Busting Through The Mental Barrier

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Let me start by saying that I am not a sports psychologist but I understand the value in examining the psychological aspect of training. I wanted to outline my experience with some techniques so you may benefit from them too.


It’s competition day, the nerves are fluttering and the weight on the bar is rising. You know you’re going to be up for your 3rd attempt soon. As you pace anxiously in the holding area, headphones in, psyching yourself up, you can feel the wave of emotions flowing from your quads right the way up to your head… That’s it; your name has been called, “bar loaded”, has been called and it’s time to try and squat that big PB you’ve been chasing.”


What happens next can come down to whether your performance is plagued by anxiety or enhanced by adrenaline.


It’s not uncommon for people to fall short of their potential through psychological, rather than physical, limitations. Positive imagery (or guided imagery) is a form of meditation to help you relax when you’re stressed, or – as will be our use – enable you to tap into a variety of qualities to help you cope under certain conditions.


Before we start looking at some practical applications I want to borrow a term from Alberto Nunez: “expand your happiness”. Think of this as placing all your eggs in one basket. If I identify as ‘Jake the powerlifter’ rather than ‘Jake who enjoys powerlifting’ then the magnitude of achieving a certain number at competition goes through the roof. I’m placing all my self-worth on what I do on the platform, which feeds more into the diminishing performance effects of anxiety.


To expand your happiness, it can be really helpful to have another skill-driven hobby that gives you another avenue to follow when you’re injured or even post-competition when your coach says “Hey, no barbells for 4-weeks, it’s GPP time.” Instead of you being bored, or panicking because you’re not lifting, you know that you have another hobby you can improve on because, after all, we are driven by progress.


Get another skill-based hobby: if you’re serious about competing and don’t want it to affect your training, then it needn’t be too arduous.


Moving on from this I think it’s important to be aware of the influence of our ever growing, connected lives. With the rise in social media it’s never been more common for us to compare our own efforts with that of arguably some of the World’s best. It’s so easily accessible (Instagram) now, whereas in the past you might have cracked on with your own hard work and only ever compared it to that of your training partners when you reached competition. This is where it pays off to be self-reflective, to look back at previous training blocks, previous competitions, previous videos etc. This helps illustrate the importance of tracking your workouts and older training programs. If you start questioning your rate of progress, then maybe it’s time you take a look back and be reflective.

Now the nuts & bolts is out of the way let’s look at some practical applications.


Imagine the load

When you’re training and after you’ve finished your working sets of squats, load up the barbell to your desired weight. As you do, be aware of the sounds, the clanking of the plates, the collars locking. Then sit back, take it in. Look at the weight, take a mental image of it. This will help you to picture it when your eyes are closed.

Mental imagery can enhance strength output when performed 2 x per day [1] Set aside 5-10 minutes, twice per day to picture yourself at the competition; you might even feel the flutter in your belly as your imagination runs rampant. This is a skill much like the squat itself: the more you do it the better you will become. When you’re imaging the movement be sure to think about the sights, sounds and even smells (probably deep heat at a competition).

Our mental power is so great that it can sometimes have the same affect as the physical action. Your HR may increase, adrenaline may rise, you may even begin to sweat, all these are manifestations of your powerful mental imagery. The more we picture it, the more it adds to repetition and recreation on the day.


Process > Outcome

Next on our list is to emphasise the process and not the outcome. It’s easy to get lost in a world of PBs but don’t gloss over the process of getting there. If you do find yourself panicking and getting worked up when it comes to performing the movement, be it squat, bench press or deadlift then revert back to breathing.

It’s a well established fact that thinking about your breathing and slowing your breathing down is a calming action and it plays a vital role in strength training (creating that intra-abdominal pressure) so it goes hand-in-hand with guided imagery.


Perspective and Acknowledgment

Next, acknowledge. Take a step back and view the situation from a different perspective. Acknowledge that whilst the lift may seem like the most important thing in the world at that time, it actually isn’t; it’s another day in your life and it’s likely another day you can get enjoyment from.

From my personal experience this has benefited me tremendously. I have placed a lot of pressure on myself but having looked back I can see my best performances are times where I’ve had the most enjoyment. It’s often largely down to those around me but I know now that’s a pillar to my success.


Repetition and Recreation

Finally, think about repetition & recreation. The more competitions, the more heavy squats you do, the more often you stand in front of referees etc. the more numb you’ll become to the nervous emotions brought about by the event.

Those feelings won’t go but you’ll be better placed to handle them. It’s also worth noting that it can help to try and recreate the environment. So for powerlifters I’ll often ask them to gather some friends to watch when they’re testing their maxes, get some experienced lifters to give you commands, time your warm-ups and time how long it takes for you to get to the platform and execute the lift.


There are 4 practical applications that may help you achieve more without editing your current training, without editing your diet and without eating into recovery. At first it might seem strange to set aside time to imagine, that’s something many would say is reserved for children or artists but, as more and more of our time in consumed by a bombardment of information that we don’t have time to process it can also act as a meditation tool. One which may in turn improve our outlook and our sleep (which will aid in recovery). There’s very little downsides and many upsides.

[1] Link

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