Weightlifting frustrations are all too common.
You know those weightlifters who always overreact when they miss a lift?
They shout and swear, kick the wall, storm around the gym huffing and puffing, maybe even get tearful.
Well, that was me.
It would start slowly. I’d miss what I saw as an ‘easy’ attempt and there would be some some grrrs and eye-rolling. I’d try to change something but I would screw up again.
And as the screw-ups (as I saw them) continued, the frustration levels would rise until I was literally kicking the wall.
People would try to help and I’d glare at them or snap back. I wanted to be alone in my little cocoon of shame and anger.
Fast forward a couple of years to today, and I’m a reformed wall-kicker.
I still miss lifts of course, but over the last year I haven’t shouted, got angry, kicked a wall or cried over a single missed lift.
And it has completely changed my experience of lifting. I enjoy my training sessions and I always leave feeling better about myself than when I came in.
When the PBs don’t come flooding, I’m ok with that. I focus on what I’m doing well, all the technique improvements I’m making. Anyway, if I’m having fun and enjoying the process, that’s the main thing.
And the funny thing is, I screw up a lot less these days, now that I don’t let my emotions get the better of me. Turns out it’s a virtuous circle. The less frustrated you are, the better you can focus on actually doing the lift and the more likely you are to be successful.
So how did I do it?
How I overcame my weightlifting frustrations
I’m going to break it down for you. But first I want to say this: it wasn’t a quick and easy process. These aren’t “the five easy steps to complete happiness” that you can master in a day.
I reckon my transformation took several months, maybe as much as a year. I hope that this advice will speed things up for you, for sure.
You don’t need to take as long as I did. But you should expect to put in a bit of work over time for this to have a lasting effect.
The first step is admitting you have a problem
The truth will set you free – but first, it will piss you off.
Until my coach at the time actually had a stern word with me, I hadn’t admitted to myself that this was a serious problem.
In fact, I thought the problem was something else. Too difficult, not the right programming, not the right coaching…
My coach had to be very clear with me and at the time it upset me – mainly because I knew he was right.
Although it will hurt the ego, you have to admit to yourself that this is a serious problem. It affects not just you but those around you, your coach and your training group.
And now with the growth of social media, we can spread our misery right across our social networks with negative status updates and ‘poor me’ tweets.
But it is holding you back. More than your technique, more than your mobility. This is the single biggest advance you’ll make in your lifting: mastering your emotional response to missed lifts.
Controlling your chimp
Recognising when you are about to go into a negative spiral before it happens and intervening
I started reading sports psychology books and gradually things became clear to me. It was like the veil had been lifted from my entire life – which was quite a shock after nearly 40 years.
I read The Chimp Paradox, a popular mind management book written by Dr Steve Peters, who famously worked with Victoria Pendleton, Ronnie O’Sullivan and other highly strung sports stars to help them control their emotions.
I learned a lot from this book, but what I want you to take away from this article is Dr Peters’ notion of our ‘chimp’, the emotional part of our brain, which is very strong and can easily get out of control.
His key point is that your chimp is a part of you, but it’s not you. In fact, anytime you have feelings or behaviours that you don’t want, it is your chimp in control and not you.
However, your chimp is not your perfect excuse: “It wasn’t me, it was my chimp talking!” Because you are responsible for it and must train it, control it and nurture it, just like you would a traumatised animal.
After reading this book, I started to recognise the warning signs. As soon as I felt any kind of unwelcome emotion welling up – frustration, anger, envy – I would immediately say to myself: “It’s just your chimp.”
And then I would comfort my chimp by saying, “Everything’s going to be ok.” I used to treat it like a child or a pet. In my head I would imagine myself actually stroking a little frightened chimp!
And my chimp would calm down. And my ‘human’ head would be in charge.
This took a lot of mental effort but it was effective.
So this step is about recognising when you are about to go into a negative spiral before it happens and intervening to comfort your chimp before it goes off its little rocker.
Setting your expectations and focussing your attention
Focus on what you need to do, not how you feel or what’s going on around you
I found a lot of insight in a book about the mental game in rock climbing.
I love rock climbing and I used to climb outdoors a lot when I lived in Cornwall a few years ago. I found this book in a climbing shop and the title intrigued me: The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner.
The warrior’s way is focussed on the process not the outcome. The warrior treats each challenge as an opportunity to learn.
Here’s an extract from the book containing profound insights. I’ve modified it slightly to relate to weightlifting:
“Lifts near your limit offer the greatest opportunity for learning, but they become recipes for frustration if you have a results-based expectation.
You expect to be able to lift them, having lifted at this level before, yet this expectation drains critical attention.
Frustration is a sign that your attention has faltered.
