Previously, I have written about how beliefs, thoughts and emotions influence the experience of training flexibility and training behaviour. For example, if someone believes stretching is dangerous, they feel apprehensive and attend closely to normal physiological responses to stretching (e.g. stretch, increased heart rate & blood pressure). Heightened sympathetic nervous system response increases sensitivity and makes them more likely to experience pain. They may think that this pain means they are causing damage, so come out of a stretch and potentially avoid stretching altogether. Learn about unhelpful flexibility beliefs here.
Clearly, the behaviour of avoiding flexibility training will have an impact on flexibility progress. Consistent Frequent practice is the best way to normalise stretching inputs, learn to challenge unhelpful thoughts, sit with unpleasant emotions, and nurture more helpful flexibility beliefs. Learn about Airspace Flexibility Training principles here.
What happens if you are doing all the work but don't *really* beleive you can hit your flexibility goal?
Our expectations have a massive impact on our bodies. Placebo is the neurobiological phenomenon that describes positive outcomes that result from a person's belief that an intervention will work. In clinical drug trials, scientists try to measure placebo to determine how effective a drug is, because the very act of taking a pill that a person thinks may help results in benefits. People also experience positive effects if they know they are taking a sugar placebo pill (e.g. they are fully aware the drug is a sham). This may be due to positive social interactions or the experience of being involved in a trial. Incredibly, research has shown that about 50% of the benefit of an intervention are due to contextual effects, such as physical environment, ritual or social interaction, and placebo.
Placebo isn't just limited to drugs. If you expect an activity to be good for you, it becomes more beneficial. Famously Crum studied the impact of advising hotel cleaners that the physical activity of their job was good for their health. After one month, the cleaners demonstrated health benefits, including weight loss and reduced blood pressure, compared to their colleagues, without changes to their diet or activity.
Imagine making your flexibility training 50% more effective just by believing it worked.
While I haven't found any research that considers the impact of placebo and flexibility training, I believe the expectation of success is a major component of flexibility progress. Placebo partially explains why people that train in similar ways achieve different results. For example, I find that when people don't believe it's possible for them to achieve a split, they are less likely to reach this goal, despite evidence of progress. I have also noticed that people achieve better results when their training environment reflects an expectation of success e.g. around other people that are achieving great results.
Of course, if you believe acheiving a split is inevitable, you will likely train more intensely and consistently. In contrast, if you don't expect to achieve a split, you are unlikely to train with the same effort and are more likely to stop training. While it would be difficult to measure the impact of placebo in isolation from other contextual effects, the net benefit of expecting your training will be effective is likely to be significant.
More importantly, if you don't expect your training to work, it probably wont. The nocebo effect, opposite to placebo, describes negative outcomes due to expecting them. In clinical drug trials, this nocebo explains why people taking placebo pills experience the side effects of the active drug being tested. A lot of research demonstrates that if you believe an activity is dangerous, it will be more painful.
Your mindset matters when it comes to flexibility training, but changing how you think and what you believe is very hard. Learn more about nurturing helpful flexibility beliefs. While working on your mindset, it's essential to consider if your environment is setting you up for success. Is your coach confident you will reach your goals? Are you around others achieving goals similar to yours? Do you find the environment productive and aspirational? Do you enjoy the community and social interactions? If the answer is no to any of these, achieving your flexibility goals will be challenging despite great programming.
Abd-Elsayed, A. (2019). Placebo, Nocebo and Pain. Pain: A Review Guide, 113-114.
Bernstein, M. H., Locher, C., Kube, T., Buergler, S., Stewart-Ferrer, S., & Blease, C. (2020). Putting the ‘art’into the ‘art of medicine’: The under-explored role of artifacts in placebo studies. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 1354.
Crum, A. J., & Langer, E. J. (2007). Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological science, 18(2), 165-171.
Crum, A., & Phillips, D. J. (2015). Self-fulfilling prophesies, placebo effects, and the social-psychological creation of reality. Emerging trends in the social and behavioral sciences, 1-14.
Hafliðadóttir, S. H., Juhl, C. B., Nielsen, S. M., Henriksen, M., Harris, I. A., Bliddal, H., & Christensen, R. (2021). Placebo response and effect in randomized clinical trials: meta-research with focus on contextual effects. Trials, 22(1), 1-15.
Robson, D. (2018). Mind over matter. New Scientist, 239(3192), 28–32.