The low down on sport psychology : Making it work for us.

downloadMy undergrad in Kinesiology made me familiar with many sciences that are relevant to the understanding of sports in general, including weightlifting. I already had some prior knowledge, but I was able to learn even more about biomechanics, exercise physiology, anatomy and of course, the neurosciences of movement. One big deception was the sport psychology class although you will often read the same generic and generalized stuff online. This article is about making sport psychology actually work for weightlifters and coaches. It is a bit different than what I usually write about, but still pretty useful.

As the class progressed, the professor showed various acts of  extreme emotions – such as a famous tennis player losing his temper after loosing or a fight during a hockey game. Being that she subscribe to a Freudian philosophy, she explained that such acts of extreme emotions are due to the athlete’s subconscious. To paraphrase (and also for the sake of being funny), according to her view, winning is about beating your dad.

download (1)I was unsatisfied with such an explanation because it is just not complete enough and gives the coach absolutely nothing to work with. I have a fairly more natural view of psychology, in which our emotions are regulated by interactions of the person with its environment in order to facilitate achievement and inhibit harmful stuff from happening. 

Thus, especially in the context of coaching, I prefer a natural explanation of emotions supported by evidence of neuroscience more than I like pseudo-sciences of feelings. The cognitive field is extremely large and booming right now. Lots of work is being done on emotions and consciousness for instance. We are now starting to understand the biological basis of emotions and some model of neurocircuitry have been put forward.

Moreover, we also know that there can be different adaptations, or morphology of brain areas, or changes over Weightlifting_in_Olympic_2008_Gametime- and that it can vary between individuals, the result of which would be a different experience of emotions. For instance,  work on serial killers has shown that ”they are likely to have significant differences in their brain, such as reduced prefrontal gray matter (Raine et al., 2000), amygdalar abnormalities (Blair, 2003), and asymmetric hippocampi (Raine et al., 2004)”. Another scientist who images brains of serial killers stated the following : “People with severe forms of conduct disorder could be seen as having a brain development disorder, rather than just being evil” (Dr. Graeme Fairchild).

What’s that talk about Serial Killers… I am just a weightlifter trying to make it. 

My point is that emotions are, at least as of what we know at the moment, the result of brain cells, in specific brain areas, responding to a stimulus that is coming from the environment. Emotions are the driving force towards certain behaviors or against certain behavior. They have an influence on motivation and will. We also know there are difference in cell activation and morphology of brain areas amongst people and it could probably influence the output (ie how people react to a stimulus).

Russian Apti Aukhadov lifts weights duriI am a coach, not a neurosurgeon. Thus, the only thing I can have an influence on is the environment as I don’t plan to mess around my athlete’s brain. This is why I don’t believe in introspection as an approach. For one, I don’t have the time to discuss thoroughly the feelings of a person while I am coaching 4-5 persons. For two, we can talk all we want about emotions, but it won’t have as much impact as what I workout by changing a few things in the environment. That is because, people can be conditioned to react a certain way to a certain stimulus.

The low down : Coaching Strategies

A famous psychologist named B.F Skinner once said 2 things: ”Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.” and ”If you’re old, don’t try to change yourself, change your environment.”. The idea being that if you get a child to experience the theoretical ”right combination” of environmental stimulus, you can predict what he will become. The second quotes sums up everything I have said about how to change behaviors without actually going through introspection.

My coaching philosophy is extremely linked to this type of behaviorism philosophy. Similar approaches are used in linguistic, and in teaching children with developmental problems, for instance.  The idea of this article was to introduce the concept of ”environment” and how it affects the psychology of the athlete in order to increase weightlifting results. Consequently, I will give you 3 example of how we can influence the training environment to increase results. 

1. Case 1 : Athlete walks to the bar to lift. Athlete is visibly stressed and mess around the bar, not really finding the usual starting position.

lapikov194_lgAlmost every time I see this, athlete tend to miss their lift. Something is wrong and they know it, yet they cannot change it. Thoughts kicks in and they start wondering if they will even make the lift. Whenever this happens during training (because obviously it would differ in a competition),  I will tell them to walk off the plateform and go have a drink. As they come back, the stress is reduced and the mind is better suited to do the task at hand.

