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Today we tackle misconceptions in exercise psychology. We have plenty of examples to pick from – these are often supposedly “common sense” statements, that we accept as fact without reflection.

Some of these misconceptions are timeless. You’ve probably received some of this wisdom from a parent, coach, or mentor at some point. And if you have, there’s a good chance you’ve passed them on to others!

Today we identify several misconceptions in exercise psychology. We discuss how much truth is behind these statements, and what we should be saying or doing instead.

How do misconceptions form?

Misconceptions often start with a statement that might have a kernel of truth to it. We think it sounds right. It has a home truth, common sense feel, that is hard to fault. This could, for example, be about working hard to achieve your goals. You can’t disagree with this, right?

If this common sense appeals to your values, you will accept it without reflection. Of course hard work is rewarded!

Not only that, you will interpret any future information with how it agrees with your new belief. This is a type of cognitive bias that can be useful, as it’s a shortcut that helps us interpret new information quickly.

But it can also cause us problems!

If the information is consistent with your belief, you will accept it without question as proof. If it is not, you will find a reason to reject it. The effort you put in wasn’t rewarded for other reasons. The unsuccessful person was not really working hard enough. Or they made some other glaring error that allows you to dismiss their effort.

Over the years, this belief gets reinforced. After all, the only information you accept is what you already agree with! So, you become more and more convinced you are right.

Can we correct misconceptions in exercise psychology?

This can be hard, so it’s best to get to someone before the misconception forms. We can start with education, and build an appreciation of just how complex the topic of the misconception can be.

Even an idea as seemingly obvious as the importance of effort can be influenced by dozens of other factors, both physical and mental. By acknowledging this we create at least some room for doubt. We can’t even begin to correct the misconception without this.

So, to address these misconceptions in exercise psychology, we need to talk to some experts. Luckily, we have a couple ready to help.

Who are these so-called “experts”?

Given we are talking about exercise psychology, we need to hear from a real psychologist!
We reached out to Dr. Jeremy Adams to help us. Dr. Adams is a psychologist based in Hobart, Australia. His PhD is in sport and exercise psychology, and he has long experience in both academia, and professional practice. He has worked with athletes of all levels and is an avid athlete himself.

While Dr. Adams gives us a sport psychology perspective, Dr. Dan Jolley (also the author of this piece) provides a coach’s perspective. Dr. Jolley has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in exercise science, and his doctorate looked at how to correct misconceptions in exercise science. He has worked as a strength and conditioning coach in several sports, from amateur club to international level.

What are these exercise psychology misconceptions?

Many misconceptions in exercise psychology are about effort and self-belief. When repeating them we mean well, but they can be counterproductive. If they compromise our decision making, or our attribution of success and failure, we might be less successful in the future.

As we describe each one, our experts will give their different perspectives. If you finish one of these sections thinking “I didn’t think of that… this is more complicated than I thought”, this is good news! It means you are open minded enough to accept new knowledge and ideas, and we’ve communicated clearly.

Misconception #1: willpower is the key to sticking to your exercise and diet regime.

willpower is overstated in exercise psychology misconceptions

Relying on willpower to make sure you get up early to get a full workout done? You’ll probably fail eventually, so consider other strategies!

This makes sense to so many of us! Good choices are about self-control, right? Don’t want to drink alcohol, don’t order a drink. Want to eat better, make healthier meals! Want to exercise, go for a run. You just need to make good choices!

The psychology perspective

Dr. Adams thinks that willpower is almost never the reason people are successful when trying to change behaviour:

Most people find the use of willpower involves major internal struggle, often substantial perceived stress, and then a collapse of effort and acquiescence to the default (e.g., eat the chocolate, avoid the exercise). It’s demoralising to “fail” like this, so after several attempts, we give up – often with thoughts or statements like “I’m not strong enough” or “I need to figure out how to be more motivated”.


It’s better to assume willpower won’t work. We’re now free to approach the problem differently. Expecting reluctance, discomfort, indecision, and urges helps us to work with them when we turn up.


Once they do, we can notice that they are normal, and make a small decision based on what we actually want, rather than what we feel like at the time. So instead of expecting to feel motivated to exercise, expect to feel demotivated, flat and reluctant. Then instead of trying to commit to a full workout, commit to something much smaller (like getting dressed to exercise, or doing a warmup).


Underpinning any desire to change is a value, but values are often very hard to act on.


Consequently, our goals should reflect our values (i.e., how we want to behave) rather than our expectations (i.e., what we want to achieve). When underpinned by a desire to be healthier over the long term, exercise, for example, is a lot more likely to be sustainable than if it was motivated by a desire to lose weight.

