Mental Strength: Basic Sports Psychology for the Average Lifter

A mask of concentrationDeveloping mental strength is as important as building physical strength if you want to make significant gains in your training.

You don’t need a college degree in psychology or years of training with a guru to understand the fundamentals of what is required to gain a psychological advantage in your training program.

A basic understanding of what processes your mind uses, when you lift, and a simple application of some fundamental practices before, during and outside of training, is all that is required for the average trainer.

 

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It's a common misconception to think that the mind exists separately from the physical body. The further you travel along the road to physical development, the more this becomes apparent. The more you train your body to become stronger, the more positive and resilient your mind becomes.

The reverse is true. The more you develop your mental strength, the better your physical gains become and the more likely you are to train more regularly and more efficiently. Your mind and your body are intrinsically linked so it is more efficient to train both as a whole, rather than train just one aspect and let the other half of the equation catch up.

Think that the mental game is not important? Watch any champion powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter in competition before and during a lift. Watch the face of any great bodybuilder doing their posing routine to see the mental game being played out. Look into their eyes and try and tell me there is not an equal mental aspect to what they are doing.

In fact, by competition time the majority of the physical work has been done and it is the sheer force of their mental strength and focus that pushes them beyond the boundaries to new personal and competition records.

Still don’t believe me?

Take a look at this video of Kirk Karwoski doing the squat. Don’t look at his physical technique – look at his face to see the mental battle being played out there.

 

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So what are the basic components of what is going on in the mind when we train?

 

Motivation

The Oxford English Dictionary defines motivation as: “the (conscious or unconscious) stimulus for action towards a desired goal”. This is good as a definition as any for the average lifter.

Motivation is the very first incentive to train for physical transformation. It is the desire to go to to the gym initially but requires the cooperation of other psychological factors to keep this desire a constant.

Motivation isn’t an unvarying thing. It can wane as our central nervous systems are taxed through training, so other mental factors have to come into play to keep our motivation ready and primed.

 

Willpower

Willpower can be seen as the impetus to carry out one's decisions. In more relevant terms, it transforms the initial motivation to physically getting to the gym. It is willpower, sometimes called self discipline, which gets us to the gym when our motivation is less than optimal, either through tiredness or other things in our lives that get in the way.

It is willpower that drives our strength gains through a progressive resistance program.

The self discipline that gets us through hard training sessions is one of the biggest tools in our mental toolkit. It is endorphins that are released into the brain after these taxing sessions that serves to refuel our motivation levels.

Both motivation and willpower are intrinsically linked and feed off each other but there are other aspects to the mental game that work hand in hand with self discipline that improve our athletic performance.

 

Concentration

Concentration is the ability to direct your thinking in whatever direction you are aiming for. It should work hand-in-hand with willpower from the moment you enter the gym until the moment you leave.

In the big scheme of things, the concentration on your day’s workout, the time between sets and the completion of your daily goals should be at the forefront of your mind.

At a more micro level, each aspect of every individual eccentric and concentric movement of your lift should be your only focus.

The physical benefits of improved concentration include injury prevention, improved performance and more time efficient workouts. It goes without saying that the trainees who stand around in conversation at most commercial gyms do not have great concentration skills and their overall development suffers for it.

 

Clarity

The mental benefit of enhanced concentration is clarity whose benefits carry over into our everyday wellbeing and mental health. In a sense, clarity through the mindful practice of concentration leads us to an almost “unconscious” form of concentration.

Many top athletes talk about being “in the zone”. Have you ever completed a personal best lift where your mind and body work at an almost synergistic level, where you haven’t actively thought about each aspect of the exercise but where everything was carried out to near perfection? Usually a genuine intermediate lifter has felt it at least once – advanced lifters probably more than once.

Improved clarity also helps a fatigued mind and body relax outside of the gym and combined with solid sleep patterns brings us full circle to rejuvenated sense of motivation.

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So you see then that the concept of a mind-muscle connection is not really that mysterious or impractical. When we treat mind and body as a whole unit, great improvements can be made. If we view these mental processes as something circular (see diagram above), each part feeding the whole, we can see the benefit of the mental aspects of the iron game.