Fundamental Change in Weightlifting

At a coaching symposium held at the Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra,  in October 2017, I gave a presentation titled “Can Australia be competitive in Weightlifting?”

The main purpose of this presentation was really to get people thinking about strategies that would make a real and significant difference to the High Performance program and improve Australia’s competitiveness on the international platform. A secondary purpose was to get participants to identify and discuss the “elephants in the room”, those barriers that we know are there but find it very difficult to talk about.

Developing new innovative strategies, and “thinking outside the box”,  is really quite a hard task. There is always a tendency within organisations to keep doing the things we do because it is what we have always done. In short, it is easier, time saving and seemingly less risky to re-deploy familiar old strategies rather than invent new ones. But there is always likely to come a time when a drastic re-think is necessary, and courage needs to be summoned up to go in a different and unfamiliar direction. Perhaps that time has come.

The question “Can Australia be competitive in Weightlifting?” deserves a moment of your thought. The question itself is problematic as it is necessary, before answering, to clarify what is meant by “competitive”. As expected, the participants of the symposium did seek this clarification, and were presented with two alternative definitions.

To be competitive in Weightlifting is to:

  • Regularly attain top 15 placings in World Championship each year? or,
  • Dominate the medal count at the Commonwealth Games?

Yes of course there are probably better definitions out there but this was simply an exercise, and all participants were invited to vote YES or NO. No fence sitting was allowed! The outcome of the vote was: YES – 62.5%, NO – 37.5%.

In asking the question, I had no preconceived notion as to which way the vote would go and prepared further ‘inconvenient‘ questions to address both the YES and the NO voters, as follows:

Can Australia be competitive?

The aim of the questions above was to search for ‘elephants in the room’, those things we don’t really want to think about. For example, we might say we want Australia to be more competitive, but we really don’t think it is possible given the extent of doping on the international level. Perhaps it is the case that, to be more competitive, a great deal more work must be done and, as we are largely volunteers, we are not really sure we can commit ourselves to the effort required. A lack of confidence to succeed would indeed be an ” elephant in the room” for coaches, athletes and administrators in the sport.

All we need is seriously hard training

After the vote and a brief discussion of the questions above, a simple proposition to fix the competitiveness issue was put to the audience – “all we need is athletes training seriously hard and more of them!

As intended, the audience swiftly reacted to this proposition by pointing out the need for coaches, suitable training environments, competitions and athlete support systems. Furthermore, as presenter, I raised the issue of whether we actually know what seriously hard training is.

Strategies to improve the High Performance Program must make a difference on the floor of the gym.

Strategies to improve the High Performance Program must make a difference on the floor of the gym.

Next. the audience were introduced to the central theme of the presentation – the notion that whatever plans and schemes are made to improve the High Performance Program, there must be an effect on the gym floor. It is my view that in a decentralised system, such as exists in Australia, the key component that drives high performance is the clubs. If within clubs there is better recruitment and retention of athletes, an upskilling of coaches and club managers, and improved training practices on the gym floor that drive towards excellence, then there is a good chance that standards of performance will rise.

What may be required to improve Australia’s competitiveness in Weightlifting is revolution not evolution, and typically revolution is a bottom up process of change. The revolution is probably already underway but as yet unrecognised – the rise of the For-Profit Weightlifting club. Hitherto, non-profit Weightlifting clubs have been the backbone of the Australian Weightlifting community for many decades and there is no denial that some were and still are very well run organisations. However, the tide may have turned, and there is now seemingly an inexorable rise in Weightlifting clubs of a for-profit nature.

This change is significant. The for-profit club has to be innovative and resourceful in order to survive and provide the entrepreneur with a reasonable return on investment. The for-profit club has to take ownership of the problems that exist within the sport industry and the sport of Weightlifting in particular. It is simply not a reasonable business strategy to rely on outside help from  the national body, government or other external authorities. For example, for-profit clubs are usually excluded from typical government funding programs. Instead, the for-profit club has to look at the marketplace and develop a business plan to make a dollar.

Revolution is a bottom up approach to implementing change.

If therefore fundamental change is likely to occur then it is more likely that it will be generated via a bottom-up approach. There is little doubt that there is an increasing number of entrepreneurs at work within the Australian Weightlifting community and it could just be that a “Kerry Packer – World Series Cricket” moment is not so far away.

