Positivity for Productivity in Olympic Weightlifting
The alternate title for this article is Being Positive without Being Obnoxious, but that doesn’t tie it into weightlifting, and sounds too much like the title of one of those clickbait articles with a list of 10 stupid things you have to link through to load more advertising.
I’ve found that I pretty consistently have a reputation as being cynical and negative in a sense among people who don’t actually know me (I don’t mean to sound surprised, I know exactly why, it’s just an observation leading to a point eventually). Years ago, Maximum RockNRoll wrote that I had “A sarcastic streak a mile across,” which is a fair assessment (and I’ll have you know that was intended to be positive in that instance), and my high expectations result in some criticism from time to time (never undeserved, and always as part of a way to help others improve rather than to just point out how shitty someone is for its own sake).
In reality, however, I’m actually pretty optimistic and genuinely view many things in a positive light, even if I don’t express it publicly at all times. There is no shortage of things to be negative about, even if we restrict the options to include only weightlifting-related items. I’m not talking about blindly bouncing through life, skipping along rainbows from one cotton candy cloud to the next, singing passionately off-key without concern, and desperately lying to yourself to create a mask of smiles to fool your friends into not taking away all your sharp instruments. Positivity is something that can be applied judiciously and very deliberately to effect genuine change and produce measurable results. We’re talking about practicality here, not some nebulous concept that “being positive” indiscriminately will just magically dispel all the horrors of the world.
Positivity is something that can be applied judiciously and very deliberately to effect genuine change and produce measurable results.
My point is that you can be positive in ways and at times that are productive without trying to remodel your entire personality and turn into a new-ager who wants to hold everyone’s hands, writes “#blessed” on everything (#pleasestop), or who sits around on a pile of cute pillows just wishing all day.
Henry Rollins once said, “Hope is the last thing a person does before they’re defeated.” I’ve paraphrased that quite a few times to my lifters in the gym when I feel their mindset has deteriorated and rather than working to make something happen, they’re waiting for the universe to magically turn their day around. It also drives me up the wall every time I watch Vision Quest (pretty frequently) when Brian Shute asks Louden Swain if he’s going to make weight, and Swain responds, “I don’t know. I hope so.” What do you mean you hope so? Get back into your rubber suit and keep running.
I believe, positively, that one’s life is primarily a product of one’s actions—circumstances create the landscape and the starting point, but the individual’s chosen and executed actions are what create the ultimate outcome from that starting point. I’m not naïve enough to tell you that enough positive thinking and consequent action will solve all your problems or allow you to achieve the same things as someone coming from significantly better circumstances. Some things are going to happen no matter what, and plenty of those are going to be tough to handle—but how you respond to those things will dictate the exact consequences, at least over the long term, to a large extent.
If there is one thing I am besides unrelentingly sarcastic, it’s productive. And this is where positivity truly comes into play with regard to weightlifting (and life generally if you want to get all weepy about it). This is a brutal sport, both from the athlete and coach perspective, and plenty of people find themselves unable to handle it. The following I hope (get it?) will provide you as an athlete or coach a simple, organized way to start using this particular brand of positivity to increase your productivity and success.
Your job as a weightlifter is to do everything in your power to improve in all aspects of the sport. Like most sports, weightlifting success requires the mastery of a multitude of elements, only some of which are actually related to the gym. Your coach can write you an incredible training program, properly dose back pats and face slaps, and give you all of the structure and support you need, but ultimately, you have to do the work, remain committed, and believe in what you’re doing if you intend to get anywhere. Don’t sit around hoping and waiting for your coach to finally give you that one magical cue, exercise or inspirational speech that finally makes you a great weightlifter—BE a great weightlifter. Create the habits, work ethic and mindset of a great weightlifter before you become one—if you fail to do that, you never will.
Prepare for Your Workouts
One thing I can’t stand (see how negative I am?) is hearing an athlete respond to the question, “What do you have today?” with, “I don’t know.” How do you not know?! You honestly are telling me that your coach gave you a workout sometime in the past and you haven’t even looked at it yet? This is such a perfect indicator of someone’s lack of commitment and interest in weightlifting—if you can’t even be bothered to have a quick look at your upcoming workout, it’s obviously not even on your priority list, let alone at the top where it needs to be if you want to be a great weightlifter.
