Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Psychology of Weightlifting, Part One - Pete George

The Psychology of Weightlifting, Part One
by Pete George (1961)

What do champions have that run-of-the-mill athletes have not? Certainly it’s not just the size of muscle. I become more convinced of that every time I think of Shams, the Egyptian muscle-less wonder. I can remember his as a lanky, underweight lightweight who would clean & jerk poundages that would stagger many a Herculean heavyweight.

But if it is more than muscle, what is it?

Twenty years ago I heard Larry Barnholth say something which was hard for me to understand at the time. But being very young I took my coach on faith. Today, as I look back, I am thankful I did, for to those words I owe a great deal of my success in the iron game. He said, “Mental attitude is the most important thing in weightlifting, and anything you want badly enough you can get.” Those words made a profound impression on me. I kept them constantly in mind throughout my lifting career.

Since that day 20 years ago, I have been able to observe the performances of many world and Olympic champions. I have been able to listen to the advice of famous American and foreign coaches. I have read all that I could find on the physiology and psychology of strength. Nothing I have seen, heard, or read has convinced me contrary to Larry’s statement. In fact, this has served to reinforce it.

Just to know the fact that becoming a champion is more of a mental than physical accomplishment does not automatically guarantee you success, although it the first and perhaps most important step. You must not only be aware of it, but you must sincerely believe it applies to YOU. It will be necessary for you to consider mental conditioning as an essential part of your training program. You will have to work at it! There are some rare and fortunate individuals to whom the proper mental conditioning comes naturally. They do it without thinking and are not aware they are doing it. But most of us to succeed will have to go about it with a plan. I believe it is safe to say, however, that all champions condition themselves mentally for success whether they are aware of it or not.

You very likely at some time or another have heard the term “M.A.” – meaning mental attitude. It is becomingly increasingly common for it to pop up in discussions among athletic champions. This indicates there is a growing awareness in all sports that there is more to becoming a champion than physical training. If you are not now training your mental attitude you are placing yourself at a disadvantage. So let’s look into some of the factors involved.

You cannot become a champion without a definite desire. Very likely you read the last sentence without giving it a second thought. On the surface it appears too simple and obvious to waste any time with. Yet it is among the important things to know about competitive weightlifting.

I have often heard Bob Hoffman talk about the importance of a burning desire. The Barnholth brothers, who have done a great deal of serious thinking about the psychological aspects of competitive weightlifting, constantly stress the necessity of setting specific goals. From these great coaches I learned these dicta: The desire must be intense; the goal must be definite. Both of these elements are essential and both can be brought under control. However, one will do you little good without the other. Developing an overwhelming enthusiasm without a specific aim is like putting a powerful outboard motor in a rudderless boat. And a definite goal without a motivating force is about as useful as a motorboat without a motor.

Burning desire or enthusiasm is a motivating force that can make a man a champion. It is an element that can cut through the barriers (and there are many) on the road to maximum performance.

Enthusiasm comes easier to younger athletes. This is probably due to the fact that they have had fewer setbacks and are less skeptical as to what they can accomplish. As a consequence the champions in most sports are younger men. I am not trying to say that physical age has nothing to do with it whatsoever – the point I want to make is that champions begin to decline when winning no longer seems as thrilling or important as it used to be. This usually comes long before the age factor is a handicap.

One of the best examples of hanging on to enthusiasm late in a lifting career was former world champion Namdjou. There was an intense little man who never lost his desire to win, and as a consequence was doing his lifetime best lifting when in his 40s. Norbert Schemansky is perhaps an even more outstanding example. He had had the taste of being crowned the heavyweight champion of the world. He liked it and has never forgotten it. About a year or so ago, just about anyone would have said, “As far as world championships are concerned, physically he’s had it.” But not Norbert – two major back operation, a long layoff from training in the latter half of his 30s, and he smashes the world snatch record – more than nine full pounds better than Vlasov, a man a dozen years his junior and acclaimed to be the world’s strongest man!

At this point you are probably thinking, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Enthusiasm is great for lifting, but how do I turn it on and off?”

First of all, by enthusiasm I don’t mean during each training session you must be saying to yourself, “Enjoy, enjoy, I enjoy doing this!” If you do enjoy your training so much the better, but we probably all know lifters who get a big kick out of their workouts and yet never progress much over time. Most champions do derive some pleasure from their gym sessions, but I have known some who considered them drudgery yet were very successful in competition. These men did not look upon their workouts as an end in themselves, but only as a means to an end. They had burning desires to become champions and training was the only way they knew to achieve their goals.

