My husband and I headed to Portland, Maine this past summer to catch Jack White in concert. 

Intelligent people could argue for hours about whether or not the performance was good based on which version of Jack White you prefer (there have been *many*).  But this isn’t a music review. 

What I want to talk about is what happened during the first song, “Fear of the Dawn.”

A master at work

Within minutes of taking the stage, it became clear White had a problem with his guitar. Since he’s a guitarist, that posed a challenge.

While continuing to sing, he leaned over and started monkeying with the electronics at his feet. After a minute or so, one of his road crew came onstage and started monkeying too. 

After a few minutes the roadie, apparently unable to fix the issue, grabbed another guitar and handed it to White, who stopped playing, kept singing, unstrapped the seemingly faulty guitar from around his neck and swapped it out. Then the roadie went back to trying to fix the control board at White’s feet. 

Throughout all of this, the performance went on as if nothing had happened. Had you only been listening and not seeing this unfold, you’d never have know anything was wrong at all. There wasn’t even a noticeable effect on the energy in the room. 

As the song came to an end, the roadie was still working on the apparently-still-malfunctioning controls. Again, without missing a beat or a note, White put down his guitar and headed over to the piano to start another song, which gave the road crew time and space to get things functioning properly. 

Adapting on the fly

I learned that night that Jack White doesn’t use setlists. He makes up his shows on the fly based on what he feels like doing, and the band has to follow his lead. 

That means he had the freedom to intentionally select a song that didn’t require guitar. More importantly, he had the presence of mind to do just that. His spontaneous adaptation allowed the problem to get solved and the concert to go on without a hitch.

So yeah. I enjoyed the music. But what REALLY impressed me was White’s absolutely stunning professionalism and showmanship in this situation. He didn’t lose his cool, and he didn’t allow his performance to get derailed even a tiny bit by what would have been at least a minor catastrophe for a less seasoned performer.

Something ALWAYS goes wrong

Yes, there is a point here. 

At my third-ever powerlifting meet, I had no coach or handler with me, and couldn’t hear the announcer very well from the warm-up area. I lost track of the order during squats, didn’t realize I was up next, and didn’t hear my name when they called me to the platform.

Oops. Watch me scramble.

If not for the kindness of the other lifters and especially national champ Chrissy Peracchi, who just happened to be coaching a team at that meet and who you can see here in the video urging me to get my ass to the platform, I would have timed out.  (Chrissy is a gem who took me under her wing for the remainder of the meet, but that’s a story for another time.)

My wrist wraps weren’t on yet and the clock was ticking down fast. I made it to the platform and got the bar unracked, but in this federation the clock stops running when you get the SQUAT command, not when you unrack the bar. I was rushed and flustered and didn’t have time to set up properly.  

Not surprisingly, I failed the squat. 

It’s not what happens that matters: it’s how well you recover

I wish I could tell you this kind of thing is unusual, but the truth is, something ALWAYS goes wrong. In every competition. Always. 

The most egregious example is failing an attempt, or worse, failing two and being at risk of bombing out. But for some people, especially people who really value control, even something small can cause serious problems. 

Whether it’s your headphones breaking or the meet going longer than you thought it would or your warm-ups not going to plan, when you compete, you’ve got to expect the unexpected. 

And when it happens–and here’s the real trick–you’ve got to be able to recover.

Expect “the unexpected” and avoid it

Obviously, your first line of defense against getting derailed by unforeseen problems is preventing them from happening in the first place. That means good meet-day planning and having redundancies and contingency plans in place.

That’s a whole post (many, really) by itself, so suffice to say, the more potential problems you can anticipate ahead of time, the better your chances of avoiding them. 

A few small examples:

  • If you’re traveling to your meet, ASSUME the airline will lose your luggage. If you must check a bag, fine, but for the love of God, NEVER pack your lifting gear (singlet, belt, wraps, shoes, etc.) in a checked bag. 
  • ASSUME the meet will go longer than you anticipate. Bring sufficient food just in case. I’ve left a lot of unopened boxes of Pop Tarts and crackers in hotel rooms for the service staff to take home after a meet; that’s a much better alternative than running out of gas before deadlifts because you didn’t bring enough (I know because that’s happened to me!).
  • ASSUME there won’t be a good internet connection at the venue, and make sure you have an offline copy, photo, or printout of your federation membership card. 
  • And one really big one I preach as a powerlifting referee who has watched far too many lifters bomb out because their openers were too high: ASSUME your first lift is going to be harder than you expect. Nerves, bad sleep, weight cuts… there are many things that can conspire to affect meet-day performance. Keep your openers low, or at the very least be prepared to lower them if your warmups don’t go well. 

The list goes on and on and on. You can’t plan for every contingency, you’ll go crazy if you try–but definitely plan for the ones you can foresee. 

Prepare to avoid panic

You can't expect the unexpected. Because expecting the unexpected makes the unexpected expected.

But what about the things you can’t really plan for?

Here’s where your mental game comes into play. 

When I was learning to drive, toward the end of the driver’s education course, our teacher, Mr. Feinberg, did something absolutely brilliant.

At some random and unforeseen moment when we were behind the wheel, he’d suddenly drop something at our feet, flip the windshield wiper switch, turn on the radio full blast… all at the same time. We had to address these problems and keep driving without killing everyone in the car.  

Mr. Feinberg intentionally created a Jack White scenario for the express purpose of training us to deal with unexpected challenges in the relatively safe environment of the student car, with him at our side to help if it all went horribly wrong. 

A similar example (for those of you who grew up in northern climates) is intentionally throwing yourself into skids in a big, empty snow-filled parking lot to learn how to recover safely.

Train for the unexpected

How does this translate to lifting? When you’re preparing for a competition, and especially when you’re a newer competitor, do two things:

1) train as if you were competing, and

2) intentionally throw monkey wrenches into your training. 

For example:

  • Always train your bench with pauses.
  • Always train your squats to depth.
  • Do at least one full SBD day. In your singlet. Wearing what you’ll be wearing on the platform. 
  • If you’re someone who always uses music to get hyped, train a heavy day without any music, or worse, with bad music. You don’t know what they’ll be playing on the platform, and your headphones could break.
  • If you normally use ammonia, don’t use it, at least once or twice.
  • Get yourself an audience to watch you on those big lifts. (Get used to performing under scrutiny.)
  • Go to a totally strange gym to train. (Get used to performing in unfamiliar territory.)
  • If you’re used to warming up with kilo plates, use pound plates. If you always train in pounds, try to find a gym with kilo plates for a lift or two.
  • If possible, train on the bars that will be used in your meet (depending on your federation, that information should be in the communications from your meet director. If it’s not, ask.)
  • If you always have your coach or trainer or training partners there with you when you train or compete, do some heavy days without them there.
  • Force yourself to rush your setup for each of your lifts a few times (in case that happens on the platform, like it happened to me). 

Get out of your bubble

You may not be able to do all of these things, and that’s ok. And again, there is no way you can plan for everything that could possibly go wrong. Something almost certainly WILL go wrong that you weren’t expecting. 

But the more you can get out of your usual training bubble and make your brain and body adapt to coping with and performing well despite the unexpected, the more prepared you’ll be to handle whatever might get thrown at you on meet day.

You CAN recover

By the way, that missed squat? I came back and got my third. That also happened to be the first time I ever squatted 200+ lbs. 

Whatever happens to you on the platform, remember that you CAN recover. What’s done is done. You can’t change that. Let it go.

Focus on what’s happening NOW, on what’s right in front of you. Be present in the moment. 

That mindset is your greatest defense of all.

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