get there (one of the 5 Rules for the Serious Athlete).
As stated earlier, you don’t make it to the top overnight. In this type of environment, top athletes exemplify the value and payoff of sustained hard work, giving motivation to other athletes—a proximal target they can aspire to.
Beginners and promising talent also get an important dose of humility that they have to work hard to ascend the totem pole, and the better athletes are constantly reminded that there are hungry up-and-comers nipping at their heels.
We’re each at different points along our own journey, but the immutable truth is that it takes a lot of hard work and determination to get to the top. So instead of looking for a shortcut or quick fix, respect the process and commit to your pursuit.
3) Pay it forward
Some athletes are uneasy about helping others—even teammates—because they don’t want to be unseated from their perch. Such individuals are resistant to offering training advice and try to keep all the “secrets” to themselves.
Now, I’m not talking about divulging competition strategies or the intricacies of one’s training program, but passing along advice that applies to daily efforts.
More experienced athletes should pay it forward by sharing their valuable insight with newer athletes on things like effective technique cues, stress and time management, and effective mental approaches to training and competition.
Viewing others as a threat is a poor approach for a few reasons. Firstly, it places undue focus on external factors (i.e. other’s training and performance) instead of an effective focus on what one can control himself or herself (i.e. having an internal locus of control).
On a larger level, it hinders progress of the sport. Advice and words of encouragement from esteemed athletes can provide the positive experience to keep newcomers engaged in the sport and help it grow.
Ultimately, failing to help others restricts the level of competition and performance attained by the sport. Sure, better competition means that one will have to push himself or herself further, but they’ll be working harder to achieve greater things.
For true competitors, it’s all about pushing one’s limits, so these individuals aren’t threatened or intimidated by stiffer competition. Instead, such a challenge inspires greater resolve and stokes the competitive fire.
At the end of the day, overcoming a tougher field of competition makes victory that much sweeter.
It’d be nice if we all had our own, personal Eleiko training set and an unlimited supply of chalk and thumb tape. But the fact of the matter is that it’s the intangibles—such as motivation, self-efficacy, and control—that largely affect what level of performance we’re able to reach.
The three rules I’ve outlined above are practices that the best athletes, teams, and gyms, domestically and internationally, use to manage those intangibles and build a culture of sustainable success.
If you have other practices that help you or your team, please share them in a comment below!
About the Author
Aaron Cunanan is the founder and owner of Five Rings Athletics. Aaron integrates his academic background and practical experience, as an athlete and coach, to formulate a systematic approach to athlete development and sports performance training for athletes of all sports and abilities.
As an athlete, Aaron played rugby at the collegiate level before transitioning to the sport of weightlifting. He competed at the national level in weightlifting and trained at the USA Weightlifting Center for High Performance and Development in Shreveport, La., where he now serves as an assistant coach.
Aaron received his master’s degree in kinesiology from Louisiana State University in Shreveport.
He is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Science at his alma mater.
He teaches undergraduate courses on the theory and practice of resistance training, anatomical kinesiology, physiology of movement in sport, and the sociology of sport. He also guest-lectures graduate courses on the topics of periodization, overtraining, and anatomical kinesiology.