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Ginny Johnston* (Editor’s Note: *Names have been changed per academic research conventions.) wove her arms through the pocket of her team-issued hoodie and shuddered as the movement created contact between her sweatshirt and her stomach. Ugh that belly, her own voice yelled in her head. That belly is why you are not on that bus.
A charter bus bound for the airport was carrying her teammates off on their way to sunny California and an early season invitational. Ginny had waved goodbye from the cold, still-winter drizzle of the Midwest.
“I need you to want it more, Ginny,” her coach had said when he told her she would not be traveling. This statement Ginny translated to: “Just lose weight already, you fat cow.”
Ups and Downs
How more could she want it more? Running fast was, in fact, all she wanted. Running fast would give her a reason not to hate her body. Toward that end, she led intervals in practice; she pushed the pace for teammates who took titles at major meets. Running fast, Ginny was convinced, was the only thing that could save her.
Ginny felt hatred toward her body for much of her young life. Watching the tiny bodies of a fast high school teammate and a child-sized high school coach with a swift and ceaseless stride catalyzed in Ginny a will to reverse the trail adolescence was blazing through her body. Pounds came off and periods stopped. Her plan—for one evolutionary minute—had worked.
Ginny soared to the top of her team, her conference, her state. College coaches from around the country showed up to watch her compete. Exhausted and undernourished, she chose a school where there would be no question of comparing her body to her coach. She picked a program helmed by a man with a potbelly and a pile of trophies—a man whose desktop full of photos of his wife and daughters telegraphed to the 17-year-old Ginny a kind of quiet caring, wisdom and respect.
But now, three years in, she was sure that she must have been wrong. He hates my body as much as I do, Ginny told herself, agonizing over the 15 pounds of muscle and the menstrual regularity she’d accrued over her years in college. She reviewed the bodies of the girls on the bus, wagering that none of them had had a period in the past year. They’re going because they’re thin, Ginny thought. She just knew it.
Loving—and Hating—Your Body
Chase two rabbits, as the saying goes, and you won’t catch one. Running for Ginny was never just running. It was, instead, the thing that was supposed to rescue her from the disgust she felt. Running fast could do two things, or so she hoped. First, it would defang the violence she bore toward herself. Second, it would give her the solid evidence she felt she needed to be able to appreciate what her body could do.
Ginny wasn’t afraid of hard work. The problem, however, was that she wanted the evidence as badly as she wanted the effort. She saw them as one and the same. This was why she could not process her coach’s request for her to “want it more.” The it for Ginny was the evidence that would come from the effort altogether. And she sure wanted it. The it for her coach was the effort—along with which comes the risk that there never will be the evidence one expects to see from it.
If your brain is the super-powered computer that controls your body, body hatred is like a massive program that is always running, eating up memory and space on the hard drive and slowing down the whole machine. Athletes’ (indeed anyone’s) assessments of their bodies require activity in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for processing sensory information and integrating it into a recognizable form: a memory, a perception or a cognitive process like reasoning or self-regulation.
Each time Ginny pulled on her uniform or her practice gear, she noticed the way the waistband touched her stomach, how her sports bra squeezed her chest, where her shorts grazed her thighs. The cognitive output of these sensory observations went something like this: Gonna be slow today, fatty, or occasionally, on the other end of the spectrum—Weak, weak, weak, you’re never going to make it through.
It is not hard to imagine how thoughts like this might hinder performance, but exercise scientists now have research to show that physical self-consciousness increases athletes’ perception of effort, causing brains to signal bodies to respond as if fatigued.
Writing this now, I can almost hear Ginny wanting to get frustrated with me. Number one, she’d say, I could have told you that and saved some research dollars. And number two, if all you’re going to give me from that is to say, “Don’t think about it,” you sure aren’t going to be helpful.
Something I observed in a study about body image that included more than 100 interviews with elite and professional athletes across multiple sports was that the most decorated among them had what psychologists call a growth mindset, not only when it came to their athletic performance, but also when it came to thinking about their bodies throughout their training and competition.
A Winning Mindset
Psychologist Carol Dweck has devoted much of her career to exploring the conditions and belief systems that help kids learn. She has found academically successful children who persist in their efforts to learn despite challenges tend to adopt a similar perspective: They see where they are at right now as both an acceptable starting point and as the launchpad for opportunity to get better. This is the “growth” mindset.
One illustration of the growth mindset in athletic performance looks like this: Michael Jordan gets cut in high school basketball tryouts. He practices, goes back out, practices more, gets better. And over the course of decades—with seasons and years that include public ridicule and declarations of failure—develops his athletic potential and his ability to express himself through his sport. His actions suggest that he believes himself able to grow through dedication and hard work. Similar, we could say, is the child who takes a test, succeeds, hears, “You worked so hard!” and who then sets about working as hard as he can for the next one.
