Fear doesn’t always make sense.
That’s not to say there isn’t a reason for it or that it doesn’t serve a purpose, but often it outstays its usefulness. Often it becomes a habit or something we are so wrapped up in that seeing past it is like standing in the middle of an isolated field in a blizzard searching for a path buried deep in snow and not knowing in which direction it will lead. We get caught up in a snow globe that we keep shaking ourselves.
Last Christmas I had a meltdown of sorts, the result of too many stresses coinciding at an already crazy time of year. I wrote about it here, but basically I collapsed mentally and physically during squat training and spent quite a lot of time thinking very badly of myself for not being capable of doing the aspects of training regardless of the reason. I was vague about the reasons in my initial post, because I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself. Those are rather horrible feelings to have about yourself and they are even more horrible when they are brought to light by something that you actually love with a passion that, at its best, makes your heart sing. I told myself that I didn’t know how to fix the problem, but that wasn’t actually it. Really I was just scared at what I was going to have to do to correct things because it basically involved doing more of what terrified me.
I was terrified of squatting alone. I can see where it started and how it evolved. I think I understand why it happened. Originally, it was a combination of perpetually tight hip flexors and inactive glutes resulting in a quad-dominant squat that pitched me too far forward and initially caused me to not always hit depth and also resulted in instability out of the hole, the combination of which triggered waves of doubt and the anxiety that comes with not being able to predict how one’s body will behave under stress. Because this was my normal, I grew reliant on having my coach there to catch me if I fell. That security was usually enough to stop me from falling, but it isn’t there on the platform.
The end result was that my physical ability to squat was entirely ruled by my emotional and mental feeling that every heavy lift was a game of Russian Roulette, that I had no way of knowing if nerves would cause form break-down or controlling it when they did. The higher the stakes, the more panic set in and the more likely it was that I would break into pieces over which I had no control. At Nationals 2016, I stood on the platform in front of floodlights, lost in terror and dazed by an inability to even feel my own body moving through space, let alone control it, for those first three lifts. Squatting to me used to feel like balancing on the top of a picket fence with a 300b bar on my back. I’m still not sure how I managed that third squat at Nationals other than sheer will; I don’t think I have fought for a lift on the platform so hard in my life.
Fear is a stupidly powerful thing. It takes control the smallest aspects of life in very subtle ways at first and grows until those small aspects cripple you. When it has control, taking back that control needs to be a systematic and consistent series of very small steps that succeed. I did a great job of burying my head in the sand leading up to Nationals 2016, but after I managed to scrape through that competition, something clicked in my head. I decided that I was not going to live like that for any longer than I had to. I used to adore squatting and I was going to take that back. One day sitting out on Cape Spear, watching the waves roll, I remembered the promise I had made to myself at Christmas. I promised myself, after fishing my squat shoes out the the garbage, that I would fix this and not quit.
I had not yet kept that promise and promises you make to and for yourself must be kept.
Deep inside me there is this very strong (some might say arrogant) belief that I can actually be a great lifter, that there’s more potential in me than I have tapped thus far and that I am willing to find ways to push myself to whatever limits I can sustain to find that. But I can’t carry Fear and the weights. One of those had to go.
After Nationals, I went back to the gym with Worlds looming four months down the road and the knowledge that I had hidden from this as long as I could stand. My coach wasn’t going to be at worlds with me, so the line was effectively drawn; my goal for worlds was to be able to handle all of my warmup weights confidently on my own, without a spotter. I also needed to have a firm grasp of what I could do on that day, to squat reliably, with better form, and consistency, and to have a game plan that I knew I could implement.
This meant that I was going to have to fix things that needed fixing and face that bar like I was going to face it in Texas, alone, without anyone else to provide the confidence standing behind me. So I upped the mobility routine significantly, researched every way possible to keep hip flexors nimble (in addition to the movements my coach had already written into my programme), spent way too much time thinking about how active my arse muscles were, and started at the beginning, with the bar and lighter weights and strict attention to form. I changed my setup, focus point, stance width and mental cues.
I had gotten so used to having someone competent behind me at every turn, I had stopped trying to read my own body and how to systematically set things up so that my own tightness and strength kept me safe. I started working on control, setup, and the mental ritual of what I had to do for each lift. I paid attention to what effort felt like and worked carefully on the squat variants and accessory exercises that my coach had programmed to build my lifts. And I pushed myself mentally a little at a time each day, some more than others, to handle progressively heavier weights by myself. I created a new category of PR for myself: Solo PRs. And I went after those scary little bastards.
