Importance of the development of psychological traits for success in weightlifting

images (2)The road to success in weightlifting is a rocky one. Physical attributes – such as strength, flexibility, coordination or neuro-muscular qualities- and technical abilities – or how the person uses his physical attributes to produce actions- are often discussed. When it comes to psychological abilities or issues, little is discussed. Understanding your athlete’s  or your psychological profile – for lack of better terms- can help you and them achieve greatness. Below is a generalization of what you might expect from coach beginners or more advanced athletes.

Psychological distress of beginner athletes

images (3)Weightlifting is an interesting sport, in that unless you are a lifter or have used the lifts in your physical preparation for another sport, it is hard to relate to the task at hand. Elite lifters lift large amount of weights in a fashion that makes the public believe that it is easy to do so, does not take much time to get to that level and that progress happens in a linear fashion (X amount of kilos a week/month). Whenever a beginner tries weightlifting, the first thing that will happen is the realization that this sport is hard and that their ego is long gone. Sometimes, to preserve that ego, they will also pretend that it does not hurt (due to lack of flexibility) and that it is easy. The coach should be prepared to deal  with this and still go light even if its ”easy” and ”does not hurt”.

It is the coach’s job to educate the lifter about the reality of the sport of weightlifting. The reality of this sport is that it is a sport where hard work (not necessarily in term of training intensity and volume) and specific psychological attributes -such as motivation, mental toughness and good control of emotions – are needed. These psychological attributes take times to develop in many lifters and this should not be overlooked by the coach.

19th Commonwealth Games - Day 2: WeightliftingFailure to educate the lifter about this reality and acknowledge the importance of such psychological qualities can – or will- result in lower motivation. Ultimately, this can results in bad retention of athletes as in they will quit because their ego is shattered, their confidence was never developed and they ultimately think they are not cut out for this sport. All of the above could be avoided if a better approach was used.

Coaching tricks for beginners 

My philosophy is that a beginners should never miss a bar (although you should teach your athlete how to properly miss a bar). Unless it is PR day – where the athlete will get up to 3 tries to make a heavy lift- the beginner athlete should never be brought to a point where he can miss (either due to strength or technique). I have written about this before from a skill acquisition perspective. There are also psychological benefits to doing so. The lifter learns to be confident and feel good about doing the lifts. The new lifter will also learn to properly deal with negative emotions that can be associated with weightlifting. These emotions can be fear, uncertainty, or anxiety.

283142001_34a09d125d_oAnother thing I like to do with lifters who are just starting is finishing the technical work with something they are usually good at – be it squats, pulls, good morning, etc. I will do that for the first few training sessions to make sure the athletes always end on a good note. They will also feel like they worked hard – although they have not lifted heavy in the snatch and clean and jerk since they are just learning. If you do this, I bet that athlete will be back for more which is not to overlook given our low numbers of weightlifters in North America (especially Canada). Obviously, overtime the strength work will become more and more specific.

Your tasks should be clear and precise. Tasks should have a reason to be, but the reason behind it should be explained in as many character as a twitter message. In other words, going into too much details will confuse your new athlete. Lots of emphasis should be put on positive comments.

The psychology needs of intermediate/elite athletes are different

At some point his career, the athlete becomes better and better. A change in his self perception will most likely happen, meaning that weightlifting now defines him. He is no longer just Joe Average, he becomes Joe Weightlifter. In other words, the person starts seeing himself as a weightlifter. This shift in self perception is important to be aware of.

halil mutlu the best weightlifter ever by david michaelsProbably everybody who has trained in weightlifting can relate to this point : At some point in time, we tend become ”emotionally involved or connected” with the barbell. You’ll often see Russians lifters who don’t put their feet on the bar and lifters who make world record kiss the bar. Others just like to tap gently the bar after a lift almost like you would purr your cat.

Since the person is now a weightlifter due to their change in self perception, I have noticed that such athletes will often define themselves by their successes. However, if the athlete is not able to match his previous success – say in a max effort day- negative emotions can cloud his judgement down the line. Different questions can go through the head of the lifter at this point : Did I lose my talent? Did I forget how to do this? May be I should work on X, Y, Z even more? Do I need to change my program ?