Not only should you know what your next workout is, you should be spending time thinking about it before you get to the gym, making goals and plans, and visualizing successful lifts. Study your next workout at least several hours before it’s going to happen. If you train in the afternoon or evening, do this in the morning; if you train in the morning, do this the night before. You should be able to get through your workout without even having to look at the program because you’re so familiar with it. You should have specific goals to reach before you even tie your shoes. You should have that workout in the back of your mind while you’re busy all day leading up to it with all the unimportant things in your life. The next time someone asks you what you have in training, be able to tell them exactly, as well as the goals you have for it.
Reframe the Negative Positively
When things go wrong in training, you have two basic options: wallow in your misery and get worse, or reframe the situation in a way that allows you to improve. Understand I’m not telling you to act like all the bad things are good, or to pretend the workout went well when it didn’t. I’m saying there is a way to reconsider the problems in a way that allows you to get better going forward. The first part of this is using failures or mistakes as motivation rather than as fodder for self-flagellation. The second part is using these negative things to create clear and specific goals and plans to fix the problem.
For example, if you had a terrible day snatching because you were allowing the bar to swing around into place overhead rather than actively moving it into position properly, get pissed off for a minute, then get motivated to fix it, and then give yourself a task list of ways to fix it, and literally write that list in your training journal so you remember it and can look at it before your next snatch workout. You might write that you need to focus on pulling the elbows up and out aggressively on every single snatch next time, or write down a simple one-word cue you find effective to tell yourself on each snatch attempt.
Whatever it is, make sure it’s a simple, objective item—don’t write something like, “Next time I need to snatch better.” That’s not only useless, it keeps the negative negative by focusing on what you did wrong instead of what you’re going to do right in the future.
Finally, make sure your tasks are positive—that is, they are actions for you to do, not things to not do. Using the same example as above, it’s not productive to plan to not allow the bar to swing forward—the question is how are you going to do that? That’s what you need to focus on. What are you going to do? What is the proactive response? Answer that concisely and specifically and you’ll have a valuable solution to the problem.
Visualization is a skill, and like any skill, it requires practice. It’s imperative that you learn to effectively visualize successful training and competition. Someone said to me years ago that the mind is a computer and the body a printer—whatever the mind believes, the body will produce. Obviously that’s not entirely true, but it is to a great extent. Keep in mind that you have to genuinely believe it for this to work—you can’t visualize yourself snatching 400kg and expect it to happen no matter how realistic your visualization. Unless you’re the dumbest person on earth, you can’t sincerely believe you’re going to snatch 400.
Practice visualization with a single lift initially to work on focus and details before trying to expand into more extensive processes. The first key is the level of detail—don’t leave anything out, even the most seemingly irrelevant. Include every single thing you would do, see, hear, smell, and feel. The second key is feeling confident throughout the visualization—that is, knowing, not just telling yourself, that you’re going to be successful.
Start the process with the very first thing related to the lift you’re visualizing. For example, loading the weight on the bar or writing the exercise and weight in your training journal—whatever it is that you would do that could be considered the very beginning of that set depending on how you normally do things. From this point, see, hear, feel, smell and do in your mind every single thing through the process of taking that lift until the bar is back on the platform and you’re sitting on your bench and marking a successful lift in your training journal.
This means rubbing chalk into your hands and noticing how it feels, adjusting your wrist wraps and the sound the Velcro or leather makes, the smell of ammonia or the taste of your pre-workout beverage of choice, paying attention to the sensation of first grasping the barbell and how the knurling feels in your hands, your exact movements while you prepare and set up with the bar before lifting, the noise the plates make as the bar breaks from the platform and the feeling of the weight hanging from your arms, the shifting of the pressure over the soles of your feet and the sound of your knee sleeves creaking, the sound of the barbell and the feel of its contact on your hips or upper thighs as you extend and the sensation of aggression and exertion, noticing the speed with which you move under the barbell, hearing the sharp clap of your shoes reconnecting with the platform and the pressure returning to your feet as the weight settles overhead or on your shoulders, the sound of your expulsion of air and the strain of your legs and back to recover from the bottom of the squat and that thought in your mind of driving hard and fast and not letting up, the feeling of relief and satisfaction of making it up and the sounds of your teammates yelling for you, the feeling of the weight suddenly disappearing as you drop the bar, the deep sound of the heavy weight hitting the floor, and finally returning to wherever you started to rest for the next set and make a note in your journal.
Bill Starr made a great point many years ago in his book Defying Gravity with regard to visualization, and that is to work on it until you feel no physical arousal from even the biggest lifts in your mind. The goal is to be able to mentally work through a PR lift in the biggest competition ever without feeling your heart or breathing rates increase. This will let you know you’ve mastered that lift and made it routine and truly believable.