Instead of diving into the rich learning process such a lift offers, you want the challenge to come down to your level. You’re disgusted and you want it given to you.
“I should be able to lift this weight”, you say. That’s entitlement thinking. You’re not even thinking about how to sharpen your technique to the level the lift requires. Your attention has drifted towards receiving and is further tied up in “poor me” behaviour. You want something for nothing!
If you find yourself becoming frustrated, take it as a symptom that you are out of alignment with your goals.
If you want an easy success, do an easier weight. If you want a real challenge, you’ve found it.”
When I first read those words, I got a real shock. That’s me, I thought. And I was embarrassed. My Ego had taken a big hit. I’d never seen myself as a victim before, and yet here I am, acting like a spoilt child and feeling sorry for myself.
I remember that when I first started lifting as a beginner, I was willing to try again and again until I got it. I didn’t have a ‘personal history’ in lifting at that point, and every attempt was an opportunity to learn and get better.
But after a while, when the initial beginner gains wore off and the real work started, I got disheartened.
I had accumulated more of a history of missing lifts, dropping the bar on my head in competitions (yes, this happened twice!) and my confidence was tanking.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was moving from one stage to another. I was moving from the beginner stage where everything comes relatively easily and you don’t have to work that hard to make progress; to the intermediate stage, where progress is hard won and you have to stick at it.
This is the point at which most people either give up the sport, or they struggle on but they don’t enjoy it any more.
I didn’t give up because I loved weightlifting. But I struggled.
Arno wrote on his blog recently:
“So what’s required to shift from beginner to master? First, our approach to practice demonstrates what we value.
Unconscious beginners value comfort, end results, and fast progress. This approach is impatient and distracts our attention from the learning process itself.
We need to do the opposite of what beginners do. We need to value stress, processes, and slow progress.”
So here’s the next key point: approach each lift as an opportunity to learn something.
Be honest about where you are focussing your attention. Are you focussing on keeping the bar close? Or are you focussing on how tired you are today, whether the people around you are watching and what they’ll think of you if you miss?
Enjoy the process, be ‘in the moment’ with the lift. Put it the work. Don’t worry about the outcome.
Perfectionism: the enemy of excellence
We all make mistakes – it doesn’t mean you suck
This is a biggie, folks!
One of the best things I ever did for myself was to rid myself of the millstone of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is not about trying to be perfect. Perfectionism is about never being good enough.
Perfectionism is actually another way for the ego to hold you back. By setting the completely unattainable goal of perfection, you are guaranteed never to achieve it, therefore you don’t have to try.
The wonderful Brene Brown, vulnerability researcher, says in her TEDTalk ‘The Price of Invulnerability’,
“Perfectionism has nothing to do with striving for excellence. Perfection is a tool to protect ourselves.”
In other words, if our lives are perfect, then everything will be fine and everyone will love us. Anything less than perfection is dangerous and scary.
Having high standards is not a bad thing per se. It’s more to do with how we see mistakes and how we handle failure – both of which are practically inevitable in the pursuit of excellence.
Those who employ ‘healthy striving’ for excellence take mistakes as incentive to work harder. However, ‘unhealthy’ perfectionists consider mistakes a sign of personal defects.
If mistakes and failure make you feel bad about yourself and cause anxiety, you have a perfectionism problem.
My coach always used to tell us to be optimistic. If you miss a lift, just put it behind you and resolve to get it next time. To be a good weightlifter you need to have a short memory for mistakes and always be looking forward.
The opposite of this is something Brene Brown calls ‘foreboding joy’. Just when everything seems to be going well, we worry that it will all go wrong.
This used to be a big problem of mine. When I did do a lift that went well, I’d immediately worry about whether I’d ever do it again!
A pessimistic outlook doesn’t serve you as a weightlifter.
The Perfectionism problem is the one that has taken me the longest to get free of. In fact, I’m still not there, though I’ve come a long way.
This step is about being optimistic and embrace your mistakes and failures as guidance on what to work on next. We must all make mistakes and fail before we succeed – it’s not an indictment of you as a person.
Recognise that you have a problem. This is the single biggest advance you’ll make in your lifting: mastering your emotional response to missed lifts.
You must recognise when you are about to go into a negative spiral before it happens and intervene to ‘comfort your chimp’.
Approach each lift as an opportunity to learn something. Be honest about where you are focussing your attention. Are you focussing on keeping the bar close? Or are you focussing on how tired you are today or how much you think you suck at lifting?
Enjoy the process, be ‘in the moment’ with the lift. Put it the work. Don’t worry about the outcome.
Be optimistic and embrace your mistakes and failures as guidance on what to work on next. It’s not an indictment of you as a person. It doesn’t mean you suck, you are crap or you are worthless.
We must all make mistakes and fail before we succeed.