Why You Are Afraid


It is perfectly natural to be nervous before a competition or a big lift – I recently wrote about that in my blog https://allaboutpowerlifting.com/my-first-attempt-just-destroys-me/.  In that article I present some strategies to help you deal with that anxiety.  However, I also believe it is worth examining exactly why we, as athletes, tend to feel fear and anxiety.  In the NSCA’s text Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, they outline 3 primary reasons why athletes are more likely to feel fear and anxiety before a competition or event.

1. When there is a high degree of ego involvement in which the athlete may perceive a threat to their self-esteem.

It is quite common, particularly in fitness related events such as powerlifting and bodybuilding, for one’s ego and self of sense to be wrapped up in their performance and ability.  This becomes obvious when someone online – say in a Facebook post – gives a lifter advice and that person responds with “I bench more than you so STFU”.  In essence one is saying my performance is better than you, thus my knowledge is greater than yours, and I don’t need to listen to you.  There are several flaws in this train of thought (although I do believe that anyone dispensing advice on strength training should demonstrate at least reasonable proficiency with the topic themselves) but pertinent to our discussion is this: if someone else benches more than me does that mean that other person automatically knows more?  And what if you go in and have a crappy competition with a poor performance, does that mean you don’t know what you thought you did?

I am not immune to these type of thoughts.  When I was competing regularly I was also teaching people to become personal trainers (I am still doing the latter).  It is natural for students to look up to their instructor, to want to see them “walk the walk”, and to be curious as to what they can do when tested.  Often students would come to my competitions to cheer me on and learn about the sport.  It was great to receive extra support but it also increased my anxiety because I didn’t want to fail or perform poorly in front of them.  My ego was wrapped up in the activity.  I was a reasonably good lifter and I thought that contributed to me being a better teacher.  If I failed then I wasn’t as good of a lifter as I thought which meant maybe I wasn’t as good of an instructor and maybe they would no longer look up to me.  In other words maybe I would not be worthy.

It is easier said than done but ultimately you want to try to separate your ego about how you feel about yourself as a person from how you feel about your performance as an athlete.  Ed Coan is the greatest powerlifter of all time but that doesn’t automatically mean he is a better person than you or I.  Michael Jordan was an unbelievable basketball player but he isn’t necessarily more worthy as a person than someone else.  Your performance is one thing, and if you are an athlete it is likely very important to you.  But how you are as a mother or father, husband or wife, son or daughter, teacher or friend; those things need not change because you had a great performance or a crappy one.  By its nature sports is relatively unpredictable – that is why they play the game.  Sub-optimal performances sometimes happen to even the best of athletes, indeed one tends to learn the most about themselves during such times.

2. A perceived discrepancy between ability and the demand’s for athletic success

Of the three things that promote anxiety, this is the most controllable for a powerlifter.  There are 2 main ways to have a perceived discrepancy between ability and what is required: A) Not knowing the rules and standards of competition and B) Not having an accurate judge of your own strength.

It is paramount that you know the rules and what is expected of you to both decrease anxiety and to allow you to have the best performance that you can.  I cover this in great detail in the book All About Powerlifting and I have had many readers tell me having the book as a resource made their meet preparation go so much smoother.  In short, some giant rules that newbies tend not to be aware of are:

  • You must lift in a singlet
  • Once you submit a weight you want to try, you can never lower that attempt
  • You must follow (and wait) for the commands on all lifts
  • You must squat to proper squat depth (this is the single most common mistake of all lifters)
  • You must wait for press command on the bench (pause your bench) and keep your butt on the bench
  • You cannot hitch your deadlift or wear straps when pulling

It certainly helps to at least watch videos of competition form so you can familiarize yourself with the expected standard.  If you can have an experienced powerlifter watch your form that is even better.  Attending a meet as spectator is another great way of getting a feel for the sport.

The second big issue is when lifters don’t accurately judge their own strength.  Sometimes lifters think “in the gym I can lift X but when I go to a meet I will be able to lift another 75 lbs because I will be so psyched up”.  Occasionally this is true but most often it is not.  Most often lifting in the meet is harder than lifting in the gym because it is a different environment, different time of day, different bar, different racks, different bench, different style of warming up, different food, and more stress leading up the event.  The goal of most lifters should be to set small (5-15) lb PR’s in the meet compared to their gym best, and this should be attempted on their third attempt.  From there one should work backwards.  Generally lifting 87.5% of your third as your first attempt, and then going for 95% of your third on your second works well.  This is not the only strategy possible, but it works great for most lifters.