2. Case 2 : Athlete is going to attempt a PR, but has all kind of over whelming emotions going on

We could sit and talk for days, or I could just take your mind off the number at hand and put you in a context where you achieve what you cherish the most. For instance, if an athlete is driven by the idea of achievement and respect, I will say something like : ”You are at the olympics, it’s your last attempt and this lift will give you a gold medal”. Of course, everybody reacts differently but in my experience, people give it a legit try because they are now lifting for ”Achievement” rather than a certain number (in other words, they have an out come to their action). Similarly, as I have said before, I gamble food and what not as a way of getting my athlete more competitive. They want to win something and they now have something to lose. 

3. Case 3 : In competition, Athlete is being scared/anxious to the point where emotions are getting the best of him.

There are 2 things you can do and they don’t include talking about his feelings. The first one is you can practice competitions. imagesHave one every 2-4 weeks. Have him wear his singlet and everything. Bring a clock to the gym. Have 3 people he doesn’t know sit in front of him looking at him in the eyes as he lifts to judge him. Make noise and mess with his warm up a bit. Over time, the athlete gets used to the intensity of competitions and learns to do better. The other way is to bring him to another club or gym to train him in a place he does not know. This has been done extensively by some of the best nations in weightlifting. They would have their athletes change camp or go train in other countries for a while. They would have training camp competitions as well.

En Résumé…

I am adding this section due to the questions I have received through e-mails. I figured this edit would be of great help to clarify a few things about the article.

I do not exclude introspection or ignore the feelings of my athletes. Quite the contrary, the whole point of this article and what I meant when writing it, is that you can improve motivation, will and positive emotions towards training and the lifts by influencing the environment and the training conditions in which the athlete is in. As a lifter physically develop, he has to develop certain psychological traits that will keep him in the sport and progressing and this can only happen through positive experience.

18th Commonwealth Games - Day 4: Womens WeightliftingNo lifter starts in weightlifting and is extremely confident in his ability to lift – many things are holding him back and influence the way he FEELS about weightlifting and how motivated he is. In an interview, a famous 69kg chinese lifter from the early 2000’s talked about the snatch still not being natural to him after 10 years – yet he was at the top of the game. Things that are holding an athlete back can be pretty much everything : old injuries (= scared of pain or getting injured again), mobility (something does not feel right or hurts, creates doubts), coordination (lacks control = scary). Don’t think this is any different for an advanced lifter. Lifters go to war with their mind at every training sessions and the reality of our sport is that our performance fluctuate which is hard on us.

Thus, if we find  certain things that creates negative emotions and ruins motivation for training in a certain athlete, then we can create a strategy that helps them ease better into training and ultimately perform better. What I mean is that we want to remove the association of a variable with a negative emotion and create one with a positive emotion (IE : lacks control = scared becomes Has control = confident, this happens through positive experiences). We do this by having him associate positive emotions with a positive outcome (achievement) through basic conditioning. Now, a lot of people don’t like conditioning for 2 reasons. The first reason is that they think of Pavlov’s dog and the second reason is that it kinda removes the liberty of action.

Anyhow, let’s use this example :

A young kid walks toward a oven where a red hot stove is open. This kid touches it, gets burn, and experience pain. Said kid never ever touch the stove again.

7034872249_cfd9e12373_zThrough a series of experiences, the behavior of the kid is shaped (read conditioned). Although he felt pain and experienced negative emotions, as long as you remove the stimulus, the kid is all right, but he won’t touch that stove while it’s hot again. The same is true in weightlifting. Certain feelings get associated with certain outcomes, and it affects the motivation to do the task at hand. Just look at how some lifters always miss the same number (add in 1 kg or remove 1, and they make the lift), or how some lifters have a certain set of pattern before setting up at the bar, or how motivation fluctuate over the years, or how some lifters clean more than their front squat in competition.

If weightlifting is 50% mental as Tommy Kono says – or as every lifter out there will say, then a coach has to take steps towards building a mentally strong individual as well as a strong individual. Indeed, in weightlifting, you get acquainted with adversity very quick. Thus, the coach has to put his athletes in conditions where he will learns and feel good about it, so that various aspects of weightlifting are positively associated with positive emotions, otherwise you won’t last. You can do that with added stimulus (See the practice of competition example), removed stimulus (See the walk away from bar example), or replacing/changing a stimulus (See the visual imagery example).

Jean-Patrick Millette

Jean-Patrick Millette is a full time weightlifting coach located in Montreal, Canada. He has a bachelor in kinesiology. He coaches dedicated weightlifters of all ages (Youth to senior) as well as running the well respected First Pull website. He has been very active at promoting the sport of weightlifting.

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