I have been asking many colleagues within the Weightlifting community as to whether the future of Australian Weightlifting will depend on commercialism. For example, is it a reasonable proposition that dollars can be made by being a professional Weightlifting coach, running courses and workshops, selling equipment and products, franchising businesses, and of course providing training facilities for Weightlifting. Certainly people are trying and it is likely that some will succeed through innovation and effort. Can we move to the next step and run prestigious Grand Prix events at significant profit. I think it is possible but it will require a very cut and thrust entrepreneurial approach rather a few individuals gathered around the committee table.

In the next article, I will address some of the strategies that can be implemented by Weightlifting clubs to create the bottom up process of fundamental change.

Strategies that can be implemented by clubs to create fundamental change.

Strategies for change to be discussed in next article.

 

Continuous Improvement in the Training of the Athlete

The task for the athlete and the coach is to work together to continually improve the training process of the athlete over many years. It is highly probable that when this continuous improvement process comes to a halt, the athlete will no longer improve.

From day 1 in the training process, the athlete learns how to train to develop good technique and athletic ability so as to improve results. Initially the learning is fast but as the months and years go by, the rate of learning slows as a result of fewer opportunities to learn something new, or perhaps incorrect assumptions that all the knowledge needed has been learned. To make further improvement then, the athlete and coach must work harder to find solutions to the perfection of the training problem.

Essential in any quest to improve is the asking of questions on a regularly basis. The athlete should ask questions such as “how can I improve my technique further?”, “what more can I put into my training?” and “is my training as effective as it can be?”. The coach should ask questions such as “how can I facilitate the athlete’s learning better?”, “what can I do to monitor the athlete’s training input?” and “is my coaching as effective as it can be?”. The athlete and the coach must address these questions together and seek to avoid the assumption that everything is as good as it can be. If the coach is no longer in a quest to improve their own performance then how can they expect their athlete to do so?

It is common for athletes in Weightlifting to think that the limit of their lifting ability is governed by genetic inheritance. This is an example of what psychologists call a ‘Fixed Mindset”, a belief that one’s potential is pre-determined by circumstances beyond the athlete’s control. In reality, a far more important factor than genetics is whether the athlete can develop a better training process. Ultimately, sport at the highest level is so competitive that only those that strive to continually improve their training process will emerge as winners. This willingness to see one’s performance potential as bound to consistent hard work, learning and ingenuity is referred to as a “Growth Mindset”.

The following are among the many possible ways that the training process of the athlete can be improved:

  1. The athlete can develop an understanding that the form of the Weightlifter rises and falls as a consequence of the training process i.e. stress – recovery – adaptation. Building in significant intensity fluctuation into the training program is extremely important i.e. the athlete must have really heavy days, really light days, and days in between.
  2. The athlete should develop an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, and learn the value of working conscientiously, creatively and consistently on improving their weaknesses. The athlete is only as good as their weaknesses will permit.
  3. The athlete should closely observe the effort of other athletes in the training environment and begin to discern the factors that lead to more successful training outcomes. In reality, the training habits that lead to success are obvious if one looks.
  4. The athlete must appreciate that the purpose of training is to improve their result in the competition arena. This requires that the athlete focuses on perfecting their technical execution in training so that in the toughest pressure of competition the athlete has full confidence in their own ability and is more likely to succeed than to fail.
  5. The athlete must learn to maximise the value of their training time. Ultimately, poor usage of time in training, hands the advantage to the athlete’s competitors.
  6. The athlete must learn to self-monitor and self-regulate their own training performance, and strive to understand the positive and negative effects of the training that they undertake. By engaging in such self-monitoring, the athlete will be better able to understand how training can be improved to achieve optimal effect. The keeping of a training diary is helpful in this regard.
  7. The athlete must organise their daily regimen so as to provide the greatest advantage to their training effort. Included in this daily regimen is nutrition, sleep, work, study, recreational activities, shopping, household chores, and family responsibilities. In addition, work on flexibility, planning of training, mental rehearsal, and reflection on training performance are important constituents in the daily regimen. Furthermore, the athlete will also need to find time for activities associated with maximising wellness such as trips to physiotherapy.
  8. For continuous improvement to occur, the athlete must love the process of learning and discovery of new knowledge. Optimal learning occurs when the athlete is fully engaged in the learning process. The mere completion of prescribed training is not sufficient to create full engagement in this learning process. The athlete must frequently reflect on their own training and ask the question ‘how can I improve my training process?’ Reflection (on one’s own experience) is believed to be majorly important in the learning process, however living in the 21st century provides constant distraction so that the time available for such reflection is greatly diminished.