Youth Olympics Day 2 - WeightliftingAfter all, a good weightlifter lifts weights successfully and is not supposed to miss, right? However, this is wrong as many of the greatest lifters in the world have bombed out at a competition. If Alekseyev or Rigert bombed out in their career, what makes you think you will never bomb out or have a bad day? Dabbaya, here, discuss how he was involved with a sport psychologist because there was something about the snatch that would prevent him from doing a pr. By the way, that something was the number itself which is an evidence of how some lifters can become connected or involved or obsessive over the barbell.

Coaching tricks for intermediate/elite lifters

Olympics Day 4 - WeightliftingWe consider that motivation comes in two shapes. Intrinsic motivation is a motivation of the self, meaning that a person is attracted to an activity because it’s fun to them. Extrinsic motivation is a motivation that comes from the environment in which the person is in. Here is an example : ”I want to be a lifter because of [Insert lifter name here]” At this point, if the lifter is of intermediate and elite level, you know that intrinsic motivation is there. However, that’s sometimes not enough in the face of adversity.

Unfortunately, no matter what the coach does, he will never have a real influence on intrinsic motivation. Either the person likes it or not. Fortunately, the coach can have an influence on extrinsic motivation through the uses of rewards. Given that some athletes focus so much on the number itself and that they might have missed that particular number itself in the past which might have then associated the number itself with negative emotions or thoughts, I like to introduce some kind of ”gambling” in the training.

On our max days, I usually bring a box of cookies or granola bars which I will bet with my lifters. I select their bars in a way that I know is reasonable for that given day (greed is not good) and instruct that whoever does the said bar will get a cookie or a granola bar. Because everybody can win, what we see is great team spirit (people encourage each other) and not adversity between the lifters. Many nations use this sort of gambling system – mostly with money. Personally, I don’t have money to waste like that, so I use food. Everybody loves food.

Olympics Day 11 - WeightliftingThe use of the granola bar/cookie might be questionable at first. However, in my experience, I feel like it changes the way the athlete thinks. Less thought is put on the barbell itself and more is put into the reward, no matter how little it is. Consider this, a gold medal costs less than 10$-20$. You could go out and buy one, if you wanted. However, it wouldn’t have any value. This means that it is what it’s associated with that really matters. Thus, the athlete really put lots of effort to win a gold medal, not so much because it’s made of gold but more because it means that he is the being the best, he has great competence or skills, he has respect and other positive emotions.

The granola bar betting simulate this pretty well. It is cost effective for the coach and the athlete (at least mine) really want to win it because it means that 1) they did well, 2) they won over themselves, 3) they are getting rewarded which means higher confidence and will, 4) they walk home with a small victory, although they might have done 90% and not 105%. Victories in weightlifting are rare, so it’s always good to walk home with one. Stress over numbers is reduced in my experience.

Another thing I will do with more experienced athletes is give them more choices. I find that having the sense of control that comes with choosing between doing 2 strength exercises, for instance, is associated with positive emotions and great outcome. You feel like you are picking something out that will really help you according to your feeling at that moment. It develops autonomy and competence. I still write the programs, I just allow them to be involved in the process a bit more.

Credits to respective photographers.

2 comments

  • Nice blog! I agree that after a certain point, success is rare in weightlifting. It’s really tough sometimes to keep showing up to the gym when you just feel like you suck and you’re not making noticeable gains. That’s the part where most people quit, and I think the approach you explain in this blog is a great idea to help keep more people in the sport.

  • The granola bar/cookie is a great incentive – it is enough to spur competition and allow for positive feelings and accomplishment when rewarded, yet is simultaneously small enough not to erode preexisting intrinsic motivation, which can occur with larger (and often financial) rewards. As soon as a large reward is taken away, an athlete is often left with a diminished intrinsic motivation with no extrinsic motivation, whereas a small award like a cookie can instill positive reinforcement within the athlete.

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