Dealing with anxiety in Weightlifting

For the athlete in Weightlifting, the final 2 weeks before a major competition is a difficult period in which athletes often have a tendency to conjure up all manner of self-imposed roadblocks, issues and limitations. The anxiety produced by the impending competition sets off questioning thoughts about the need for more technical and strength work, and to continue training hard to the last moment. It’s a kind of investment protection issue. The athlete may conclude that they just need to invest more energy and effort in training so as to protect what they have already invested so far.

Surprisingly, the timing of the last maximal session before competition day seems to vary considerably as a result of different belief systems of coaches and athletes. The variance will likely be between 7-21 days before a major competition. Why such a difference in beliefs should exist is a question worth asking but is not the subject matter of this article. Instead, this article attempts to address the anxiety issue that many athletes suffer.

Whenever the last heavy session is due to occur, the athlete will often brood all day about the importance of the training session. As the hour comes, the athlete will walk into the training hall full of desire and expectation as to what must be achieved. Thus, the scene is set for a very tense training session and often this does not bode well for the athlete.

As the warm-up begins, the athlete will be over-sensitive as to how every lift feels, desperately wanting every weight to feel strong, convincing and confident. But more often than not, this does not happen. Instead the athlete becomes bogged down in a mire of self-doubt, struggles unusually with timing and technique and complains that weights feel heavy. Then, at some point, there are cries of disgust, annoyance and anguish, weights are thrown off the end of the bar, chalk buckets kicked and the athlete goes home early. I have seen it all.

Image showing consequences of anxiety in Weightlifting

Contrast this with the situation when an athlete has no special expectation or target and the program provides no indication that the session is anything but ordinary . The athlete begins training with a normal focus, moves smoothly through the sets of the first exercise and reaches the endpoint suggested by the program. If the athlete is going well, they may put the question to the coach to go heavier. If the coach agrees to a small increase in weight and the athlete successfully completes, the question is often posed again. This situation may go back and forth several times between athlete and coach and just now and then results in the achievement of a new personal best. Perhaps, the reader will recognise this situation has happened to them.

It’s important to consider how many times an athlete achieves a new personal best not because it was programmed to occur on that particular day, but because there was good spirit in the training hall and the athlete’s mood helped rather than hindered their performance. Would the athlete have succeeded with a new personal best if they had brooded on a target performance all day? I would venture to say that for many athletes, it is better simply to take one step at a time with no expectation or thought about what the next step should be.

The issue is, of course, anxiety. On an evolutionary basis, anxiety served an important purpose to keep the individual alert to the dangers that lurked in the environment. Any awareness or thought of danger throws a biological switch that sends the body into overdrive – the fight or flight response. In performance, whether in training or  competition, anxiety may well result in hyper-sensitivity, feelings of panic, muddled thoughts, over-arousal, erratic performance and sometimes a strong desire to run away. Probably every athlete has experienced something of this nature. Witness an athlete warming-up in such circumstances and see them lose control of even light weights until, hopefully, they calm themselves down and bring their thoughts under control.

Every athlete must develop a process that helps them deal with anxiety. Weightlifting is such a supremely numbers driven sport and requires significant mental skills. It takes time, experience and sometimes a little help from others to acquire these skills. Surely, these skills in Weightlifting include an ability to avoid thinking about the weight of the bar that you are about to lift and/or walking into the training or competition hall transfixed about what you should or shouldn’t be able to achieve. It’s really a case of trying to preserve some resemblance of normality and calmness in situations that can easily throw the biological switch. Simply keep your head buried and follow through the process which you have trained to do, taking one step at a time and never getting ahead of yourself.

Ideally, we need positive emotions to perform well. Leave your worries at the door, and simply step into the training or competition hall with a feeling that you are in a privileged position, this is what you love to do and therefore enjoy every moment.

Further reading:

Stress, anxiety, arousal and sports performance – use Firefox or Google Chrome to see this excellent presentation

Anxiety with Sport by Catherine McCanny