Laura Doss/Fitness MagazineBy Dana Hudepohl
The road to winning isn't always pretty -- it can be downright uncomfortable at times -- but staying stagnant in a boring job, a bad relationship, or a workout rut is worse. When you have a nagging feeling telling you it's time for a new challenge, go for it. Use these research-backed strategies to help reach the winner's podium, whether you're aiming to change from microwave zapper to five-star chef or from couch potato to marathon runner.
Related QUIZ: Are You Ready for a Change?
Tip #1: Determine your gold medal.
Jacqueline Depaul set her sights on modeling -- at age 38. "I felt uninspired with my life and needed a creative outlet," says Jacqueline, a salesperson for an engineering company. She read self-help books; volunteered as a model for charity events, photographers, and designers; took runway classes; studied nutrition; and began exercising five to six days a week. "I basically attacked my hobby," she says. At 42, she beat out 5,000 women in a 40-and-over model search to win a contract with the Wilhelmina agency. "When they announced my name as the grand-prize winner, I felt that four years of effort had come to fruition," Jacqueline says. "I had started with just a dream, my North Star."
Your gold medal doesn't have to be awarded in a formal contest. It simply has to fill in the blank: "I want ___."
Tip #2: Trick your brain.
Once you've settled on your goal, figure out ways to break it down. Your brain can't process big goals, because we're not wired that way, says Scott Huettel, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Instead you have to craft a lot of little wins along the way to keep your brain's reward center activated. Work backward from your milestone to map a route filled with smaller, reachable triumphs so you can continually see yourself progressing.
Tip #3: Put in the work.
Don't waste time worrying about whether you have enough talent. "I tell athletes that the next time someone says they're gifted, reply, 'I'm not talented; I work hard,'" says Simon Clements, a performance coach for the sports psychology organization EXACT Sports. The most predictable route to winning, experts say, is frequent, focused practice on what you can improve and what you can't yet do. It typically takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of this kind of practice before athletes, musicians, and other competitors win international competitions; that's four hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for seven years, according to K. Anders Ericsson, PhD, a professor of psychology at Florida State University. Okay, so maybe you're not aiming to be an acclaimed concert pianist. The point is, expect to get out of your comfort zone and put in some blood, sweat, and tears for the long haul.
Related: Hope Solo, Kerri Walsh and Lolo Jones Share Their Competitive Strategies
Tip #4: Sign on support.
Forget flying solo. You'll most likely need a coach, a mentor, or a community. It could be a coworker, a training group, or even a social network like Fitocracy.com, in which you can compete against friends while tracking your fitness, but you need someone to push you. "When you face failure, disappointment, or pain, a partner can say, 'I hear you, but do it again,'" says Angela Lee Duckworth, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology who studies grit at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's hard to get yourself to do that." Linking up with others can also help you learn some of their winning traits.
Tip #5: Block stress.
The stress hormone cortisol can interfere with the production of testosterone and estrogen. New research by Pranjal Mehta, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon showed that stock traders who did a two-minute mindfulness meditation exercise decreased their levels of cortisol, increased their levels of testosterone, and boosted their performance. "It's the first time we've shown that meditation can change people's hormones and affect performance in competitive settings," Mehta says. When you need a confidence boost before jockeying for a promotion or running your next 5K, take a few minutes to close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and acknowledge your thoughts without judging them.
Tip #6: Identify yourself.
Clements helps his athletes come up with personal identity statements to stay on point. Dreaming of winning a book contract for the next hot trilogy? Wake up every day saying, "I am a prolific writer and a best-selling author." That becomes the answer to any questions or doubts that pop up in your head. You can also use special cues to inspire yourself. Taylor Swift draws 13, her lucky number, on her hand before going onstage.
Tip #7: Face your fears.
What is the one big thing you're scared of that's getting in your way? Maybe you want to knock surfing off your bucket list, but you're terrified of six-foot swells. Break it down: Identify one component that you can do. Are you afraid of splashing waist-high? If the answer is still yes, go even smaller. Can you do 10 laps in a pool? "Find something that feels manageable to you," Clements says. If doubt creeps in, think back to a moment in the water that felt phenomenal and mentally walk through that experience again. The visualization will give you the boost you need to believe that you are capable of mastering something that once seemed frightening.
Related: Your Top 5 Exercise Excuses-Busted!
Tip #8: Embrace bad days.
People have a tendency to quit on the bad days. Don't! "Make decisions on days where you're in a much better place emotionally," Duckworth says, and use difficult days as tools to move closer to your win. "It's important when you fall down to say, okay, while I'm down here, what can I learn from this?" says Timothy Gallwey, the author of the Inner Game series of books and star of a new life-coaching show by the same name airing on PBS in August. "Ask yourself, What am I going to do differently next time?"
Tip #9: Find your balance.
"Some people become obnoxious because they have to win everything, including every argument," says Leon Sloman, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Pick and choose your battles, competing only for things that truly matter to you, and take time to soak up your successes. If you're always looking for the next victory, you never give yourself time to relax and enjoy the glory.
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Laura Doss/Fitness MagazineBy Dana Hudepohl