Dealing with Setbacks with a Little AC/DC

I have a harsh truth for anyone starting a fitness program. You are going to experience setbacks. You will falter, give into temptation, plateau, or one of hundreds of other challenges that set you back. This, my friends, is called “Life”.

I feel this is important to state. Especially if things are going super fantastic for you. It’s when things are going well for us that setbacks hit us the hardest.

But just because you made a mistake, or reverted to an old, unhealthy habit doesn’t mean you have to revert to using old, unhealthy punishments. It’s time to think like an animal professional, and ask yourself “What would a zookeeper do?”

Dealing With Negative Behavior

Animals are living beings, not robots. They have minds of their own, and thus, even when they know a behavior really well, they decide whether or not to DO the behavior when asked. Sometimes I’d ask an elephant to do something super simple such as turn to the side and the reply was the elephant standing perfectly still, as if they hadn’t heard a word I said. Occasionally I’d ask a dolphin for a hula, and they’d do the most spectacular bow I’d ever seen. But it wasn’t a hula.

Animal trainers, dolphin trainers in particular, discovered the complexity of dealing with unwanted behaviors early on. Even if the wanted to use punishment, dolphins were such a complicated creature. They ram each other with their snouts all the time in play. Physical punishment wouldn’t affect them the same as hitting a dog. Dolphin can only hear sounds at much higher frequencies than we can talk, so scolding them didn’t mean anything to them either. In fact, scolding or reacting to a dolphin’s antics often REINFORCED the behavior. And then there was the simple fact that if the dolphin didn’t like anything going on with the trainer, they could just dip under the water and swim away.


So, how do you deal with an unruly dolphin? Or any unruly animal? Ignore it?

Not exactly. Ignoring an animal can be misconstrued as punishment in many species. They may assume the session is over, and just leave, frustrated. And most trainers will passionately agree, you never want to IGNORE your animal. That’s a simple safety issue. Keep your attention on the animal at all times.

The most effective and positive way to deal with unwanted behaviors in animals (and in life) is to give an LRS- a least reinforcing scenario/stimulus. That’s a pretty nerdy word, so let’s call it something else: Acknowledge, Compassion, Data Collection. Yes, AC/DC. If you have ever experienced “Thunderstruck” while working out with me, you will understand this is significant.

But what exactly is an LRS or AC/DC?

The Least Reinforcing Scenario to Diminish Unwanted Behavior

In animal training, an LRS is typically a neutral response from the trainer for a short duration of time. The trainer doesn’t look away (so it’s NOT an ignore), but they aren’t shaking their head or giving any cue whatsoever. This neutral stance tells the animal “I see what you did, but you aren’t getting any reinforcement for that behavior”. That’s all it does.

After three seconds (that’s really all it takes), the trainer makes a decision. They can ask for the behavior again and hope to get a better response this time. Or they can move onto something else.

In my examples above, I used the LRS to change something different with me, the trainer. Maybe I gave a sloppy signal and confused the animal. After the three seconds, I raised my voice and spoke more clearly to the elephants. I gave the signal again, this time ensuring my hand movements were cleaner and clearer.

Incorrect behavior didn’t mean the animal was wrong. Animals typically aren’t vindictive. Obstinate perhaps, but not vindictive. Punishing an animal for making a mistake didn’t help the animal learn. Instead, animal professionals become mini-scientists. We use the responses as data, whether they were correct or mistakes. The LRS helps animals behave the same way.

“Oh, that didn’t work, let me try it this way instead.”

No punishment. Not ignoring. Just collecting data.

AC/DC- You’ve Been Thunderstruck

And that’s all we need to do with our fitness. When we experience a setback, whether it’s major or minor, put on your zookeeper scientist hat and collect data.

Acknowledging you made a mistake is not an admittance of failure. The only way you fail is if you stop trying after making a mistake. Acknowledgement is the first step to solving a problem. You can’t fix a problem you don’t see or notice it.

The second thing we have to do is show ourselves some compassion. IN THE MOMENT. Yes, we made a mistake. Guess what? Everyone makes mistakes. We are human. No human is perfect. Beating yourself up will not help the situation. So, breathe, and let go of anger, shame, or guilt.

And finally, use the experience as a lesson. Remember, we are impartial scientists, studying our own behavior. Just like zookeepers study their animal’s behavior and collect data.

What changes can you make in this experiment called life to achieve success? Think of fitness as a video game. It’s not that you didn’t win. You just haven’t won, YET.

So, a setback using the AC/DC method can look more like this: “I had literally no willpower to resist the donuts in the break-room today. Why is that? Was my breakfast and/or snack not replenishing or satisfying? Did I need to go in the break-room at all? Was I distracted in some way? I made a mistake, but it’s okay. My entire wellness will not shatter from this. But what action plan I can incorporate to do better next time?”

Because you know there will be a next time.

What are some issues you have experienced which need a little AC/DC?

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