Combatting Perfectionism in Weightlifting

I recently observed an athlete perform 20 power jerks, 10 split jerks, 25 clean and jerks, 6 minutes of plank holds, and then finish by completing 120 dumbbell thrusters at 60% of bodyweight.  All of the athlete’s work was technically sound, and the athlete made no misses despite going up to 90% on the clean and jerks.

Even so, the athlete was not happy at the end of training.  The athlete bemoaned the fact that it took 15 minutes and 10 seconds to complete the thrusters, when it should have only taken 15 minutes.  The athlete denied himself the satisfaction of completing a rigorous workout by fixating on what he could have done better.

Perhaps you have this problem, too.

Do you regularly think . . .

  • Nothing good comes from making mistakes.
  • I must do things right the first time.
  • I must do everything well, not just the things I am good at.
  • If I can’t do something perfectly, there is no point trying.

Or do you often . . .

  • Have difficulty completing work on time because you are so concerned about getting one task done perfectly?
  • Refuse to take credit for doing well because there is always something more you could do?

If so, perfectionism might be something you want to work on.

Wesley Cravy, head coach of Pivotal Weightlifting Club in California and Applied Sports Psychology consultant, shares his insights on helping weightlifters who struggle with perfectionism:

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality style characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior.

Why is perfectionism so bad?

  • Striving for perfection can increase anxiety and decrease self-confidence.
  • Perfectionism can trap you in an unhelpful cycle of thoughts, physical sensations, emotions and behavioral impulses.
  • Perfectionists are often LESS successful than non-perfectionists because the fear of mistakes makes it hard to be creative, innovative or open to new ideas.

As a weightlifter, perfection is not realistic, nor is it necessary!  Technical proficiency makes it easier to lift a heavy barbell, but it is not evaluated in competition.  An ugly lift will get three white lights just as easily as a beautiful lift–assuming both lifts comply with the rules of the sport.

What can I do to control my perfectionism?

 Take a day-by-day approach.  Let go of the need to be perfect and simply strive to do better each day.

Keep a training journal.  At the end of each training session, take note of the positive attributes of your session. If it was a terrible day and 80% felt like 100%, record your resilience and ability to push through even though you were clearly fatigued.  In your notes, make positive comments on what you want to focus on when you revisit the training day the following week.

Be flexible and realistic.  You will rarely train under perfect circumstances.  When you can’t hit the percentages designated in the training plan, make adjustments and just keep working.  Time spent training will make you a better weightlifter regardless of whether you follow your training plan exactly.

Celebrate your victories.  Suppose your goal for a competition was to take home a first place medal.  You didn’t meet this goal, but you still went 6-for-6 or made a new personal best on one of your lifts.  Take satisfaction in your performance!

As a coach, how can I help my athletes who struggle with perfectionism?

Utilize Imagery.  Imagery is the use of images to visualize or enhance performance.  It activates the same neurophysiological pathway as physical exertion.  Imagery does not guarantee success, but it clinically shows an increase in performance and is used by professional athletes to immediately combat anxiety.

How do I use imagery with my athletes?

  1. Use imagery in training sessions.  Imagery is a learned skill and will not produce the desired result if applied for the first time in competition.
  2. As your athlete is performing a dynamic warm up, encourage the athlete to take 3 minutes to visualize the barbell warm up and any exercises the athlete will be performing that day.
  3. As the athlete enters the pre-competition phase, a nightly visual walk through of the event should be done. The athlete should visualize the upcoming event from warm up to last lift.  The athlete should see, smell, feel and reflect a confident positive analysis of the event. This is best done after a 3-5 minute breathing/relaxation technique. Once thoughts become cloudy, distracted, or negative, cease the exercise and use positive words to end the session.
  4. During warms up, both in training and competition, keep the visualization short–around three minutes.  You don’t want to completely eliminate the athlete’s anxiety.  Somatic anxiety is actually helpful to an athlete’s performance. Symptoms of somatic anxiety include experiencing butterflies, sweating, heavy breathing or an elevated heart rate.  Visualization is intended to combat cognitive anxiety, which includes negative thoughts, feelings of apprehension or nervousness.
  5. At competition, encourage your athlete to focus on the current task and only that.  The athlete should focus on visualizing the current lift.  When that lift is complete, the athlete must erase the last lift and focus completely on the next lift.

