On May 28th & 29th Solace is going to have the rare opportunity to host Catalyst Athletics founder Greg Everett for a two day Olympic Weightlifting seminar. Greg rarely travels for seminars so this opportunity is not to be missed.
Greg has been the single most influential person in my development as a coach and athlete. Suffice it to say you would not be reading this post if I had not picked up a copy of his Olympic Weightlifting for Athletes and Coaches many years ago. Since then, my journey with the sport has taught me many lessons about life, the people around me, and myself. Here are some of the things I have learned while getting to know the barbell. I hope you enjoy.
1.) Fight Fear.
This is the first and possibly most important lesson the barbell taught me. If you step up to a bar and ask yourself “Will I be able to lift it?” or worse—say to yourself “I don’t know if I can lift this,” you are already defeated. Fear, doubt, and hesitation are all the barbell’s allies. Allow one of them into your mind and the others will soon follow and leave you petrified. This fear-induced immobility is just as potent outside of the gym. Scroll through Instagram for any number of platitudes telling you that everything you want is on the other side of fear, that fear is the mind killer, that you could achieve anything you could imagine if only you weren’t afraid to fail.
Of course wiping your mind of fear is… easier said (or posted) than done. The trick, in my opinion, is to simply do the thing and then do it again. And again. And again. Eventually the mind will break. It will become exhausted from maintaining a fear state, the sensation will subside, and you will be left only with yourself and the challenge—and the ability to face it with clear eyes. With the barbell this is simple. Take hold of the weight and pull it. Let it fall and gather yourself again. This time pull it and jump under it. Let it fall and gather yourself once more. This time pull it, jump under and HOLD. Each time you attack the weight you reduce its ability to bully you and incite fear. You increase your own ability to overcome. In this way we strengthen the mind and the body.
The fear never goes away completely. Every time we come up against a new weight or any new challenge the fear is back again. But this time we’ve beaten it before. We’ve trained ourselves to face fear and overcome it instead of submitting. Do this every day and feel fear lose its grasp on you.
2.) Attack Problems One By One. Rip Them Apart. Day by Day.
Anyone who’s ever snatched can tell you there are 10,000 things that you can screw up and 100,000 directions your mind can be pulled in the 2 seconds it takes to hoist the bar overhead. One surefire way to never fix any of those problems is to try and fix them all at once. Not only does focusing on too many things make it darned near impossible to fix any of those things, it also makes it difficult to see when you’re actually making improvements. Let’s say an athlete doesn’t get the knees back, doesn’t stay over the bar, picks the heels up early, doesn’t fully extend and catches with soft elbows. (This person should probably message me and get on my calendar immediately!) Let’s say this athlete spends her entire training session trying to fix those 5 things. At the end of the session she’s managed to keep her heels down but hasn’t fixed the other problems. Chances are she’s going to be so focused on the mistakes that she won’t notice the improvements, and will leave the training session frustrated and disappointed, and will probably do something reckless the next day like start training for a marathon.
In life we seek to be better every day; more loving towards others and ourselves, more productive in our work, and more virtuosic in our hobbies. Making a to-do list of all the ways we want to improve sometimes only shows us how much we have to change and here comes our old enemy again…Fear! Instead of trying to fix everything all at once and losing sight of the small progress, weightlifting has taught me to focus on one and only one thing at a time. Pick one aspect of your practice each session and evaluate your performance on that one aspect alone. If you want to work on knees back, look at each lift and say, “Did I get the knees back today?” If yes, celebrate! If the extension was bad, that’s okay. We will work on that tomorrow (trust me, there will be many, MANY more training sessions). If no, then do the lift again and get the knees BACK! Once that problem is cleared up, spend another day or two making sure the changes are sticking and move on to something else. In life, practice the same. If you want to be more productive, evaluate your day by that criterion. Take stock at the end of the day and ask, “Was I more productive than yesterday?” If yes, celebrate a job well done! If no, make a plan for tomorrow and execute. Do this every day and little by little you will become the person you want to be. Create the movement and the life you want the same way you did when you were a baby learning to walk; one step at a time, every single day.
3.) Try HARDER.
After years of attempting it, I have come to the realization that there is no such thing as Zen Weightlifting. However effortless Mattie Rogers may make a bodyweight snatch look, it is hard work. Numerous times I have missed a lift again and again only to realize, usually through the observation of a coach or training partner, that I am not trying to succeed. When you’ve done something thousands of times it is very tempting to let it become rote, to just go through the motions. This is a great way to ensure you stay where you are and to never improve. Trying hard and keeping your effort high rep after rep is very difficult. Few people are able to do this day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. We call these people Champions. When attempting to try harder in an isolated setting, I have found goal setting to be counter productive. Sometimes goals give us things to reach for. But sometimes they are easy excuses to stop. By refusing to put limits on yourself, by simply showing up every day and seeing what you are capable of, you will ensure that you are always trying.
I acknowledge that this level of intensity is not easy. Some days you will do better than the day before and some days you will not. Accept the natural ebb and flow and continue no matter what. For those lucky enough to have a community around you, it’s the easiest way to make sure you are trying HARD. When you have a few people below you who look to you for inspiration, a few people above you to remind you where you want to be, and a few people next to you for some healthy competition you’re almost guaranteed to try your best. We call this ‘Ohana,’ and it means Family.
4.) Only the Best is Good Enough.
While the sport of Weightlifting has grown by leaps and bounds the past few years (largely thanks to CrossFit’s exponential growth) it is still a relatively unappreciated sport. Tell people you play football they’ll ask about your 40. Tell people you’re a weightlifter they’ll ask how much you bench or if the spray tan gets all over your clothes. Even if you’re lucky enough to be one of the best lifters in the United States you’re only about as strong as a Lithuanian junior who weighs half what you do.
There’s a mentality shared in the weightlifting world that I gain more respect for everyday. While we value the weight on the bar, we place a much higher premium on the quality of movement. Soviet champion Yurik Vardanian once said of his son Norik, “I’d rather see him snatch 100 kg perfectly than 160 with errors.” Norik holds the US snatch record in the 94 class with a snatch of 171 kg, and I believe his achievements are a result of his dedication to perfecting the art of his lifts.
This more than anything else is the heart of what it means to be a weightlifter: to seek virtuosity. To take the things that would be viewed as Good and improve them until they are Great. Through repetition, the barbell has taught me that it is possible to continually improve. I may never be able to snatch 160, but with enough effort I will snatch 100 without errors. I may never be the leader of the free world, but with effort I will be the greatest weightlifting coach of all time. And until these goals are met, my work is not done. The pursuit will never end. Live your life chasing the illusive Perfect. And at the end of life, whether you’ve achieved it or not, you will know that you did not waste the time that you were given. What more precious gift could you ask than that? With no way of knowing what life will bring next, only one thing is certain: whatever my hands can do, will be done with excellence.
I have always been a “hard learner.” I can be told something 15 times but am not able to retain it, truly know it, until I learn it myself – usually the hard way! For those of you that learn the easy way, I hope my words help you. For my hard learners, join Greg and myself in May and we can learn the hard way, together.