3 Ways To “Program” For Mental Training

How many people do you know actively “program” or plan out training mental skills in Weightlifting?

“Most coaches feel that mental skills are critical for successful performance. But when asked how often they practice these skills with their athletes, the answer is usually seldom, if at all.” (USAW Level 2 Course Material)

I think this is true. The main reasons cited are lack of time or lack of teaching knowledge.

When we think about mental skills training we tend to default to the visualization, goal setting, confidence building, positive minded self-helpy type stuff.

Unsure what to do we search for ideas, read books or seek outside help. It can feel like more of a hassle than a helpful activity.

I’ve tried goal writing, meditation, endlessly repeating present-tense “I am” statements, staring at a lit candle to improve focus and failed to finish more books than I can count. I even went through a phase where I taped a goal total all over the place.

Simply put, mental training helps you improve performance in competition. To make you a better competitor under stressful or unexpected conditions. Working on it isn’t limited to the “mastery of your inner game” stuff that most people don’t know what to do with.

The Michael Phelps story…

During the 2008 Olympics, a story broke that Michael Phelps won one of his gold medals while swimming with busted goggles. He was, according to what became legend, unaffected by this because his coach Bob Bowman regularly disrupted training and found ways to make him uncomfortable.

Among other things, he’d intentionally anger him, make him swim in the dark, and of course, crush his goggles before training.

The Phelps “disruption training” story became a bit cliché but its powerful because it represents that side of mental training that doesn’t require you to sit in front of a mirror repeating that you are special. (I never could get into the affirmation thing. It always felt tacky.)

While I likely enjoyed some intangible benefit from all the traditional mental training stuff, it occurred to me that none of it helped me address handling an actual Weightlifting competition. Namely, traveling to lift heavy in a different environment, on different platforms, with different equipment, with limited to no control over time.

Putting a few twists on the Phelps story provides ample opportunity for honing mental skills in a way that doesn’t require special knowledge. Anyone can manipulate regular workouts, occasionally, to address all the things we face in competition. Here are a few suggestions.

3 ways to “program” mental training in Weightlifting

Train in a singlet. “Singlet-Saturday” is tacky but not stupid. If I competed 3-5 times a year those were the only times I wore a singlet. While it represented something special, competition day, I wasn’t used to it.

You can also replicate how you’d dress in a meet. For example, do lighter sets with the singlet on under warm-up attire as you would in competition. Then take off the warm-up gear and do the last few heavy ones in the singlet only. It feels different and you should get used that feeling.

An added wrinkle with this is to mess with the temperature in the gym. If you can, and if everyone you train with agrees, it’s not a bad idea to make the gym colder or warmer than usual for a workout. All venues are different. You cannot expect a large convention center or small gym hosting a competition to be comfortable.

Mess with your daily routine out of the gym. Sometimes you get lucky and your competition session aligns with a regular training time. Often it won’t. So pick a day and lift at a different time. If you have a regular pre-workout routine, meal or cup of coffee, skip it, or do it out of order to see how it feels.

Since you’ll have to travel, eventually, you can also arrange to spend a night away from home before a heavy workout. Pack a bag, visit a friend or relative and head to the gym from there.

Mess with a series. In competition, you have to warm up on one platform then lift heavy on another. Pick a few workouts and do that. Maybe just snatches one day and clean & jerks on another. Try warming up to your heavy sets in one spot then move to another platform for the working weights. If you can’t, or don’t want to disrupt others, turn around and take a few lifts facing the other direction. The point is you need to handle the change of sight lines and feel on the heavy ones.

Another way to play with this is to replicate what happens after you’ve opened in a competition. It’s common to have long waits in between attempts. So with guidance and approval of your coach wait a few minutes longer than normal (or the opposite) to take a next one. Consider working an additional lighter attempt into the series as well. This happens all the time in competitions and many lifters don’t know if they prefer a light lift or a pull while having to wait in the back. The competition itself shouldn’t be the time to test and figure it out.

This is not by any means a full list. There’s a limitless number of disruptive things you can do to test or stress yourself while training. If you are mindful about weaving this type of thing (occasionally) into workouts then you are doing planned mental training. Arguably the best kind as it addresses what you’ll experience and/or deal with in a real competition. The best part is that by playing with this stuff you can learn what does and doesn’t bother you.

Under no circumstances should anything be done haphazardly or without safety in mind. Also note the things that don’t ever change. Your pre-lift routine should always be the same. That you can control anywhere. Also, I don’t suggest borrowing someone’s shoes or taking excessive jumps after long waits in between sets. Good luck.

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