Written by Jesse Irizarry
Being a coach for either strength or functional fitness athletes can be both extremely rewarding and incredibly frustrating. In sports like weightlifting, powerlifting, and CrossFit, the physical preparation the coach puts the athlete through can only help so much and when it’s time to compete; much of an athlete’s success depends on his or her mental state.
While you can’t go out on the platform and lift for your athlete or do the event for him, there are still some basic strategies you can use to mentally prepare your athletes beforehand and to stoke the fire in their minds during competition.
I was fortunate enough to be coached by an incredible strength coach and powerlifter for many years while I was competing seriously. After a few years, we would occasionally switch roles, and sometimes he needed me to coach him just as well as he had coached me. The experience taught me some good strategies that I’ve continued to use to mentally prepare and coax out the best from less-experienced athletes during competition.
However, these same strategies are even more important for high-level athletes like my coach. Athletes competing at a very high level – in which the number of mental distractions can be the difference between securing a major title or going home with nothing – often need a good coach to help them control seemingly little details with huge effects. These are just a few strategies I’ve learned that can especially help sharpen the mental edge of the strength athlete. As a coach, you can use them for your athletes; as an athlete, you can learn them to help yourself.
Secure Them Some Real Estate
Some warm-up areas for sports like powerlifting and weightlifting remind me a little of the Wild West. Everyone takes from each other and does things without much regard for anyone else. Crowded CrossFit boxes that hold competitions are usually no better.
One of the most distracting things for athletes, especially experienced ones, can be other athletes walking over them to get from the warm-up area to the platform/competition area while they’re trying to decompress before their turn.
Showing up early to the competition and setting your athletes gear, supplements, food, etc., in a corner or area that is out of the way of most of the traffic will put your athlete’s mind at ease like you wouldn’t believe. This little personal space mitigates unneeded anxieties and becomes the athlete’s little sanctuary where they can return after attempts or events and focus without worrying about anyone or anything else.
If you’re the athlete found in this position, it’s a good idea to bring a friend or training partner who has permission to be in the warm-up areas. Ask them to be your lackey for the day.
Turn The Mind Off
When your athlete steps into the gym or venue to compete, training is over. Younger athletes often need someone to explain this to them while more experienced athletes sometimes need to be reminded. The coaching at competition should look very different from the coaching done in training.
During competition, athletes don’t need to be analyzing what they’re doing. They shouldn’t be thinking of ways to improve their performance, movement, technique, whatever. This work has already been done, and no amount of cuing will improve performance at this point. In fact, too much cuing from a coach can actually be detrimental to the athlete.
The cues that you use during competition need to be selected carefully. As a coach, you should never use a cue that you haven’t used a thousand times in training. Only the cues that cause an instinctual reaction in the athlete should be used; anything that might grab their conscious attention should be thrown out. Put another way: You don’t want your athletes thinking; you want them reacting and responding to commands and situations the way a dog would. Funny as that may sound, your athlete should become almost like an instinctual animal, living in just that moment and attacking the weight or workout without thought. To perform at the highest level, the athlete needs to forget steps and techniques and just act. The ability to do this is what being an athlete is all about.
Be careful not to say too much and turn your athlete back into a thinking, rational animal. Also, make sure to guard your athlete from other well-intentioned (albeit annoying) coaches and athletes who want to coach them during the competition. They may be trying to help, but the new cues and thoughts will just confuse and make your athlete’s mind start running again.
If you’re an athlete with a coach, make sure that you keep open communication as to what helps you during competition and what is too much. As an athlete without a coach, you need to make sure to stay guarded and not listen to everyone offering advice, no matter how much good intention they may have. Understand that this is your time to perform, not to learn.
Switch Off The Panic Button to Recover and Prepare
When it’s time to walk up to the barbell or begin the competition workout, athletes need to be ready for war. They should be at a heightened state of arousal in which their heart rate increases and their bodies prioritize action rather than recovery. Many rookie athletes let themselves get too hyperactive for too long and at the wrong times. Sure, they have the aggression needed, but it’s not focused properly to accomplish the task at hand.
For lifts like the deadlift in powerlifting, a raw overwhelming aggression can be OK, but for the more technical lifts and events where a pace needs to be set, athletes need to keep themselves from getting too frantic.
Even more important than this, a strength athlete needs to learn to reduce the physiological panic state between attempts or events that was brought on by the stress of the activity itself. This is the most effective way to maintain the ability to repeat the same high level or output multiple times.
The breath holds the key to controlling the physiological and psychological state of the athlete. Training your athletes to focus on taking deep belly breaths and exhaling completely helps calm them so they can continually perform at an optimal level. Having your athletes learn to do this throughout their day will help them learn to control this during competition, which will in turn help them recover in a short period of time and be able to sustain a high level of performance throughout the duration of the competition.
You should teach your athletes that it’s OK to work themselves into a controlled frenzy right before a lift or an event, but they need to know how to return to a calm state almost immediately after so they can get back to that same level of aggression again for the second attempt or event. Instead of letting the athlete pace back and forth in the warm-up area, have them sit in a corner and focus on trying to slow their heart rate and focus on breathing, pushing everything out of their mind and just being present in the moment.
It’s your job as a coach to keep track of when they need to get up and prepare for their next attempt or event. When it’s time, get them up and charged up again so that they can re-enter that state of aggression without trying to sustain it the whole time.
If you’re an athlete without a coach, you need to learn these same techniques of relaxation – sometimes even more diligently. Bringing a friend or training partner to help you keep track of when your next attempt is will go a long way, but remember that it is not your friend’s job to keep your calm. This is something that you will have to learn to do on your own.
Dealing With Adversity
Everything so far has been focused on coaching during competition, but the environment that you create for your athletes during training has just as big of an impact on success.Occasionally, you’ll find a young athlete who is motivated to walk through fire by nothing more than the thought of becoming a champion. This is the kind of athlete that will grind away quietly in a corner without any need for external motivation.
While many elite lifters develop this stoic mindset over time, younger athletes will progress faster if you surround them with other athletes who have a singular purpose. One of the best things a coach can do is bring together a team or group of athletes who have the intensity and focus to get stronger and improve.
The athletes challenge and push each other in a way a coach never could. This is where the lifter learns to step up and compete. The group of athletes that you allow into this circle should be focused; there is no room for laziness.
The group helps create the champion, and a good coach knows when to teach and when to step back. This is the art of coaching.
As an athlete, you need to make sure to seek out these atmospheres with not just a qualified coach, but a competitive environment. Put yourself among athletes who have a champion mindset, and you will develop a champion mindset.
Jesse Irizarry is a Division 1 collegiate strength and conditioning coach who gets fired if he doesn’t produce actual results. He is on a personal vendetta against the nonsense being presented as strength training and performance advice. Jesse coaches athletes of all kinds, helps them reach their full potential, and keeps a blog at www.jdiperformance.com.