Brain gains

It was ABBA in the car on the way home from work that got my brain spinning out of its usual orbit. The intro beat and chords to “Does Your Mother Know?” blared from the radio and, with both eyes still on the wet road, my mind flashed back to being a kid again, and I was dancing in the living room with Mom and my siblings, trying to land soft-footedly so that the record wouldn’t skip. It was an instant form of time travel, leaping back 35 years without missing a beat.

Music has a power to take us instantly to a place and time. It transports us through memory and space and evokes emotions and connections vividly and in full colour. It is one of the most useful mental tools in an athlete’s arsenal. It’s a solace and a driving energy; it can be an inspiration and stimulant or a calming tool and a relaxation. And it was a trigger that I began to explore and use deliberately a few years ago, when my body was a good lifter but my head….. not so much.

In 2016 I had some serious performance anxiety issues surrounding squats heading into big meets. Mostly heading into nationals, honestly, as I had had a couple of experiences that did not go optimally and I was having a rough time overwriting my hard drive mentally. Format C: works great for computers, but turns out not to be so hot for brains. I had fixed the actual problems causing the squat issues, but the stuff in your head is sometimes harder to fix than the stuff in your body. And I was heading into a meet that mattered a lot to me. I needed to learn to get the hell out of my own head and out of my own way.

So I contacted Shell Colter, a powerlifter, psychotherapist, and ex-military officer for whom I have mad respect. I first met Shell at Nationals 2015 when we quite literally bumped into each other in the warmup room (still have the scars, Shell?) and then again at an Iron Sisters Camp in Ontario that same summer. She’s funny, smart, blunt as hell, thoughtful, and I have come to realize that the reason she lifts in 84+ is that a smaller body wouldn’t be able to contain her heart and strength of character (and deadlift – did I mention her dead?).

I approached Shell and she was kind enough to consent to work with me over a few months to help build my mental skillset so that my mind could keep up with my body. I was to learn to control what was embedded in my brain and it turned out that my mind is a pretty high-speed place, requiring damned hard work. I was a bit of a hot mess mentally. I tended to lift (and live) emotionally (at the gym, on the platform, and in the outside world) and that left me at the mercy of whatever was going through my head and heart at a given time. Because of this and other factors, I was also training “on the nerve” an awful lot and this constant roller coaster messed with my cortisol levels and ability to sleep and recover which, in turn, led me to have a hard time remaining confident in my abilities. If you’re always lifting with how you feel and you’re pretty often exhausted, and you don’t control your emotional reactions, your mind will play some pretty mean tricks on you.

I needed to learn to lift and make decisions with my head more and to not be emotionally involved with every situation or lift that I faced, and Shell, who is pretty damned forthright (a trait I value immensely), told me as much. It was a complete restructuring of how I approached training, each lift, and although I didn’t realize it then, life. At the time I didn’t know how much of a game changer it would be.

We sorted out roots of anxieties and made lists of alternate things that I should think about when I started diving head-first down a worry rabbithole. Some of these issues were decisions that needed to be made, but that I was simply not ready to face at that time, but many of them were just me getting the hell out of my own head. I was tripping over myself and I was the cause of many of my own insecurities. So I started work. I would say that for every hour of physical training at that time, I was clocking another quarter-to-half-hour of mental work. I stepped through the process of each lift before training it. I noted bodily sensations and also developed scripts to counteract those. I also acknowledged emotions, acceded that they were legitimate, but also that I also could decide quite clinically what to do with them.

“It’s heavy” – “It is. But you are very, very strong. And you choose to be here.”

“My legs hurt so much” – “They do, but they will loosen up. Look at your last warmup – it was fast and smooth. Take an extra warmup set if you need it. And take a rest day tomorrow. You’ve earned it and it will make you stronger.”

“I don’t feel much like this today.” – “Okay. So what? What do feelings have to do with the need to get a job done? Nothing. Lift with your head and your heart will catch up. Or not. Your head is enough for this. Lift with precision and force. Be calculating and exact.”

“I’m scared of this weight” – “Stop that NOW. Just set your safeties, do what you have to do to move it, and either it will move or it won’t. Turn the fear into excited curiosity. Seriously. It’s just a hunk of metal. Don’t give it power.”

“What if I can’t do this?” – “What if you can? Go in curious. Find out the answer to that question, but phrase it “let’s see what happens.” It’s okay not to always succeed on the first try. You will learn something either way. But the likelihood that you CAN is greater than that you can’t or this wouldn’t be in your program.”

“What if I’m not good enough to get through this workout today?” – “It is equally likely that you are. Do it one lift at a time, one set at a time. It was designed for you and therefore is the right dosage. Be curious. See what happens. You will surprise yourself.”

“I’m so very very tired” – “And after this, you can rest. Just do this thing one lift at a time. Don’t look ahead. Be right ON, right HERE, right NOW.”

Among the things that we worked on was the use of music to centre my focus. She had me pick  a few songs that I would use over and over again in training, songs that had energy and possibly lyrics that spoke to me clearly. Five Finger Death Punch is probably not music that my mother would ever have thought I would appreciate when she played ABBA in the living room, but “Lift Me Up” became my musical mantra heading into Worlds 2016.

“There’s no room for mistakes

All the parts are in place
Say what you will but say it to my face
Better back the fuck up
Better shut the fuck up
I’ll do what I want
And I’ll never give up
I won’t be broken
I won’t be tortured
I won’t be beaten down
I have the answer
I take the pressure
I turn it all around”
“Lift Me Up”, FFDP

Shell made a comment that eventually those songs would become an integral part of my lifting. (I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time, but I sure get it now.)

