Trending Topics at JustLift: Confidence

It’s been a while. Yes, I regrettably stopped writing these blog posts just before Nationals 2015. It’s been an unceremonious hiatus, but let me tell you, I needed it. Admittedly, I should have had the courtesy to warn the few of you who read these, and for that I apologize. After all, what inspired this article I’m writing today was a comment from one of you about what I’ve written in the past; I want you to know that I appreciate your readership even though I’m an inconsistent author.

Since I first started writing these I strove to relate my own training experiences, as both a coach and quasi-athlete, to you, and your own training experiences. To answer some of those questions that might invite themselves into your head as a result of the training experience. In the end, as a coach and gym owner, I strive to direct our curriculum so that you become both experientially and intellectually empowered to take account for the direction of your own training process. So that when you train, you and your coaches can make informed decisions together that allow for the maximal accretion of what we all want: gains. What I’m going to write today is going to be list article. No, this isn’t going to be the typical blog litany of my top 10 most absolutely, positively favorite assistance exercises for the Snatch that will magically fix everything. Instead, over the next few weeks, we’re going to go over a handful of topics. Since my last article and this one, I’ve seen a few trending thoughts that ought to be addressed. So, without further adieu, here’s number one!

Confidence: In yourself, your coach, your program, and performance.

You absolutely, positively, need to have confidence in not just yourself, but what you’re doing. I know I’ve written about this before, but it needs to be restated. Perhaps what I missed before was another qualifier. Confidence can’t simply be:L “I’m confident because I’m feeling good today.” No, it must be durable, and all-encompassing. I’ve seen too much self-doubt recently, some of it my own, much of it from athletes we coach. Thus, this will be the first topic I want to discuss.

Often times I get questions that start with: “Coach, do you think that…” and I already know where it’s going. I don’t need to know if it’s about the Snatch, the Clean and Jerk, someone’s squat strength or the program they’re doing. That’s not the point. The point is that, through rigorous statistical analysis, I’ve found that exactly nine times out of ten, this question, fundamentally, has to do with some kind of doubt the athlete has, either in themselves or the program or even their coaching. While there is the rare instance that such doubt in whatever aspect of the athlete’s training is both valid and productive, generally speaking, it’s maybe kind of valid, but almost always unproductive. Here’s a scenario:

Yes, you missed a metric shit-ton of Snatches tonight. No, there’s nothing wrong with your program. No, there’s nothing wrong with you. Yes, I know you’re making the same mistake over and over, and that’s why you missed a third of your lifts. The answer is still no. There’s nothing wrong with you, the program, or the coaching you’re receiving. The simple fact of the matter is that all three of these elements, you, your coach, and the program are imperfect. They can never be as optimal in the real world as we allow ourselves to imagine them to be. Your sense of confidence needs to be acquainted with this irritating truth.

As Weightlifters, we’re often exceptionally hard on ourselves when we miss or can’t perform the program as written. The sheer amount of time, discipline, discomfort, and effort needed to succeed in this endeavor makes our training performances especially meaningful. Couple that with the pressure we put on ourselves to be “good” and we’ve created an amazing potential for a sink-or-swim situation. Guess what? Most of us can’t use or operate under that sort of pressure productively. Confidence, then, is the ability to dampen this pressure, perhaps even harness it, but never wilt under it. It’s having the humility to accept all of these things while still being able to live with the knowledge of what we need to do to get better, what better actually is, in the form of a goal. In other words, don’t be so damn serious! Let some fun sneak into your demeanor.

I’ve said this many times, but our most successful athletes are those that can place enough importance on their actions so as to ensure that all the elements of success are meaningful enough to matter yet not so anxiety provoking that they become crippling. Last Friday I Snatched 107kg, 5kg more than I have in over a year. I was stoked! Given how the weight felt last week, I went into yesterday’s workout thinking I had 110kg in the bag.

As I worked up in yesterday’s session every lift up and through 100 felt precise, fast, and strong. So I jump from 100 to 104kg, planning on going 104, 108, and then hit my target of 110kg. I missed 104 three times. After reviewing some recordings of those attempts I found that I was scooping in too early. So I waved. 95. 100. Easy. 103kg. Nope. Okay, Greg, get your shit together. This is it. 103kg again. Hell no. Not happening. Maybe I’ve grown as a lifter recently, because I accepted that seemingly anything over 100kg was just not there for me yesterday. And that’s fine. I went on to do 100kg for a few more sets. 100kg hasn’t been a working weight for me in a long time. Now, I realize that this is a very convenient example, one with a silver lining, so I’ll give you one that’s much harder to find the good in.

Sometimes you’ll be so sure that your coach and/or your program are the problem, and not you. Like I said, very rarely, this is in fact sometimes the case. One of the reasons we rotate coaches, and, at some level, have you work with everyone, is because different eyes, different cues, and different interpretations can often be useful. I can assure you, however, that all of our coaches know a thing or two about getting people stronger.

