The Mental Game Of Olympic Weightlifting
Break Through Your Mental Barriers
Bill Cole, MS, MA
I've had the pleasure of being the mental game coach to
many athletes competing in the sport of Olympic weightlifting
from local and regional levels to the national and international
stages. I've coached weight lifters who have achieved some
very exciting things: Three National Championships, a Masters
National Championship, numerous American records broken, numerous
American Open silver and bronze medals, multiple Olympic Training
Center residents, multiple members of Team USA Weightlifting,
World Team USA Weightlifting, and Olympic Trials and Pan American
The key theme that cuts across all my work with them has been
in helping them break through their mental barriers. Lower
level and newer competitors look at the veterans and stars
and think, "They're so confident. They never have many doubts".
Well, you may be surprised to learn that these experienced,
top competitors have quite a few concerns, worries and anxieties.
I help them navigate these pressures and lift to their potential.
The One Hit Wonder Syndrome
I've had lifters (and many other athletes) come for mental
game coaching who have been almost in a panic. They had severe
doubts about their abilities. They were deathly afraid of
being embarrassed at their upcoming competition. Who were
these athletes? Newbies? Journeyman? None of the above. These
were recent, first-time world champions or national champions.
Their patterns were similar. They were either first-time or
quite inexperienced competitors about to compete at the national
or international level. Their coaches told them to go to nationals
or worlds "for the experience". There were no expectations.
No one at the event either really knew them or expected anything
from them. The media left them alone. And they ended up winning
the whole darn thing.
Therein lies the problem, at least from their perspective.
They believed it might have been a fluke. An accident. Maybe
even total luck. And now they were not sure they deserved
all that huge, sudden success, and, they really were not very
sure they could duplicate it. That fear of failing on the
national or international stage, after having been at the
top the very year before, was paralyzing to them. They feared,
among all else, at being called a fake, a fraud, a fluke,
a has-been. A one-time wonder.
Think of the formula that produced that surprising national
or international championship for them:
- Dedicated hard work, smart training and excellent technique.
- Top notch coaching and support team.
- Almost NO self-expectations on results. The "goal" was
to gain experience, not "win".
- Almost NO expectations on results from the media or other
people, such as coaches, friends, spouses, training partners,
The last two items are key. No expectations is the differentiator.
Virtually everyone at nationals and worlds has the first two
items in this list. But many, many competitors come into the
event with huge expectations. And isn't the word expectation
just another way of saying "pressure"? People don't want to
disappoint their team or let their coaches down. They feel
like they need to explain things when they don't perform to
desired levels. All of this creates mental, physical and emotional
tension. And tension is a killer of performance.
Ask yourself this pivotal question. When was the last time
you performed better when you put extra pressure on yourself?
I've asked this of thousands of athletes, and usually the
person sits there and has to really search their memory banks
to answer. Then they say, "I can't really recall a time when
I played better when I did that".
Some people will come up with an example. Then I ask them
to describe what they said to themselves at that time. Their
self-statements go something like this.
- I told myself I could do it.
- I recalled a time when I succeeded, and decided to
duplicate that again.
- I said "Let's Do This!!"
- I told myself to enjoy the process and let the results
These are all actually positive, non-pressure phrases. So
they actually didn't add pressure to themselves. They encouraged
and inspired themselves. You can almost call that "positive
pressure", but it's really not pressure at all. It's like
a coach telling you, "You've got this", "You own this". It
sounds good and it feels good. And you'll perform well.
Negative pressure sounds like this:
- You gotta win this.
- You better win this.
- This will be embarrassing if you don't win this.
- If you don't win this, how will you explain it to
Negative pressure comments like these amplify expectations,
and zoom the athlete into the future mental time zone, focusing
on results. Results only come as a by-product of having a
present, now process focus. This is an "in the moment" focus,
not a future focus. If you execute your lifts step by step
and maintain present focus, you should get the proper results.
