The Enemy of Progress: Self-Doubt

Being awesome at something is hard. I think I made that pretty clear last week, while also suggesting ways to be awesome without cracking. Last week’s writing was essentially a primer – an introduction – to what I’ve observed to be the path people awesome-er than I have taken to become excellent at Weightlifting. There’s something, however, that I neglected to mention, something that is the enemy of all progress in training: doubt.

We’ve all done it. You approach the bar with confidence, having gone through visualizations of what you want to do. You actively think about those visualizations, and how you’re going to perform them. You get set, grasp the bar, wrap your fingers around your thumb. Your back is tight, your mind made-up, and you pull. The bar glides up your legs, into the power position. You explode, ripping your elbows up while racing under… Then it all goes to shit. The bar sails behind you, wrenching your shoulders, crashing on the platform. You know what you did wrong. You think “dammit, why can’t I keep my chest up when I catch?!” Your coach coach is as dumbfounded as you, having tried myriad cues attempting to help you understand how to perform this basic task. You know just as well as they do what the problem is. So why can’t you fix it?

I know that was my problem last Saturday when I was Snatching. I was still beat-up from the previous weekend at Provincials, my shoulders were being uncooperative, and as a result, everything felt off. Frustration would simmer within, and for a brief moment, I thought to myself: “what’s the point?” I’ve done this long enough, however, to realize that I’ve asked myself that same question more times than I can count. And, you know what? Every time I’ve asked myself, I’ve had an answer: “because I want to get better.” It’s a simple problem, just a hard one to crack. Getting better requires accepting failure, and in Weightlifting, accepting both frequent and consistent failure is necessary, especially in your first year or two. Everyone is going to have a handful of problems along the way that are a constant constraint on their growth. So, why beat yourself up? Well, I know why, but you shouldn’t. Resit the urge! For instance, when I first started in this sport, it took me about nine months to learn to Jerk properly. Then I got really good at it, and between the Snatch, Clean, and Jerk, I was best at the Jerk. Now that I’ve gotten back into the game with seriousness, guess what? My Jerk is easily my worst lift again, and I’m not looking forward to the idea that it might take me just as long to get good at it again. In fact, at this point, I’m hoping I can be competent at it again in six months rather than nine. There hasn’t been one person I’ve coached for any real length of time that hasn’t had at least one or two erroneous tendencies in their lifting. Often times, they’re simple, and frustrating, but they’re there. They eventually do get solved, but you must be patient!

I’ve coached a lot of lifters, for instance, who have a real rough time standing up with a heavy Snatch or Clean. I’ve never had this problem because I’ve always been stronger relative to my technical ability. The opposite is true in many. What’s universal, however, is the self-doubt that we often cast upon ourselves when comparing our performances to those of others. So stop! Thoughts like: “dammit, why the hell does she jerk so well yet my feet move like they’re made of cement?!” are both unproductive and, well, kind of dumb actually (hint: the answer is because you’re not her). Thinking about why you, and only you, might not be doing something properly is far more productive. At least that question gives you useful feedback. Comparing yourself to others is only wise when you’re comparing the differences between your technique and there’s, thinking about what they might be doing that you’re not, and going from there. You can go ahead and skip the self-denigration, though.

Going back to my Saturday workout I can remember asking myself why I couldn’t receive the bar like everyone else I was training with. I looked down at my feet for a moment, noticed that my chest blocked out everything but my toes, and then remembered that everyone else I was training with didn’t mangle their shoulders with years of heavy Bench Pressing. Still, it seemed like everyone else I was training with was training much better than I was. I was admittedly starting to get a little emotional. Then I thought about the time I raged out on a disposable cup, and decided to tone it down.

It’s not productive to be too invested emotionally in each session. Sometimes, believe it or not, you need to just phone it in. The more emotional you get the more you’re going to get stuck in your head. And when that happens, then you become hypersensitive to everything that you perceive to be going wrong (it’s rare I see someone harp on what they’re doing right). No, just because every rep wasn’t perfect doesn’t mean you’re learning things incorrectly. We learn in chunks, and through progressions. That’s why if I see three things wrong with someone’s lifts, but they’re consistently getting better at, say, problem number one I don’t call them on the other two. I want them to solidify perfecting problem number one before we tackle problems number two and three. Allowing yourself to be too emotionally attached clouds your judgement, disorganizing your ability to focus on getting better. Pick one thing you don’t like and stick with it. Forget about everything else because it’ll still be there to solve after you fix the first problem. Going back to my aforementioned Snatch workout. As I saw it, I had a few options. I could say to hell with it because there’s no technique cue for dysfunctional shoulders and quit my workout. Or I could go with Plan B, which was deciding to just work my pull and start position because there was nothing I could feasibly do to fix my receipt problem that day. I wasn’t happy, but I still did things to get better that day. The point I’m making is that, as frustrated as I felt, I just had to find a way to remain productive, even if it wasn’t what I wanted right then and there. Sometimes you need to accept that you’re going to have a bad day. But, then, is it necessarily that bad a day?

Part of the problem we face as lifters is that we often become attached to our best workouts, even though they’re exceptionally rare occurrences. The problem is that these days are the exception, not the norm, and so it makes little sense to hold them as the measuring stick for a good workout. I know I’ve written quite a bit about finding and embodying the feel, but there are some days where finding the feel is going to be a struggle, and this simply needs to be accepted. Be humble and accept what you can and can’t do on a given day. Speaking of attachment, it’s also not conducive to fixate on a program nor on how you feel. There are going to be days where your body, despite you and your coach’s best efforts, is not going to be able to do a given day’s workouts well. There are also going to be days where you feel awful, and yet you are able to perform your workouts well. It’s not going to feel good, certainly not like one of those workouts you look back on fondly, but you still need to do it. This is simply the reality of it, and more than likely, your coach is prepared to deal with this. No one who’s good ever trains at 100% anyway, so there are always going to be workarounds involved in the performance of any program. I know in my own life, nothing, and I mean nothing, has ever gone to plan. Sometimes these deviations are even useful because they highlight details and deficits the two of you may not have been aware of previously. Expecting optimum conditions, and thus, performances, is the surest way to discourage yourself.

The ultimate point I’m attempting to get at is that training is an organic process filled with ups and downs. Knowing this, then, you have to resist the urge to be too hard on yourself especially if you want to be the best you can be. If you’re someone who’s particularly critical of their training, then, I have good news for you! This is a quality I’ve seen over and over in the strongest lifters I’ve ever coached! The experienced ones, however, who are the best out of that group, are the ones who learned to temper their nerves, and yet still be cognizant of their weaknesses.