It is also important to not rely too heavily on conversion charts which predict what your 1RM is, those can be useful tools but as a powerlifter you need actual experience lifting with heavy weight and low reps.  Just because a chart says you can bench 350 since you did 275×8 that is not a promise.  Also keep in mind your 275×8 was likely touch and go and at the meet you must pause the lift, now that 350 is actually a 335 1RM.  If your butt was off the bench on the last 4 reps or you had a finger spot throughout, now you are hoping to hit 315 with competition form.  I am not suggesting that you do a full max the week before a competition but it is important to incorporate at least some heavy singles, doubles, and triples in your training leading up the meet.  It is also very important that these lifts match the form required in competition – cutting squat depth in the meet only leads to poor squat performances come meet day.

Coaches and trainers take note – it is a perceived discrepancy.  That means if the lifter believes they may not be able to do it, it will produce anxiety.  Even if you the coach are certain they can do it, if they don’t believe it themselves, then it will be hard for them to attack that weight with their best effort.  Over time if you develop a good relationship the lifter may come to trust you – the coach – more than they trust themselves but that doesn’t not happen overnight.  Lifters are only as strong as they truly believe they are.

As a lifter you can choose what you are going to lift, you are fully in charge of this variable.  This is one aspect of powerlifting that makes it easier than other sports, you decide what you are going to lift, no one else.  Obviously if you reach for the stars and go for a 50 lb PR that you have never touched before you are likely to be more nervous about it, but in the end this part is completely under your control.

3. A fear of the consequences of failure

Outsiders looking in might think that lifters get “scared” of the weight and think the possibility of getting injured under a big lift is what makes a lifter nervous.  In my experience this is not what makes a powerlifter nervous.  If one is afraid of getting hurt and if one is afraid of lifting heavy weight from an injury point of view, one simply doesn’t become a powerlifter in the first place.  For lifters that fear of failure is usually deeper, more emotional.  If I miss the lift I will disappoint my lifting partners, my teammates, my coach.  It means my training cycle is not working, it means my programming is not correct.  It means I don’t know what I am doing, it means I am still stuck on this damn plateau.  It means all my hard work was for nothing.  It means I am not getting any better, it means I do have limits and it means I may not achieve all of the goals I set for myself.

That seems to be where the fear comes from.  I don’t promise an easy cure for this but as with the first point (when ego is involved) self-talk can be a valuable way of working through this.  If you fail does it mean you haven’t made any progress?  (NO)  Did any of the great lifters in the past fail while training?  (YES)  Will everyone be disappointed in you because you miss a lift?  (NO).  Should we hate other athletes because they make a bad throw, drop a ball, trip and fall down, miss an easy putt, or strike out?  Of course not.  You have to give yourself permission to fail.  It is okay to miss a lift, to make a mistake.  Are you human?  Then you are not perfect.  And luckily for us perfection is not required to get stronger, to make progress, and to reach your goals.

I find that most lifters simply need to know why they missed a lift or made a mistake.  Once they know they can deal with it and forward.  I missed that bench because I brought the bar down on the wrong spot – okay let’s start doing negatives to work on that aspect of the lift.  I missed that squat because the bar rolled forward on me.  Alright let’s work on pulling the bar down on your back, keeping your elbows down, core tight, and the weight in your heels.  I jerked into the bar on deads at the start and it drifted away from me.  Let’s work on your set up, let’s do pause deadlift reps or clusters to practice the start, and let’s pull the bar into you and look up while you pull to ensure it travels close to the legs.  Find out what the problem is and do your best to fix it.  Sometimes the fix requires more time.  My bench was stuck forever in the mid 3’s, that damn thing would not go up and I was training hard.  And by forever I mean years and years.  Repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results is stupid.  So I threw my hands up, drastically altered my programming by increasing my frequency to 3 times a week for the bench and I gained significant weight at the same time (30 lbs).  Guess what, the plateau was broken.  There is an answer, it is up to you or your coach to find it.  That is why the best athletes tend to be very knowledgeable about their sport.  Knowledge is power and you never know when the payout is coming.

In summary, try to separate your sense of self as a person from your sense of self as an athlete.  When you catch those two self’s merging together (and they will at times) mentally correct yourself and separate them.  You may just find that you as the person grows because of this.  There should be no perceived discrepancy between what you are asking yourself to do and what you can do on the platform, this is entirely within your control.  And talk yourself through any fear of failure that you might have.  What are the actual consequences of failure and does your reaction and anxiety match that?  What is the worst case scenario and how will you handle it.  This can help put what you are doing in perspective.  No one is making you compete, you do this to yourself.  As such the benefits should always outweigh the negatives, when they stop doing so you should stop the activity.  Until that time enjoy that you are able to compete in the sport that you love.  You may not be able to do so forever.



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