Over time, build up to visualizing an entire competition or training session. Begin using this to prepare for upcoming training sessions and meets to build confidence.
First of all, if you don’t have a training journal, you should probably just quit. This is worse than not knowing what your next workout is—it screams I don’t even care, I’m just killing time. When your coach asks you something like, “What did you make on this last week?” you’d better be able to figure it out (and you should know without consulting your journal… but just in case).
Your training journal should be used not just to track the numbers from your workout, but subjective information like how you slept, how you feel, your enthusiasm that day, and other little things that help make sense of what’s happening.
There are also three things every lifter should be writing after each workout: What am I proud of from today’s workout? What do I need to work harder on next time? What are my goals for my next workout? Make sure these are all answered specifically and clearly.
Coaches, you’re not off the hook. Your attitude and behavior will both determine the kind of athletes you attract and who remain in your program, and will also serve as the model your athletes emulate. You may have this charming vision in your mind of a dictatorial master being the ultimate coaching paradigm, but very few people can actually pull it off in a productive way—the most important element to making this approach viable is actually being a true master of your craft, and again, very few coaches genuinely are. Maybe you can get there eventually, but I’d argue that now isn’t the time. For now, your success is going to rely overwhelmingly on your ability to develop meaningful relationships with your athletes, be a model for them to emulate, and provide support—in other words, to make them want to be the best they can be, rather than trying to frighten or shame them into improving.
Balance Critique & Praise
No matter how tough an athlete is, hearing nothing other than a list of what he or she did wrong is going to wear on someone. This is the easiest thing to do as a coach. Even your best lifter is going to produce a long list of things that need to be corrected or improved. In reality, your lifters usually know a lot of them and even most of them without your pointing them out. What’s more difficult is properly triaging and knowing what the lifter needs to hear at any given time. A lifter can only manage so many things at once anyway, so as a coach, you need to learn to prioritize the problems and focus on the most critical first.
In addition to this, a few pats on the back go a long way in general, but also in balancing the critique that is absolutely necessary for all lifters. I’m not suggesting you blow sunshine up your lifters’ asses by any means. Don’t lie to them or exaggerate—being genuine with your praise is imperative for it to be effective. I’m also not suggesting you coddle your lifters like an amateur parent with a whiny, spoiled toddler. Simply that you provide a balance of pointing out what they do right and what they do wrong.
No matter how bad a lift or training session was, the lifter had to have done at least one thing well. For example, maybe a lifter missed every jerk over 85% in a training session, but she was showing a lot of aggression with her attempts, which is one of the goals you two have created for her. It’s not hard to pick out at least one positive to include with the priority critiques you provide. This keeps the lifter motivated to improve rather than just being discouraged from a continual barrage of negatives.
Technical cues should be positive in two different ways. First, they should align with the lift or part of the lift when possible rather than being contrary. For example, for a lifter who tends to yank the bar off the floor and shoot the hips up too quickly relative to the shoulders, a cue to keep the chest up is more effective than one to keep the hips down—lifting the chest aligns with the action of moving upward.
Cues should be positive also in the sense that they provide the lifter with an action to perform, rather than just being a reminder of something to not do. If the lifter is doing something incorrectly, there’s a good chance he or she doesn’t know how to fix it—if he or she knew how to stop, it probably wouldn’t be happening. In that case, telling him or her to stop doing it is useless. Using our same example, rather than telling a lifter not lot let the hips shoot up, telling him or her to stay tighter off the floor and keep the chest up will provide the lifter a clear and simple action to perform that will help correct the problem. Don’t just point out what the lifter did wrong and hope he or she figures out how to fix it next time.
Finally, your job as a coach is to provide the support necessary for your lifters to do what they need to do. Help them learn and practice the habits they need to develop; give them ideas on how to implement changes; go to them and check in regularly rather than always waiting for them to come to you; and be available for them when they need to talk to you. Every athlete will require a different nature and magnitude of support, and these things can change over time with a given athlete.
Again, don’t coddle your athletes and treat them like helpless children who need to rely on you to wipe the snot off their upper lips. Part of the support job is to help your athletes become more self-reliant, personally accountable and intrinsically motivated. Steer them in this direction while providing the net they need in the process.
I Hope You’ve Learned Something
Like to not hope, and instead to do. Implement the previous suggestions, even if you have to do it gradually with one change at a time and see how your training and competition performances (or those of your lifters) improve. Quit wishing you were better and do what it takes to be better.
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