Emotion, Mental Toughness and Powerlifting
For anyone who has been experienced the sport of powerlifting, be it is as a spectator, a volunteer at a meet, or a competitor, the raw emotion that is occasionally displayed is palpable. Bearing witness to someone meeting a goal of theirs on the platform, be it a new PR, coming back from a failed attempt, or winning their weight class with that big pull at the end of the competition can be uplifting and inspiring. On the other end of the spectrum, watching someone narrowly miss a lift, or watching them completely run out of steam for that big third lift they REALLY wanted can evoke intense emotions as well. However, not all the emotion that is being felt during a competition is observed. Some of the ways competitors feel are deeply personal and not put on immediate display. The passion and emotion present in powerlifting is undeniable, and exists far beyond the competition, extending to training as well as other aspects of a competitor’s life. Exploring these emotions, how one feels, why they feel that way, how to best utilize that emotion, and whether they are handling that raw feeling in a way which is healthy to themselves and those in their lives deserves to be explored.
Powerlifting begins with training. The training a lifter goes through is utilized to prepare them both physically as well as mentally for the competition setting. There is a great deal to be said regarding the physical side of training, building muscle and gaining strength, but that is not the focus of this article. The mental strength required of an athlete to push themselves, and to overcome obstacles in training as well as to smash through mental blocks is more what we will focus on. In training one of the first roadblocks people will encounter is a goal weight. This weight will loom over training, it will be this seemingly unattainable goal early in the training, so far out of reach. For most athletes starting out, these goals coincide with the addition of the 45 pound plates, so for the uninitiated 135, 225, 315, 405 and so on. For someone brand new to the sport, depending on their body weight and athletic background, usually the plate goal just above your body weight is the first goal you encounter with training. Some people may feel fear when they think about loading that weight on the bar while others may feel it is a herculean task that they are ready to tackle with gusto. As each of these athletes nears that goal weight in their training, they will have emotions surrounding tackling that goal. The emotions will differ person to person but will largely be tied to how they view that weight as they near it. Having the right coach, or a great team of fellow lifters around can impact that view and how quickly or easily goals are met. Training will continue to build with heavier weights and more reps, making the individual physically stronger. Building the mental strength to tackle that heavy weight can be as challenging, if not more so, than building the physical strength required to move that weight.
So how then does an athlete work on building that mental strength? The answer will vary lifter to lifter. For some it’s a matter of feeling that that weight is simply the next weight in their progression. An athlete knowing they can perform 5 reps of a weight very close to the plate goal may be all it takes to overcome that plate goal. However, not everyone mentally works the same way. For some lifters, they will have to find the right headspace to accomplish this goal. Some lifters choose moments like this to psych themselves up. To achieve this, some will rely on a certain type of music, or even a specific song, others may have a dialogue, either internal or even external where they tell themselves they can do this. Still, others will tap into raw emotions in order to try and overcome what seems to be an impossible task. The key is to find what works for you as an individual. Something to be aware of when tapping into emotions for a single lift is that the more often you tap into emotions for a lift, the more dependent on that you may become. Much like someone addicted to a substance, you will need more and more of that substance (the emotion in this case) to reach your goals. Continuously tapping into emotions may have far reaching consequences on your overall mental health. We will delve more into that shortly.
As you progress in your training, you will find that you may have to alter your approach, as what has worked before is not enough to allow you to mentally succeed in moving the weight. Many lifters will encounter setbacks because they have not developed the mental toughness required to move a big weight. Sometimes these weights become mental blocks and will not allow the lifter to make that weight move even though their physical strength is more than sufficient to move it. This can impact lifters ranging from beginner to elite level athletes competing in an international event. There are several methods to combat these mental blocks. One method I have seen employed by coaches with great success, is simply putting a weight on the bar disguising it using different assorted plates and not telling the lifter what that weight actually is, but rather just calling for a single or a double with that weight. Invariably, the lifter blows through the weight without realizing it, and when confronted with the actual weight on the bar, realizes that the mental block is permanently erased. Still another method is by training at a weight just barely under that which has become a mental block. For example, if the block is at 330, the lifter could be training with high intensity at 315 or 325 frequently to the point where 330 simply becomes so easily attainable, that they realize they can easily push through that mental barrier. Yet another method used with great success is the hold. As an athlete, when a weight feels heavy, it is significantly harder to move it. So, for a squat, unracking and walking out 10% higher load than what your max is, can allow you to become more accustomed to having that weight on your back. Holding that weight for 30 seconds or longer will help build your mental fortitude so when the time comes to attempt a weight near that, you know how it feels and that it will not crush you.
