Mindset Evolution: Using the Right Tool for the Job

The Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced Mindsets

No matter what activity skill or sport you’re trying to improve, the mindset you take to it will largely determine how successful you are.  The right mindset is critical, but there isn’t a “right” mindset for all skill levels.

For more than a decade I’ve been training people of all levels and I’ve noticed three mindsets that are critical at different development stages.  Time spent in each depends largely on the person. It’s not a matter of putting in 6 weeks at each and moving on, instead, it’s like maturity. Some mature at very young ages, some take longer.  But saying, “ok you’ve spent 18 years breathing, you’re now mature” misses the mark. Moving beyond a beginner mindset isn’t a conscious decision… it just kinda happens.

What I do know is that trying to force the transition doesn’t work.  Much like trying to do an advanced workout program before you’re ready, trying to force an advance mindset ends in disaster.  You must spend time on those beginner strength programs before you can expect to reap the benefits of Smolov or Conjugate. Likewise, you must spend time developing the foundational beginner mindset before you’ll see any benefits from an advanced one. Otherwise the advanced mindset will overwhelm you. Much like Smolov will hurt your back if you tackle it before you’re ready, the advanced mindset will burn you out if you haven’t built your base.

So I mean this with all sincerity, an advanced mindset isn’t inherently better than an intermediate or beginner mindset. An advanced (or intermediate) mindset won’t help a beginner progress faster; just like an advanced program won’t help a beginner progress faster than a beginner workout program. In fact, it’s actually detrimental. It’s all about applying the right tool for the right job. Or in this case, the right mindset for the right development.

The Beginner Mindset: “Get it done.  No matter what.”

“Have a bad day.”  I tell people this all. the. time.  “Get in. Get it done. It’s ok if you have a bad day.”  When you’re beginning, the ONLY thing that matters is creating habits.  The only way to create habits is discipline. The only way to cultivate discipline is to have a bad day; and show up again tomorrow.

When you’re just starting out you have no habits and no routine.  Well you do actually, but they usually stand in opposition to your fitness progress.  You still work the same long hours, have the same obnoxious commute, still tempted by the same fast food and beckoned by the same couch and TV shows.  But you have to say no to all those things and come torture yourself for an hour or so. No wonder it’s so hard to stay consistent when you’re just starting out.  To all that I say: “Have a bad day.”

Making progress and perfect form aren’t primary yet.*  Getting it done, no matter what, is what matters. Developing resiliency is the most important trait for beginners, no matter the task. Bad days are going to happen. And for beginners it’s all too easy to put too much stock in them. Bad days don’t mean you’re not cut out for it. They don’t mean your bad day will be the new norm and you’ll feel inadequate forever. It means you’re human. And as a human you have the ability to keep things in perspective and know that tomorrow is a new day!

Tired from work?  Have a bad day. Didn’t eat the right thing at lunch?  Have a bad day. Still sore from the last workout? Have a bad day and lift less or go slower.  It’s perfectly ok to have a “bad” day. The fact that you showed up is the most critical part of progressing at this stage. In fact, it’s all that matters.

So show up. Try your best.  Have a bad day. And show up again tomorrow.

*Before some internet know it alls jump in on me I’m NOT saying doing any exercise poorly is a good idea.  Of course there are acceptable standards everyone should strive to achieve. And I always recommend people work with an experienced coach to help.  But if you tell me you make sure all your clients are the spitting image of perfection before you do anything else I’ll make a good bet you’re a coach who doesn’t work in the real world with real people.  You’re probably just writing things online and pretending theory is more important than practicality.

The Intermediate Mindset: “Better, Faster, Stronger.”

At some point in your progression the idea of “Get it done.  No matter what.” will start to become automatic. It will no longer require a conscious effort, it will become autopilot.  Turns out that soreness wasn’t debilitating. The work fatigue didn’t affect your squat too much. Your routine will have include workouts by default. So just showing up won’t quite get you the results it did before (though make no mistake, showing up is always fundamental to getting better).  

