Attitude lessons from high-level lifters and how to get the most out of coaching

Attitude lessons from high-level lifters and how to get the most out of coaching
Me coaching Alex, whom I dislike
Today’s article deals with the characteristics of high-achieving lifters that I think everyone could benefit from adopting.
Myself and my colleague/arch-nemesis Alex Hayes will be covering this in more depth in an upcoming episode of our podcast, Weakly Weights
I’ve had the privilege of coaching, training with, and handling at meets, a few very high-level lifters. Some of whom placed at world championships, or held national or world records, whilst others have just been objectively very strong and impressive.
Especially amongst those who achieve enduring success (as opposed to a flash of success followed by a rapid exit from the limelight, as happens all too often) there is a remarkable degree of overlap between how they approach the training process, engage with a coach, take on feedback, and deal with setbacks/failure. What’s more, many of them are in stark contrast to the attitudes expressed either by early lifters (who may not have developed the fortitude and patience that they have) and those who experience momentary success, and then disappear.
The following are attributes I’ve attempted to develop myself, and ones that I try to instil in clients to ensure their ongoing success in the sport.
1 – They take ownership
The best lifters I’ve spent time with take responsibility for their own development. They define what they want to achieve, and consult with people in a position to help them get there. When they face a difficult situation, they actively look for ways to overcome it. They also take care of the small tasks (like filming sets, or managing their training environment, or making small dietary/lifestyle changes) that they feel will facilitate their best performances.
2 – They proactively seek feedback
The best lifters are constantly seeking constructive feedback. Think of Blaine Sumner (arguably the best single-ply lifter in the world) seeking out Louie Simmons’ advice, despite his own success.
Consider the following anecdotes
1- I had the privilege of assisting Robert Wilks coach Ray Williams as an invitational lifter at the Asia/Oceania Powerlifting Championships in 2015. On his second attempt, Ray squatted something outrageous (maybe 416kg – some type of record). Immediately after walking off of the platform, he came up to me and asked “how was that?”. I had to work really hard not to laugh, because the answer was, objectively speaking, literally the best squat anybody had done, ever. In spite of his momentous achievement, Ray knew he still had another squat to perform and so his mind was on bettering himself for his next attempt (426kg, off the top of my head), which he made, although no thanks to my feedback.
2- I coached Nick Cheadle for a year or so for powerlifting. After his first meet, where he was quite successful (he made approx 20kg PBs on all 3 lifts), he called me the next day to debrief. After telling me about his experiences, his immediate question was “what can I do now to get better? I want to be one of the best lifters in the country, and I need to know what I can do to get there”. I wrote Nick a document outlining, lift by lift, what I think he was doing well and what I thought needed work, as well as an overall strategy for development, all of which he took on board and began to enact.
3 – They are humble.
As with my stories about Ray Williams and Nick Cheadle, good lifters realise that nobody is so good that they know everything. Powerlifting is a funny sport, in that you can reasonably objectively and numerically state how good you are relative to other people, but being caught up in your own level of ability can blind you to lessons from other sources. I’ve learnt countless useful lessons and techniques from lifters that weren’t as good as me, or lifters and coaches who aren’t even into powerlifting. Being open to all ideas means you need a good bullshit filter, but being closed to any but those espoused by people better than you means that the resources available to develop you reduce exponentially as you get better while your problems often get more complex and difficult to solve.
4 – They trust the people around them
Good athletes communicate clearly and frequently with their coaches and training partners. They state their concerns, their subjective feelings about their performance, and try to relate it to prior experience. They develop networks of people who can help them develop and share with them the information that they require to give them assistance.
Trust also entails a willingness to engage in long term strategies to achieve success. Lifters who have achieved a very high level understand that good things don’t come quickly, and even when they are maniacally concerned with outcomes, they still focus on the processes required to get there.
Finally, good athletes delineate the role of coach and athlete clearly. It takes a huge degree of trust to hand your development to somebody else, but by communicating clearly with them, seeking and implementing feedback from them, and following the training process, athletes equip coaches with the tools to make objective decisions to keep them on track. Second-guessing your coach takes you out of the “athlete” role and can mess with well-laid plans, as athletes nearly universally lack the global understanding of their own training plan to make educated changes on the fly.
