Training this week has been good. It’s also been rough. As I sit here writing, reflecting on my lifting since I last wrote, I’m wondering why I’ve felt so beat all week. Not just in my body, but my mind. My body being sore is normal. My mind being adrift is not. Then it dawns on me. I just coached five athletes through four sessions at Winterlift last Saturday. I’m exhausted. Still, I’ve put my reputation on the line, and committed to training no matter what. At times, this can be a daunting task, placing a lot of pressure on me. Even then, as much as I want to be strong again, the stakes are now even higher that this is a public affair.

Being good at anything requires that you be able to focus and perform whatever the task at hand may be. For a weightlifter, this could mean belting out that last gruelling set of Back Squats in training or making that third attempt in the Clean and Jerk for the win. In my introduction above, I used two keys words I want you to pay special attention to: stakes and pressure. These words – these concepts – are essential to self-mastery, and by extension, mastery of the bar.

What does it mean to have something at stake? A stake starts out as an interest. Something you might be curious about at first, and then realize, after further analysis, you want. It grows on you. As time goes on, just how meaningful your stake in something might be increases. You’ve probably even built an entire narrative around it at this point. Simply put, it matters now. What started as a minor interest has become a goal central to your life, perhaps even your value as a person, and before you know it, it’s within reach! But oh no, now that it’s so close, you’re beginning to wilt under the pressure? Because, like everything, there’s a chance you won’t succeed, and hundreds of hours spent working and dreaming can suddenly turn to defeat! That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but are you going to let it choke you on its way down?

Lifting is hard. The weights are heavy, the stress is real, and you can’t always do what you want. How do you deal with it, though? How do you succeed in spite of the pressure you experience? If you haven’t noticed yet, I spend a lot of time thinking about things. Naturally, to deal with this situation, I think more.

In anything I commit myself to, I ask what happens if I succeed? What happens if I fail? In either scenario, what are the immediate and long-term consequences of these outcomes? Then I do the arithmetic of consequence in my head, play it all out, and force myself to feel each relevant outcome. Practice, when done correctly, makes perfect, no? I practice both succeeding and failing in my mind. That way, when it comes time to perform, I’m not as stunned by either outcome. In a way, I’ve desensitized myself to both acquiring and losing the goal at hand. The pressure begins to subside, and I can focus on completing what I know I must. If you ever find yourself paralyzed by the myriad possibilities of any situation, this is a very useful means of unloading the weight of your actions. You can even take this a step further. Rather than just neutrally examining what could be, assume you’ve already failed.

Years ago, I read a text called The Hagakure by a man named Yamamoto Tsumetomo. This is an ancient text describing what one man thought it meant to be a Samurai. I’ll save you the summary and say this: the man thought that the way of the warrior was to live as though one is already dead. This is a concept that has been adopted by warriors and soldiers throughout history, and for good reason: what stake is greater than staying alive? What could put you under more pressure than the thought of your impending death? What could make you more afraid? That’s all pressure is: fear. The fear of failure, defeat, injury, whatever. Fear, while a crippling emotion, is still a valid one, however, and can in fact be used to your advantage.

The most notable training experience I had this week this was a set of Back Squats at 180kg for 5 without a belt this past Monday. I’d never done that before, and having been on the road, coaching for all of the weekend prior to it, I felt beat to hell. I was afraid I’d injure my back again for the 5,000th time, I was afraid I wouldn’t finish the set, and even more so, with people watching, I was afraid of embarrassing myself. Before I got under the bar, I had done my rationalizing, exploring the immediate outcomes I could think of. None of them were that bad, and none of them were reasons not to attempt the set. My anxiety was sort of allayed, but not totally. I knew as I sat the bar on my back that I might not get all my squats; it was heavy. I didn’t care. I still had an immediate goal to accomplish, one that would affect my more profound goals down the line. As I walked the bar out, I visualized what I had to do. With one last breath I said to myself: “Fuck it,” which, I think, is a modern expression for convincing yourself you’re already dead/have failed, and doing it anyway. By this point, any nervous energy I had transformed. Instead, it was channeled to the task at hand. I descended with the bar, and did a surprisingly easy (relatively) set of 5 given what I thought it would be. The moment before I started the set, all I knew was that I could live with failing, but I couldn’t live with not trying something I knew had the potential to make me better. That fear became a motivator.

When you’re anxious or afraid you become hyper-aware, your nervous system gets amped up, and in essence, you begin experiencing a sort of fight or flight response. When people choke it’s often because they don’t make a choice, short-circuiting from the overload of undirected nervous energy. They never commit to either fighting or escaping. Prior to my set this was the state I was in. However, once my hands were on that bar, I chose “fight.” I made my decision, and that energy was used to attack the bar. Sometimes “flight” is the right decision, but it wasn’t that day.

You have to make a decision for yourself when faced with that nervous energy. That rationalizing I mention above only dampens it. You must accept (and I mean actually accept) that both failure and success are inevitable parts of the path towards mastery, then, make the decision to move forward. You just can’t control which outcomes you receive and when. When we became weightlifters, we all began walking a path. There will be disappointments ahead. We keep walking, though, because the stakes matter. They matter more than any kind of defeat or disappointmentotherwise you’d have quit before you even got started.