Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mental Training by Sean Toohey

Originally Posted on on March 1, 2001

The lifter paces back and forth in front of the rack. His eyes focused sharply on the floor in front of him. The air around him is electrified by his concentration and he seems oblivious to what is going on around him. Turning abruptly to face the bar, his hands grasp the iron in precisely the right spot, and his eyes focus hard on the exact center of the bar with enough channeled energy that you can almost FEEL his gaze. A quick duck under the bar, which hits the perfect spot on his traps exactly, and the lifter slowly stands, his eyes revealing that he is now "inside" his own world... and the squat commences.

True concentration may or may not look like the above scenario. Today, many lifters emulate what they have seen good lifters do, but often it is merely a charade. Grunting, grimacing and mock-straining are so commonplace that only a trained eye can spot the difference between truly concentrated effort and the facade put on by the hollering monkeys in pump-dom. You CAN learn to concentrate properly, and you can really use the techniques in your day to day life as well as in the gym. Unfortunately, most lifters never spend ANY time developing the greatest resource they have -- their minds. In an article entitled, "Concentration -- Part I" John McCallum opened with, "You'd be surprised at how much better you could do if you put your mind to it. You could accomplish wonders." He was stating, in absolutely perfect terms, that "putting your mind to it" is so much more than just a simple catch-phrase. "Putting your mind to it" means applying all the mentalresources that you have to exactly what you are doing at a given point in time. And John was exactly right -- if you can learn to do this properly, you will accomplish wonders.

Let's begin with motivation. No less a source than the great Dr. Randall J. Strossen described motivation in his remarkable book, "IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies." as, "the presence of anything that initiates behavior." Incidentally, if you are interested in really learning to take your training to the edge and you don't own a copy of that book, you need to get a copy right away! Now, I'm not a big believer in will power, but I am a big believer in desire. It is my opinion that will power doesn't exist. If you want something MORE than you want something else, then you will do what it takes to pursue what you want and it is as simple as that. So motivation seems to be more of a byproduct of doing your homework properly than of any temporary stimulus like watching an exciting video or reading about a great strength athlete. However you choose to view motivation, one thing is certain -- you need to be motivated, and for that you must know exactly what it is that you want. And that requires goal setting.

Here is the part where I rant about the fly-by-night ambition of most people. There is a world of difference between a wish, a dream, a want, and a goal. My mother used to tell me, "if wishes were horses then beggars would ride." No offense against the downtrodden, but what my dear old mom was telling me was that wishes will not take the place of hard work. Today, you see so many gyms cropping up all over town, but people today are fatter and weaker than ever before! Wanting to change isn't enough. Thinking that it would be really nice to get that new PR is merely a "dream." Hoping that it will happen on its own is a "wish." Hoping that you will get there, and trying with a half hearted effort is a "want." Doing your homework and charting a path to take you there, busting your ass day in and day out, pushing yourself ever closer to what you want and all the while achieving little landmarks along the way... THAT is pursuing a GOAL. Nice going Sean, you just defined it. Now how do you DO it?

First you really need to be honest with yourself. Is this something that you feel you CAN go after with the required intensity? If you think that you want this new PR but you are pretty sure that somewhere in you you will probably do as little as you need to get it, then you are probably just wanting it and not actually setting the achievement as a goal. When you really are gearing up, the hardest thing you will have to face is holding yourself back from doing too much! TRUE goals are something that you want so badly that nothing can stop you! It is the difference between commitment and involvement. Ed Parker, the late American Kenpo Karate grandmaster described the difference between commitment and involvement as, "ham and eggs. The chicken was involved but the pig was committed!" Secondly, start small if you need, in order to boost your self-confidence. Go after things that you know for certain will be attainable and congratulate yourself onthe achievement. Do not let anything sway you from your path! Learn that the when setting goals, there is so much at stake that nothing can stop you! Then slowly increase the level of difficulty of each goal! Be just as progressive about training your goal-setting talents as you are about lifting! Continue this low-level goal setting as you pursue a long-range goal as well. Short term PRs successfully met build up to one large PR anda boat-load of self-confidence! Psychologically studious folks call this, "short-term" and "long-term" goal setting. Once a goal is set however, you must keep your eyes on the prize!

