I used to think that my primary job as a competitive lifter was to continuously get stronger in the gym and that this would directly translate to better performance in competition. Grinding in the gym, day after day, working the accessories and hammering the main lifts, while continuing to work on recovery and nutrition… that’s what it’s about right? You put more weight on the bar and get physically and mentally better at tackling the bigger weights. Then you put the results on the platform and rinse and repeat.
Yeah, I thought so too.
But I’m seeing things with new eyes now, after spending some time coaching locally, nationally and most recently as an intern coach at IPF Worlds, helping the coaches help the athletes. We had some amazing athletes there and some truly gifted coaches and being around both teaches you great things about your own assumptions and approach.
I watched the lifters who were successful and the ones who struggled.
I watched experienced lifters and those who were (like me) still learning the ropes.
There were two factors that appeared to separate those who were able to put it together on the platform from those who found it challenging:
1) the most successful lifters had trained as they competed, taking lessons from the platform back to the gym and integrating them into their training progressions
2) the lifters who were unfazed by changes and alterations in warmups, schedule, and environment conserved their energy better for lifting and generally performed better.
What I’m learning is that my job as a competitive athlete is not only to get stronger, it’s to become more versatile, resilient, and compassionately and realistically self aware. My job as a competitive athlete is to be whatever I need to be on the day that I compete and there are skills that go with that that require as much attention and practice as the reps and sets do. I must learn to know myself under a wide spectrum of circumstances and to have solutions to even seemingly small obstacles that I encounter and be able to emotionally and mentally roll with what comes.
At a meet, anything can happen.
You could be in the first flight. You could be in the second.
You might lift at 6am or 8pm.
You might screw up and miss an opener.
You might be on a stage with lights or in an arena or gym with minimal lighting.
You might have 14 in your flight or you could end up with 8.
You might use a rack, bar, or plates that are different from your usual training gear.
There might be one toilet per platform and lineups galore.
It could be hot. It might be freezing.
The chalk might be slippery.
You might get a ref with long press calls.
You might have to spontaneously switch from sumo to conventional or vice versa due to injury.
You might be assigned a team coach that you don’t really know well.
You might have slept poorly in a strange bed.
The food might be different than your usual.
Your competition may play some strategic tactics that entail you making huge jumps, but they might also mean minuscule ones.
You might have to take a re-lift with minimal recovery.
Women might have to contend with menstrual annoyances.
And all of this must be dealt with when your nerves are prone to running high and you’re emotionally invested in an outcome.
Anything can happen. Anything.
And that is what I must train and prepare for.
Lifters are creatures of habit. Habits and ritual make us feel safe. I spent years studying religion and learned that to be human is to embrace patterns and structure. The more important something is to us, the more structured and ritualistic is our approach to that thing. But to succeed on the world stage, we need to be able to flex our rituals to allow for circumstances. We must willingly and unflinchingly roll with the punches.
We get used to the same warmups every time because we know how those feel. We often choose to train at a consistent time of day, on the same equipment, with the same people, or work with one coach for a long time. We prefer one form of deadlift over another, like to eat the same foods before training, may be used to having long breaks between sets and time to run and pee before each heavy single. We get used to making the jumps in training that make us feel good and that make the next lift easier.
But I’m learning more and more that the platform is not the gym. The circumstances are not remotely the same as a usual gym environment. The intensity is completely different. The PRs are utterly separate because the choices that one makes about lifts in competition have stakes that gym lifts do not. In the gym I have absolute and ultimate control over my training, but on the platform that control over many factors is vastly reduced.
I do, however, have control over my preparation and reactions. I can make my approach to training in the gym more like the platform in certain ways, even if the platform is nothing like the gym.
On game day, it’s my reactions to stress and circumstances that make or break things.
- I can make sure that I train on competition spec gear (or close to it) at least a few times before a big meet, so that I know where I am in relation to the equipment, particularly for squat walkouts and bench setup. I can try to train on non-whippy bars and at least occasionally not use thick bumper plates to mimic the solidity of deads on the platform.
- I can train at different times of day periodically and pay attention to how my body feels, what extra food or warmups might be needed, and how my energy levels are.
- I can learn to adjust these factors by experimenting during the training season.
- I can learn about the competition structure and roughly how to time my own warmups, even if working with a coach, so that I know when to “turn on” and when to sit and chill and conserve energy.
- I can video my lifts and make sure I’m complying with rules like squat depth, knee lockout, ass and head on bench and feet on floor.
- I can learn to vary my warmup. Just the other day I was training with someone much larger and used their warmup scheme with slightly larger jumps. I paid attention to how it felt and learned that I can effectively cut out one warmup lift quite easily if I need to, it’ll just feel slightly heavier for the couple of lifts that bridge that gap.
- I can find ways and means (meditation, melatonin, or even Benadryl if necessary) to make sure that I sleep well for the few days leading up to a meet, even if I might not sleep so well the night directly before. I can learn to use these during intense training cycles to see how they pan out under stress.
- I can vary the rest intervals between heavy singles so that I won’t be caught flat-footed in the case of a re-lift. I can learn to mentally regroup quickly.
- I can pay attention to what is needed to calm me down and amp me up between lifts and to whether my energy levels feel like they are going up or down as the training session progresses.
- I can regularly have long training sessions so that I can learn to control and adjust my arousal and energy levels throughout to get the job done. I can learn what nutrition I need to sustain me through a multi-hour session in practice. I can also learn what it feels like mentally to hit multiple lifts in a single session and develop the mental focus to sustain heavy deads after heavy squats.
- I can sometimes train with bigger jumps. I may not need to make a 10, 12.5, or 15kg jump from first to second in squats or deads, but if I can…. it’s one more tool in my toolbox.
- I can practice not letting things bother me in ordinary training. Life stress carried in to the gym wearing me down? Knee sleeves are hard to get on? Ran out of my favourite intra-workout drink? Not much sleep the night before? Lack of the usual spotters whom I trust? Training on a different rack or with a different bar? Discovered that I’m suddenly training alone? This is the face of the unexpected and it’s coping with these ripples and glitches that lets me learn to turn off panic and remain calm in the face of change. Energy not wasted in freaking out can translate into more available for lifting. Resilience and calm are skills that require practice.
- I can pay attention to how I am feeling during training and adjust the weights up or down as needed without beating myself up. Self-flagellation serves no purpose other than to weaken you and if what you are on a given day realistically isn’t what you expected, no amount of anger or recrimination will change that. Learning to be realistic, accept, and make the best of it can make all the difference and sometimes surprise you.
I think I made the mistake for a long time of thinking that what I did in the gym would carry over to the platform if I just lifted more and trained harder, but now I’m realizing that this only works if I try to identify the factors on the platform that are potential weaknesses or pitfalls and carry those back to the gym and address them systematically. It has to be reciprocal. The gym can make you stronger on the platform, but only if you let the platform make you stronger in the gym. I can train harder, but I also have to train smarter and for versatility.
Over time my job is to build a toolbox, so that on game day, whatever skills I need to have to get the job done can be pulled out of the box and applied. This is the advantage that experienced lifters have and I can now see more clearly how competing over time makes you a stronger lifter, a stronger competitor, and a much stronger and more adaptable human. Resilience and strength, hand-in-hand, are an unbeatable combination, both on the platform and in Life.
Thanks as always to my sponsor Inner Strength Products and SBD Canada. Your faith in me as an athlete is both humbling and motivating. Folks who have read this far, this company and the people who run it do great work for Canadian strength athletes.
Please, if you need lifting gear, wander over to their page and have a look.