Starting any new physical activity is challenging, especially if you’re embarking on a completely new journey.
Does this story sound familiar?
We enter a new practice full of excitement and eagerness to get in great shape, make new friends, and become the best version of ourselves. Yet, once we actually start the practice, we find our minds and bodies are way less agile than when we were younger. The practice isn’t magically fulfilling; in fact, it’s really fucking hard. It’s a struggle to even want to show up. Everyone else seems to be making progress, but we’re still stuck on the fundamentals. Our excitement fades to disappointment.
Maybe we keep showing up for a while, and some days are better than others. The good days are the ones where we make progress. The bad ones make us want to give up completely and bury our frustration in a pile of pizza. The constant roller coaster of emotions is exhausting, and we find ourselves making more and more excuses to take a day off. Or a week. Or a few months. Or quietly determine that it’s just not for us after all.
It’s no surprise why so many people burn out on new activities! This ongoing struggle in our minds hurts—especially if the activity was supposed to bring mental peace in the first place.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, beginning a new practice is an opportunity to grow physically and mentally. To get there, we need to learn shoshin.
Wtf is shoshin?
Shoshin is a concept from Zen Buddhism that refers to the beginner’s mind. Unburdened by expectations and prior knowledge, the beginner is a blank slate, eager to learn and grow with each practice. Instead of getting hung up on every obstacle or setback, a person practicing shoshin tries to stay mindful of their beginner status, curious to learn more, and eager to keep trying. They don’t strive to become an expert—they just want to continue the journey.
Developing and maintaining a beginner’s mindset as you start your new practice is the best way to keep the noob frustration from driving you nuts and burning you out. It helps you emotionally detach (even if just a little bit) from the ups and downs of learning a new skill. Without all of that emotional baggage hanging around, it’s easier to be present and have fun moving your body. Plus, shoshin dissolves those gnarly mental blocks that hold you back in your progress. Isn’t that what we’re aiming for?
Tips for cultivating a healthy beginner’s mindset
1. Let go of expectations
Where does disappointment come from? Unmet expectations.
If you expect that you’re going to show up on your first day of CrossFit and totally crush your workout, you’ll beat yourself up if you can’t complete very many rounds. If you expect that your yoga class is always going to be relaxing and refreshing, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment on days when the instructor ups the challenge level or your joints are feeling extra stiff.
Let’s be clear: the answer isn’t to lower your expectations! (How depressing would that be?) It’s to release them. When you’re practicing the beginner’s mindset, you want to avoid placing any expectations on yourself or your workout.
One tip for releasing expectations is to pay attention to the words you use in your head when you’re thinking about your upcoming workout. Are you using emotionally charged language like “amazing,” “epic,” “brutal,” or “awesome”? Try replacing emotional words with more neutral ones like “challenging,” “rewarding,” or “thorough.”
Better yet, try to replace the entire thought with simply, “We’ll see!”
2. Set goals related to showing up, not to specific outcomes
Letting go of expectations doesn’t mean avoiding setting goals! Goal setting has huge benefits in fitness (as well as business and pretty much all aspects of life), including increased motivation, clarity, direction, and control. Anyone who’s motivated by success and achievement will be tempted to start setting goals and deadlines in their fitness journey. So what’s wrong with that?
As a beginner, it’s easy to misgauge our ability right off the bat, making for poorly informed goals. We’re setting ourselves up to get discouraged if we don’t meet our goals on time—or to get an overinflated ego if we exceed the goal. Back to the frustration, emotional roller coasters, and burnout.
When you first begin a new fitness practice, set goals simply around showing up. How often you will train? Where? What time of day? Be specific. By committing to a regular practice and showing up consistently with your beginner’s mind, you’re guaranteed to make progress and have fun.
3. Observe others, but don’t compare
When you’re new at something, it’s likely you’re jumping in with a bunch of other athletes at different skill levels. To keep your beginner’s head on straight, it’s important to remember that everyone’s journey is different, and you don’t know what anyone else’s journey has been like. While you may be feeling jealous of the one person who runs faster than everyone else, you might not realize it’s taken her 10 years of training to get there. The fittest-looking person in class may have worked for years to lose 80 pounds. Anytime you start to think, “That person has it so easy!” … STOP.
Instead, watch what’s working and what’s not for others. If it’s appropriate to the culture of your gym or studio, ask questions of the athletes you look up to. Approach them with the respect and curiosity of a good beginner. You may get some great advice, and you may be surprised to learn what their journey has been like!
4. Remember that progress isn’t a straight line
Practicing the beginner’s mindset teaches us not to get too emotionally hung up on our challenges or our victories. Some days, progress seems to come quickly and naturally. Other days, we feel like we completely forgot all of our newly acquired skills and we’re starting over from scratch. Neither is a bad thing, and our “off” days don’t have to be a setback!
On the days when you’re not seeing progress, remind yourself that your body has still learned something, even if that something is how not to do it. Plus, if you’re practicing tip #2 above, you’ve already achieved your goal by simply showing up to your practice.
5. Notice how you speak to yourself
The real key to cultivating a positive beginner’s mindset is to catch yourself when you start to indulge in negative self-talk. Beating yourself up and criticizing your journey doesn’t serve you or anyone else, but it’s so easy to do. Try to be aware of those nasty thoughts and turn your mind to something more productive.
Of course, you don’t need to judge yourself or feel guilty for thinking negative thoughts! (That would defeat the whole fucking point, wouldn’t it?) When you notice the thought, simply label it as “a negative thought” and let it go without judging it.
Replacing emotional terms with neutral ones, just like we did in tip #1 above, is helpful here too. “I suck” can become “I’ve just started learning.” “I’ll never be any good” can become “I have a full journey ahead of me.” If it’s too rude to say to a friend or teammate, don’t say it to yourself.
Super important note! This is going to be way, way easier for some folks than others depending on a gigantic variety of factors, including your physiology and your environment. If you have depression or anxiety, this might feel completely impossible. Aside from the obvious advice of talking to a mental health professional, don’t forget to celebrate any mindset win, no matter how small. If you can catch and label or replace a single negative thought today, then you’ve done awesome.
Now for the ironic plot twist
So here’s the funny (or shitty, depending on how you look at it) thing. Developing shoshin is a practice in itself. Like with anything, some days are easier than others. So maybe don’t beat yourself up if you’re new at this and it’s hard at first! We’re human, and we’re going to have emotions. The goal is to remember to try to catch ourselves getting caught up in judgment or comparison.
It does get easier.
How are you practicing the beginner’s mindset?
What’s your newest activity? Where are you at in your journey? What can you do to apply shoshin to your practice? How have you successfully stuck with a practice in the past? Tell us in the comments, or share your pictures and stories on Instagram with #strongpositive.