The idea was that I would tap into music to help provide a constant that I could control from training to meet, to harness the connection between my focus on a lift in training and that music and then to translate the same focus into the meet itself. I would layer music onto the visualization and the lifting itself and cement those into a mental process that would remain consistent each time I tackled the bar.

The mental work I did also entailed learning to block out anything that had happened before or drama spinning alongside me on meet day as irrelevant information to the job at hand, focussing my entire attention on what has to be done next, a skill that has paid off well in coping with situations in which lifts are missed or when things seem not to be going as planned. I learned to let go of a mistake quickly and ruthlessly. I learned to look only at what I had to do next, be it a warmup, lift, fuelling, mobility work, or even relaxing briefly and thinking of something off-topic to reset. I learned to shrug and walk away and not pay attention to other lifters, any glitches in the running of the meet, or anything that just didn’t unroll as expected. It’s a process-driven approach, in which what must be done next is all that matters. It’s a tricky thing to learn, but once you have it, it’s invaluable.

But man oh man, I squatted, benched and deadlifted to “Lift Me Up” until I heard it in my sleep. Which was, of course, the point.

Before each training session I meditated on the lifts to be done that day and visualized them going perfectly while practicing deep breathing to control my heart rate. I practiced the visualization with every lift and as time went on, added another layer of stimulus-response by sniffing ammonia before select big lifts. By hitting the play button and with those, I programmed my brain to cue focussed intensity into precisely what I had premeditated that I would do.

The deep breathing let me eventually learn to calm my racing heart and jitters with two very deep, precisely controlled, breaths during a meet.

And holy fuck does it ever work.

The initial four cymbal crashes of that song are my “on” switch to this day, and now when I hear them, my brain instantly flicks on. Adding ammonia was yet another layer that I learned to use properly. Ammonia by itself doesn’t lift weight any more than a belt does; you have to know how to use it to clear your mind of the extraneous and allow the oxygen, adrenaline, and focussed energy to flow through you, and you must have programmed your brain to use it well. The nose tork, music, and consistent words I spoke before each lift in my head gave me a new focus; a focus on all the things within a lift that I control.

(As an aside, it works so well that I cannot have that song on my car playlist or I’m sudden 30+ over the speed limit. Also my husband has instituted a no ammonia in the house rule for reasons I cannot discuss.)

To shut down worry, I learned to live in the present moment and became process-driven; it became about just me and the bar and the things I had to do to make a lift move perfectly. There were no outcomes, only actions.

It’s still working and I’m still building on it, probably in ways that she didn’t expect. Most days I do some form of meditation or visualization. I don’t even think about it now, it’s just a part of my training, during my warmup. Before every single lift there is a tapping into that mental imagery and focus, a replaying of the mantra of steps I must execute to make the lift flow seamlessly.


Every. Single. Lift.

I’m going to say that again, because it matters.

Mental strength comes from harnessing your mind and engaging it during every set.

Every rep. Even the light ones. Especially the light ones.

Every goddamned day. The mind is a muscle and every lift gives you an opportunity to train it alongside your body.

THAT’S what you’re practicing. Your body can move the weight if you’ve done the work. It’s your mind that slams on the brakes.

And guess what? It is exhausting at first. And some days when you’ve had a rough day or other things are going on in life and you face the bar, it can be more draining to maintain that focus than to move the actual weight. But after a while the visualization becomes a piece of the lift itself to the point at which you don’t even realize consciously that you’re doing it. It gets more readily doable with practice. The cool thing is that being able to maintain that kind of focus and control in the face of fatigue and powerful emotions gives you power over other parts of your life.

The same sorts of skills that you apply when approaching the bar can be used to approach the other challenges of life. It’s learning to get out of your own head and consequently, out of your own way, because your body will go anywhere your mind can take it, as long as your brain is controlling the show rather than your emotions. We are so often our own brakes, but we can also be our own driving engines.

Being able to turn on what is needed for that lift, but not to crank on too much, is a learned skill. The more you “arouse” your intensity, the more you have to recover from, but too little and you’re lacking the intensity to do the job. It’s learning to precisely set the temperature on the stove to cook what needs baking, but not to char the nerves beyond recognition. Too little heat and things are raw. Too much and you’ve overshot and fried yourself a bit. This was another lesson I had to learn both in the gym and out; how to know what was needed and use only that.

Training and life are a part of the same spectrum of energy investment. I needed to get better at choosing when to have an opinion and when not to waste emotional energy, at understanding what’s worth getting emotionally involved in and what is best left without engagement. I required a better barometer for deciding which fucks are given and where, as well as when to invest energy and effort and when to cut losses or simply walk away. It was a part of finding that saying “no” to some things allowed me to give a definitive “yes” to other things. I’m still working on that part and learning to adjust the dosage to fit the task at hand, in all parts of life, but I’m better than I was. And it’s helping my training immensely.


It’s funny. When I contacted Shell in 2016 I was only thinking about getting through worlds. I don’t think I saw at that time how much I didn’t know about controlling my thoughts and using the power of my mind to be stronger, but looking back on my notes, I can see that she did. What I didn’t bargain for, was how much stronger it was going to make me in other parts of life. The path that she set me on let me begin building a toolbox that has made me a better athlete, coach, mother, and happier human (albeit one with tastes in music and fragrances that my family finds disturbing).

They say that teachers are immortal because they never know where their influence ends. I’d say psychotherapist mind coaches fit that bill too. Thanks, Shell, for everything and for nudging me to tackle the really hard stuff. I’m a work in progress, but I have a lot more of the tools I need now than I did before you gave me a hand. Seriously. That changed my life.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Dianne Rabkin says:

    Great post, lot here to consider. You always knock it out of the park with your posts.
    Keep writing its great.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s