For much of my career as a lifter, I’ve been self-coached. When I was at my absolute peak I did virtually all of my own coaching. I wrote my own programs. I filmed and analyzed my lifts myself. I handled all of my own diet, supplementation, and recovery strategies. When I started making my “comeback,” my programs were still my own, although I left my technical coaching in the hands of our coaching team. I made some progress, but as time went on, my programs were destroying me. I was getting injured, and feeling confused as to what changed. Why couldn’t I recover? I must have a recovery problem now, I thought. My technique, the one thing I left to my coaching staff, grew leaps and bounds, though. Unfortunately, my strength actually started to decrease. I felt terrible. My sleep was no good, and I my workouts were less than pleasant. Simply put, it wasn’t that I had a recovery problem. Rather, I overestimated my recovery ability. I was too apt to write my programs in the context of what I could do at my peak as opposed to what I can do now. JustLift coach and athlete, Julia Boggia, now handles all of my programming. It’s simultaneously been both the best and most frustrating thing to happen to my development in years.

I’m getting stronger, better, staying healthy, and lifting well! Clearly, her programs have been more successful than mine. Does that make me bad at programming? Far from it. I still write all of her programs myself with minimal input from anyone else, and she’s become the first female athlete to Snatch 80kg and Clean 100kg at JustLift in just under 2 years of training. If her results are indicative of my ability as a coach, then, I can say with confidence that I know what I’m doing. Except for myself.

As Head Coach, for a while, this arrangement was a hit to my pride. The one thing I’ve devoted myself to perfecting for others I can’t do for myself? That’s a harsh situation to accept, and one that can precipitate all kinds of self-doubt. It’s not unreasonable or without precedent, however. Just because I know a lot about Weightlifting programming and technical performance doesn’t mean I can apply it properly to myself. For the same reason that all kinds of therapists don’t treat themselves, but defer to their colleagues, I must do the same. I can’t be trusted to apply my knowledge of training principles to myself without my ego truncating reality. Now, this isn’t to say that she doesn’t take my input into account because she does (just as I take feedback from my athlete’s seriously when I write or modify their programs). Her word is the rule, however, and if she tells me “no,” then, I have to accept it because she’s my coach.

Everyone who is experienced and trains in the Level 2 session has experienced this kind of doubt, questioning the direction of their training. I’ll give you a tip that’ll save all of us time, trouble, and extraneous discussion both from the perspective of a coach and as someone being coached. If your question (or criticism), when it was first inspired, also brought with it some kind of emotional response, then, you’re probably wrong, and should just do what your coach tells you to do. Like when I’m supposed to Back Squat at 70% for sets greater than 5 reps. I’ll argue with Julia using reasons rooted in training science that are, at some level, valid if extraneous. In reality, the root of the issue has more to do with me not wanting to squat for reps than anything else. You’ll find that, if you’re able to distance yourself from the immediate “feeling” of the question that what you’re actually just doing is rationalizing the avoidance of discomfort, which is only really justifiable if injury is a worry. Failing that, if it’s a slightly ambiguous question, but your coach lifts or has lifted more than you, then, you should still probably ignore that desire to question, and instead just accept your coach’s training proscription.

My personal favorite is when people argue with me about wearing a belt. I can provide ample reasoning as to why it’s a good idea. Incidentally, and I’m trying really hard not to be an ass when I say this, with the exception of one person, the only people who have ever argued with me about wearing a belt have had Back/Front Squats literally 80-100kg less than my own (that’s just counting the guys). And, that one outlier? I still squat more than him. Just not 80-100kg more. Yes, we can parse the literature, talk human kinetics ad nauseum, and maybe I’ll even relent. It doesn’t change the fact, though, that the bulk of strong squatters at this gym and others, all wear belts with their heavier sets unless explicitly instructed not to. Sometimes trends, even if not particularly well substantiated by the masses participating, take hold for good reason. I’ll be one of the last people to ever say we shouldn’t appeal to reason or make decisions based on careful interpretation of a problem. That said, emulating the habits of those you aspire to be like is often a good idea. You can figure out along the way what is and isn’t smart. This is another example of how, even with reason supposedly backing your position, you can still be wrong. Were engaged in a result-driven pursuit. In the end, that’s what matters.

