Mental training for strength sport – with Michael

In pursuit of powerlifting excellence, the mental game is as critical as the physical preparation for Powerlifting. The belief to redefine one’s self, the belief to achieve your goals, to give yourself permission to be great and to become the lifter you really want to be are all highly imperative to your development. However, Visualisation and Mental Simulation differ from simple belief and fantasising. It is the training of the mind, just like the body, to will yourself to achieve your desires.

Many may sneer at the programming of the mind in unison with the body, they scoff at the thought of ‘being too serious’ about their sport or overanalysing their future performances. Then they fall greatly short of their goals, maybe even ‘bombing out’ a meet and only then realise the importance they actually placed on their invested time and physical effort. There is no better enjoyment than investing effort in something and reaping the fruits of that investment: that is true fulfilment.

You do not have to be a professional athlete to utilise visualisation. Regardless of your athletic proficiency, psychological recalibration of your mental state through visualisation will improve your training and competitive placing.

My good friend, Canadian Josh Hancott (74kg IPF World Champion – above), said the top factor in him reaching the level he has to date is his mental game:

“Whenever people ask me how often I train, I want to say 365 days a year 3x a day. If you count mental training (which you should), then I never take a break. I always visualise what I need to do to progress. I won the world title about 20, 000 times in my head before I ever achieved it.”

There are countless examples of athletes, and many Powerlifters, using these techniques. Kirk Karwoski, speaking of visualisation during competition said “..After my opener, for my second attempt I had probably done it 70 or 80 times in my head before it came time to actually do it; the perfect rep. Especially after being on the platform, not just the driving in the car and fantasising about the perfect rep, now you can actually put yourself in the scene with that head judge, there are the racks, don’t step on that crack in the platform, yes..”

This is no farce.

BACKGROUND

Visualisation itself is applied in all sports. Moreover, it is a many splendoured thing in that it can be used to attain many things and in many facets of life – from building up confidence, confronting fears, perfecting technique to even visualising a certain occupation you desire.

The Eastern Europeans define it as ‘Ideomotor Training’ (IT). It is is not simply flooding the mind with successful images, it is also the priming and connecting of neural connections between mind and body. It is a method designed to supplement learning through movement – referred to as motor-learning – speeding up the learning, perfecting and retention of motor skills (change words-copied straight from). Dr. Aladar Kogler, a mentor of Marty Gallacher (coach of Ed Coan and Kirk Karowksi, amongst other old school greats) said the following:

“When an athlete imagines certain movements, a specific system of neural connections is activated. When the image is repeated over and over, the tenuous system of these nerve connections is strengthened and thus improves the physical execution of the movement. If the individual imagines the correct execution of a particular movement, the correct system of nerve connections will be strengthened.”

One leading study of visualisation in America on the sport of Basketball gave one group the task of physically practicing netting the ball in one location whilst the other group sat or laid in a chair in another location, and using visualisation, mentally practiced netting the ball for the duration of one month. After a month had passed and it was test day for the study, the group who had simply visualised netted the most shots.

This, of course, is not to say visualisation is a replacement for physical preparation. However, it does show the serious effect that mental training can have on performance.

METHODS OF PRACTICE

Setting – quiet, relaxing room – if you are a beginner you should aim for no interruptions.

State – eyes closed, breathing steadily, deeply

Duration – 10-15 minutes (1-3 times a day – the more the better however)

