Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Psychological Preparation of Weightlifters - Philip Guenov

Al Stephan

Psychological Preparation of Weightlifters
by Philip Guenov, Chief National Coach, Bulgaria (1963)

The Russian General A. V. Suverov once said, “The more sweat in training, the less blood in battle.” This is as true for weightlifters as it is for soldiers, though we would have to substitute “failure in competition” for “blood in battle.” Training hard, sometimes under deliberately unfavorable conditions as sometimes arise in competition, develops the weightlifter’s persistence and tenacity, his will power. Sometimes the training quarters should be noisy and sometimes a bent bar should be used. Sometimes the lifter should have to wait awhile to take his turn, to see how he reacts to cooling off while other men make their attempts.

A strict self-discipline in personal living habits also is important in training, for giving up pleasures strengthens the will and diminishes drains on both psychic and physical resources. For example, the Russian heavyweight champion Medvedev never used alcohol or tobacco and never missed a workout – not even to the extent of being late – during 15 years of competition.


To succeed against his opponents in competition, a weight lifter should be bold and resolute. By this I mean he must have the capacity for quick and correct moves in complete confidence – without any hesitation, doubts or fears. Hesitation and doubt are the greatest psychological enemies of lifters. They lead to fear or the weight and failure, which in turn reinforces the hesitation and doubt in a vicious cycle. The coach can help overcome these handicaps by explaining what he must do in tones of complete confidence that he will be able to do it.

There are a number of things a coach can do to instill confidence in a lifter. Suppose for example, a lifter has done 330 lbs. in the Clean & Jerk several times and it is obvious to the coach that he has the potential to lift 340. But the lifter himself is unsuccessful in making the increase because he doubts himself and is afraid of the weight. To convince him that he is capable of lifting the heavier weight the coach might do the following:

if the lifter doubts he can clean the weight, the coach might have him assume the low split or squat position and have training partners hand him not 340, but 350 or 360 lbs., and stand by him to “spot” him while he proves to himself that he can recover with an ever heavier weight than he is afraid of. If he doubts that he can jerk the weight, the coach might have him support 350 lbs. overhead in the split jerk position and recover from it, and hold even heavier weights at his chest and overhead in the solid finishing position to make him feel that the weight he has been afraid of is in reality a “light” weight. These techniques can, of course, be applied to other movements and disciplines as well.

A particularly great obstacle to be overcome is an established record, be it personal or competitive. Faced with the possibility of breaking a record, a lifter may fail because of psychological stresses. He may think of the difficulty of doing what he, or no one else, has ever done before. He may think of the fame and feeling of well-being that will come to him if he succeeds, of the reactions of family and friends, and of his opponents.

The many distracting thoughts that come to the mind of an athlete trying to break a record disturb the balance of his painstakingly learned lessons. Emotions disturb his learned patterns of movement and sap his will to succeed. Because of this, the movement is executed incorrectly, with unnecessary stiffness and strain. His coordination is destroyed and the attempt is unsuccessful.

About record attempts, M. Ozolin has said, “Even the highest records must be stormed simply, without any bending before them, (the athlete) relying only on himself.” Tommy Kono spoke in a similar vein: “The aim of the lifter must be directed at world records and beyond them. He must strive not, for individual and national achievements, but against world records. He must progress steadily and he must train with heavy weights.” Regularly striving to lift heavier and heavier weights not only builds strength, but also the confidence that the lifter can move on, so that boldness and resolution becomes a habit that remains with him when he attempts to break a record.


A weight lifter competes not only with the weight, but also against his opponents. Many well-trained athletes who have the strength and skill to win are defeated psychologically when they become overawed by the reputation of a competitor. On the other hand, an athlete may be defeated by a weaker opponent because he underestimates him and expects an easy victory. Overconfident, he may fail to complete a lift, which may give his opponent the inspiration he needs to outdo his previous best and win the contest.

Here is an example: At the Rome Olympics, Ike Berger was considered a sure winner. Minaev was assigned the modest responsibility of trying to place second. But Berger failed twice to press 231 lbs. and only succeeded on his third attempt. Minaev suddenly realized that the gold medal was within his reach. He became a new man, bold and inspired, and did his best lifting in the snatch and jerk so that to beat him Berger needed to clean & jerk 336 lbs. This would have broken the world record by 11 lbs. Berger had actually lifted this much in training, but now he was unnerved by falling behind and be the confident attitude of Minaev, and he failed.

Another example: Vorobyev was for years an undefeated world champion and record holder. But in the 1959 world championships he lost his title to Louis Martin of Great Britain, who was competing in a world championship for the first time. Vorobyev held the world record for total and even when not at his best seemed capable of 1,000 lbs. Martin’s previous best total was 945. In the championships, Vorobyev was troubled by an injury from which he had not fully recovered and, as he failed with lifts he should have been able to make, Martin became inspired, succeeding with a clean & jerk of 386 lbs. and tied Vorobyev’s total of 980. Martin was the lighter man and knew he could win by lifting the 386 so with boldness and resolution he succeeded.