Anyone who knows both Namdjou and Schemansky can tell you that these are two men of entirely different temperaments. Namdjou is explosive and expressive – Schemansky, stable and reserved. But you wouldn’t have to talk very long to each of them to learn what they have in common. They are of one mind when it comes to their definite overpowering desire to become the world’s greatest weightlifter. The enthusiasm is for the end result, not necessarily for the means of attaining it.

This enthusiasm can be developed. The degree to which you develop it will to a large measure determine how far along the road of progress you will go. Many now reading this will be skeptical – never quite believing that enthusiasm can transform them. Remember, I said earlier that most of the champions were young men, and this was largely due to the fact that they were less skeptical. Most of the world’s progress has been made by men who were “young at heart” – men who were confident enough to believe that certain barriers did not exist for them. They had childlike enthusiasm while more “practical” men scoffed.

The first step in developing desire of enthusiasm is to set a goal. What is it you would like to become – the best lifter in your club or the world’s greatest lifter? It is difficult to get excited about any project without some end result in mind. The more worthwhile you consider this result the more enthusiasm you will generate. You must know what you want – what it is that you are striving for. Once you have found that out you are at least half the way to success. This may sound very simple and easy, but there is more to it than appears on the surface.

How high a goal should you dare desire? No one can answer this for you. But consider the fact that many psychologists who have studied aspiration and achievement claim the main reason most people accomplish so little in life is that they set their goals too low. The vast majority of people achieve only a small fraction of their potential because they never realize how much they have. The most difficult step in becoming great is the act of believing it is possible. Millions of American schoolboys dream of becoming athletic heroes – all but a very few laugh it off on awakening. These few are the handful who go on to enjoy that special challenge of seeking a lofty goal.

Who do you see when you look in the mirror? This may sound like nonsense or a gag question, but it is actually one of the most important queries you will ever ask yourself. You should do this before selecting any goal. Does the mirror show you a nice but unlucky kid, one who works hard but just doesn’t have the “stuff” and who would love to be great but just wasn’t born under the right star? Or do you see a determined man who takes advantages of the breaks, one who believes that his hard work will pay off, and who knows that the determinants of success are not in the stars but in himself? The answer can tell you whether you are headed toward glorious achievement, miserable failure, or something in between.

In order to succeed, your goal should be set so that it will correspond with your self-image. Your aim is too high or too low if it is above or below the mental picture you have of yourself. This can be determined only by you, and only honestly.

You can improve your self-image, and later I will give you some practical ways to go about this. But at this point you are entitled to ask, “How can the mental picture of myself determine the amount I lift?” The answer should become apparent when you consider the following information.

The limits of human ability are really unknown. Records keep going up, and where they will stop no one knows. A record on a certain lift a number of years ago was less than 250. Today it is well over 300. Ten years from now it very likely will be around 350. Why is it that men could not do 300 on this lift 10 years ago? Methods of training, style of performance, type of lifting apparatus have not changed appreciably in that time. There is no evidence that man in general is becoming stronger. Obviously some barrier existed that prevented champions of yesteryear from lifting weights that novices are easily handling today.

Larry Barnholth often tells his many pupils, “The greatest barrier to your success is within yourself.” Largely through Larry’s teaching have I come to regard the human body as a reservoir of undetermined power which is restrained by some intangible barrier. The extent to which you can remove this barrier determines the extent of your achievement.

What is this barrier? Where does it lie? What builds it up or tears it down? Can it be controlled at will? Why does it exist?

Scientists and psychologists have long recognized the existence and power of the subconscious mind deep within each of us.

The function of the subconscious mind that we are interested in is protection. Through the ages man needed this mechanism which would prevent him from attempting feats beyond his capacity and which were likely to endanger him. This function is not as important for survival as it was in prehistoric times. Many of the dangers that threatened our caveman ancestors no longer exist. Nevertheless it still operates in the same manner. This part of the mind cannot think; it cannot tell right from wrong, or possible from impossible. It only works on the information you supply it. Out of this it builds a self-image, and will not let you succeed at anything that is outside the limits of this image. If only thoughts of success, both from you and from other sources, it will react to remove the barriers to the tremendous reservoir of unused power that is within each of us. On the other hand if information indicating failure is picked up by it, it automatically starts setting up barriers to prevent us from exerting full force.

In summary of what I have said here in Part One, you need three things to become an exceptional lifter:
1.) an intense desire;
2.) a specific goal; and
3.) a positive self-image.
Once you have these three elements, your subconscious mind will remove the barriers to that vast reservoir of untapped power that lies hidden inside you.

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