Take a problem focused avoidance approach.  When you see your athlete becoming overwhelmed, encourage the athlete to block out everything except for the task at hand.  This is especially critical at competitions when an athlete misses a lift.  You must help the athlete put the missed lift behind and focus on the next lift.  Focusing on the last missed lift will only facilitate a decline in performance.

Help your athlete keep perspective.  You know your athlete’s numbers and abilities.  Don’t let other competitors rob your athlete of feeling satisfied at a competition.  Enter the competition with a game plan.  Execute the plan.  And then leave satisfied, knowing that you accomplished your goals.

Cover Photo by Viviana Podhaiski of Everyday Lifters.

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Should Girls Train Differently?

The sport of weightlifting is the same for males and females. At competitions each athlete executes six lifts: three in the snatch and three in the clean & jerk. An athlete’s total score is determined by adding the highest successful snatch and the highest successful clean & jerk.

So, if competitions are the same for males and females, shouldn’t they also train the same way?

Not according to Anna Martin, president of the Missouri Valley Weightlifting Association. Coach Martin, owner of Kansas City Weightlifting, knows a little about female weightlifters. Now a Masters weightlifter, Anna began weightlifting at 14-years old. In the course of her career, she made two international teams, participated in a World Team trials, and was the first alternate in the Olympic team trials. She has also coached at some of the most reputable weightlifting facilities in the country, including the Olympic Training Center and Northern Michigan University.

Anna currently coaches a number of successful weightlifters, including Janelle Schafer (63 kg), winner of the 2017 American Open Finals in Anaheim, California.

Coach Martin has observed over years that female weightlifters perform better with a higher volume of repetitions than their male counterparts. Says Martin:

My female lifters perform better when I keep the volume high. In practice, I always program doubles for the snatch and clean & jerk and sets of 5 or more for squats. Even when a lifter is going for a max, I make them double it.

If we are not in a major competition, I make my female lifters double everything in the warm up area.

I think girls perform better on the platform and recover better with more reps.

What does this mean for you?

As a coach, try giving your female athletes more volume in their workouts. Be careful, however, not to overwork the joints through a combination of heavy weights and high volume.  Increasing the number of reps may require backing off the weight on the barbell.

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Photo Credit: Lifting.Life

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5 Benefits of Training Backwards

The athletes of Lift for Life weightlifting club in St. Louis, Missouri, enter the gym and head straight to the squat rack to begin their training.

Wait, what?!  Squats first?

Traditional weightlifting training progresses from the most complex movements—the clean and jerk and the snatch—to less complex movements.  A typical training session in any weightlifting gym might look like this:

The idea is that putting the most complex movements up front allows an athlete to tackle them fresh, without the fatigue that comes with strength building exercises.  Coach Jimmy Duke, head coach of Lift for Life Gym in St. Louis, Missouri, however, turns the traditional model on its head and trains his athletes backwards.  Duke begins his training sessions with squats, progresses into a skill transfer exercise, such as the Snatch Grip Push Press, works into a barbell complex, and finishes with the Olympic lifts.

Coach Duke has produced three international level youth weightlifters—from scratch—in a mere five years, making his training style worth considering.  Here are five benefits of “training backwards.”

 

Uses Training Time Efficiently.  Coach Duke trains most of his athletes for only one hour, three times a week.  To fit the training into the hour, Duke must make wise time management decisions.  It takes less time to warm-up for a set of squats than a set of clean and jerks. Once the legs are warm, the athlete can jump straight into the squats.  The same holds true for warming up the shoulders and back.  Once the athlete arrives at the Olympic lifts by the end of the training session, the central nervous system has been activated and all of the muscle groups are nicely warmed up.