The role of the coach in assisting the athlete to develop a process of continuous improvement is critical and largely this is the purpose of this article. The coach and athlete must avoid the idea that it is the written training program itself, the schedule of exercises, reps, sets and intensity that causes success. Instead the coach must facilitate the athlete’s learning of the process of training, and more especially how to continually improve their own process. Sometimes the athlete is want to experiment with their own ideas and this is not always a bad thing. The coach can assist the athlete to learn as much from their failures, as from their successes. However the coach does play a supremely important role in shaping the athlete’s continual improvement process by providing a caring and supportive environment, helping athletes to reflect on their own experiences, and fostering a belief that further improvement is possible if more learning can be achieved.

The causes of burnout in athletes

I have formed a view, as a result of a lengthy career in Olympic Weightlifting, that the most difficult tasks of the coach are neither the instruction of Weightlifting technique,  nor the teaching of athletes how to train effectively. Though these activities are time consuming and require considerable learning to perform, there is yet another level of coaching that far exceeds in complexity. The hardest task is keeping athletes highly motivated over many years despite all that life throws at them. This article will examine the causes of burnout in athletes and what the coach and supporters of the athlete can reasonably do to mitigate the risks. Read More

A coach’s plea

To my athletes, I would like to take a moment of your time to explain how I might see things differently about training, your training.

Last night was a designated 'heavy' session. I know that you very much look forward to such sessions in the hope that you can push beyond your present personal bests. Last night, many of you were rewarded for your efforts. Well done!

But as we head towards the next competition, there are some things I want you to keep uppermost in your mind. Read More

The hardest step

The journey of the athlete in Weightlifting from beginner to the qualifying standard for the national senior championship takes perhaps 3 years of goal driven, well organised, and consistent training. For the athlete, the first 3 years are full of wonder as there is so much to learn. The motivation to train is aided by a series of intriguing discoveries about the nature of Weightlifting skill, the complexity of the training process and the remarkable mental skills required to perform in the competition environment.

In the right training conditions, and depending to some extent on age, progress in the first 3 years is usually rapid. The male athlete might achieve a 200 Sinclair score in their first year, 270 in their second and 310 by the end of their 3rd year. For the female athlete the Sinclair scores might be 150, 200 and 230 for years 1, 2 an 3 respectively. Progress of this nature will create an expectancy of significant further improvement in years 4 and 5, and likely the athlete who has come this far will have aspirations to compete at the highest levels: World Senior Championships, Olympic Games, and Commonwealth Games.

Progress in Sinclair total in years 1- 5 for highly committed athletes

But in reality, for aspiring athletes, years 4 and 5 are not like the first 3 years, Much of the motivating discovery is behind the athlete and the journey becomes more like a race. It is now a question of whether the athlete has the capacity and motivation to leave no (ethical) stone unturned in their quest for improvement. The athlete must be prepared to invest very considerable effort to correct as best they can all weaknesses and idiosyncrasies that affect their training and competition performance. Every factor must be examined for possible improvement including the time commitment, content and quality of training, the athlete’s physical functioning and well-being, and the daily routine of the individual outside the gym to ensure that the athlete’s life energy is focused on training. This is what it takes to succeed.

But it’s not all about the athlete. Coaches must also demonstrate their dedication to help athletes successfully take the next step and to move into contention for national team selection. Coaches must assume that they are leaders and role models to their athletes. The values they portray, their behaviour in the gym, the example they set, all matter a great deal. Coaches must be prepared to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, invest time in their own self-improvement and keep an open mind and never stop learning. They must expend great effort to plan, organise and monitor training, provide feedback, and generally go the extra mile to assist the athlete in a myriad of ways.

The next step is the hardest step. To reach the highest echelon, it is no longer acceptable for athletes to pay insufficient attention to warming up in training, flexibility, physical fitness, nutrition, sleep, recovery and injury prevention. It is not longer acceptable to train without discipline, to train without paying great attention to one’s weaknesses, to train with less than 100% conviction or to engage in other sporting activities that risk injury. For the athlete and the coach, there must be total dedication. To miss training would be like running a 1500m race and diverting on lap 3 to say Hi to a friend in the spectator stand. If you miss training, you cannot pretend to be running the race.

Why is it a race? It is well for the athlete to be mindful that the prize they seek, that is national team selection, is also coveted by many other individuals. To win this prize, athletes must not only reach qualifying performances but also be the very best in their category that the nation can produce. Every athlete who seeks national team selection must envisage that across the nation that there will be others training with great determination to beat you. To succeed in this task, therefore, you must prove that your attitude, your commitment, your meticulousness, your effort and your courage is second to none.

