Win or lose there’s one personality trait that’s become the cornerstone of long-term improvements: a sunny outlook. Here’s how to get more of it so you and your team are always on the up.

If you’re a coach, understanding the individuals you are working with is key to motivating them to push beyond their abilities, and most importantly, believe they are capable. This has nothing to do with confidence; there are many athletes who are confident in the tasks they know and can deliver consistently at that level. However, getting your charges to push into the unknown where it’s painful, scary and there is no promise of success is a whole different ballgame.

This process involves the science of mirror neurons that are thought to be responsible for learning observed behavior and empathy. Take home message: people mirror what they see. If you are anxious and enter a room full of calm people, your anxiety will lessen. If you are nervous at the start of a race or before your lift in competition and your coach is confident, you will be more self-assured and focused. If you attend a training session with individuals who have better technique or push themselves harder than you, your training session will be of higher quality than when you train by yourself. Who you surround yourself with both in competition and in practice will influence your performance. The same is true in life.

Uplifting at grass root

I recently talked with my middle school cross country team about being supportive and lifting each other up. As you can imagine, what some middle school kids think is funny, others find obnoxious or even cruel. After making it very clear what behaviors turn one into a jerk, whether they realize it or not, we talked about what being kind and supportive to one another can do for their performance. The smiles on their faces as they described what it felt like when they wanted to quit, but a teammate came and ran alongside them or their teammates cheered them on as they finished a race were amazing. Positivity is one of the most powerful and underrated tools we have at our disposal. A word of encouragement from a fellow runner, cheers from the crowd, a “You got this” from your coach, and all of a sudden you have a higher gear, a more powerful engine, or just more gas in the tank.

Valuing quality

Unfortunately, in life, we don’t always think about the quality of our interactions with others. There is a lot of talk that condemns bullying, yet you’ll routinely see adults acting in ways that would never be tolerated when working with children. This is everywhere, in training and coaching, in social media, and in everyday interactions. In fact, when talking about bullying with my athletes, I call it what it really is: being a jerk. Too many people confuse assertiveness with being a jerk. When you take someone who is self-important, rude and arrogant then add them to a group that is otherwise pleasant and cooperative, it changes the dynamic. Just as mirror neurons can enable a positive change in self-perception and ability, they can also cause negative changes. Being around toxic individuals makes you anxious, uncertain, and less likely to expect or demand better behavior. The worst case scenario is when the toxic person is a coach. Motivating people through disappointment and fear may work in the short term, but it produces anxiety and burnout over time. So, how can you use positivity and mirroring to be a more effective coach and athlete? Try these tips to get the most out of others and yourself.

1. Identify visual signs of progress

Good observation skills are the cornerstone to success. Being able to recognize small improvements in form, technique, speed, or endurance are the key to motivating yourself and your clients. Sometimes these observations are obvious, such as observing better posture on a squat. Sometimes they are discovered by reviewing a training log and noting the improvements in load and volume over time. Regardless, recognition of progress is a great way to keep everyone looking ahead.

2. Find good training partners

If you want to get stronger, train with people who are stronger than you. The energy, enthusiasm, and drive of successful lifters is contagious. When you are training with positive individuals, your own drive and success are improved almost immediately. If you are a coach, be discerning about who you allow into your training sessions. One negative individual can bring down the whole team if you can’t keep them in check.

3. Sweat in a positive environment

Whether you’re at a gym that’s involved in powerlifting, weightlifting or is a CrossFit facility, the good ones all have the same things in common: the members and staff are welcoming, supportive, and collaborate for your success. Find that attribute in your facility or move onto one that has it.

4. Encouraging words are free to give

Never underestimate what your words can do for a fellow exerciser, training partner, or competitor. At a Highland Games a few years ago I pointed out to a fellow thrower how much I thought she had improved over the past year. I didn’t think anything of it, but on Facebook later that week, I saw that she posted about it. And apparently it meant a lot to her. Positivity is contagious and it doesn’t cost anything. So, if you notice something, say something. You never know what a positive impact you can have on someone else’s journey.

5. Always expect better

You can’t always make progress as quickly as you want to, but you can always get better in a number of ways. You can be more focused in your training sessions. You can train more efficiently. You can make better choices in your diet. Or you can just be kinder to others. Building better athletes isn’t just about performance, it’s about building better human beings. We are not machines, we are people and improving ourselves as a whole has a positive effect on the individual parts.

EXPERT: Sara Fleming, M.A., CFT, YFT, SFN, USA Track and Field, USA Weightlifting