“Before you can pick up 300 pounds, you have to learn how to hold 300 pounds.”
I heard a coach say that while instructing on the deadlift, and she was right. Pulling weight off the ground is only part of the movement. Being able to hold onto that weight at the top of the deadlift is critical, if only for a second, no matter how much you’re lifting—whether it’s 30 pounds or 300.
But I wanted to add one thought to her sentence:
Some small voice in you has to believe in your ability, no matter how tiny and faint that voice is. If all you have is some forgotten cheerleader with a weak voice in the dense crowd of your mind, do not despair! That little voice that will do. (Not everyone’s inner cheerleader looks like The Rock and carries a megaphone.)
But having a whisper of belief somewhere in your soul is critical, because the order of success (in weightlifting and in life) goes like this, even though you may not realize it all the time:
That’s not usually how we think about weightlifting (or most pursuits). We get caught up in the glory of the aftermath, in the glow of the achievement, in the rush of a Personal Record. We say things like “I didn’t think I could do it, but I did!” And, mostly, that’s true. Many of us don’t believe 100% that we can do something until we do it. Once the task is accomplished, we find sustenance in the proof. We convince ourselves that it’s more like Act-Believe (instead of Believe-Act), but we are mistaken.
For all our training, all our programming and all our mental practice, every attempt comes down to this basic truth: You can’t lift the bar if you think you can’t. Simply put, the mental game of weightlifting is HUGE. Mindset is HUGE. Underestimate the mental game at your own peril. So, let’s run through 11 things you can do for your mental game that will help your weightlifting and your life:
1.) Establish a Baseline of Belief
Not one of us is a complete and total loser. We might feel like total losers at times, but that’s really our ego looking for sympathy.
Shut that ego up.
The way to do that? Establish a baseline of belief in your own head for whatever it is that you’re facing, whatever task, whatever thing you have to do. Work to build (and grow) your own foundation of mental stone: a confidence in your ability to do and pull through, no matter what. Start with small accomplishments, and add to them. Pound by pound, thought by thought, improve.
We hear “routine is the enemy” but that’s simply only true at some points, not all. Human beings often thrive on routine. And your approach to the barbell and training is not a place where you want to be scattershot or haphazard or without self-regulation of some sort.
I’m not just talking about programming (like establishing a set number of days to lift, and a plan for how to lift on those days), but also about your approach to the bar. How you are beforehand, how you walk up to the bar, what you say to yourself as you’re gripping the bar, etc. These are critical moments to your lift. Don’t waste them, but also don’t overwhelm your brain in these moments. Think before you touch the bar, and have one cue in mind.
(And I say one cue, because I can’t hold more than one in my head. Some folks can hold two. But more than two cues in my head usually result in an unproductive lift. How many times have you heard someone say this after a failed lift? “I was just thinking about too many things.”)
3.) Get Yourself a Mantra
It sounds weird, but this stuff works. Pick a word or a phrase and repeat it in your head to calm your thoughts as you approach the bar.
I found “Strength in the Storm” by Eknarth Easwaran to be helpful for learning how to direct my mind and also select a mantra, but you can pick one yourself without reading any book or looking at any list. The important part is to find a mantra that works and practice it. Some folks like “This Bar is Light” but lately I’m enjoying a one-word mantra. Play around. Experiment. Find one that works for you. And if that one stops working? Pick another one!
4.) Have a Talk With Yourself About Your Self Talk
Think about how you talk to yourself in the gym and out of the gym. Is your approach helping or hurting?
“In understanding our built-in tendency to resist seeing our own foibles and weaknesses, we can see why the process of learning isn’t simple for adults. Children, on the other hand, living in an adult world, are used to losing face; making errors is a major part of their lives. Most of what infants do is make errors. They wet their pants, fall over, drop things.” – Dan Millman in “The Warrior Athlete”
Now, I’m not recommending you fall over or drop things. (Or wet your pants.) Even though all these things might happen in the gym. But what I do want you to do is think about adjusting your mindset to be okay with learning like a baby learns.
Think about that.
“If babies carried around the same tendency toward self-criticism that adults do, they would never learn to walk. Can you see an infant learning to walk, falling, and stomping the floor, ‘Damn! Screwed up again!'” (Millman again.)
Consider what you do after a miss. If you’re like many of us in the gym, the internal process goes something like this:
- “I can’t believe I missed that.”
- “I’m so embarrassed.”
- “How am I going to get this done?”
- “I’m such a screw-up.”
- “Okay, time to try again.”
How many of these statements are helpful? Only two: #4 and #6. All the rest are self-berating, so you might want to stop saying them. Negative self-talk is often unproductive. Like Millman reminds us: “People who criticize themselves share a belief that if they punish themselves in this way, they will improve. Just the opposite is true.”
Take a break from the self-criticism and see if things improve.
If you’re not already visualizing your lifts (and other athletic pursuits) then you’re missing out on a powerful tool.
I visualize everything, from my clean-and-jerks through my back squats and my bike rides and my conditioning workouts. When I used to race my mountain bike as an amateur in Southern California, I would call my training partner at night and ask her what trail we were going to ride the next day. Then, as I fell asleep, I would ride that trail in my mind. I cannot express how much that visualization reduced my anxiety, helped me to relax, and improved my performance.
Try it. Visualization is a game changer.