No amount of belief that a coach has in you can replace your own self-belief. I made the mistake of relying too much on what someone else thought I could do (which was quite a lot) and not believing enough in my own inner strength and having the confidence to match. It wasn’t my coach’s job to carry me in that way, it was my job to stand on my own two feet and his job to help me to be a stronger lifter. It wasn’t fair to expect that of him. My belief in myself had to be more powerful and resilient than anyone else’s opinion about me; it had to be unshakeable. Without it, no amount of support or training would help. I needed to find it again and show it how to grow.
It was really lonely. I think it is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in a while, honestly. My coach was also my training partner and friend and I missed the camaraderie and company a lot, but I knew I had to go this one alone in some measure. Fear in its most visceral form also saps strength, so when you’re afraid of 120kg, it feels a lot more like 140kg. I needed not to be scared of 120 so that I could have the chance to prove myself with 140 and more. And while company can sometimes help, when it comes right down to it lifting is really just you and that bar and whatever is in your head. I needed to not rely on someone else’s confidence, but to find my own.
I’d spend time psyching myself up to approach the bar alone and doing whatever mental gymnastics I had to do to step under it. I took adrenal supplements by the bottle to calm myself down enough to even step into the gym some days and I showed up earlier and earlier for training to give myself time to do the first few, and gradually more and more of the warmups alone. I trained when my coach wasn’t around for many of the lighter sessions to force myself to stand alone better and gained confidence with each lift I hit well. The heavier solo work I still do in the cage, but I started trusting myself gradually to use the ER rack without safeties for lighter stuff. I didn’t talk about it with a lot of people, I just started working on it. I went in on rest days and practiced movements with lighter weights and did mobility work. And I planned to make my openers at worlds numbers that I was certain that I could reliably hit without form crumbling, trusting that the confidence this gave would open up possibilities for me.
At some point in the process, things started to click.
Like magic one day, I felt what it meant to “spread the floor”, although for me it feels less like spreading and more like hitting the position that allows the energy of the earth to come up through my heels and connect with the bar. All the systematic training Nick had planned along with the work I had done coalesced. I discovered the sensation of locking down the back with the elbows, allowing the bar to connect with that line of energy into the floor. I found that magical place in the hole where you are so tight and compact that you feel for all the world like a densely-packed bullet being shot straight up out of a very powerful gun. I learned that my glutes stopped working right if my back was too tight so I started tracking what caused that to happen, being aware of how my body felt each day, and learning how to remedy any issues.
The confidence and skills I was solidifying while training alone carried over to the heavier sessions when my coach was there and the combination felt progressively stronger. There was a growing feeling that maybe I could actually do decently at worlds if I got my head onto the same track as my body. As soon as I started thinking about stepping onto the platform for my opening squat, I felt waves of panic hit. So I called in some help. I already had great help from Nick in making my body strong. I needed someone to help me trick my mind into letting go of the fear that was more habit than substance. I got some excellent help from Shelley, an experienced lifter and psychologist with expertise in performance anxiety and adverse reactions under stress. She taught me to capture the moments of greatest confidence in my mind and replay them. I meditated daily. I made a soundtrack of songs that gave me great lifting energy and whose lyrics spoke to me and played them over and over while I hit lift after lift with good form until when one of those songs came on, my confidence switch flicked and I was completely in the moment. She helped me to understand that a competition plan would give me focus and take guesswork out of the equation.
And something wonderful started happening throughout this process, the components of which I’ve continued steadily ever since worlds. It started to be fun again. Like really fun. Like open-the-belt-and-laugh-in-delight-after-successful-lifts Fun. Just like Fear gets stronger when you feed it, so does Confidence. Every day that I squat, every rep I hit, and every boundary I push successfully gives me little more joy and a greater strength to face the next day. Instead of dreading squat training, I look forward to it. I’m opening my mind to possibilities and numbers that I haven’t been able to realistically consider because I couldn’t do the work necessary to get to them or because I couldn’t trust my own confidence to pursue them on the platform.
And yeah, there are going to be hiccoughs and occasional glitches. This past month has been full of them, because that’s just Life and somehow you learn to roll with it and listen to what it teaches you. But now when I squat, even on tough days, usually the only thing on my back is a loaded bar. Fear shows up less and less.
I’m keeping my promise and I’ll keep working on it.