On Sunday, December 2nd, I participated in my first powerlifting competition, specifically the deadlifting event. I chose this competition because I was curious about doing it, but never had sufficient motivation to pursue it. Over past 15 months since my neck surgery, I have grown to love powerlifting and Olympic lifting movements. I am intrinsically motivated (i.e., I lift for the fun of it) to train deadlifts, squats, snatches,and cleans. I always want to be improving my technique and my outputs, but I rarely compare myself to others. I truly enjoy this activity. Thus, I have not been compelled to compete against other individuals. My motivation for participating in this event is complex in that I was compelled to choose to participate in a competition, but I had the freedom to choose any type of competition. The choice to compete in a powerlifting competition seems to fall under the umbrella of identified regulation, whereby I felt as though it was important to challenge myself to compete in a new event rather than something I had done before (Alexandris, Tsorbatzoudis, & Grouios, 2002). However, my decision was driven partially by “intrinsic motivation to know; intrinsic motivation toward accomplishment; and intrinsic motivation to experience stimulation” (Alexandris et al., 2002, p. 237). In other words, I wanted to learn something new, achieve something I had not previously achieved,and experience the thrill or “payoff’ of a competitive setting.
I am glad that I chose to enter“Christmas Carnage” powerlifting event because it exposed me to an environment that required the use of mental skills. I was largely unaware of the environment and culture of a powerlifting competition when I arrived at the competition site. I was intimidated and felt a moderate amount of stress initially. However, I was able to utilize a variety of mental skills, including my newly-found alter ego (Marshall & Paterson, 2017), the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, to cope with the conditions and lean on my physical preparation when it was my turn to perform. Overall, I found this experience to be terribly challenging and rewarding at the same time. More importantly, the competition served the purpose of helping me to experience what my clients will experience in competition.
My preparation for the competition was less than what I would consider ideal. My physical preparation was consistent and effective. Under the guidance of my trainer, I executed an aggressive program specific to deadlifting performance. I performed deadlifts twice per week for the duration of my training, which was approximately seven weeks. I lifted a total of three times per week during my training. In between lifting days, I performed a variety of activities, including sprinting,mobility work, and cardio. Frankly, I train every week of the year regardless of whether I am competing or not, so physical training is a keystone habit for me. My training was unbalanced because I was unable to institute a consistent mental training to complement my lifting work. I had grand intentions of developing and executing a mental skills program prior to starting training. Last quarter in Research Methods B, the topic of my presentation was on the impact of mental skills training on strength performance. I had a clear understanding regarding the connection between the use of mental skills and strength performance. Yet, I willfully neglected to formulate a mental training regime based on the information at my disposal.
Despite not developing and executing a formal mental skills program, I used a variety of techniques throughout my training on an ad-hoc basis. I have used imagery before while training, particularly on the bench press. I transferred this experience to deadlifting. I would use kinesthetic motor imagery (KMI) on an ad-hoc basis through training and during the competition to feel my starting position, as well as executing the lift. Proper deadlifting form is essential to both achieve desired results and avoid serious injury (Ridderinkhof & Brass, 2015). I learned this the hard way because I suffered a couple of minor lower back flare-ups throughout my training. Even though limiting deadlifting weight volume may advisable due to the nature of the movement (Ridderinkhof & Brass, 2015), I physically trained in deadlift twice per week in preparation for the competition. I may have benefited from substituting some portion of my physical training with KMI training.
I also used verbal cues when training to reinforce proper technique, such as “butt-tight, gut-tight’ and“chest up.” Research has demonstrated that instructional self-talk can benefit strength performance (Tod, Thatcher, McGuigan, & Thatcher, 2009; Edwards,Tod, and McGuigan, 2008; Cutton & Hearon, 2014). As discussed above, proper technique was a central theme throughout my training as I suffered a couple of injury setbacks along the way. My lower back, likely my sacroiliac (S.I.)joint, became cranky more than once likely as a result of combining sub-optimal form with heavy loads. I was forced to take a number of days off from training during the pre-competition period. I used my mental training to accept my injury as an opportunity to rest, heal, and work on my mobility. Injury was simply a part of my process. I rarely, if ever, felt worried that injury setbacks were going to impact my ability to perform. If I was injured on competition day, then so be it. Long-term mindfulness training has certainly aided in my ability to accept uncontrollable circumstances.
So why did I neglect to use a formal mental skills program? If I am being honest with myself, it is because I was not sufficiently motivated to do so. I have a number of competing interests in my life that vie for my time, including coursework, “work-work,” my family, and my physical training. My time is greatly constrained. Further, I am a process-oriented person as referenced above. I set competitive performance goals for myself during my training, including establishing a personal record and lifting 300 pounds. Nevertheless, achieving my performance goals was not my primary motivation for the competition. Stated more plainly, I didn’t care as much about the results as I did the preparation process.