Protocol –

• Two main types of Visualisation – ‘first person’ or ‘third person’.
• You can utilise it for rep sets or maxes, in the gym or in competition.
• You can practice the visualisation at home or in between attempts at a competition, for example.
• Picture yourself during the whole episode of a squat, bench press or deadlift (one at a time) at a specific location, using as much detail and accuracy as possible. It helps greatly to know the location you will be lifting at – to make the whole experience more real.
• Do not focus just on what you see, utilise all of the senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste). Most data on visualisation talks about a ‘three out of five’ rule; using 3 senses at minimum.
• Think about the most powerful sensations that go through your mind and body in competition and tailor the visualisation to YOU. What emotions, senses and thoughts do you experience most during a competition? What could you add or modify?
• Make sure you are uninterrupted in the visualisation, especially if you are a beginner, else the image you are building will be shattered. Many champions listen to their favourite music as they visualise. I would recommend this at times, particularly if you are feeling it hard to zone in. The audio stimulation can serve twin goals of actually amplifying the visualisation effects and while also making it less possible for you to get distracted.
• Carry out all visualisation in chronological order of it happening.
• The more real and more detailed you make your imagined performance the better your results will be.

At first you may find this difficult, but with practice it will get easier, ridding yourself of clinging thoughts while the mental images become clearer.

Examples –

1. Associated (first person – through your own eyes)

Preparation

Take the squat in a Powerlifting competition, for example. You would visualise the preparation at the side of the platform staring at the bar loaded with 210kg – you see the correct plates on the bar – three reds (25kg’s), one yellow (15kg), a 2.5kg iron plate and the collars each side (sight). You smell the ammonia and chalk in the air (smell). You feel your mouth dry with anticipation (taste) and you hear the MC announce your attempt – “210kg for a new national record for ‘x’!”. The music is blasting out the speakers.

Process

Moving onto the attempt itself, think about the whole process – walking up to the edge of the platform, walking on and seeing the centre judge. Feeling your hands grip the rough Eleiko iron knurling, hearing your support shouting encouragement. Going over your cues, the feeling of the bar on your back and the weight on your back when unracking the bar (if it’s a PB attempt try to imagine feeling a weight heavier than your previous PB), right foot back..then left foot..then adjustment step. Hearing the squat signal, the nothingness in your head (‘the zone’) and the silence in the venue as you begin your descent. Visualise yourself then squatting deep, powering out the bottom and with some intense effort, locking out the weight. Feel your quads fatigued then hearing the crowd get behind you in support of this successful attempt.

Success

From there, you would then imagine the feeling of success. Often, you will still feel calm once the visualisation is over. However, sometimes there will be a physical manifestation – increased heart rate, sweaty palms, increased breathing and even a shiver down your spine or goose bumps all over your body. Try and find this physical reaction. In this reaction, your brain will dump precious finite adrenaline into your system. That said, you must know and learn when to switch ‘on’ and ‘off’. There is no point dumping adrenaline on meaningless sets and reps.

2. Dissociated (third person – going to the movies)

The first person approach to visualisation should be favoured because this is the way you already see and experience everything and consequently, experiences can be made more ‘real’. Nevertheless, it can be useful to employ a dissociated method if you are struggling with the associated method.

In your mind, imagine a cinema screen in a theatre or sitting in the crowd at the competition, with yourself succeeding in your desired goal. Just as the protocol above, make the image as vivid as possible using the three out of five rule. Repeat the sequence daily.

Make sure to visualise one lift at a time/session. Replaying the imagery clip again and again until it is programmed in your mind. Take into account less than ideal conditions and the simple acknowledgement of competition ‘adversity’, but importantly also the fact that you are primed and ready and are then successful in your attempt.

CONCLUSION

Many top level boxers speak of the physical training, being physically ready 2 weeks out and then getting to work on the mental game and visualising every detail of their fight. However, visualisation done over the span of a competition cycle (10-15 weeks) would be more suitable, in my opinion. As the poundages get heavier, the visualisation becomes more and more real. Of course, a factor in most everything in life is simply: the more you practice and the better you get at it, the more superior your performance will be.

Before a competition, there will always be slight anticipation, regardless of your mental and physical training. But have heart that if your cycle has gone well, you have done all you can physically. In unison with that physical training, if you have visualised what you desire; you are ready. See it to become it.

“A man is but the product of his thoughts; what he thinks, he becomes.
– Mahatma Gandhi

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