Powerlifting Psychology

Powerlifting Psychology is a free blog post by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito on the mental aspects of the sport of Powerlifting.

Powerlifting Psychology is all about improving the mental aspects of this oh-so technical and physical sport.

Not a powerlifter or vaguely interested in powerlifting psychology? Fear not for the below article mainly uses the sport of powerlifting/weightlifting as an opportunity to look at some classic sport psychology concepts from a different angle. Read it before judging it!

Powerlifting Psychology – Introduction

Powerlifters are on a constant mission to find out just how strong they are (or could be). For those of you who are not familiar with what powerlifting looks like, athletes attempt to lift the heaviest weight possible on three different lifts (squat, bench press and deadlift). The aim is to reach their one-rep max (heaviest they can lift in a single attempt) within 3 attempts. 

The all or nothing nature of lifting creates a lot of mental challenges. At the end of the day, in powerlifting, you either make the lift or you don’t. This has the potential to foster a bit of an all or nothing attitude amongst lifters. We often hear powerlifters speak about the fear of “Bombing Out”, or failing to make one successful lift in the three attempts. The effects of missed attempts on performance seem to be exponential. The fear of bombing out and its impact on performance increases at a higher rate with each missed lift. 

Falling Down The Rabbit Hole

After missing the first attempt, lifters are tasked with the challenge of avoiding what we might call “falling down the rabbit hole”. The first attempt often sets the tone for the following attempts. If unsuccessful there are only two more chances. One thing we know about how the human mind works is that as soon as we are in a situation where our number of opportunities is reduced, we often go into overdrive on a cognitive and emotional level. The stakes become much higher, and our perceived importance of having a successful next lift dramatically increases. This often leaves lifters focusing too much on outcomes, and not enough on the processes they need to be focusing on to get those outcomes. 

Preempting Thoughts Ahead of Time

Getting “hooked” is where our thoughts and emotions dictate our actions in an unhelpful way, reducing our capacity to perform. One of the best ways to prepare for the threat of getting hooked and bombing out on competition day is to preemptively identify what thoughts you’re likely to have at the various stages of competition; when things go to plan and when they don’t.

Our mind is a reason-giving machine, the best ever created. Because of this, we’re really good at surviving, but we’re also really good at talking ourselves out of doing things that are outside of our comfort zone. To help a powerlifter preempt competition day thoughts, we might ask:

  • “As you enter the venue, how is your mind likely to try and talk you out of doing this?”
  • “What is your mind likely to tell you as you approach the bar? 
  • “It is possible you might miss the first lift. What is your mind likely to say when that happens?”
  • “When you approach the bar for your third and final attempt, your mind is going to generate a lot of objections. What do you think it’s likely to say?”

Predicting the time and frequency of these competition thoughts can also be beneficial:

  • “How many times do you think your mind will tell you this before you approach the bar?”
  • “When will your mind start telling you all these things?
  • “How many times will your mind say this to you throughout the entire day?”

What To Do About This?

After identifying these thoughts and when we’re likely to experience them, we can take the final step which is to name them. Naming uncomfortable thoughts brings a sense of familiarity with them so they’re not as frightening on competition day, and creates a bit of distance between yourself and those thoughts. Some great examples include:

  • “There’s my mind reason-giving again”
  • “There’s the ‘I’m not good enough’ story”
  • “The ‘What if mess up” thought is back”

So a big part of the work we do at Condor Performance is in helping lifters handle these challenging situations and the associated thoughts more effectively. That is, by reducing their impact on performance. 

Flow and Trusting Your Body 

Elite lifters often talk about being in the zone when they compete. The scientific term for this is flow. Flow State, by Csíkszentmihályi and is when we are so intensely present in what we are doing time and distractions appear to vanish. In a state of flow athletes describe feeling extremely calm and relaxed but immensely focused on the task at hand as though they are in a ‘trace-like state’. During flow, time seems to slow down and there isn’t necessarily a lot of overt thinking going on; the athlete is totally and completely reliant on their body to perform on autopilot. It is during this state that athletes find themselves performing at a higher level than they normally would. 

Elite lifters often talk about being in the zone when they compete. The scientific term for this is flow, and it’s where one is so intensely present engaged in what they are doing, that they are in a state of hyper-awareness. In a state of flow athletes describe feeling extremely calm and relaxed but immensely focused on the task at hand as though they are in a ‘trace-like state’. During flow, time seems to slow down and there isn’t necessarily a lot of overt thinking going on; the athlete is totally and completely reliant on their body to perform in the way it has been trained to perform. It is during this state that athletes find themselves performing at a higher level than they normally would. 