Do not commit the cardinal sin of thinking that time is on your side, because it isn’t. The clock is ticking.

Talent Identification In Weightlifting

Nature versus Nurture in Weightlifting

It is accepted theory in Weightlifting that genetics plays a substantial role in the ultimate performance of the individual (12, 33).  A typical belief is that Weightlifters of the highest performance levels have a greater ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch fibres (29). Similarly, a common opinion in the Weightlifting community is that certain anthropometric characteristics strongly influence success such as shoulder circumference (38) and shorter height and limb lengths (34). Furthermore, many researchers have found that Weightlifters as a group are amongst the most mesomorphic of all athletes (25).

How does Weightlifting sit in the nature v nurture paradigm

Figure 1: Relative contribution of nature (natural ability) and nurture (influence of environment) on success in Weightlifting

However, environmental factors also play a highly significant role in success in Weightlifting. These factors include the coach’s leadership skills (8), the coach’s knowledge and effectiveness (7), the culture within the training environment (22) and the degree to which the athlete develops a sense of belonging or relatedness to their sport and their training colleagues (30). These factors will affect the motivation of the athlete to pursue training over the many years of deliberate practise (10) at increasingly higher levels of commitment needed to attain high performance. Furthermore, environmental factors will impact on the athlete’s ability to cope with the psychological pressures of extreme heaviness in critical moments in competition and training.

For these reasons, success in Weightlifting should not be considered as predominantly dependent on genetics as is a popular view, but instead on a relatively equal contribution of genetics and environment as portrayed in Figure 1 above.

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Training Principles

It is no easy thing to make progress towards higher levels of ability as an athlete in the sport of Weightlifting. The level of commitment to training is uncomfortably high and beyond the contemplation of most individuals who enter the sport. For the average athlete who lifts weights 3-4 sessions per week and who reach intermediate performance goals, the next step in the improvement process often involves not only increasing the training commitment to 5 sessions per week but also a quantum leap in understanding how to training effectively. The following article provides some advice on how to take thst quantum leap.

1. Listening to your body

In attempting to train on a highly frequent basis, and maintain high levels of effort, the athlete must take account of soreness, pain and feelings that something is not quite right. This means that the exercise schedule needs to be frequently altered to rest individual body parts or to reduce intensity to accommodate the need for extra recovery of individual body parts. For example if a wrist appears to have an issue, the wrist is rested that day, and some other exercise replaces the exercises that would have further stressed the wrist. Injury is the greatest cause of athletes failing to progress and injury is most likely to appear just after athletes have performed in training and competition at their very best. Buoyed by success, athletes and coaches very often make the mistake of trying to repeat high levels of performance rather than immediately adopt recovery measures. Athletes should expect that wonderful sessions are followed by recovery sessions to restore the body. Training is only as good as recovery.

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A comparison of different training scenarios on rate of improvement

The purpose of this article is to illustrate how differences in the athlete’s commitment to training will effect their ultimate performance capability in the years ahead. In this illustration, let’s assume that a physically talented individual walked into your gym one year ago and began training in Olympic Weightlifting. Let’s also assume that this individual has enjoyed participating in some competitions during their first year, weighs around 70Kg and has achieved a creditable 180Kg Total. What is the future in store for this athlete?

There are of course many factors that will effect the rate of progress of an athlete, some of which the coach can influence, and some not. One critical factor is the athlete’s commitment to training, and this in turn will be dependent on their self-confidence and belief in their own abilities. This is a factor that the coach can influence through the quality of the athlete-coach relationship, by their efforts to educate the athlete in training methodology and by enabling the athlete to consider higher levels of training.

To this end, three different scenarios are presented for our talented 70Kg individual who has one year of training experience. Chart 1 below provides an indication of the rate of improvement and ultimate performance potential of the athlete, dependent on which level of commitment scenario they pursue. The characteristics of the three scenarios are described in Table 1 below.

improvement_scenarios

Chart 1: Rate of improvement dependency on training commitment

The difference between scenarios 1 and 3 is perhaps the difference between achieving national team status or remaining as an averagely good athlete by virtue of their natural talent. It is very conceivable that our 70Kg athlete, under the right conditions (scenario 3), could progress into the 85Kg category and achieve a 320 total in their 5th year. At this level, they would be a strong prospect, in many nations, to participate in World Championships and be a possible contender for Olympic Games selection. Furthermore, as Chart 1 indicates, the athlete’s improvement has not reached a plateau and further increases in performance are probably likely in years 6-10 of their career.

