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The Mental Game Of Olympic Weightlifting

Break Through Your Mental Barriers


Bill Cole, MS, MA
The Mental Game Coach™
Silicon Valley, California


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 Games competitors.

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:

  1. Dedicated hard work, smart training and excellent technique.

  2. Top notch coaching and support team.

  3. Almost NO self-expectations on results. The "goal" was to gain experience, not "win".

  4. Almost NO expectations on results from the media or other people, such as coaches, friends, spouses, training partners, etc.

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.

  1. I told myself I could do it.

  2. I recalled a time when I succeeded, and decided to duplicate that again.

  3. I said "Let's Do This!!"

  4. I told myself to enjoy the process and let the results just happen.

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:

  1. You gotta win this.

  2. You better win this.

  3. This will be embarrassing if you don't win this.

  4. If you don't win this, how will you explain it to everybody?

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 her performance

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 Shrek films

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 worthy.
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 films

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 weightlifter. Commitment.

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.

  1. Let's see how it feels.

  2. I'll give this weight a shot.

  3. This is not really my comfort zone.

  4. Ok, let's see what happens.

  5. If I make this, I'll take a nice water break.

  6. If it feels OK, I'll keep going.

  7. Dang. This is pretty close to my PR.

  8. How much weight is that again?

  9. I can always bail out if it doesn't feel right.

  10. I hope this doesn't feel too heavy.

  11. What if I clark on this one?

  12. This would be embarrassing to miss.

  13. 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 attempt.

  1. This is an all or nothing deal. If I put my hands on that bar, I'm going all out.

  2. No guts, no glory. I'm going for the glory.

  3. Just do it!

  4. Get intense, focus in and rock that thing!

  5. After I make this, I'll take a nice break.

  6. Nothing wrong with backing off before I touch the bar. But once I touch it, I'm all in!

  7. Watch this fly off the floor.

  8. I'm all in on this.

  9. This is my destiny.

  10. I don't care how it feels. That's irrelevant. I'm committed.

  11. Watch this explode.

  12. You're a beast. Slam this _________!!

  13. Attack and kill this _________!!

  14. 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 be.

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS, MA 2011-2016 All rights reserved.

To learn about sports psychology coaching services offered by Bill Cole, MS, MA, the Mental Game Coach™, visit www.SportsPsychologyCoaching.com.


Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on sports psychology, peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps sports teams and individuals achieve more success. He is also the Founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, an organization dedicated to advancing the research, development, professionalism and growth of mental game coaching worldwide. He is a multiple Hall-Of-Fame honoree as an athlete, coach and school alumnus, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published author of books and articles, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports and big-time college athletics.


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