Part of being a confident athlete is knowing and accepting the above point. When I first started making a concerted effort to perfect my performance in the lifts again I tried all kinds of Snatch techniques because I know for a fact that, even when I was at my strongest, my technique and mobility were garbage. Some of the different techniques I tried were more peculiar than the others. One in particular involved breaking what is often seen as a cardinal rule: allowing the hips to rise before the shoulders in the first pull from the floor. I’d seen a number of lifters, particularly Chinese athletes with long femurs, perform their lifts this way. It allowed them, in spite of their proportions, to produce a big scoop into the second pull. The reasoning being that this would allow someone, in spite of their anatomic proportions, to more effectively use their quads to punch the bar up. I tried to mimic this because, hey, I have long-ish femurs, and a strong enough back to make it work. That didn’t last for long, however, as I kept hitting the bar outwards. My back was also always fatigued, and pissed off. I now use a technique that would come straight out of a Russian sport science text. My hips start much higher, and my scoop doesn’t look too deep. I don’t have that beautiful, deep scoop in many of the lifters I admire. However, I’m also Snatching much more consistently, using my quads the way I intended to originally with the unorthodox technique, and am lifting pain free. And you know who trained me to be like this? The woman whose Snatch is, by large orders of magnitude, more efficient, technically sound, consistent, and, not to mention, prettier than mine. The kicker? I’m the one who taught her to Snatch. That should have been enough to convince me, but what can I say? I’m just as stubborn (and stupid) as any other athlete. The only difference is that I think I know better because I’m a coach, too.

I argued vehemently about why my decision to adopt the unorthodox technique was right for me. There were even instances where, in my argument, my coach would have to concede that, at least in a conceptual sense, I was right or at the very least, she didn’t know enough about the logic of the technique to posit a rebuttal. Ultimately, for all my thinking and engagement in argument I was still wrong. And, what I mean by that, was until I started doing what she instructed me to do without complaint, my Snatch was no good. At the end of the day I’m lifting better now than I was then.

This allows for a lot of possibilities. Maybe my argument only seemed right because I presented it in a way that made sense yet didn’t address everything necessary. Maybe, being an unorthodox technique, neither Julia or myself possessed the requisite experience to understand its nuances enough to make it work. All of that, in an academic sense, is reasonable. In a practical sense, though, it fails and is irrelevant. Who knows? Maybe if I’d have relented and simply followed my coach’s thoughts from the start without challenging her I’d be lifting more now? In this sense, confidence is as much about quelling doubt in spite of failure as it is about maintaining trust.

When I started this piece I presented doubt as an emotion that is inimical to confidence. Let’s take that a step further. If I’m lacking confidence in being able to complete my workout or get better, then, I’m doubting my ability. If I’m doubting my ability, then, fundamentally what I’m accepting is that I don’t trust myself to complete a given task. That I don’t trust my coach to lead me. That I don’t trust the process with which, at least at some point, I was confident enough to commit to. Confidence and trust are easy to have when everything is comfortable and going the way it’s supposed to. Confidence and trust are tested when things don’t go according to plan. What you ought to do is have the confidence and trust in yourself that, even when tested, you’re able to see the value in what you’re doing.

It can be frustrating when you see people around you making lifts, one after the other, with what appears to be technical precision and ease. One of our rising athletes was sidelined for close to six months doing rehab and foundation work. She expressed doubt, concern, and often frustration at the process. More than once what we tried didn’t work, and we had to re-assess what direction to go in. Nobody joins a Weightlifting club like ours looking forward to spending their time doing wall sits and band walks. Even though I know she was disappointed in the content of most of her programs, it was that trust and discipline that have allowed her to shine now.

An American coach, John Broz, once famously suggested that your body lies to you, that how you feel is often not indicative of what you’re actually capable of. I think it goes further than that. Your ego, in unison with how your body feels, lies to you, twisting simple realities into superfluous problems that don’t need to be solved. I love to train, and was disheartened when I saw how little work Julia had programmed for me when I first gave her complete control of my development. When I accepted what she had observed in my performance it became clear that I was tricking myself into accomplishing big workouts as opposed to lifting big weights. Unfortunately, and especially if you’re highly-motivated, you’re going to have do battle with your ego frequently. Confidence is having the fortitude to accept this, and yet still resist, with minimal emotion, the nettling questions you’re going to ask yourself when things don’t go your way.

Your hunger to be better will provoke all kinds of self-doubt, questioning the trust you’ve placed in every facet of the training process. As I’ve said many times before, you have to put everything in context. As humans, we’re prone to only cognizing conflict in the short-term. As weightlifters, this manifests itself in one shitty workout convincing us that our entire approach needs to be corrected. Sometimes we need to simply take stock of and rely on our general resilience. As a child, I was clumsy, and on more than one occasion, dropped that ice cream cone I got as a surprise treat from mom. I never once questioned whether or not I had enough dexterity to ever eat ice cream cones, though. If it takes you missing 500 Snatches to learn how to do it well, then, so be it. If you want to Snatch well you’ll do it, and simply accept that it might take you 500, it might take you 1000. You’ll never get there, though, if you can’t trust yourself to endure those lessons each miss brings. Trust the your coach. Trust your program. Trust the process. Trust yourself.