All the training for a powerlifter culminates with stepping onto the platform. Ask any lifter, and the advice they will give you is to start competing. Lifting for judges is a significantly different experience when compared to lifting in a gym and for many, having an audience watching you lift live can be intimidating as well. The nerves of competing can be enough to rattle any competitor and those nerves combined with the excitement will be elevated for a rookie on the platform. How can we alleviate those “meet jitters” best? The answer again will vary based on the lifter, however there are a few tried and true methods. For starters, ensuring during training that the athlete is knowledgeable of the commands and the process for how a meet runs can help a first timer understand what to expect, because the fear of the unknown or unexpected can always worsen those first time nerves. A coach or a training partner who has more experience may be able to provide ample information to a new lifter to adequately prepare them, but probably the best way to prepare for a meet is to attend one in the federation you will be competing with. Having the right coach at your side for the day of the meet, handling you (telling you when to warmup, what to warm up with, and calling your attempts) will make your first experience run as smoothly as possible. However, not everyone has a coach locally if at all. If you have a training partner who is not competing, or a friend who has competed before, it will help soothe nerves to have them serve as a handler. Discuss with them, in advance of the competition what your goals are. Having someone there to distract you with conversation, or to help you focus on the task at hand will help the meet run smoothly, and once you get that first squat attempt nailed, the meet will begin flying by.
For more advanced lifters there are a variety of techniques to help ease the jitters and prepare best for the platform nerves. Probably the most widely used technique lifters employ will be visualization to prepare for each lift. Mentally picturing the setup and execution of a lift, seeing yourself successfully completing a lift over and over ahead of attempting the lift. Another oft used technique to help a lifter be mentally prepared is by using music. If you watch carefully, many lifters who have someone handling them will have headphones on until right before stepping on the platform. Listening to music can soothe your nerves as well as help you focus and get fired up for a lift. Most competitions do not play music selected by the competitor when they walk to the platform, so the music you bring with you to the edge of the platform is as close as you can get to having your ideal music to get you “in the zone”. A final technique, is to practice relaxation techniques between platform changes. Deep breathing and closing your eyes, allowing yourself to calm down after you have completed your squats can help you be more prepared for the bench. You do not want to stay in the frame of mind once you complete your three attempts on squat all the way through bench and deadlifts, because you will exhaust yourself mentally. Managing fatigue is paramount to having as many successful attempts as possible. Staying “amped” for the duration of a meet will likely cause you to have fried yourself out before deadlifts even begin. Treating each change over on the platform as an opportunity to reset yourself and allow yourself to settle down, prior to warming up for the next lift will help tremendously in managing the fatigue felt late in the meet. There will be a time to utilize emotion within the meet to help you, rather than trying to control it, but we will discuss that later in this article.
Regulation of Emotion Through Powerlifting
We have touched on many ways that emotions can reveal themselves during the lifting process and how to handle these as they can become problematic. The act of lifting though, can also serve as a therapeutic release for an athlete. There is a popular meme in fitness circles that says something to the effect of “when nothing goes right, go lift”. This can actually serve as good advice. Exercise in general releases endorphins which will cause the athlete to experience a good feeling in the body, and can be compared to certain medications. This release is why those with an addiction background may be able to jump into exercise and stick with it seeing great results. The overall good feeling that the endorphins provide is a high that the body produces naturally.
Beyond the release of endorphins, lifting can also serve as a way to deal with a rough day. Many athletes will tell you about a time when they were having a terrible day. Usually they will also tell you they had no desire to train that day, but the training has become such a habit that they simply cannot skip it likely citing of a fear of losing gains. By focusing mentally and physically on performing this strenuous activity of moving the weights all the things that had been causing the day to feel like a bad day, can be forgotten, even if just temporarily. Sometimes, just having done the workout, and feeling that indescribable feeling from completing a workout can turn the day around. The ritual of the setup for each lift that an athlete has can be calming and help them to re-center. In this sense, training can serve as a form of meditation, but that is a topic for an entire article on its own.
The last piece regarding emotion and powerlifting to cover is how to effectively utilize emotions in powerlifting. Most of this article has talked about controlling emotion in training and in competition. There is a time to tap into emotion, and it should be brief. Much like a high-performance car, you don’t want to keep the engine in the red too long, lest you blow it up. Staying “in the red” emotionally can cause you to feel burned out and exhausted. Turning to that emotional place for lift after lift will not benefit you and eventually will numb you to that emotion. So, when can you turn to that place, accessing your emotions and using them to fuel a lift? My belief is this method should usually be saved for a third attempt, when you are reaching down deep to get a PR, or just to nail a significant lift for the sake of a competition. If you do this for the third attempt in each lift, you will shorten the time you are maintaining that high intensity, and you will have time to reset yourself before the next lift comes up. You will notice some athletes stay in that intense place for the duration of competition. However, some of the most successful competitors seen on the world stage seem to be mostly calm and composed going into lifts outside of big third lifts and even then, many maintain a calm exterior. Those competitors who have that calm exterior, usually have a laser focus as they approach the bar, continuing to visualize the completion of that lift, up to the moment they have the bar in their hands.
Powerlifting can be a highly emotional sport and can serve as a therapeutic release as well. However, it is crucial that emotions be handled correctly in both training and competition to prevent burning out, mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Utilizing methods we have discussed here, or seeking additional mental health support can help powerlifting truly be a vital piece of your health and well-being. Managing your emotions will increase your longevity in the sport as well as in life.
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