This of course leads us to focus. Concentration is a big source of failure among many people. Learning to concentrate and focus your mind on what you are doing is one of the most important tasks you will ever encounter, yet so few people are good at it! My father has a great technique that he uses for his reading. He checks to see how many pages he can read in a book before his mind wanders. Then he checks to see how long it took him to read those pages. Now, whenever he reads something he must focus intensely on, he applies himself in blocks of time based on his measured attention span. This allows him to absorb information at stellar rates, and in his opinion has done quite a bit to actually increase his attention span. Another technique you can use to learn to concentrate is simply closing your eyes and counting softly (out loud) to 30 over and over again. When you reach 30 you start again at 1. Pretty soon you will find yourself thinking about the errands you have to run and saying, "71, 72, 73, 74..." Don't be harsh withyourself! Just calmly bring your mind back to what you were doing and start again. Do the entire exercise for a pre-planned period of time. Pretty soon you will have developed the ability to concentrate for hours on end without your mind drifting!

At this point, you have some pretty realistic expectations on how to set goals and why you need to commit to them, you understand that motivation is a by-product of proper goal-setting rather than something that happens to you after watching a video tape, and how to develop the self-confidence and concentration necessary to achieve those goals. Now let's talk a bit about fear.

Fear is a big emotion that will either work for you or work against you. When you are eyeing that big lift, and you know that one slip of the grip or stance could cripple you for life (or worse), there is a certain amount of exhilaration involved! Knowing that you are the master of that weight, that you are the one IN CHARGE and that nothing in the world can stop you will not remove the knowledge that the weight you are about to lift could potentially kill you. But rather than allowing fear to debilitate the physical or mental condition, the successful lifter will literally re-route the fear emotion into an excited, adrenaline rushed, exhilaration that will actually help to complete the lift! How is this done?

It is done through many years of steady increases in lifting and constant goal setting. Successful lifters are those people that look at strength training with an eye on "forever" rather than "I have a reunion in three weeks and I have to look good." By constantly feeding the success machine over and over again, small steps at a time, the lifter develops a really deep seated self-confidence that this new PR is a very attainable weight. Particularly since it is only 2.5 pounds more than the last successful lift he or she had! Focusing on that additional 2.5 pounds rather than the total is what allows the weight to suddenly become defined as something that is just "a little more than before." Focusing on the total can often make the weight seem like an enormous amount! Nothing breeds success like success, and if you are facing a new PR that is within your range, you have clearly been successful prior to this! Focus on that! Feed off of your own triumphs and allow yourself to be happy about them! Give yourself a period of time to enjoy your success and let it sink in... then go and get some new PRs to keep that machine well fed!

The last part of this is about psyching. Psyching is really a two part process. First, you must mentally accept the lift you are going to do. If this lift is a particularly big PR (achieving a long-term goal perhaps) then the acceptance phase should begin the night before. Mental rehearsal is a great technique for this and is done by systematically relaxing each area of your body, then visualizing in as much detail as possible, the successful lift. Start this by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, in a quiet place where there will be no sudden distractions. Lying in bed just before you sleep is a great time, but don't do this if you are too tired to concentrate fully on the task at hand. Breath deeply from your diaphragm (rather than high in the chest) and take a mental inventory of each area of your body, letting go of all the tension as your work your way up from your toes to the top of your head. Let go of any distracting mental thoughts, and if your mind wanders, bring it gently back to the task at hand. As you get good at relaxing like this you may feel some very wild sensations. Things like your hands reversing positions or being upside down, floating or sinking sensations, feeling like your body is turning around or that you are floating in space are all very common occurrences. Anyway, once you have relaxed completely, begin to focus on the lift you will do. See it over and over like a movie in your mind and try to involve as any of your senses as you can: Sight, smells, touch, hearing, and tasting. Feel every motion and movement you make and see yourself completing the lift over and over again in perfect form. You may even wish to associate a word with the mental performance of this lift. Success is a good one! Every time you complete the lift, say the word, "SUCCESS!" in your mind. When you actually get in front of the bar, you can then say your associated word over and over again to help your mind prepare for a perfect lift!

Secondly, when you are right in front of the bar, ready to lift, concentrate on the perfect lift. See it happening in your mind. Be very alert to any sabotages you may say to yourself such as, "can't, won't, shouldn't, afraid, maybe, hope" or anything that doesn't imply that you WILL make the lift and that there is NO DOUBT such a lift is within your grasp! Say things that motivate you! Try to mentally get an adrenaline spike by working yourself up a bit! Keep it contained however, and don't let it out until you actually perform the lift. Remember that every single training session you have ever had in your life was a dress rehearsal for this very moment! Know that you can do it, that you have prepared and that you will be successful! And as soon as you feel that you have NO DOUBT WHATSOEVER that the lift is yours, get into position and nail that sucker!

And never forget that your mind is the greatest tool you have in your lifting arsenal! Train it as you would your body!
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Bob Whelan

Bob Whelan

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