Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Mental Switch

The more we compete, the faster we learn the mental attitudes needed. Some athletes have the advantage of starting young.

Below is a great article by Matt Foreman, author of a great book, "Bones of Iron" that we featured on our site before. I totally agree with Matt. It took me several years as well to get control of my emotions and to be able to focus when needed while relaxing and not wasting nervous energy. It is a skill that some rare athletes seem to be born with, but most of us have to develop with practice and experience. Of course this
starts with an awareness of what is happening mentally and why. I believe on of the keys is perspective and balance. When any competition is important enough to compete in, then it deserves our best effort. Otherwise the investment of training time and preparation cannot be justified. However when we prioritize and balance our lives in such a way that our competitive outcomes do not make up the whole of our identity, then we can relax and enjoy the journey and focus our efforts at the time we are competing without it interfering with the rest of our life. Train hard, live well, and when it's time to compete, flip the switch and live in the moment. When it's over, reflect and move on. Athletics should enhance life, not dominate it.

All great athletes have a mental switch, and it should be your goal to get one too.

Think of a light switch in your house. You flip it, and the lights turn on. Pretty simple, right? Well, a mental switch is in your brain. When you flip it, your mind goes to a state of perfect concentration, intensity, and confidence. The most experienced athletes usually have really effective, powerful mental switches. They can make themselves internally sharp with a snap of their fingers, just by recognizing that they’ve got a job to do and it’s time to get it on. They can be having a conversation and maybe a few laughs, and in a matter of a few seconds they’re ready to rock and roll. They recognize the task in front of them and apply the right level of inner strength to it. Then, after they’ve taken care of business, they can flip the switch off and relax.

Like most things, this takes a long time to develop. I had a hard time with it when I was young, I can tell you that. I used to be one of those guys who spends a couple of hours, or maybe even the first half of the day, getting psyched up for a meet. My lifting was serious stuff, so I thought I needed to do some kind of complete psychological transformation before I hit the platform. I would go somewhere by myself, listen to some good devil music, and try to get as jacked up as possible. I can’t say it worked that well. Instead of taking myself to weightlifting nirvana, I just spent a lot of time getting really tense, nervous, and agitated. By the time I got to the warm-up room, I was an irritable prick that nobody liked. And if I lifted like crap in the meet (which I often did), forget about it. I was ready to start throwing orphans into wells.

I figured out that I don’t perform well when I’m not happy. Do you ever find that? Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people ask me if weightlifting is a way for me to release all my daily frustration and anger. For some reason, people think lifting weights is like some kind of colon flush for rage and hostility. It’s never been like that for me. First of all, I don’t walk around pissed off all the time, so I don’t come to the gym with any anger that needs to be released. Second, I’ve found that I always lift better when I’m in a good mood. So the psyching method I used of going off by myself and working my brain into a cranked-up frazzle usually had the opposite effect from what I was going for. Instead of taking me where I needed to be, it took me farther away from it.

Maturity and experience took care of everything. As my career progressed, I just calmed down and developed an ability to switch into the right mental state when I needed to. It’s a weird combination of relaxation and intensity, which are two things that don’t seem to go together when you first think about it. I don’t know if any of you follow boxing, but welterweight world champion Manny Pacquiao is a pretty good example of this. I’ve seen this guy walk to the ring for a title fight literally laughing and horsing around with the crowd. Keep in mind, this is minutes before he steps into the ring to trade hands with another world-class prizefighter who wants to pound his skull into garden mulch. He’s got a big smile on his face, looking more like he’s at a birthday party than a fight. But then the bell rings, and he becomes a punching turbine that destroys anybody they put in front of him. He’s probably got the best mental switch in the world.

When you get this mastered, your lifting career is going to get a lot easier. I’m not just talking about meets, either. This is something you’ll be able to apply to daily training too. It’ll make life fun because you can lift without anxiety and angst, and you’ll be able to perform successfully when you need to. Your mentality will become, “I have a job to do and I know how to do it, so let’s go to work.” And you’ll be able to summon this up whenever you want it.

Have fun and enjoy the journey. Win or lose, learn from the competitive experience.

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