 

Focuses on Positioning.  “Place your feet closer together; shoulders over the bar; gaze neutral; shoulder blades back; tighten up your back; now lift the bar off the ground keeping the back tight; stay over the bar . . . longer, longer, longer; now explode!”  It’s a lot to teach and even more to remember.  Any coach knows how easy it is to reduce a confident athlete into a confused mess by giving too many cues at once.  A coach can remedy this problem by beginning the training session with the component lifts, focusing on positioning in each of the parts before tackling the full Olympic lifts.

 

Intensifies Training without Adding Extra Weight.  Placing the Olympic lifts after strength building exercises makes them harder to perform.  An athlete must fully focus—and even then—the lifts will be difficult because the muscles are already fatigued.  In this way, a coach can challenge an athlete mentally and physically without adding extra weight to the barbell.  This preserves an athlete’s joints and builds mental and physical toughness.

 

 

Makes the Olympic Lifts easier to perform in competition.  Duke’s athletes are conditioned to squatting, pressing, and deadlifting BEFORE they get to the Olympic lifts.  In competition, however, the athletes get to perform the Olympic lifts without doing a training session first.  Athletes are pleasantly surprised by their performances at competitions.

 

Makes the Lifts a Treat at the End of Practice.  Most weightlifters would agree that performing a snatch is more exciting than performing a set of back squats.  Coach Duke makes his athletes work for the privilege of performing the Olympic lifts.  Once the athletes have put in time building strength, Duke rewards them with the more exciting lifts.  No dessert until you eat your broccoli—or in Duke’s case, “No clean and jerks until you finish your strength work.”

 

Not ready to commit to a full schedule change?

If you are intrigued by Coach Duke’s training style but not willing to completely ditch your methods, try reversing your training one day a week.  It will shake up the regular routine and encourage new muscle adaptations.

Photos by Lifting.Life.

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Is Undertraining the Secret to Success?

In the past month, I have had the opportunity to speak to the coaches of two of the most accomplished youth weightlifters in the United States—Kevin Simons (Harrison Maurus’s coach) and Ray Jones (C.J. Cumming’s coach). When asked about their athletes’ training, I listened in eager anticipation: I expected to hear tales of grueling training sessions, intensely heavy loads, and long hours spent in training. I was surprised by what I heard instead.

Coach Simons reported that he limits his athletes’ attempts above 90% and that Maurus went three years without missing a clean in training. Three YEARS without missing a clean?! A weightlifter who goes three years without missing a clean is clearly undertraining.

In a separate conversation, Ray Jones, coach of four-time World Champion C.J. Cummings, made a disturbing observation about a recent national competition. Jones remarked that of the 14 athletes in the warm-up room with C.J., all 14 of the other athletes were working through injuries.

Coach Jones expounded, “Injuries are a big problem with what is going on in the U.S. A lot of that stems from athletes trying to follow programming that is too rigorous for them. It is important for athletes to follow individualized plans, listen to their bodies, and not necessarily pound the lifts all of the time.”

Jones continued, “I want my kids to be undertrained. I want them to be able to continue in the sport for as long as they would like—and even return to the sport in their older years. To do this, I need to train them so that they don’t get injured. I want my athletes to have longevity in the sport both physically and mentally.”

Given that both Simons and Jones undertrain their athletes, perhaps this is something the rest of the community should consider.

What is undertraining?

Undertraining occurs when a weightlifter:

  • Trains at below maximal loads
  • Stops training before muscles, tendons and joints are overworked
  • Takes time off from training to allow muscles recover

Undertraining is NOT:

  • Working with weights that are not challenging
  • Abandoning an exercise because it is hard to do
  • Blowing off training because you just don’t feel like it

These are all examples of lazy training, which is not the same as under training!

Why is undertraining so effective?