These examples show how important it is for lifters to know the performances and potentialities of their opponents. Realizing this, we maintain a bulletin board with the names, photographs, and lifting results of our competitors. Thus our lifters learn to oppose their competitors and to develop the determination to defeat them. They try to defeat their opponents on the bulletin board all year ‘round.

Other factors that must be considered in preparing an athlete to go through a contest with resolution and boldness are the conditions of the contest itself. Training situations should sometimes involve an audience, lifting at the time of day or night the contest will be held, noise, lighting, and the long delays that almost invariably occur. Simulating contest conditions will help the athlete prepare himself for distractions that might otherwise interfere with his psychological readiness to do his best.


Another important volitional quality is that of self-control. The lifter must not be thrown off balance by an unexpected failure or an unexpected success by his opponent. As an example of how a lifter was able to keep from being discouraged, consider the experience of Yuri Vlasov the first time he competed in a world championship: In the press, Vlasov succeeded with 352 lbs. instead of the 374 he expected to lift and had been lifting successfully in training. His opponent, Jim Bradford, took a big lead by pressing 390 lbs. Vlasov did not allow himself to be discouraged. Maintaining great self-mastery, he flawlessly snatched 325 lbs. and jerked 424 to overcome the deficit and win the world championship.

As another example, at the 1960 European championships Ivan Vesselinov, of Bulgaria, was able to overcome a series of failures by iron-willed self-mastery. Vesselinov missed his first attempt in the press and was unable to press any more than his starting weight. To make the best possible total, he took his first attempt in the snatch with his personal record of 286 lbs. – and failed! Instead of giving up, Vesselinov returned to the platform with new resolve and succeeded on his second try. Then he went on to snatch 297 on his third attempt, establishing a Bulgarian national record. But his troubles were still far from over. In his first attempt at the clean and jerk, with 386 lbs., he fell under the bar and was slightly injured. Ignoring his bruises, Vesselinov determinedly returned to the platform and lifted the 386 and then went on to establish another Bulgarian record by cleaning and jerking 408 lbs!

Such self-mastery as was shown by Vlasov and Vesselinov is only possible, of course, when it is backed by much hard work in training. This is why the final training periods should employ the same type of activity as will be experienced in the actual contest. More work should be done with the three Olympic lifts, in order, and with very heavy weights. In the last few days before the contest, of course, the lifter must taper off with the very heavy work in order to build a reserve of nervous energy.

It sometimes happens that a lifter will fail twice with his starting weight in a contest. Realizing that he must succeed on his third try, or lose all chance for personal success or to help his team, the lifter is under great nervous tension as he makes his final attempt. In an attempt to overcome this, we often ask an athlete to lift a limit weight, or five or 10 lbs. less than his limit, during training while imagining that he has failed twice and must now succeed in order to make a total and save his team from defeat.

It is up to the coach to take a lifter aside after failure and reassure and encourage him. The coach must persuade him by his tone of voice and attitude as well as his words that the lifter can and will succeed on his next attempt. It is a good idea to do the same in training, instead of letting the lifter drop back to a light weight if he really seems capable of handling the weight he has failed with. The coach must also be alert for complacency and over-confidence in a lifter who has just succeeded very well with one or both of the first two lifts. The lifter must not be permitted to consider the contest won or the training session over until the last lift has been made.


Firmness of will, or will power, is needed by a lifter in order to do his best despite feeling tired and weary of competition. With strong will power, he will be able to dominate his feelings of fatigue. Often you will see a lifter fail with a clean & jerk toward the end of a long contest even though the weight is one he has lifted successfully in training or in smaller contests.

Professor Mateev says fatigue diminishes the activity of nerve dells in the cortex of the brain, so that exact coordination suffers and reaction time decreases. By great exercise of will power, an athlete can increase the activity of these cells so that he regains the nervous energy needed to force his muscles to perform up to the level of strength they are capable of. Thus a lifter should strengthen his will power by occasionally lifting maximal weights in training when he feels tired. If he is unwilling to try, his coach should exhort him to go on and even criticize him in front of other members of the team if this stimulus is needed to make him keep trying.

Firmness of will also included the ability to overcome negative emotions – fear, despair, difference, and so on. The only way a lifter can truly learn to overcome these and other unsuspected difficulties that will crop up during competition is by experiencing competition itself. Only participating in contests can create the situation of highest possible attention for the lifter, in which he can strengthen his volitional qualities. Therefore lifters should enter competition regularly, especially against opponents who are at about their level of performance, where they will be called upon to do their best in order to place or win. A lifter does not improve by competing where he can win easily, nor will it do his morale any good to be competing always against men who are far above his level.

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