As I mentioned before, there’s no definitive timetable for the switch from Beginner to Intermediate.  Telling yourself, “Ok I’m gonna be intermediate now” is the surest fire way to NOT progress from beginner to intermediate.   Before the Beginner Mindset is unshakeable, you’re wasting your time trying to force yourself into intermediate. You won’t make better progress, you’ll just burn out.

The intermediate athlete has been bitten by the bug.  Showing up isn’t the struggle it used to be, progress is the goal now.  We all remember the first time we had a 1RM back squat and then when we re-tested you see a 20-30% improvement.  Addictive at the highest level.

The intermediate mindset is the most fun.  Working out becomes the best part of your day. The workout is an enemy to be conquered.  Setting new PR’s becomes like chasing a high. How much better can you get? One you’ve shifted into this intermediate mindset you can start to push the boundaries of your capabilities.

The intermediate athlete should really start to take stock in recording performances and notes. Since just getting it in isn’t yielding the same results, you need to start pushing it. Now that showing up isn’t the challenge it used to be, setting new records should be. Instead of “god I hope I can finish” the self-talk turns into “I wonder how fast I can finish.” PR’s are now important. Winning is important. Pushing yourself to new levels is important.

Setting new personal bests is unquestionably satisfying. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with staying at this intermediate stage for the rest of your life. But at some point, if you want to progress to another level, another shift has to happen.  The shift to the advanced mindset.

The Advanced Mindset: “Intention is everything.”

I would say a vast majority of people never progress beyond the Intermediate mindset.  Pushing yourself and striving to get better, faster and stronger is fun and satisfying; and hard to leave behind.  

Unlike the progression from beginner to  intermediate, the shift to the advanced mindset takes conscious effort.  And let’s be very clear, the advanced mindset is not fun.  It’s like the shift from turning a hobby into a job.  It often sucks the fun out of the activity, but if you want to go to another level, it’s a necessary sacrifice.

For the advanced athlete, intention is everything.  Down to the smallest detail. Minor nuances on technique are crucial. Interval variance needs to be minimized to fractions of seconds. Everything that happens outside the gym is now viewed by how it affects you in the gym.

Nothing for the advanced athlete is done by accident or “just cause.”  It’s a mindset of focused attention at the smallest level. The advanced athlete has to understand the intent of the workout, the most efficient way to move (often times re-tooling and correcting learned bad habits), and meticulously scrutinize their own performance based on objective measures, not just “how it felt.”

Fundamentally, the advanced athlete understands the sacrifice of winning on training days to win on game days.  For example, I recall watching a few people perform a workout like this:


5 rounds of 90 seconds:
12 Thrusters, 135lbs
AMRAP burpees
...rest 90 seconds…

I watched a number of athletes “game” it and discover that sprinting rounds 1,3,5 and resting entirely for rounds 2,4, resulted in better total scores.  They objectively “won” the workout. But that’s an intermediate mindset. How do I win?

The advanced athlete understands that winning on a Tuesday AM is less important than understanding what am I trying to get out of this workout.  How can I optimize it so that I take full advantage of it? For the advanced athlete, learning to nail down their pace and be consistent for all 5 rounds is better for winning on Game Day than winning a Tuesday workout.

Understanding the point and optimizing performance (from intent, technique and recovery) is the difference between an amateur and a pro.  And it’s the reason why most never progress from intermediate to advanced. It’s hard, boring & unsatisfying work. The only thing that matters to the advanced athlete is winning on game day.  Everything else is eligible for sacrifice.

Conclusion

I think the most damaging and incorrect takeaway from this article is that one of these mindsets is better than the other.  They are all of equal importance depending on your level of development.  Many people are perfectly happy staying in the intermediate mindset for their entire career.  Indeed many even achieve high levels of performance without progressing to the advanced mindset.  One isn’t better than another.

Using the right mindsets is like using the right tool for the job. A screwdriver isn't better than a hammer; it just depends on the task at hand. Understand the job in front of you and use the right mindset and you'll be able to use them to get the job done!