The fact my competition results were a relatively modest priority is quite important in the context of serving clients. I may work with individuals that simply may not be motivated to invest the time and effort required to build a mental skills program. I am experiencing this now at my high school basketball internship. High school students have many competing interests. If those interests are more important than performing in their sport, then it may be unlikely that they are going to spend precious resources on mental skills training. This realization reinforces the idea that I must meet the client where they are at. It will be critical for me to understand a client’s motivation. Why are they participating in their sport? Further, I must accept that there will be athletes that are unwilling to embrace mental skills training for a variety of reasons. I can only make myself available and do my best to articulate the value of mental skills training, so that they can come to me when and if they are ready to learn.
Competition day was uncertain and brought up a number of thoughts and emotions. As I said, I have never competed in a powerlifting competition. I had a limited understanding of the rules and I had never been to the venue before. Thus, it was very difficult for me to preview the competition. Imagining the competition setting is one way to manage competition-related stress. Well, I did not have this opportunity. I arrived at the venue for 7 a.m. weigh-in. When I walked in, I saw that I would be required to perform on a platform in front of about 200 people. Initially, this was quite stressful. I then learned that I was unlikely to lift until late afternoon, so I had to wait around for about seven or eight hours before even picking up a weight. I was concerned that I would not be able to get a proper warm-up and if I didn’t get a proper warm-up that I would probably hurt my back. When I saw the day’s schedule, I learned that I was the first lifter in the deadlift competition with a starting weight 50 pounds lower than the next competitor. I really questioned whether I belonged at the competition. Would I embarrass myself? Why was I wasting everyone’s time? Also, I didn’t bring food with me, so I was concerned about where I would eat. Oh, and finally, I had to wear an oversized singlet in front of two hundred strangers while lifting a heavy bar. That was perhaps most scary when comparing myself to the humongous individuals that were also competing.
So how did I cope with the stress of the situation? I used all of the mental skills in my arsenal. It turns out that, for me, living mental skills every day is probably more valuable than installing a discrete program simply for the purpose of competing. First, my mindfulness practice really helped me to take control of my surroundings. I was able to keep negative thoughts to a minimum as I thought to myself, “what can I do to control the situation?” I asked questions of the officials to learn more about the competition. I explored the venue to understand where everything was situated. I worked through a schedule in my head starting from my estimated start time so that I could plan my eating schedule and warm-up. I took two opportunities to meditate during my waiting period. Finally, when it came time to compete, I focused all of my attention on the physical movement, the deadlift process. I had done hundreds of deadlift repetitions over a two-month period. Why should the setting impact how I would perform? The bar was the same, my equipment was the same, and the technique was the same.
When my name was called to approach the platform, I took a deep belly breath while closing my eyes (in front of 200 people). According to Nideffer’s theory of attentional style, I kept a narrow-external focus on the bar with the intention to “lock-in” (Hamilton & Strutzman, n.d.) and my physical setup to avoid distraction. I was present in the moment. I used the same physical cues as I have always used: shins to touch the bar in the same place, grip in the same place, butt-tight, gut-tight, chest up, and pull. Using this consistent approach, I successfully completed all three of my lifts at 265, 285, and 300 pounds. The latter two lifts represented personal records for me. I increased my personal record 50 to 55 pounds during my seven-week training and increased my PR by 25 pounds from my previous top lift from about three weeks prior.
Overall, I had a great experience training and competing for this assignment. The assignment certainly achieved its goal of forcing me into a client’s shoes. Human beings are complex, and their motivations are complex. As a mental performance coach, I must learn to meet them where they are at and give them access to mental skills if and when they want to accept them.
Alexandris, K., Tsorbatzoudis, C.,& Grouios, G. (2002). Perceived constraints on recreational sport participation: Investigating their relationship with intrinsic motivation,extrinsic motivation, and amotivation. Journal of Leisure Research, 34(3), 233-252.
Cutton, D.M., & Hearon, C.M. (2014). Self-talk functions: Portrayal of an elite power lifter. Perceptual & Motor Skills: Motor Skills & Ergonomics, 119(2), 478-494.
Edwards, C., Tod, D., &McGuigan, M. (2008). Self-talk influences vertical jump performance and kinematics in male rugby union players. Journal of Sport Sciences, 26(13), 1459-1465.
Hamilton, L., & Strutzman, T. (n.d.). Focus on performance training: The ins and outs of IMG Academy. Retrieved from: https://appliedsportpsych.org/members/aasp-newsletters/march-2017/who-is-img-academy/
Marshall, S., & Paterson, L. (2017). The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion. Boulder, CO: Velopress.
Ridderinkhof, K.R., & Brass, M.(2015). How kinesthetic motor imagery works: A predictive-processing theory of visualization in sports and motor expertise. Journal of Physiology, 109, 53-63.
Tod, D.A., Thatcher, R., McGuigan,M., & Thatcher, J. (2009). Effects of instructional and motivational self-talk on the vertical jump. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), 196-202.
 I wore my “To be the man, you gotta beat the man” t-shirt under my singlet during the competition as a reminder of my desired competition mindset. In this case,“the man” was me and I was trying to beat myself.