It’s 4:00am, the day after an important local event and my mind is too active to sleep. I arrived home yesterday after a 14 hour day of coaching and organising the State Championships in the sport in which I have devoted nearly half a century of life – Weightlifting. Sitting by the home fireplace, I began at last to read and digest the many messages received from competitors, some excited by their performance and some desperately upset. Some messages are easy to answer, some will have to wait as the needed communication is challenging and requires careful consideration. This is the usual situation.
Striving for excellence has always been a modus operandi for me. There is always something more to learn, something more to achieve. However, an important part of going forward to is to reflect upon one’s past, the successes, the failures, the pivotal moments, the opportunities won and lost. Such reflections, however, often occur at an unseemly hour of the day, hence here I am, before dawn, writing this post.
If I have learned anything at all in my time as an athlete and a coach, I have learned that above all else, success in any endeavour is a mental game. I am not just talking about what happens on the day of the event, albeit that is extremely important, but also the mental skills that carry the participant through the weeks, and months, and years of the journey.
Coaches spend hours and hours studying their athletes, assessing their strengths and weaknesses and strategizing how to help them improve further. This is the nature of coaching and at times the complexity of this task can be overwhelming. It is simply amazing to see how differently individuals operate. They may have the same coach, train in the same environment and face the same circumstances but yet their view of the world can be so different.
Those of you who know me well, know that I am not a believer that genetics is the determining factor in sport. Often I will hear athletes discuss their Instagram idols in the gym, and inevitably I will hear the word “freak”, meaning that the athlete must be genetically endowed with super-human physical qualities. I know that most athletes and coaches in Weightlifting have a similar disposition, and most probably I am in the minority. However, when I see a successful athlete, my first thoughts are always to appreciate that high performance in sport is only achieved if the athlete has a mind to pursue excellence. Achieving success requires exceptional dedication, the strength of character to challenge insurmountable odds, the capacity to learn from mistakes and the will to keep going through the trials and tribulations that befall any athlete through years of excessive training. The path to success is, for any athlete, one from which it is so easy to fall.
For me as a coach, it is the mental skills of the athlete that count. The longer my experience as a coach, the more I see the benefits of possessing a positive mindset. In dealing with all the problems and issues that are bound to be encountered, an athlete will need a profound sense of self-belief in their own capability as they journey to new horizons of performance.
Yes, without question, athletes that rise above others must have great desire to learn, to work hard, to pursue goals and to compete at the highest level. But the needed mental qualities go beyond this. Like any sport, great sporting moments in Weightlifting occur on the competition platform and no amount of prowess in training can be a substitute for this. Over many decades I have observed, and no doubt most other coaches have also observed that the excellent performer is one whose thoughts do not race ahead in moments of pressure, who remains calm and composed, and who commits to the task at hand unreservedly. Furthermore, in the lead up to the event, they waste no time in self-imposing unnecessary or unrealistic expectations upon themselves and are content to be guided by others. With all the palpable emotion of the big event, they consistently trust in their own capability and love the hustle and bustle of competition.
As a coach who is not a devout believer in genetic limitations, I look to see how these mental traits are developed prior to, and during the athlete’s time with me as their coach. Who is this athlete and what is their perception of the world? How well does this athlete know himself/herself, their own motivations, their own strengths, capabilities and limitations?
After decades in this beloved game of Weightlifting, I find over and over again that helping athletes to acquire excellence of technique is the simplest of coaching tasks. More difficult is the teaching of athletes to train effectively, understand the process, be self-reliant, work at continuous improvement and solve the issues that arise from constant high-level training. But most difficult is the task of understanding the athlete sufficiently well to be able help them rid the road-blocks of their own mind, probe and challenge their own deep-seated misperceptions and begin to develop and exhibit behaviour, in training and competition, that makes them a winner no matter what their result.