Thursday, June 6, 2013

Not Just Pumping Iron - Part Eight


A woman, too, may experience a sense of Adlerian inferiority. And, she may choose the animus oriented expression of "masculine protest" in her striving for superiority. An additional factor can be the woman's wish to prove herself in the "masculine" realm because of familial and societal messages which have denigrated the "feminine." It is no accident that the growth in women's bodybuilding. Olympic lifting, and powerlifting has been on the heels of the "women's movement." Feminism has led to greater recognition and expression of the animus by many women. Nowhere is this more blatant than in women's pumping of iron. Lifting weights offers a special opportunity, therefore, for a woman to claim her equality. The old phrase, "the weaker sex," is forcefully thrown out every time a woman steps onto a lifting platform and hefts a weight which untrained me in the audience, of comparable bodyweight, could not lift.

Lifting weights can be an avenue to what Abraham Maslow has identified as "peak experiences." These experiences give one's life a special sparkle, a special joy, a grounding in experienced profundity. Most everyone who has spent much time engaged in hardcore lifting recognizes peak experiences as something that just happens from time to time. A systematic investigation of peak experiences in sports was conducted by Kenneth Ravizza several years ago. Although he did not interview lifters in his study, he did include representatives from 12 different sports, both team and individual, at three levels of proficiency (recreational, university team, Olympic). His results showed that participation in sports often does lead to peak experiences. More specifically, when he asked the athletes to describe what characterized their "greatest moment" while participating in sports, the following emerged. Over half of the athletes reported an unusual richness of perception during the experience, a uniqueness of the event, and a fusion of the athlete with the event (so it was as if the event "took over" and the person were no longer "doing" it). Eighty percent or more of those interviewed revealed a transcendence of the ordinary self (they became so absorbed in the activity that it was as if there was a union with the phenomenon). Maslow has referred to this as an "ego-transcending experience," a sense of awe and wonder of the experience, and a disorientation in time and space. Ninety to ninety-five percent spoke of an effortless, passive perception, a perception of the universe as integrated and unified, a self-validating experience of the activity itself (winning or losing seemed of little importance), a feeling of being so in control as to feel almost godlike, a feeling that the experience was perfect, and a total immersion in the activity (giving full attention to the activity). Of Ravizza's sample, all spoke of a loss of fear during the activity. (Although other characterizations were given as well as these, the ones mentioned above coincide with qualities which Maslow discussed as occurring with peak experiences.) Surely, this is a spiritual experience, a glimpse through the window of ecstasy.

To be explicit, I am suggesting that in the overdetermination of the motivation to lift weights, the urge for peak experiences can figure, too. Another eternal truth is reached.

A few years ago, I served on the dissertation committee of a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Georgia State University, Robin Brill. In her study, as yet unpublished, she showed several central elements expressed by weightlifters concerning their experience of their sport. Common experiences included the sublimation of their frustration and aggression into the physical activity of lifting, self-discipline and singleness of purpose, pride in self (with body as referent), power of the mind to determine physical ability, and an increased confidence and feeling of superiority over others (with body as referent).

Staying for the moment with research findings, Larry Tucker has shown in his studies that there is an increase in global internal and external self concept in college males taking a weightlifting course.

The results of these research studies seem to be consistent with my proposed deeper motivations to lift weights. The studies generated data which are at a different level from the level at which these deeper motivations lie. However, there is a consistency between the two levels which can be inferred.

There is one final deep motivation which may operate with some lifters. That is the motivation of risk-taking. Some background is necessary before saying more about the risk in lifting weights. Sol Roy Rosenthal has stated that a certain amount of risk is a basic evolutionary need and is essential in our lives. He divides sports into two categories, RE (risk exercise) and non-RE (seeing the former as having the special importance of providing a good source of risk taking. Skiing and rock climbing are examples of RE sports, as contrasted with non-RE sports such as golf and tennis. Rosenthal believes that RE and non-RE sports have different effects on the participant. In addition, he states that the enjoyment of non-RE sports is often tied to winning, whereas the RE sports are more likely to be enjoyed for their own sake, with competition being of less importance. It is the tension between highly developed skill and calculated risk which creates the exhilaration of RE sports. Research conducted by Rosenthal suggested that participation in RE sports makes men and women more efficient at work, more creative, and more productive, as well as improving their sex lives.

Now, to relate this to the iron game. Certainly, lifting weights does not involve the dramatic risks found in skydiving, rock climbing, or downhill skiing. On the other hand, the risk of serious injury far exceeds such risk in golf, tennis, or volleyball. In bodybuilding the risk may be kept to a minimum. However, in Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting the risk of serious injury is frequently present. On limit days and in competition the lifter is pushing a limit beyond where he or she has been before, and in so doing risks injury either from a strained body or a body crushed by a dropped weight.

As I am writing, I am remembering watching a powerlifter in a meet. As he squatted, one of his ankles gave way, turning under, and he fell. He was saved from possibly being crushed by several hundred pounds of falling iron by two very alert spotters. Another time I saw a man lose consciousness while straining to break a world Olympic press record. He fell backwards, flat on his back, to a loud clatter of plates.

I know that this element of risk has beckoned me back to heavy lifting several times after I have given it up. Some of my most vivid and exciting memories of lifting involve these potentially dangerous situations. I recall falling forward while attempting a squat, and feeling the bar roll over my neck and the back of my head as the ground rushed toward me. My two spotters stood motionless watching, as if in a trance. Another time, in  competition, I lost control of the bar just before locking out on a record jerk. The weight came down behind me, just grazing my upper back and tearing off some skin as the knurling dug in on its rapid descent to the platform.

What I am suggesting is that Olympic lifting and powerlifting, where exceedingly heavy weights are moved about, over one's body are, to a degree, risk-taking sports. To the degree that one engages in these, then one may be motivated by the exhilaration attendant with the inherent risk.

To understand why we lifts weights requires that we admit of over-determination. It requires that we understand the coexistence of both conscious and unconscious motivations. And, finally, it requires an appreciation of such forces as risk taking, peak experience, the "masculine protest," "striving for superiority," manifestation of the animus, and, perhaps most centrally, the actualization of the strength archetype. These forces speak of eternal truths.

Next: Personality Styles and the Experience of Lifting.

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