But trying to force results never works out.
The Imposter Syndrome
The one hit wonder syndrome often unfortunately leads to
another psychological phenomenon called the imposter syndrome.
A person with the imposter syndrome has persistent feelings
that they have fooled others into believing that they are
more competent than they actually are. Impostors fear being
discovered as frauds and have trouble internalizing success.
The term imposter syndrome was coined by clinical psychologists
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. This is a sub-set
of the paradox of success and the fear of success.
People with the imposter syndrome believe they are unworthy
of success. They believe good luck and fortunate timing is
the reason for their success. They believe the rest of the
field was weak and that's why they won. They feel like they
don't belong at the level to which they have been elevated,
and as a result, they don't feel deserving of their success.
This is where the term "one-hit wonder" comes from. Many people,
after hitting it big, seemingly overnight, can't believe their
good fortune, and rationalize these feelings of inadequacy
away by minimizing their true success in their minds. They
act and talk like they don't belong in the success club, and
their personal narrative, or negative story, reflects this
disbelief. Often, this surreal quality they feel destroys
their self-belief and they lose their nerve for competing.
How many times have you heard people say of an athlete, after
they scored an initial, almost unbelievable success out of
the blue, "What ever happened to them? I don't see them
anymore. Are they still competing?"
This fear of being "found out" and of failing to sustain this
level of achievement cuts across every arena. Listen to these
mega-stars in the entertainment world explain their worries
on this issue.
Before ("The Accused") I was scared I was going to have
to find a new career, rather than acting... I felt like an
impostor, faking it, that someday they'd find out I didn't
know what I was doing. I didn't. I still don't.
Jodie Foster, where she won an Academy Award (Oscar) for
I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will
come and arrest me.
Mike Myers, star of the Wayne's World, Austin Powers, and
Fear was holding me back. Fear of what will happen when
people find out I'm not a good enough person. I didn't feel
Gwyneth Paltrow, Emmy Award winning actress
With every new film, I still go back thinking, 'Oh my gosh,
I'm going to get fired'.
Nicole Kidman, Academy Award (Oscar) winning actress
I used to have this dream that somebody was knocking at
my door. I'd say 'Who is it?' and they'd answer 'Police.'
I'd open the door and they would say to me, 'Pack your bags.
We realized you have no talent.'
Leslie Nielsen, actor in the Airplane! and The Naked Gun
Changing Self-Doubt Into Self-Belief
How is true self-confidence achieved? How do we overcome
the imposter syndrome? I have a multi-step mental process
I take people through to help them resolve this limiting factor.
Just a few of these questions I ask them are these. "How
do you "decide" that you are confident? "How do you "know"
when you are "good"? "What is the threshold you cross where
you say to yourself, "Wow, I am really good!"? Hint: If
you have to wait until you win a national championship or
make Team USA, that's too late! You won't have the confidence
you need to achieve those. If you withhold celebrating and
self-congratulation until you hit some far-off distant goal,
how will you build confidence as you go? You won't. You need
to encourage and affirm yourself as you go, daily. Learn to
see the many small successes you have daily and those will
build into true self-belief.
Here's another mental aspect to building confidence for a
Make A Commitment On Every Lift
Stop clarking! This phrase is heard in gyms all across the
world. The term "clarking" refers to an incomplete lift. This
is when you begin a clean and merely pull the bar to your
belt or higher and don't complete it. Clarking is a very unfair
moniker placed on a great lifter. U.S. Olympian Ken Clark
was one great weightlifter in the 1970's and 1980's. He won
two national junior championships, six senior national championships,
was a multiple American record-holder, was top ten in the
world, and came in sixth in the World Championships in 1982.
However, in the 1984 Olympics Clark twice pulled the bar belt
high and let it go. Since then this has been known as "clarking".
Incorrect Thinking Causes Clarking
Lack of commitment to the lift is what causes clarking.
