Stages of athlete development in Olympic Weightlifting

Image showing fours stages of athlete development
The time duration in each stage varies according to individual factors but often an athlete will enter stage 3 early in year 4 of training.

As a practising coach over many decades, I have observed and often thought about the common traits that athletes exhibit at various stages of their development. In the initial stages of learning, progress is exciting but as experience accumulates there is a never-ending series of challenges that test the athlete’s resolve. As every experienced coach knows, it takes many years to gain mastery of Olympic Weightlifting and attempts to hurry the process fail. Whether the athlete can reach their full potential depends on how well they can overcome the challenges they will face.

Stage 1: The fascination stage

This first stage, which lasts 6-12 months, is crucial to the long-term retention of the athlete. Much depends on the quality of the coaching and the training environment. In stage 1, the athlete:

  • Is surprised and delighted by the complexity of the skill learning involved in training in Olympic Weightlifting.
  • Acquires basic knowledge of body positions and movement patterns.
  • Begins to explore the common repertoire of training exercises and skill drills.
  • Learns the basic language of Weightlifting.
  • Enjoys relatively rapid progress in lifting ability.
  • Finds considerable enjoyment in training and the overall learning process.
  • Competes with low levels of expectation and finds the experience satisfying.

Risks of exit at this stage:

  • Major issues of flexibility that seem impossible to solve.
  • Immersed too quickly into high-intensity training causing unnecessary injury.
  • Coaches who demonstrate a lack of commitment to athletes

Stage 2: The expectation stage

Athletes tend to continue beyond stage 1 in a high proportion of cases. In stage 2, the athlete:

  • Develops a basic understanding of the training principles.
  • Performs the repertoire of exercises and skill drills with increasing fluency of movement.
  • Learns to interpret and follow training programs.
  • Displays motivation to increase training frequency and loading.
  • Tends to believe that the training program is the secret to success.
  • Lacks awareness of own training behaviour.
  • Expects to improve results at every competition.
  • Improves results sufficiently to maintain motivation.
  • Runs a risk of significant injury as a result of tendencies to train heavy frequently without adequate recovery. 
  • Looks forward to competitions but is inept in tapering and managing bodyweight reduction.

Risks of exit at this stage:

  • Difficulty achieving consistency of training and/or productive training behaviour.
  • Disheartened by incorrect technique learning.
  • The training environment demotivates.
  • Inability to rehabilitate injuries.

Stage 3: The self-examination stage

Continuance beyond stage 2 is dependent on good coaching, the training environment and the athlete’s personal factors. In stage 3, the athlete:

  • Demonstrates mastery of the common repertoire of training exercises and skill drills.
  • Comes face to face with the physical and mental challenges of frequent high-intensity training.
  • Learns reluctantly about the necessity for injury rehabilitation.
  • Discovers the law of diminishing returns and finds improvement in results is harder to achieve.
  • Starts to question the effectiveness of current training programs and methodology.
  • Makes strident efforts to search for answers to problems and roadblocks to continued progress.
  • Becomes aware of the psychological dimension of the sport.
  • Prefers to participate in competitions only when in form.
  • Engages in soul searching and reassesses own abilities and potential.
  • Suffers the pressure of self-imposed targets and expectations.
  • May change coaches at this stage.

Risks of exit at this stage:

  • Training and competition results do not meet expectations.
  • Changes to work, family, and other commitments.
  • Inability to successfully deal with injury rehabilitation processes.

Stage 4: The realisation stage

The proportion of athletes continuing to stage 4 is low. In stage 4, the athlete:

  • Understands and comes to terms with the factors that limit progress as an athlete.
  • Sees a wider purpose for continuing to train and accepts the risks and benefits.
  • Increasingly exhibits auto-regulation of training parameters.
  • Becomes an ardent long-term follower of the sport and promotes the benefits to others.
  • Displays leadership in the training and competition environment.
  • Becomes more adept at the injury management process.
  • Adapts to the psychological demands of the sport.
  • Enjoys status as an athlete in the sport irrespective of results.
  • Adjusts training and competition commitments according to self-assessed potential.

Risks of exit at this stage:

  • Changes to work, family, and other commitments.
  • Injuries becoming intractable.

Final comment:

An important reason for writing this article is that I see too many good athletes exiting the sport in stage 3 when roadblocks seem to be insurmountable. It is probable that every athlete will question the value of continuing and ponder what more they have to give on several occasions in their career. You are not alone in this struggle and sports participation definitely has its ups and downs. However, this article seeks to point out that when you inevitably reach the roadblocks that characterise stage 3, your learning is far from complete. With some adjustments, recovery from injury can be effected, the work-life balance can be regained and further enjoyment of the sport is a distinct possibility including improvement in results. You will need to make some vital adjustments not only in your approach to training and competition but also in how you think about your sport in general. Be accepting that good form is fleeting and that opportunities to go past personal bests become much rarer. Take greater care of yourself and build your capability to perform well on the competition platform. Be more strategic with your training and realise that frequent “maxing out” sessions can be damaging. Think more about the value of staying well in mind and body, and try not to pressure yourself with expectations. Accept that the challenges that come your way will make you a better athlete and person.

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