6.) Use Your Emotions
Emotions come, and emotions go. Let them.
Trying to prevent emotions is a mostly futile endeavor. Most of us can no more “control” our emotions than we can hold back waves in the ocean. Human beings are emotional animals. If you attempt to control your emotions, they may not surface, but that energy is going somewhere under the surface—and that’s not always a good thing.
Instead of trying to control your emotions, though, what if you tried to work with them? For example, I try to work with my highs and my lows. I ride the wave, instead of trying to stop it. What does that look like in the gym? If I blow a clean, I might yell. But that’s a short outburst. It’s one and done. Over. Energy released. Frustration expelled. Now, time to refocus and ride my sense of optimism to get my mind back and start my body doing something good with that bar.
Same thing with fear. You can’t really banish fear, because fear is a reaction. It’s “an unpleasant emotion caused by great worry”, so in order to banish fear you would have to remove the source of the worry. Well, here that source is the action you wish to accomplish. So, unless you plan to abandon weightlifting, you can’t get rid of the source. Hence, you must work with it.
What does working with fear look like? It means recognizing it, naming it, and working to put a border around it. You might not be able to toss fear from the car, but you can make it sit in the back seat. The weight on the bar might scare you. That’s okay. Breathe and remind yourself that you’ve handled weights close to this one. You can do this.
7.) Conserve Your Energy (Mentally and Physically)
Weightlifting requires bursts of energy at the right moments, so work to conserve your energy at other times, both physically and mentally.
What does that look like? Let’s turn to Dan Millman again: “If you play golf, don’t swing the club; let it swing. If you’re a gymnast, just let the body pirouette. If you play basketball, let the ball go through the hoop.“
How to apply this concept to the barbell? We control the barbell—its path, its velocity. How do we let the barbell do anything?
Think about it this way: in the clean, after you pull yourself under the bar, let it settle on your shoulders. In the squat, after you put that bar on your back, let it take you to the bottom. In the press, after you push the bar to the apex, let it return to your shoulders.
Every action has a period of return: this is where you can save energy. This is where you can gain, physically and mentally. Don’t fight the bar in these moments. Let it do what it will do. Focus your mental and physical energy on the moments when you most need those energies.
Ever watch an entire softball team get the dropsies? One fielder misses a catch, then another, then another, until it seems like all members of the team are missing. You’ve probably experienced the same thing in weightlifting. One miss, two misses, three misses, until you’re failing at weights you know you can make.
What’s happening? You’re caught in what “The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training” (by Jim Taylor and Terri Schneider) calls “the vicious cycle”:
“You may have been caught in a vicious cycle of low confidence and performance in which negative thinking led to poor performance, which led to more negative thinking and even poorer performance. Conversely, remember a time when you were supremely confident. You were likely caught in an upward spiral in which great confidence led to improved performance, which resulted in even more confidence and even higher performance.”
Simply put, negativity hurts focus. Negativity puts the focus back on you, not on what you are doing. So, stop that cycle. Focus on the act, and remember a time when you succeeded.
And if you’re just having a super-rough day and you can’t get back to a good mindset? If the option exists to stop and leave, do that. Sometimes the best thing you can do is save it all for another day, when your mind and your body are fresh.
9.) Remember: Adversity Helps You to Grow
What’s that mean? Your failures are more than failures: they are seeds in the garden of resilience. Without failure or trials, you would not grow strong. You would be weak, with no opportunity to grow stronger.
Consider that, and enjoy this opportunity to test yourself. Treasure it all, even the times you have to pick yourself up off your keister and try again. You are making yourself here.
10.) Establish a Calming Practice in Your Life
I was skeptical of meditation—it seemed like a practice for people who didn’t want to do anything. Just sit there and think? I’ve got stuff to do!
And then I tried meditation. Turns out I was wrong, and meditation is pretty cool. That being said, you don’t have to go all nutty crunchy and build a meditation studio or go on a retreat in the woods with a bunch of people wearing natural deodorant. Try a few of these apps or books and see if they help to settle your mind:
- Simply Being or Headspace (or others)
- Lucid for Athletes
- “Be Like Water: Practical Wisdom from the Martial Arts” by Joseph Cardillo
- “Running and Being: The Total Experience” by Dr. George Sheehan
- “The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training” by Jim Taylor and Terri Schneider
- “The Warrior Athlete: Body, Mind & Spirit” by Dan Millman
11.) Don’t Forget to Play
I’m a fan of the writing of Dr. George Sheehan. He spoke to the heart of athletics and soul and play, even if he was a runner and not a weightlifter, even if he died long before CrossFit was born. The man just knew. This is what he wrote in “Running and Being”: “Exercise that is work is worthless. But exercise that is play will give you health and long life.”
Sheehan also wrote: “In play, you realize simultaneously the supreme importance and utter insignificance of what you are doing. And accept the paradox of pursuing what at once is essential and inconsequential. Play, then, is the answer to the puzzle of our existence … Play is where life lives. Where the game is the game. At its borders, we slip into heresy. Become serious. Lose our sense of humor.”
Don’t lose your sense of humor. Respect the weight, and take seriously the art of moving weight, but keep an element of play in your heart. Because your gains won’t mean much if they are drowned in sea of dourness that sinks your joy and darkens the sun.
Set your mind to achieve, and set your heart to play. Good things will come.
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