Do you have any tips for mindset and overcoming fear before heavy lifts? My issue is when I step up to a big lift I try to psych myself up but there’s always a voice telling me “you’re gonna fail this.” How do I shut that voice up?!

This is a common problem and one I deal with myself sometimes. I jokingly apologized to my coach recently for being a head case—my self-talk has been pretty poor as I struggle to come back from a back injury—and he kindly referred to me as a “psychological athlete” 😂 and said he’s going to tell me to just shut my brain off for the entire day at Nationals in a couple of weeks.

But, how do we shut our brain off? How do we stop thinking so much and just DO the damned thing? 

Be here now.

One big piece of advice performance coaches offer is to become an observer and get yourself deeply connected just to the present moment.

Instead of thinking about the outcome, focus on what’s actually happening around you, in a very direct and sensory way. Experience the sights, sounds, smells of your environment, whatever that may be. Be present. Feel the floor under your feet, the bar in your hand. 

I’ve gotten very interested in studying the mindset of high-performing athletes in other sports, and have found that of all things, big-wave surfing has a great deal to teach those of us who routinely face fear in our training and competitions. If you think it’s scary to put a heavy bar on your back, imagine what it’s like to jump off of a jet ski onto a 100-foot wave.

Not surprisingly, people who ride monster waves talk about fear a lot… and the theme that emerges again and again is this idea of staying in the moment.

Take, for example, this quote from that rarest of creatures, a female big-wave surfer:

You are present, intensely present.  You are a human being against the wave and against the challenge.  And you’re just riding, surfing, flying.

Justine Dupont
Justine Dupont surfing a monster wave at Nazare, Portugal

Next time you’re staring down a loaded barbell, think about how you can apply this idea.

Use consistency and force of habit

A related way to get out of your head and into the moment is to fall back on automaticity.  This is something I discussed a while back in relation to training the squat to depth. You’ve trained countless reps. Not only shouldn’t you need to think about execution at this point— it’s actually detrimental to physical performance when you try to think through it. 

So, throughout your warmup sets leading up to that big hairy max attempt, execute every rep the exact same way every time. That includes set-up rituals, timings, everything. Feel what that feels like.

Then, don’t give magical power to that top set; just do it the same way you did all the sets previously.

(This type of consistency is a practice to cultivate regardless of whether or not you get pre-lift anxiety. Check out this great Instagram post from top powerlifter Russell Orhii, who makes 755 lbs/342.5 kg look almost identical to 135/61.2.)

Reframe the weight

Another strategy I personally use is to focus just on the small amount of weight that got added to the bar from the last rep I did, or from my prior PR. Chances are the difference isn’t hugeand that little number psychologically feels much more doable than the total weight on the bar.  “You just basically lifted this exact weight,” I’ll tell myself. “This is only 10 lbs morethat’s nothing!” 

Be curious

Powerlifter Ben Rice shared some terrific and unique insights in a podcast interview a few years ago, where he talked about dealing with failure and staying in the moment. Ben said he views a big attempt with eager curiosityhe essentially steps outside of himself and just wonders how it’s going to turn out for this guy, rather than worrying about a particular outcome. That’s a cool approach and it works well for him. 

Fear is something we choose.

I’ll offer you one more quote from a big-wave surfer. If you’re interested in tapping into the wisdom of these athletes, I highly recommend the documentary series 100 Foot Wave, which was the source of the quotes featured in this post, as well as any interviews you can find (there are many) with one of the best of all, Laird Hamilton.

Fear is something we choose.

Fear is when we’re not in the moment. When we choose to think about the past, or think about the future: two things that don’t exist.

With big waves, the only thing that exists is right now.

Garrett McNamara

What’s true of big waves is also true of a heavy barbell. Whatever you need to do to accomplish it, ultimately, the goal is to get your head out of the realm of expectations and “what ifs” and “coulds” and “shoulds.” That’s where anxiety and fear of failure live.

In the present, it’s just you and the bar and the plates and gravity, and when you think about it for just a minute, the stakes are actually extremely low. If you fail, so what?

We all have our own special variety of knots in our mental grain. So really, just like with training, nutrition, and everything else, there are many ways to handle this problem and you probably need to experiment to find out what works best for your particular version. But hopefully this answer gives you a few different angles to try.

Got questions about lifting, training, competing, or any related topics? Send ‘em my way!

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