Joanne O’Riordan: Sometimes we need a little nudge on the path to fitness

Sports psychologist Jessie Barr has some tips on how to stay focused on your fitness goals

Jessie Barr: ‘If you’re only accountable to yourself, it’s very easy to go easy on yourself.’ Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

If you are fortunate to have one, sitting down with a sports psychologist can be the nicest and most relieving thing to do. Unfortunately, many of us don't have that luxury and rely on advice from unqualified gurus with quick fixes. This interview was due to be a pick-me-up of sorts, for people getting over the Blue Monday and the mid-January pandemic woes. A lot of us, statistically, have probably fallen off the wagon. So, here's qualified advice we all need to hear from Sport Ireland accredited sports psychologist Jessie Barr.

So, you want to get fit and change your life. Firstly, ask yourself one simple question: why?

“I think the first thing before you even take out that bit of paper is, think about why you want to do it. What is this? Why am I setting this goal? Every year you might set these, especially every year, the resolutions are giving up a bad habit or taking on a new habit. ‘I want to get fit this year, I want to do this.’ Why? Why do I want to do this? I think having that real internal motivation is really important. I think it’s something that gets overlooked. It’s like, ‘I’m going to get fit.’ Why? ‘Because I have to.’

“You’re less likely to be derailed, then, because you have a stronger reason, that internal reason. You’re not chasing an external, extrinsic goal and motivator. I think that’s the first thing, is actually really think, ‘Why do I want to do this? What are the benefits going to be for me?’ It’s looking at your values, like, ‘If I do it, what will I benefit and if I don’t do it, if I continue to not do what I’m thinking of doing.’


Say I decide I want to get fit, I want to start running in January. If I decide after two weeks not to do it anymore, just fall off the wagon, how is that going to be detrimental to me versus if I keep it going, even if I maybe reduce it.”

Pen and paper

Second, get your pen and paper and get ready to start writing your goals, small and tangible goals that eventually lead to the bigger goal. We’ve all heard the expression of setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goals that motivate you, but sometimes the piece of paper isn’t enough to keep you on track. At this stage, you probably need someone to make you feel accountable.

“We hear accountability so much thrown around when it comes to goal-setting, and it is so important. When it comes to your goals, you could call it pressure, you could call it that kind of positive peer pressure. I’ve told someone now, so I’m accountable to someone else because if you’re only accountable to yourself, it’s very easy to go easy on yourself. Self-compassion is great, but it can go too far. It can go to the point where you’re just going easy on yourself, you’re a bit soft. Having someone else just as a nudge.”

As a rule of thumb, try not over-rely on some of the number-based goals. We all probably received a Fitbit or smartwatch of some kind over Christmas and are now holding ourselves to ransom over hitting the magic 10,000 steps. For some, it could be the 21 days to break a habit. Barr insists this isn’t a total science fact and it’s up to the individual and their overall lifestyle choice.

Running gear

Add to that, try to ensure there are fewer obstacles and hurdles between you and your goal. Sometimes that means sleeping with your running gear placed right in front of your face.

“I used to set everything out like, I’m Jessie, the toddler who needs to be looked after in the morning. Try to remove any potential obstacles that would usually hold you back. It’s that choice to turn back over and go to sleep. Any kind of barriers like that, trying to remove them. Then sometimes it is just making the difficult choice that ‘I really don’t want to do this, but I told myself I would. How will I feel at the end of the day if I haven’t achieved these things I’ve set out?’ There is always that guilt, isn’t there, when you look at your to-do list, and there’s nothing ticked off.”

So, now that you're somewhat physically fit, what about your mental fitness? As former American football running back Marshawn Lynch says, "you gotta take care of your mentals!" There are several ways to do this, with journaling and meditation slowly creeping to the top.

"There's no hard and fast rules with journaling. I think there's so much stuff around wellness coming out which is so great," says Barr. " There isn't that element of pressure, then, that I should be practising mindfulness, and I should be taking time to do nothing and give myself that break. There are all of these shoulds that are attached to it. There's no should. Even if you just start with a daily gratitude. What am I grateful for? If you want to do it daily, what's a positive or something I'm grateful for today? I'm looking out my window here, and it was snowing here in Waterford this morning. It's actually a nice day as much as it's cold, it's not raining so I can go for a nice walk this evening with my dog."


For some, it’s okay if you can’t or don’t want to, but if you’re someone who struggles with putting their mind to rest at nighttime, sometimes writing it down and closing the journal might feel like putting those thoughts to bed. If writing isn’t your thing, there’s always meditation.

“Start with a small audio that’s guided. That someone’s telling you what to do because it’s very hard to just sit there and be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to lie here for five to 10 minutes and just be aware of my thoughts.’ Kind of daunting. You get distracted, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not doing mindfulness because I’m getting distracted thinking about a million things.’ That’s what it is. It’s just to be in the moment and be consciously aware of what you’re thinking about. Sometimes maybe having a guided one, whether it’s the short ones. What I use all the time is called Smiling Mind. Why I like it is because it’s free. You have different options depending on whether you’re maybe under 18 or over 18. They have ones for sports specifically, which the athletes tend to like, which is more focused on thinking about performance-related things about sports.”

Finally, understand that not everything is under your control, and there’s a process. “The two main things are focus on what you can control and focus on the process. They apply to everyone, they’re not sports-specific. If you have set goals for yourself, write them in pencil, not in pen, so that they can be changed, they can be moulded, they can be adjusted depending on the circumstance. Not setting them so strictly that you’re really disappointed when it doesn’t happen, or you have to adjust, or a setback gets in your way.”