Written by Kevin Cann
A big part of my job is handling the emotions of the lifters. We do not just follow a simple program. The lifters are responsible for a large amount of their training. They are required to pick the weights for their top sets each day. These weights should be at or near maximal. We put an RPE 8.5-9.5 on it, but I would prefer them to overshoot than undershoot.
Training at these intensities on a daily basis can be pretty tough, both physically and mentally. As all of us know, the training process is non-linear. We do not just come into the gym and hit PRs every day.
There are days where we will fail to get to our top sets, days where weights feel much harder, and this can go on for a period of time. The human is an open complex system, it is not a machine.
The brain analyzes an enormous amount of information from mood, energy levels, core temperature, hydration, as well as expectations, beliefs, past experiences, and makes a decision on perceived effort based off of this information.
The coach needs to juggle this uncertainty with the lifters. There is a difference between risk and uncertainty when looking at predictive processes. Most coaches assume there is a risk of, let us say increased fatigue leading to a drop in performance. They may add in a lighter day to help to dissipate some this fatigue.
This is assuming quite a bit of information. Uncertainty on the other hand, according to Nate Silver, is a risk that is hard to measure. We cannot measure fatigue. Even if we could we do not understand how it actually affects performance.
I am not saying that fatigue does not exist, I am saying that the human body is capable of handling its shit. We choose to stop an exercise long before we die. These feedback loops are in place for a reason and it is a remarkable thing.
The brain of the individual can measure the unmeasurable and make decisions that are best for that person at that time. One way it does this is by increasing perceived effort. This will make lighter weights feel heavier and almost always leads to less sets being completed. There is volume control. The opposite happens as well.
In ecological psychology there are two different paths that can alter the individual’s behavior. There is a global and local part to the system. The local part is the individual and the global part is the coach.
If the coach tells a lifter that they are tired and that is why they are seeing a drop in performance and they should perform a lighter day, they are projecting their beliefs onto the lifter. They are assuming they understand the variables and can make a calculated risk. This is what data driven programs do. They attempt to find trends. In this case powering through may be a better option.
College professor of cognitive sciences at MIT, Tomaso Poggio stated, “These evolutionary instincts sometimes lead us to see patterns when there are none there. Finding patterns in random noise.”
In this day and age of overwhelming information, we are no smarter now than we were before. Just like with volume, more information is not necessarily better. Instead we decide to find those studies and explanations that confirm our bias. We all do this, even me.
This is why philosophy is so important. It makes you think about the world in very different ways. It poses open ended questions without answers and teaches you how to embrace uncertainty instead of taking calculated risks that ignore bias and uncertainty.
In order to take a calculated risk we need to understand all of the variables involved. Something like poker has a finite number of possibilities. Measuring human existence is far more complex than poker.
When the Patriots were down 28-3 in the Super Bowl against the Falcons close to the end of the 3rdquarter, the probability of them winning was less than 1%. We all saw that play out much differently. Scenarios like this happen all of the time. We are terrible at predicting things.
The coach needs to understand this and let these situations play out. Their language and decisions need to embrace the uncertainty. Attempting to measure these things may be right sometimes, but it will be wrong more often than the coach would like.
I follow a dynamic systems theory approach to training. There are 3 constraints the coach needs to be aware of; the individual, the environment, and the task. All 3 of these will pull training one way or the other whether we like it or not.
The individual is not just bones and muscles. We are very good at measuring physical components of the individual’s training. However, we are very poor at measuring the psychological pieces that come with training. Many use RPE in training and forget that it is perceived effort. The brain can be trained just like the muscles to perceive things differently.
In order to do this we need to train with consequences. The weight on the bar has to be enough to create an emotional response from the lifter. The lifter then needs to learn how to deal with this emotional response.
I was listening to a podcast with Keith Davids (wrote the book, literally, on a constraints-led approach) and he was talking about Parcor and how this is good training for athletes. He gave an example of an athlete approaching a wall and stopping 3 times before he finally performed the task.
He spoke about the emotional stress this was causing on the athlete and how the athlete had to learn to deal with it. On the field, that wall could be a linebacker trying to tackle him. There is a lot of carryover here.
This really resonated with me because the PPS lifters approach that wall every day, but we perceive it differently each day. That wall is the top set of near maximal weights. Sometimes the jump looks further, or the fall looks further down, our legs may be tired, it may be hotter temperatures outside, we may not be feeling into it on this current day. Maybe we missed this same jump a few times before.
All of these factors will affect the outcome. Sometimes the outcome will not be the one that we want. This will increase levels of frustration. When these frustrations arise the lifter needs to be able to separate emotions from decision making and figure out what to do next to get the most out of this training day. Pouting and temper tantrums will not help to make them stronger.
This can be very tough on the coach. It is always easier to just give into the lifter and just give them lighter weights for multiple sets to help build confidence. I get this argument, but I disagree with it. This does not teach the lifter how to deal with the inevitable frustrations of competitive athletics. Powerlifting is competitive athletics. Instead it is the coach having them self-organize globally, based off of the coach’s beliefs, and not locally. This is not easy on the coach, but the coach needs to trust in the individual to find a way. The coach can offer guidance on how to deal with these frustrations. Sometimes this may be pulling back a bit from training, but more often than not it is keeping frustration high to force adaptation to it. We do not only compete when we feel good.
The internal load is moat important for building physical strength within the lifts. As long as we keep effort high, we are getting a training stimulus. We alter the task to punish inefficiencies and promote a recalibration to more efficient techniques of the lifts. We also set up the training to elicit a continues emotional response.
Building an emotionally strong lifter is important for them to be the best lifter that they can possibly be. Elite athletes all share this in common in other sports. They have this sense of irrational confidence mixed with mental resiliency to be able to push themselves beyond typical levels of perceived effort. This is what we are learning to do in the gym.
Doing this allows us to practice less to get a strong training stimulus. We can spend less time in the gym with greater outcomes. There are greater life lessons to be learned here as well. It gives each lifter tools to deal with frustration that will be inevitable in all aspects of life.
This requires the coach to educate the lifters as well. They need to understand that they are not losing strength because there is a down day in the gym. You do not get weaker by training hard. The coach needs to teach the lifter about expectations, beliefs, and past experiences and help to guide the process by violating preconceived expectations and building new experiences.
The lifter can allow the frustration to spiral and lead to many bad training days and a plateau in strength. However, if they learn to handle this frustration with high training skill, they will be able to push progress and hopefully avoid long standing plateaus. Unfortunately, plateaus will still be inevitable, but if they understand that, accept it, and know it will turn around with high effort and good decision making it will lead to a much longer and enjoyable career. We learn this by training with consequences and emotions.