At Condor Performance we often talk about getting the head out of the way so the body can do what it already knows how to do, so we see a lot of value in the concept of flow. If you ask any elite lifter what they think about in the moments before a competition lift, you’re likely to get the response “absolutely nothing”. The best powerlifters in the world trust that their body knows what to do, and with enough training (and trust in their training program) they can go to competitions and consistently enter a state of flow right before they go to lift, through engaging in simple mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing. 

Powerlifting Psychology: Visualisation

Visualisation in powerlifting is becoming more and more popular as athletes begin to see the benefit of mental rehearsal on performance. For this to work, mental rehearsal needs to be as specific as possible, covering as many details of the competition day as possible from the actual lift itself, to the sound and temperature of the venue, to the feeling/sensation of clothes and equipment on the body during the warm-up lifts. When visualising it is important to both set the scene and engage all of our senses. Lifters might want to visualise the different aspects of their entire competition day, including weigh-in, waiting around, seeing the audience for the first time, loading and unloading weight, warm-up attempts and hearing the commands for their actual lifts. 

However one trap lifters often fall into is only rehearsing successful lifts, often for fear of thinking about how things could possibly go wrong. This goes back to preempting – it’s important for lifters to preempt and visualise what an unsuccessful lift will look and feel like, how they’re likely to respond to this emotionally and cognitively, and rehearse how they want to respond to this and how they might coach themselves through it. This creates a sense of familiarity with unsuccessful attempts so that they don’t come as such a surprise on competition day, and allows us to pre-plan our response so we know exactly what to do in the case that it does happen.

Getting “Stuck”

One of the most challenging mental hurdles lifters talk about is getting “Stuck”. When a lifter sees no progress or doesn’t see progress at the speed they expected, they’ll often label themselves as being stuck. Something important to keep in mind is that there are many reasons why a lifter may physically plateau, but it is actually our cognitive and emotional response to this physical plateau that often exacerbates its duration. Our default response to seeing minimal to no progress includes thoughts of self-doubt, diminished confidence in our ability, and questioning whether or not all the work we are doing will be worth it. When a lifter becomes hooked by these thoughts, this often perpetuates the cycle of minimal progress. 

How To Get “Unstuck” 

It can be really beneficial for lifters who have become stuck, physically and/or mentally, to reflect on what life values they are fulfilling as a human being, (not necessarily as an athlete), that initially motivated them to pursue the sport and have kept them there up until now. Rather than looking at training through a purely athletic lens, we want to help them identify how lifting contributes to the individual living a rich and meaningful life, and through which of their life values this occurs. Many of the values that arise include:

  • Living a healthy lifestyle 
  • Self-discipline
  • Competing with Others
  • Learning new Skills
  • Attempting new challenges 
  • Never giving up 
  • Being responsible for my actions 
  • Feeling good about myself
  • Having a sense of accomplishing
  • Striving to be a better person

Shifting the lens on training from better athletic to better human allows for the rediscovery of the things an athlete truly values in life, and how they live in accordance with these values through their training (regardless of their results). This can serve as an internal driving force through prolonged periods of a plateau (perceived or actual) and is a process that can certainly help a lifter become “unstuck”. 

Powerlifting Psychology; Conclusion

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take from this article, it’s that thinking about all the things that could go wrong isn’t something to be afraid of. In fact, when we expect and embrace the full range of emotions and thinking competition day brings about, they often seem a lot less threatening, and we’re giving ourselves the best chance to respond in a more helpful way. As Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists, we acknowledge that we can’t significantly change the way we think and feel, and therefore the goal of the work we do is to minimise the effect of these experiences on performance. And if you (or someone you know) want some help with any of this, get in touch.

Author: Madalyn Incognito

Madalyn spent most of her teenage years training and competing at the national level in swimming. After committing to the sport at the age of 12, she spent the next few years competing all around the country in her main events, which included 50m/100m/200m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m/200m butterfly. She has also been heavily involved in the Martial Arts sphere from a young age, training, competing and teaching various styles including Karate and Han Mu Do, as well as Muay Thai which she currently practises. Madalyn is passionate about improving sporting performance through psychological practice and research and she was ultimately motivated to pursue a career in performance psychology as a result of her own experiences growing up as an athlete, where her eyes were opened to the ways in which one’s mental state can impact on their performance, and how psychology can be utilised to improve performance across a range of competitive settings. Madalyn’s first-hand experience inside the pressure cooker of High-Performance Sport combined with ongoing learning and practice as a provisionally registered psychologist means that she was the obvious choice to join the Condor Performance team at the start of 2021.

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