The coaching perspective

Dr. Jolley adds that many of the most successful people we see – like the sporting role models we look up to, don’t rely on willpower for their success either:

In a sporting context, especially team sport, you are often in an environment where you don’t need a lot of willpower to exercise. You have training sessions you have to attend. You have numbers that you are expected to reach on the field and in the gym (like running times, or weights to lift). And if you don’t do the work, you may not be selected.


By putting ourselves in a situation where it is easier to make the right decision, we don’t need to rely on willpower. We can book sessions with a trainer, exercise with a friend, or make healthy meals to go in the freezer.


And we can make exercise easier by doing something we enjoy, that’s convenient, within our price range, and sustainable. Exactly what you are doing, and how hard you are exercise, doesn’t matter as much as the fact you are doing something.

Misconception #2: effort dictates results. If you work hard enough, you will get rewarded.

the importance of effort is a misconception in psychology

Lots of people are trying hard, but very few experience success. Maybe your effort won’t be rewarded with success, but you can experience other rewards for your efforts

We alluded to this in the introduction. If you work harder at something, you will be rewarded. How could this possibly be a misconception?

The psychology perspective

Dr. Adams says that though well-intentioned, we need to consider that this won’t always be the case:

Most of us are brought up with the advice that to succeed we need to try hard. But more trying equals bigger success? Most of us have been disheartened when we tried hard and did not reach our expectations. The sky isn’t the limit, and yet most of us set our expectations on what success looks like: at sky-high levels.


For those lucky few who do have success – rather than talk about their significant genetic advantages, they focus on the hard work they feel they have done, which usually results in a survivor bias effect (where we focus on successful people when attributing a cause for success, and don’t hear from those who didn’t succeed, and might have tried even harder).


Understanding that our expectations aren’t usually realistic, and focusing on process (what we do) rather than outcome (what we achieve), sets us up for more satisfaction, sustainability, and (ironically) success.

The coaching perspective

Dr. Jolley has unfortunately seen effort go unrewarded time and time again!

This was a misconception I believed when playing sport, and then working at higher levels of sport. I assumed that because I had to work hard to get better, everyone did. I assumed that those that didn’t try wouldn’t be selected at higher levels of sport, as hard work would be more valued.


But while hard work is valued, so is size, speed, and raw talent. Some people possess these, and some do not. It is possible for someone to be incredibly gifted at a sport, not work as hard as their teammates, and experience success. And the honest toiler with less talent may never see a reward.


Not only that, but effort does not reap the same results for everyone. One person may respond more to training than others, and get bigger, stronger, or fitter than others. It’s not a level playing field.

Misconception #3: you need to give 100% in every session, and for every drill!

giving 110% is another misconception

In just about every post-game interview, or every pre-game speech, someone will talk about giving 100%…

We’ve all heard this cliché before. Anyone who has played a team sport has had a coach ask them to give 100% (or even 110%!) at everything they do. It’s well-meaning advice, but like other platitudes about effort, it misses the point, and could be counterproductive.

The psychology perspective

Dr. Adams explains:

No one can do this and maintain form, function, or motivation. And it’s a misunderstanding of human psychology, and our ability to sustain effort. It implies that, if a person works at below 100% of their capacity, they’re not working hard enough, not committed enough (and therefore lazy), or won’t make any progress.


Of course, buying into this belief is demoralising because it’s impossible – it’s like telling someone that they’re not good enough because they can’t grow five more inches. Focusing on sustainable training will make for more realistic, lasting gain. It will mean that we can focus on what we’re doing (quality and form) rather than how hard we do it. This will improve mood and motivation, and reduce the chance of dropout.

The coaching perspective

This is also physically not possible, as Dr. Jolley explains:

There’s an inverse relationship between how hard we can push ourselves, and how long we can sustain this effort. If you want to run as hard as possible, or lift as much as possible, over a longer period, we need to allow enough recovery between efforts. Our body’s ability to supply energy drops quickly at high intensity, and takes time to recover. This is impossible to avoid.


Also, our fuel sources deplete during a game or training, we suffer muscle damage, and we experience central nervous system fatigue. All these things cause our exercise intensity to drop over time.


A more sensible approach? A smart, mature athlete will know when they need to push as hard as possible, and when they can relax and recover.


Does a warmup need to be at full intensity? Probably not until the very end. And even then, it depends on what the next activity is. Does sprint training need to be a full intensity? More likely, but we can control the volume of training so this isn’t too exhausting. Giving appropriate effort, at an appropriate time, is something an athlete needs to learn. A good coach or mentor can help with this.

Misconception #4: a winning team needs a positive culture

sport psychology misconceptions about team culture are common

The experience of being part of a team can be very rewarding, but isn’t a prerequisite for success.