Injuries stop progress. Overtraining leads to overuse injuries, which are microtraumatic damage to a bone, muscle, or tendon that has been exposed to repetitive stress without sufficient time to heal or repair.  When an athlete is injured, he must take time off to recover or train with lighter loads until the injury has healed. During the healing process, the athlete is not making strength gains. Undertraining reduces the likelihood of injury; this allows an athlete to make strength gains while his overworked peers are sitting on the bench nursing injuries.

Up to 50% of all injuries seen in pediatric sports medicine are related to overuse.

Overtraining leads to burnout. Burnout happens when an athlete is not allowed sufficient time to rest or participate in other activities. Burnout, also referred to as overtraining syndrome, manifests as lack of enthusiasm, personality changes, fatigue, chronic or nonspecific muscle or joint pain, and even difficulty performing normal routines.

Performance plateaus without rest. To improve as an athlete, you must work hard. However, training hard breaks down muscle and makes you weaker. To become stronger, your body must rest. During rest periods, the body rebuilds its cardiovascular and muscular systems by increasing capillaries in the muscles, improving the efficiency of the heart, and increasing glycogen stores and mitochondrial enzyme systems within the muscle cells. The result is a higher level of athletic performance. If an athlete does not get sufficient rest after training hard, however, the body cannot rebuild itself, and performance plateaus. If this imbalance persists, performance will actually decline!

More productive training. A well-rested, recovered athlete will be able to train harder than an exhausted, overworked athlete. Weightlifting is a sport that emphasizes technical proficiency in compound movements that are performed over milliseconds. Without adequate rest, these movements cannot be performed properly.

Longevity. The ultimate goal in training a youth athlete is to produce a disciplined, well-adjusted adult who appreciates the importance of fitness and can handle competitive pressures. Some sports, such as weightlifting, offer the additional bonus of lifelong participation. If a weightlifter does not hurt himself, he can continue to enjoy competitive weightlifting well into his retirement years. In fact, in the U.S. alone, there are over 3,600 athletes over the age of 35 who are competitive weightlifters.

What is the best way to undertrain?

Prepare an Individualized Plan. Coach Jones is a big fan of individualized training plans. According to Jones, athletes who try to follow cookie-cutter plans often get injured because these plans are designed for athletes at a higher level of athletic ability. Jones says, “I’m not going to be arrogant and say that my way is the only way. Several ways work. The important thing is to examine each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses and do what works for that person.”

Listen to your body. As an athlete, it takes self-discipline to stick to a training plan when you don’t feel like training. It takes even more discipline, however, to stop training when your body is injured. Training with an injury doesn’t lead to big gains; it just sets you up for even bigger injuries. Coach Jones advises: “Don’t be so intent on following the programming to the detriment of your body. If you’re hurting, don’t do the exercise!”

Focus on Quality over Quantity. Every time a weightlifter performs a lift, he creates muscle memory in the lift. Over time, the weightlifter no longer thinks about how he will perform the lift; it just happens. And the lift “happens” the same way in competition as in training. So, it is far better to perform a small number of quality repetitions in a training session than a large volume of haphazard lifts.

Step Away from the Barbell. After big competitions, Coach Jones gives his athletes a week off from training. When they return to the gym, the athletes ease back into training with exercises that do not involve the Olympic lifts. Coach Jones is particularly fond of core exercises. Taking time off from traditional barbell work brings variety into training, reduces boredom and fatigue, and allows the body time to recover before the next training cycle.

Take Time to Recover. Coach Jones trains his athletes five days per week, allowing them to rest for two full days each week. The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness similarly recommends limiting 1 sporting activity to a maximum of 5 days per week with at least 1 day off from any organized physical activity.  Interestingly, elite CrossFit coach, Ben Bergeron, who coaches CrossFit Games winners, Katrin Davidsdottir and Matt Fraser, subscribes to the same philosophy. Bergeron programs Thursdays and Sundays as rest days for his athletes.

Still concerned that you won’t make gains if you undertrain?

Don’t worry! As a youth weightlifter, time is on your side. You have years before you reach your potential, which means you have plenty of time to figure out exactly what works for you. In the meantime, always err on the side of undertraining to ward off aches and pains and keep yourself injury-free.