It’s just another Saturday at the gym. You roll in a little before practice starts to warm-up and stretch out with your coffee in hand and your gym bag in tow. Saturdays are usually heavy days and today you’ve got your sights set on that 100kg snatch that’s been escaping your grasp for the last few months. It’s so close you can feel the victory — if only it would just get up and stay there locked out over your head.
The morning gets going as it normally would. You joke around with some buddies and get geared up to lift. After tossing the bar around a few times, you start your warm-up sets with 50kg for a few triples and move on to 60kg and 70kg for a few doubles. So far, things are feeling really good. The caffeine starts to kick in. You’re snappy. The bar is moving fast and your confidence level is high. You decide to drop down to singles starting at 80kg and move to 85kg, 90kg, 94kg, 96kg, and 98kg.
Every thing’s going as planned. You’re moving well and owning each lift like you’ve been there a thousand times. Before you know it, 100kg is now sitting on the platform. You approach the bar. As you stare down at 100kg, you find it’s starring right back at you and hard. Your confidence diminishes a little. Suddenly, you find yourself internally verbalizing a checklist that you’ve done so automatically up until this point. “Strong back, chest up, relax the arms, pull back, finish…” Your confidence turns into a little bit of doubt, but you approach the bar anyways and attempt the lift. You miss. You can’t believe that just happened. Now, your self-doubt turns into frustration. You attempt again. You miss. Your frustration now becomes anger. You attempt again. You miss.
Does this sound all too familiar?
What happened in the itty bitty 2kg jump between 98kg and 100kg? Your brain is what happened. The pesky problems of over-thinking, self-doubt and any other negative emotion that plagues weightlifters are common amongst the masses. Fortunately for you, there are ways of being able to overcome these barriers of the mind.
Just recently, we had a sports psychology intern Steven M. Ledbetter, aka “StevO” come hang out with us for about a 12 week span. During these 12 weeks, StevO worked with many of my athletes including myself on delving into the mental game of weightlifting. According to StevO, “sport psychology is the science of optimizing the mental factors of human performance. It also goes by names such as “mental toughness training,” “mental skills coaching” or “training the stuff between your ears.” In practice, sport psychology consulting is working with athletes to integrate proven skills such as goal setting, visualization, positive self-talk, etc. into the habit of daily practice. Just like strength and conditioning, sport psychology is all about making better habits in practice that will translate into better habits in performance.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty good to me.
Your brain dictates the behavior of your entire system. A goal that is very high on the list of priorities for your brain is to protect you from harm. So, on any level if you doubted that you were going to snatch that 100kg weight, you can see why your brain would make sure that you were absolutely right. In fact, I don’t believe there’s ever been a time where I thought I couldn’t make a lift and was proven wrong.
There are a few things weightlifters can do to increase confidence and performance at the barbell. One, is to make sure that everything is automated especially at the high end attempts aka “no thinking”.
Two, is to have a very established pre-performance routine in place to help guide this automation. StevO recommends keeping a workout journal (something every respectable weightlifter should already have anyways) and using an awareness scale of 1-11 to measure the feeling of your lifts. 1 represents a feeling of “being asleep” and 11 represents a feeling of being in “unthinkable terror where you are on the floor getting mauled by a wild animal”. Nice. By jotting down what your arousal level is during different lifts, you can start to use this scale to identify where you would perform optimally. Now, suddenly you have a gauge in which you can adapt different techniques such as the use of breathe control or other forms of physical manipulation to either dial yourself up or dial yourself back down.
The process of automation starts to occur after an athlete spends a requisite amount of time practicing the movements to a point where the mind no longer has to verbally cue the body to get into the right positions. It’s like jumping in your car after work and suddenly ending up at your front door without consciously having to tell yourself the directions of how to get home.
Another technique already adopted by weightlifters, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, is the use of drills within their programming to help themselves automate movement. The use of drills is not only a corrective or strengthening measure, it allows the athlete to feel the movement so that their mind is free of any verbal cues which will retard the speed of movement. If you’ve ever taken a speed reading course, one of the first things you learn is that if you read to yourself in your head, your reading speed will always be at the pace in which you hear your thoughts. The same holds true for thinking. Your body can only move as fast as you are consciously processing thought; and when the snatch starts and finishes in just about one second, that leaves very little time to process much of anything.
Having an established pre-performance routine is like having a “pre-flight check”. It’s a set of habits you have before and while addressing the barbell that enables you to focus, find confidence, feel the tension (or lack thereof) within the system, dial down (or up) your arousal level, and get everything set so you don’t potentially change gears and downshift your performance. Most weightlifters will develop their own routine over time. This can be observed at any weightlifting meet where 10/10 lifters will approach the bar somewhat differently before they lift the weight. Interrupt a weightlifter’s routine and it’s like pulling someone out of a level of deep meditation.
Packaging all this information so that it can express into increased performance takes time and practice. Like anything you are trying to become more efficient at, you need to build in volume of these solutions to support and solidify your goal. So be patient, practice these strategies, and stay consistent. Knowing when to be the elephant that remembers everything and then becoming the goldfish that thinks of nothing is the Tao of weightlifting.