Table 1: Commitment to Training Scenarios
Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Scenario 3
Commencing at 2 sessions per week rising to 3 sessions per week after 1 year, maintaining this level of commitment for next 3 years. Commencing at 2 sessions per week, rising to 3 sessions per week after 1 year and 4 sessions per week after 2 years Commencing at 3 sessions per week, rising to 4 sessions per week after 1 year, 5 sessions per week after 2 years, reaching 8 sessions per week (“double day” training) in their 5th year
Some attention to improvement of technique, relatively little effort to learn about training methodology. Significant attention to technique, developing good training habits, learning principles of training methodology Maximum attention to technical development, achieving a high level of organisation and discipline in training, immersion in the principles of high performance training methodology. To all intents and purposes, a “professional” approach to sport participation.
No particular goals for Weightlifting, enjoying the sport for fitness Setting goals to compete at National Championships. Setting goals for National Team selection to compete in World Championships, and Commonwealth and Olympic Games
No particular effort on increasing bodyweight, not employing specific measures for recovery from training Some attention to diet and increasing bodyweight, some effort to employ measures for recovery from training. Planning the bodyweight category that is optimal for the lifter, significant attention/effort to reaching and maintaining the required bodyweight. Including regular recovery measures as part of the training process.

If you are an Olympic Weightlifting coach and you have been coaching a few years, you are bound to come across just such individuals as in our illustration above. Your task as a coach is to find away to keep the athlete training, expand their perception of what is possible and help them achieve their potential. While there is always initial excitement about possibilities, there is soon a realization that the coach’s task is anything but simple. Your best efforts as a coach can be easily thwarted by many factors that constrain the athlete’s willingness to pursue training with increasing commitment. In such circumstances, the coach may well ask the question “why does the athlete not have the motivation to strive for important goals?”

It is probable that one chief reason why an individual will not strive for important goals is their lack of confidence in their own abilities. Although the athlete might state a desire to be a national team member, they do not really believe that they can rise to this level. The coach’s task is therefore to instill confidence that if the athlete pursues a proper process, it is probable that their efforts will be well rewarded. It helps if the coach has a good reputation and track record of success and has other athletes in their charge pursuing the same goal. But for the upcoming coach it is quite a hard proposition to achieve their first high status athlete, and sometimes some luck is involved. But in both cases, for the experienced and the upcoming coach, a great deal of time and effort has to be invested into gently “nudging” forwards the athlete’s self-confidence and belief in their own abilities.

Path to High Performance: Part 3

The first article, Path to High Performance: Part 1, provided a discussion about Technical Mastery and the paramount need for good quality coaching to avoid developing persistent errors of technique. This second article, Path to High Performance: Part 2,  discussed the magnitude of the training regimen required to achieve the superb physical adaptation of athletes who compete at the highest level. This third article discusses the LIMITATIONS OF THE TRAINING ENVIRONMENT, a challenge faced by athletes, and one that is very difficult to overcome.

The progress of any athlete is subject to the attributes of their training environment including coaching, facilities and equipment, level of competition, training culture and support services. No training environment is perfect and therefore there will always be some limitations that impact on the athlete’s progress.

There are no universally accepted benchmarks that enable coaches and athletes to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the training environment in which they operate. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, coaches and athletes will tend to view their own training environments positively and see no reason for change. Such a view presents no problem when the object of training is for fitness, fun, friendly competition and/or socialisation. However, if High Performance is the goal, then close attention has to be paid to ensuring that all attributes of the training environment are as good as they can be. Read More

Do you train hard?

It was my original attention to write a page on the principles and practise of how to undertake serious training for the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. I mean the sort of training that a person would need to do to compete at the very highest level i.e. the World Championships. My motivation to write such an article stems partly from meeting and wanting to help so many talented people in Weightlifting clubs and Crossfit boxes who, despite their love of lifting, seem to have doubts about their own abilities and what they could achieve. Furthermore, my motivation arises from wanting to see the standard of Olympic Weightlifting in Australia go forwards.

So instead of writing a laborious article on the principles of training for high performance, I have decided that what is first needed is a more "straight from the heart" appeal to members of the Weightlifting and Crossfit communities. If you have a real love for lifting heavy weights read on. Read More