There is a current trend at higher levels of sport to focus on team culture. External consultants will come in to run meetings, and sometimes camps over multiple days, to get the players to “buy in” to the team’s goals, or build “mental toughness”.

The thinking is that all teams are well prepared physically at higher levels, so improving effort or team cohesion could be a marginal gain that is the difference between winning and losing.

The psychology perspective

Dr. Adams isn’t impressed:

What does this even mean? At best it’s a platitude; at worst, it’s a dangerous maxim that makes teams dysfunctional.


The evidence on team effectiveness highlights several needs for effective functioning (which, in turn, is more likely to predict successful outcomes). And the most important characteristics of teams are diversity and dissent.


Teams function better when they have people with different skill sets (this should be hugely obvious in sporting teams). Different skill sets allows individuals to bring different approaches.


Equally important is permission to disagree. “Groupthink” is a phenomenon that occurs when dissent is discouraged (overtly or covertly) – resulting in poor communication and poor outcomes – which can be avoided by encouraging healthy dissent.


An emphasis on “positive culture” could confuse healthy questioning for a “negative attitude” or “undermining behaviour”. It dismisses input that isn’t in line with the rest of the group, or even shames those who have different opinions. Bottom line, we should encourage respectful dissent, and be open to properly communicated differences of opinion. This means that team training should actually be about communication and listening, rather than common “team-building” exercises.

The coaching perspective

Dr. Jolley has seen plenty of situations where a poor culture has still been successful:

Teams, even successful teams, don’t exist in a bubble outside of real life. And in real life, sometimes people don’t get on.


In fact, there are some high-profile examples of conflict within a team that still has success. We can still find a way to work together. We have all played alongside, coached, or been coached by, people we don’t like much. But don’t need to like everyone we work with in order to be successful. We do need to be able to cooperate and communicate effectively.


We’d like to look back on our careers and think of our teammates as brothers and sisters, respect our opponents, and admire our coaches. And sport can be extremely rewarding when we do build these positive relationships. But not everyone experiences this all the time. We can experience conflict within a team and still be successful.

Misconception #5: the most important thing you can tell a young athlete is to believe in themselves.

confidence doesn't equal better performance, another exercise psychology misconception

Having a high degree of confidence in your ability is great… if you have the ability to match!

This is something you hear often in interviews with sportspeople. They are asked what important advice they could give a young person wanting to succeed is, and their response often involves self-belief.

The psychology perspective

Dr. Adams says this advice is “at best simplistic and, at worst, simply harmful.” He’s written about it extensively on his own website, and thinks this self-belief can be really helpful, to a point.

We’ve taken highlights from his earlier writing here:

Projecting a sense of unflappable (sometimes appearing as smug) confidence can make an athlete feel a lot more effective and less likely to question his or her ability… This arrogance is simply the permission an athlete gives him or herself to let his or her brain/body get on with it without conscious interruption… Training results in competence, and this arrogance fuels competence.


[But] without accurate, objective, immediate feedback on performance, this self-belief can be reinforced, even if performance wasn’t what it should be. This self-belief becomes hubris, a misplaced pride in achievement that is self-sustaining and self-reinforcing, and which can result in an ongoing cycle of self-delusion.


Once a person has reached this level of self-deception, it’s highly likely that he or she will work hard to reinforce this self-view, making sure that any negative feedback is ignored or actively challenged.

The coaching perspective

Dr. Jolley agrees this self-belief should be more closely correlated with actual ability. Accurate feedback from mentors and coaches can help:

All these misconceptions come from a kernel of truth. We want people to try hard at training but have realistic expectations. We want to put in effort when it’s needed but relax and recover when appropriate.


This is no different. We want athletes to have a realistic level of self-belief and confidence. If this confidence is too high, the athlete may be less receptive to accurate feedback. They then don’t acknowledge, or work to improve, their weaknesses.


If confidence is too low, negative self-talk may worsen performance. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the athlete may feel that they can’t improve to the level needed.


Accurate, objective, immediate feedback from respected coaches is useful in making sure our confidence and belief is calibrated to our ability.

Did you sense a theme in these misconceptions of exercise psychology?

Many exercise psychology misconceptions are gross oversimplifications, as we’ve discussed. They are based on incomplete information, and poor judgements of how effort, confidence, or culture can contribute to performance.

To avoid these misconceptions in exercise psychology, we can look for higher levels of expertise. Get the right people to contribute to your success in the right way.

Good strength and conditioning coaches can program training sessions that allow for appropriate effort and recovery. Good skills coaches will give accurate feedback about performance, but also where and how to improve.

And a good sport psychologist can help establish healthy expectations, routines and confidence. When you rely on cliched platitudes, or unqualified culture consultants, you could be doing more harm than good.