It's human nature sometimes to hedge your bets, particular
when anxiety about potential danger is involved. But this
mental approach is not helpful. As lifters walk up to a large
weight, their mind begins playing all sorts of tricks on them.
They wonder how the weight will feel. They picture possible
disaster scenarios. They strategize what they'll do if the
lift starts badly. They work out ways to force themselves
to make the lift and they come up with excuses to give if
they miss it. They think emotionally, not rationally. All
of these mental gyrations create noise in their mind and tension
in their body. These distractions block them from making a
great lift. By the time they actually get over the bar, they
are torn between wanting to run away and hoping they can get
that mass of weight airborne. In order to dissipate their
uncomfortably anxious feelings, some lifters will even think,
"Oh, what the heck. Hurry up. Just get it over with. Lift
the stupid thing." And of course this results in a hurried,
non-committed attempt that almost always ends in failure.
Lifters who clark think like this before their attempt.
- Let's see how it feels.
- I'll give this weight a shot.
- This is not really my comfort zone.
- Ok, let's see what happens.
- If I make this, I'll take a nice water break.
- If it feels OK, I'll keep going.
- Dang. This is pretty close to my PR.
- How much weight is that again?
- I can always bail out if it doesn't feel right.
- I hope this doesn't feel too heavy.
- What if I clark on this one?
- This would be embarrassing to miss.
- Who's watching?
Correct Thinking Prevents Clarking
Commitment to the lift prevents clarking. This gives mental
clarity and intensity that is targeted on one thing-success.
Lifters who commit and succeed think like this before the
- This is an all or nothing deal. If I put my hands
on that bar, I'm going all out.
- No guts, no glory. I'm going for the glory.
- Just do it!
- Get intense, focus in and rock that thing!
- After I make this, I'll take a nice break.
- Nothing wrong with backing off before I touch the
bar. But once I touch it, I'm all in!
- Watch this fly off the floor.
- I'm all in on this.
- This is my destiny.
- I don't care how it feels. That's irrelevant. I'm
- Watch this explode.
- You're a beast. Slam this _________!!
- Attack and kill this _________!!
- I OWN this ____________!!
Once you get over on the correct side of the ledger and
begin thinking correctly, your confusion, indecision and internal
noise will abate and you'll feel clear and pure for your attempt.
Once you make the lift, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing
you gave it your all and that you showed courage.
In addition to these correct thinking patterns, you want to
learn and master how to properly bail out on a bad lift so
you don't get hurt. That will go a long way to helping you
feel secure that you can stay safe, and give you permission
to "go for it".
Olympic weightlifting is an incredible, amazing sport. It's
a lifestyle that once it is in your blood, does not go away
easily. It becomes all-encompassing and addictive. Give yourself
the gift of learning to overcome your self-imposed mental
barriers and become the lifter you know you were meant to
Copyright © Bill Cole, MS, MA
2011-2016 All rights reserved.
This article covers only one small part of the mental game.
A complete mental training program includes motivation and
goal-setting, pre-event mental preparation, post-event review
and analysis, mental strengthening, self-regulation training,
breath control training, motor skill training, mental rehearsal,
concentration training, pressure-proofing, communication training,
confidence-building, breaking through mental barriers, slump
prevention, mental toughness training, flow training, relaxation
training, momentum training, psych-out proofing and media
For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you
need an assessment instrument that identifies your complete
mental strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take
65-item sport psychology assessment tool you can score right
on the spot, visit https://www.mentalgamecoach.com/Assessments/MentalGameOfSports.html.
This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths
and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a
guide in creating your own mental training program, or as
the basis for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS,
MA to improve your mental game. This assessment would be an
excellent first step to help you get the big picture about
your mental game.
Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness
and coaching, is founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching
Bill is also founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps
organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports.
He is a multiple Hall of Fame honoree, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published
book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league
pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive
article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at www.MentalGameCoach.com.
Article Source: SportsPsychologyCoaching.com
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