To Compete (Part 2 of 3)

Today is the day.

Months of preparation have led to this moment.

There may be many things that increase your nerves or stress on the day.

As with any high pressure situation, you have to trust yourself. You need to be confident that the work you’ve done in dieting and training will ensure you make weight and make lifts.

It’s likely that today you’ll have to lift in a different environment, with different people. It’s important to try and not let this affect your performance. But it’s hard. It’ll probably get to you. No matter how seasoned you are you’ll probably feel something. That’s why you do it anyway. Because it makes you feel.

Here we discuss the various aspects of competition-day performance and their wider scope.

Managing nerves and energy

Trying to calm my nerves and get focussed before getting under the bar.

It’s very normal, almost expected, to feel anxious on competition day. All the work you’ve put in has led to this point, and of course you have expectations of yourself: whether these are new PRs you want to set or a placing you want to achieve. But the important thing when you’re finally on the platform is to try and disengage from the numbers and not get caught up in what everyone else is doing. Focus on being present when you’re doing the lifts. Remind yourself that this is something you’ve done hundreds if not thousands of times before.

You now just need to focus on how you’ve lifted in the gym before and execute this on the platform. I like to try and ignore what everyone else is doing whilst I’m waiting to lift. I plug music in and lose myself in it because I find it distracting to watch others. And this is how I usually prepare myself when I’m getting ready to do a top set in the gym too. You will be different of course, and the important thing is to try and keep whatever you do consistent. At least in my opinion. You want to bring the principles, rituals and cues that you’ve developed from the lower stress environment of the gym into competition.

This approach is applicable elsewhere too, such as exams and interviews.You learn the material inside-out for this day, and then go into the exam or interview and just need to focus on applying the material. You may have rituals to prepare yourself here too (I used to always eat blueberries on the morning of my exams).

It’s also important to bear in mind that competition day may be much longer than the time you usually spend in the gym (unless you’re part of the Cambridge University Powerlifting Club, CUPLC, in which case it’s probably similar). Managing your energy throughout the day is therefore very important. Obviously, you can’t be switched on and focussed for the entire time – no-one has the mental capacity for that. So you learn to manage how ‘turned on’ you are, taking periods of down-time but also doing things like making sure you’re eating and drinking enough. I’ve had many meets where I’ve put everything into squats but then crashed after bench and have ended up running out of energy on deadlifts.

Attempt Selection

Raghul focussed on going 9/9 and putting up the best total he could at British University Championships this year. This led him to place first in the 74kg class.

Focussing on staying in your own lane can not only help reduce nerves, but can also help with making more sensible attempt calls. This in turn can help you make more lifts, which means you build a bigger total, which is the overall goal. You’ll notice that it’s rare in any competition to see people making all their lifts and this often isn’t down to strength or technique. Analysis done by a USA national team coach concluded that the best totals are almost always being put up by people who make the most attempts. Not necessarily the ‘strongest’ people.

“The winners of meets are not always the strongest lifters, and the strongest lifters aren’t always the best lifters”

Hani Jazayrli, Team USA Coach

Picking good attempts is humbling.

You may come in with big goals and desires to hit specific numbers, but when it comes down to it, it’s usually better to err on the side of caution. You have to be self-aware and acknowledge how you’re feeling on the day. It’s about knowing when to pull back and be more conservative when you’re not feeling great; but equally about knowing when you are feeling good and where you can push yourself to. Trust me, it’s something that comes with practice and something I still don’t get right all the time (even after around 20 competitions!). This is also a reason to get a good handler who can offer a second, more objective opinion: ideally someone who knows you as a lifter, but also someone who can be honest with you.  

This skill of learning to be self-aware is obviously useful elsewhere too.  It’s important to have a firm grasp of your current strengths and weaknesses, so that you can build accordingly.

Finally, though it’s difficult, try not to get caught up in the numbers. Especially the numbers other lifters say they’re going to hit. Now, we understand that different lifters have different styles. Some prefer for their coach to make all the attempt calls, whilst others want a very hands-on approach, looking at the scoreboard and working out what they need to do in order to achieve their goals. We have found, over time, that focussing simply on maximising your own performance will, guess what, maximise your performance!

Whether you see it favourably or not, unlike many other sports, in powerlifting your competition doesn’t affect your performance. So don’t let them. If you know you can only bench 65kg, but your competitor’s attempt is making you think you need to go for 67.5kg to increase your chance of winning, then you’ve let them into your mind. You’ve let them affect your performance. Many lifters post far bigger totals in less stressful environments (e.g. national competitions as opposed to internationals, or just in the gym). Here they don’t face the same pressures and are free to lift what they can. Of course, powerlifting is a competitive sport and there will be pressures. Your opponents’ moves are going to affect you. You’ll have to find the balance between optimism that you can hit certain numbers to beat them/catch up with them, and pragmatism to know you can’t hit certain numbers and that you just have to maximise your package on the day.

Oh and notice how many lifters will say they’re going to hit x kg, or total y kg, but how many rarely do. Many just talk. Not in a malicious way. Not with bad intentions. But they just talk about these ideal scenarios that don’t always come true. And yet it can affect you. You may think you’re not good enough. Or you’re not doing enough. And it may get in your head. And it’s hard to detach from that and focus on yourself. I find using social media less, particularly Instagram for us powerlifters, is a useful tool to stop comparing my work to others. This parallels with life too. Sometimes people talk a big game, but aren’t achieving many results. And yet it can throw you off. You feel like everyone has it figured out but you. But of course it’s not true.

Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth.  

Dealing with missed lifts

After missing a second attempt bench of 75kg at British University Championships 2018.

Although we always like to make as many lifts as possible, we have to face the reality that often things don’t go to plan and lifts get missed.

Maybe you got nervous with your squats and cut depth; or maybe you were slightly too ambitious with your third attempt bench and didn’t even manage to get it off your chest. Whatever happened, you’ll probably feel frustrated and disappointed; maybe even scared (as I did when I managed to miss an opening bench on a technicality at my last meet…). There was a period of three consecutive meets where I only managed to hit my opener on bench and would break down in tears following the bench disasters. I won’t lie, it was really difficult to deal with. But there are tools that I used to at least try and keep it together whilst I was lifting.

First, you can acknowledge that something has gone wrong and accept this. But then understand that, at least for now, you need to concentrate on the other lifts. You’re still in the middle of a competition and this is a time-pressured environment. You have to try and detach yourself from the previous failure and concentrate on executing for the rest of the meet. This is what you came here to do: to get the best total you can get on the day. And if this lift didn’t go to plan you just need to focus on getting the best you can out of the remaining lifts.

I like to think about this as trying to temporarily box it up, or closing a door on it and opening another door onto the next lift.

You have to stay in the moment, be pragmatic and move forward. There will be time for reflection later.

But now, you have to lift.

References:

  1. Silverberg, A. (2018). Attempt Selection Advice From a USA National Team Head Coach – MyStrengthBook. [online] Mystrengthbook.com. Available at: https://mystrengthbook.com/blog/attempt-selection-advice-from-a-usa-national-team-head-coach/ [Accessed 6 Jun. 2019].
  2. The Strength Athlete | online powerlifting coaching and contest preparation. (2015). Good Attempt Selection… It Will Set You Free: Part I. [online] Available at: https://thestrengthathlete.com/blog/attemptselection1 [Accessed 6 Jun. 2019].


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