The growth mindset stands in contrast to the “fixed” one. In the fixed mindset, people think about their own features as permanent, set, baked right into their being: “I’m not a science person” or “I can’t run long distances.” Or the child who takes a test, succeeds, hears, “You’re so smart!” and then panics about the next test, as in his mind it has the power to confirm or deny his intelligence.
But something that stood out in my own research with elite and professional athletes was this: A growth mindset may not be a permanent state. In other words, the growth mindset isn’t fixed.
Take, for example, Tae, a retired NFL defender and a participant in my body-image study. Over the course of his career, Tae had been on the small side for his position. He was cognizant of his size enough to be diligent about calorie consumption and astute in the ways he sized up opponents who frequently came at him with a 50-pound advantage. Tae, however, reminded himself that he had explosive speed, powerful quads and a low center of gravity. He knew he had ropes of stupendous fast-twitch muscle fibers braided through his legs. They see me and they see small, he thought, but they can’t see what I’ve got on them.
As massive men rushed their superior body weight at him, Tae could quiet any doubts that crossed his mind with the thought: Stay low, move fast, you’ll be fine. And he was. This athlete, in other words, learned to think about his body as something he could develop into an advantage. On paper, he knew he appeared to be at a deficit for his position. And he knew plenty of guys who, getting caught up on such stats, missed opportunities to develop their own unique frames to capitalize on unexpected strengths.
In retirement, however, with a second career featuring far less time and fewer resources for intensive weight lifting, coupled with business lunches with colleagues sure to give 3,000-calorie meals a side-eye or worse, Tae saw 50 pounds slip off his frame. This meant he was now 100 pounds lighter than the “ideal” for the important role his position played, 100 pounds less than the guys he saw as “really fit.” Skinny as he now was, he felt he’d lost a little piece of his identity. Slender was not how he knew himself as an athlete.
Under the stress of life transitions and identity shift, Tae’s NFL weight became to him a representation of fitness. He experienced a pang of humiliation every time someone noticed the changes in his body. His growth mindset about his body had become, at least during this stressful time, a fixed one.
The fixed regard in which Ginny thought about her body during high school and college began with the makings of a growth mentality (albeit one much shorter lived and less sophisticated than Tae’s). Ginny saw two athletes performing well—her tiny teammate and coach—and extrapolated from that, that a body must be tiny to run fast. But her response was a kind of growth response: She thought to herself that she could make the necessary adaptations to perform in the way that she desired.
The problem for Ginny was her very partial perspective on what was needed for success: She became fixated on just one element of others’ excellent performances without pursuing adequate knowledge of all the other elements involved.
So growth mindsets about bodies are not fixed conditions and have to be cultivated through ongoing practice lest an athlete get stuck somewhere along the growth process. In other words, the growing in the growth mindset has to keep on going. And that is not easy to do. Supportive relationships, a healthy environment and active mental training on the part of the athlete are all crucial ingredients.
The good news though is that if fixed mindsets about bodies come from getting stuck somewhere along the growth process, some very conscientious efforts nudge them out of their rut and back down their path of growth.
Ginny herself provides evidence. After graduating from college injured and frustrated, she still wanted to run fast. She had learned, however, that some of what she was interpreting as evidence of her own inadequacy just wasn’t true. This became increasingly evident to her as she sought out folks to run with just for fun and used weekend road races as workouts. She found that when she didn’t expect the outcome of a race to save her from her feelings of self-hate, those feelings seemed to be around a lot less. Pretty soon, she was slaughtering PRs she’d achieved during serious collegiate training by relaxing and exploring what her body could do.
Ginny didn’t think her body looked any different than it had, but she did notice that what she saw was something sort of cool—a vehicle that could take her on some great adventures. And it has. Six years after getting left off that bus, Ginny has finished four races minutes faster than U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying standards for the marathon.
Even during periods of injury, Ginny now has the tools to stay positive. Where time out of sport and exercise once might have sent her over the edge, she can call to the forefront of her mind how her body has adapted before. Physical therapy would just give her another opportunity for adaptation. She’d come back stronger.
It’s not that she never felt haunted by fixed notions of what her body “should” be like anymore. She did. Frequently. She just knew now that those notions were like little potholes that come along with a pretty awesome and challenging road she’s driving on. She had driven over those potholes before, and she knew she would drive over them again.
Margaret Smith, Ph.D., is a sport psychology consultant in Birmingham, Ala. She works with athletes of all sports and all levels from international elites to novice youths. You can reach her at email@example.com.