Flexibility beliefs are not simply what you think about stretching; they are complex narratives that help you make sense of yourself, others and the world in ways related to flexibility training. They are the context by which you understand flexibility and reflect your fundamental understandings, experiences and values related to other aspects of your life.
Flexibility beliefs are not universal truths, but you are constantly, mostly subconsciously, gathering evidence to support these beliefs and dismissing evidence to the contrary.
Unhelpful flexibility beliefs reinforce behaviour that is detrimental to your progress (e.g. avoiding training things that are challenging), heighten unpleasant physical sensations, and evoke uncomfortable emotions. In addition, unhelpful flexibility beliefs result in pain sensitivity and reduced stretch tolerance.
For example, Suppose you believe that stretching is dangerous. In that case, you are likely to attend to physical responses to stretching more closely, think thoughts such as ‘if I feel pain, I’m doing damage’, and experience emotions such as anxiety or fear. Naturally, if this is the case, you will stop and avoid stretching. This is a normal and appropriate response. By avoiding, you immediately resolve any emotional or physical discomfort, but you won’t progress or learn the validity of this belief.
Humans are by nature cautious and tend to weigh protective evidence (e.g. pain on stretching or a trainer saying stretching is bad) more heavily than the alternative (e.g. hundreds of stretching sessions with no adverse outcomes).
Common Unhelpful Flexibility Beliefs
Danger / Damage Beliefs
The belief that stretching is unsafe, dangerous and will cause damage.
‘Stretching causes arthritis’
‘If you feel pain, you are causing damage’
‘Stretching is dangerous if you do it incorrectly’
‘Back bending can cause your discs to slip’
The belief that there is something about you/your body that makes stretching unsafe for you.
‘Its unsafe for me to stretch because I injured myself in the past’
‘I’m too mobile to stretch without injuring myself’
‘If I feel pain I must stop because I know the stretch is going to injure me’
‘Stretching will cause my joints to flare up’
The belief that you can’t cope with difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations and that you must avoid / escape / get rid of them.
‘I can’t tolerate stretching’
‘Stretching classes are unbearable’
‘I can’t cope with feeling anxious and panicky when I stretch’
Unrealistic / inflexible standards
Relentlessly striving for complete certainty or extremely high personal standards that are unrealistic and inflexible, despite their negative impact.
‘Even though I am improving my progress isn’t fast enough’
‘I should feel guilty if I miss a training session’
‘I can’t stretch properly on my own so there is no point in trying’
‘There is only one way to improve flexibility
It’s normal to resonate with some of these thoughts some of the time. You may already have more helpful counterarguments that come to your mind in response. A sign that these may indicate a deeper held unhelpful belief is how you act. For example, while stretching, you may think, ‘I’m going to break’, but if you continue your training, it’s likely that understand that you are safe and your body is robust and adaptable.
So how do I change my flexibility beliefs?
It's tough to change beliefs because they are part of how we understand the world and never just about flexibility. We also rarely think to question what we believe because we ... believe it. But we can change. Once you have identified a potentially unhelpful belief, you can start to collect evidence that supports a more helpful idea to replace it.
Next blog in this series, we will look at more helpful flexibility beliefs.
To learn more about why we feel pain when we stretch: Read this.
To learn more about other common reasons you are not progressing in your flexibility training: More on this.