(Addendum 2020 – I’ve come to speak of athlete/coach relationships in far more collaborative terms than this, recently. Especially with my more experienced athletes or those who are capable of objectivity, I try to work constructively to come to solutions for their training problems that we both believe in. Coaches should be an ally and a resource to athletes, and part of the process of athlete development is in them developing independent coping skills. However, it still takes trust and openness in your coaching relationship to collaborate effectively. If you lack sufficient trust to voice concerns or disagreement, your ability to resolve issues diminishes.)
5 – They adopt a scholarly/introspective approach to their own training
Athletes that have experienced long-term success have a vast backlog of experiences to draw upon. Just as coaches use diversity of experiences to inform their own training practices, athletes who recognise the lessons of prior training and competitions and actively consider what they could have done better are able to implement those changes going forward. Nearly everybody with a long history of success has a smattering of failures along the way, and seeing failure as an opportunity to learn and do better in the future is both motivating and helpful.
6 – They are undeterred by adversity
As I’ve said, long engagements in a sport mean intermittent disappointment is a certainty, and part of being able to overcome losses, injuries, or stalled progress is the skill of reappraising what adversity is.
The most resilient athletes don’t see injury or obstacles as impediments – they identify what they CAN work on (eg – a hamstring injury is a chance to work on your bench) and then work to systematically rectify the problem by engaging in rehab, or working from the ground up to overcome the weaknesses that have stalled a lift. As per the recurring theme, adversity/failure is simply seen as impetus to try new approaches and do better next time.
7 – They are at ease with the ebbs and flows in motivation/progress.
I have a firm belief that intelligently-applied effort leads to desirable outcomes. However in training, as in life, the outcomes aren’t always proportional to the work you put in. The better you get, the less marginal return on greater efforts your training will yield and so relying on constant improvement as a motivator is poison to longevity.
Many strength athletes reach a late peak in their performance, and a crucial determinant of whether you will still be engaging in the sport when you are at your best is your ability to ride the waves of motivation. Enjoying the process of training, developing social connections at the gym, seeing training as an opportunity to learn about yourself and your body, and giving yourself periodic breaks from the pressures of competition/focused training are all great strategies to keep you hanging in there for when the time comes to truly push again.
So how can YOU use this If you’re an athlete looking to become more coachable, or develop some of the mental skills required to be the best you can, try a few of these simple practices
1 – Review your programs in advance.
Ask your coach questions, clarify the purpose and execution of exercises. Take ownership to ensure your progress from the get-go. If you need to substitute an exercise or change days around, communicate and let your coach guide your choices.
2 – Ask for MORE feedback.
Many athletes are hesitant to bother their coach. Contrary to what you may think, good coaches LOVE being bothered. Send videos, write notes, engage with your coach and learn as much as you can. There is no shame in doing things “wrong” at the outset, and wrongs can’t be rectified without communication. Remember, your coach bases their training decisions for you off of what they KNOW, so tell them stuff.
If you don’t give your coach the resources to make informed decisions for you, and you get programs that you don’t believe in, and then you modify them to suit yourself, and then you don’t get the results you want, that is a series of circumstances that all lead back to YOU.
(Addendum 2020 – This does not preclude developing independent coping skills, either. You can absolutely ask for feedback on executive decisions that you have made about your training in the moment. When working remotely with a coach, you will almost always have to make such decisions here and there, such as when a load feels too heavy/light, or when certain equipment is unavailable to you and an exercise requires modification. Use your coaching relationship to develop training skills.)
3 – Define and clearly articulate your goals and values.
This helps your coach plan for you. Not everybody actually WANTS to be the best powerlifter, or cares about their Wilks score, or their body composition, or whatever. You’re the one engaging in the training plan, take some responsibility to make sure it meets your needs. On a deeper level, having a conversation with yourself to define what is really important to you is crucial. Every coach ever has dealt with people who are full of bluster about wanting to be great/big/strong/ripped, when in reality they want to find satisfaction in some other aspect of their life and are treating training as a proxy. Don’t let the expectations of others define the terms on which you engage with your hobby – make it about you and do it on the level that you want to. People recognise and respect authenticity, and there is nothing more authentic than knowing who you are and what you want.

4 – Take feedback on board.
It’s not enough to ask for feedback, you actually have to try to enact it. If your coach asks you to try something, write it down or review their messages pre-session. You can’t expect to get benefits from technical changes that you don’t even try to make. If the feedback you receive is conflicting with your gut feeling, say so to your coach. They’ll either be able to resolve the ambiguity on the spot or find a compromise that satisfies you both. Just don’t pay for somebody’s advice if you don’t actually want it.
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