Hitting the gym solo can be a heavenly escape from the demands of daily life. But becoming a team player can take your motivation, enjoyment and success to a whole new level.
“Relatedness is a very basic human need. That sense of journey and shared interests really enhances that sense of belonging and identification,” says Tracey Vievers, a sports psychologist who has worked with elite teams across the performing arts, sports and corporate sectors.
Vievers says a team environment where individuals feel safe in taking risks and making mistakes can help them to undergo true personal growth as they overcome fears and master new skills. “People start to go beyond their own limits as an individual and [explore] collective limits. New things are experienced, [you get] new results, and you get successful outcomes, as well as a wonderfully uniting journey and experience that further bonds that team together. Successful times are very rewarding and from that you get fantastic physical and mental wellbeing,” she says.
Could a winning group culture be just the thing to push you to your ultimate fitness goals?
1. Cultivate commitment
Getting fit for the summer is one thing, but health is a lifelong pursuit. Connecting with a network of likeminded people can take that journey from something you feel you should do to an activity you truly enjoy, and are therefore likely to persist with.
“Having a buddy, it’s not so intimidating to try something new – to try a new class, or exercise, or increase your weights; it’s that extra little push you need to go that extra distance,” says Natalie Osborne, a group fitness instructor from Fernwood Tuggeranong. “The motivation factor is really important. Being able to talk to someone else about the exercises, workouts and progress keeps you on track and pushes you to do more.”
Osborne’s 12 Week Challenge crew were affectionately coined her “quiet achievers”. Their shared experience has set the foundation for long-term change: “Now that the challenge has finished, they’re meeting up with each other and doing classes and workouts together,” she explains.
2. Adopt accountability
If challenging and realistic goals form the basis for growth, then a strong sense of accountability holds you to achieving them. Moreover, having teammates or training buddies can help you to honour that obligation.
“You don’t want to be seen as the weakest link, you want to push yourself further and do a few extra reps than you’d normally do. You don’t want to let your buddy down,” asserts Osborne. “We have a group of girls who started attending Body Attack and have got to know each other and have formed a friendship group. When one doesn’t turn up, they’re on the phone or Facebook saying, ‘Where were you? We missed you’.”
"You’re also getting lots of immediate feedback and rewards in feeling good about your activities … there are a whole lot of positive flow-ons,” adds Vievers.
3. Create confidence
When the going gets tough, it’s tempting to throw in the towel, but with the support and reassurance from your training buddies, you can turn those negative thoughts into a boost of confidence.
Jay Cramer, a personal trainer from Fernwood Clayton, was inspired by the confidence that emerged from some of her 12 Week Challengers. “I led a team of 21 women, and the support that they gave each other was just amazing and quite overwhelming,” she explains. “There were super fit ladies in this team and then others who were not so fit, or injured. As those who were not so fit struggled to finish any workout, the women that had finished urged them on to the end – it was brilliant.”
4. Embrace Friendly Competition
The theory that friendly competition and performance go hand-in-hand was tested in a recent University of South Australia trial of new mums. With the aid of a Facebook app and a pedometer, the mums were encouraged to take 10,000 steps each day. The trial results concluded that the participants encouraged each other to get fit and lose their baby weight, increasing their physical activity by almost three hours a week.
While healthy competition can be motivating, be aware that comparing ourselves with others can easily become counterproductive. Vievers says that goals need to be purely about comparing self with self. “It’s very human to compare,” she explains. “[But] if we want a positive outcome or experience, we have to go, ‘Hang on, what’s a helpful way to think here? I have to realistically remember where I’m coming from. An unfair comparison isn’t going to make me feel good. We have to think in helpful and constructive ways.
“If [comparing yourself with others] leaves you feeling short, negative or spiralling into an unhelpful automatically negative thought process, you have to realise it’s not helping a positive feeling or outcome.”
Cramer reminds her clients that everyone is different: “What affects one person will not affect the next. It is important for people to understand that we are all on our very own journey and focusing on anyone else’s journey will just put us back”.
5. Find the fun
While you may be focused on gruelling training sessions, it’s important to have a little fun while you’re at it.
A 2012 study of adult learners and their teachers conducted by Federation University in Ballarat emphasised the role that fun and enjoyment play in positive overall experiences. A socially connected learning environment was shown to benefit emotions, wellbeing and learning.
Osborne says the same rings true at the gym. “Time flies when you’re having fun and able to bounce off somebody else. You’re always striving for new goals,” she says. “My bosses love dressing up and doing dress-up days. We had some team events during the 12 Week Challenge; we did tunnel ball and silly relays, which were really fun.”
6. Re-energise with emotional support
The opportunity to feel supported and encouraged can empower aspects of your identity that usually take a back seat.
Vievers explains: “In the workplace, or as a parent, it’s about others … you’re constantly reviewing the past and planning for the future. It doesn’t leave much room for being in the now. Whereas when you start participating in a gym or a team, that can be something for yourself.”
But learning to balance the demands of daily life with the parts of yourself that desire the benefits of gym time can also be a tough road. The University of Illinois studied the impact of social support as part of an 18-week weight management program and found that it was a critical component both during and after the program. Weekly meetings monitoring progress and motivation were the key to success, while a lack of support from friends and family was seen as a major obstacle that contributed to regained weight.
Cramer says many friendships formed in the gym have had life-changing consequences. “It is rare that you don’t see women who have formed friendships either working out together, having a cuppa together or even just a stretch together,” she says. “Apart from the members leaning on one another and sharing stories in order to provide advice, there are times when Fernwood Clayton brings in speakers to inform our members on certain topics. Staff are always willing and able to help. It’s great how so many women, older or younger, support each other as they continue on their journey.”
So whether it’s commitment, accountability, fun, competition or support you crave – or perhaps all of the above – make friends a feature of your workout to set yourself up for success.