If you look up fear in the dictionary you will find the following:
Noun: An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
Verb: Be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening.
We encounter fear everyday in our lives; it could range from fear of paying bills, fear of losing your job, fear of failing that bench press PB in front of the gym, all different kinds of fears. I often think of the quote by Mark Twain when I think of fear, ‘’Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.’’
We can use fear to our advantage, I truly believe fear can make or break us in a powerlifting competition, or stop us competing altogether. How many times have you seen a lifter fail his first two attempts, only to come back on the 3rd attempt and lift it easier than the first two attempts? Other factors might contribute to this, equipment, technique, however the heightened sense of fear that they will bomb sets in and they lift like life itself depended on it. We can utilise fear to push our normal boundaries, I often get what is described as the ‘’fight or flight’’ feeling before I lift. In response to fear, the ‘’fight or flight’’ effect causes blood flow to the arms and leg muscles to increase, to ensure that these muscles will get extra oxygen and nutrients. Breathing speeds up to allow the body to take in enough oxygen to keep up with the increased circulation of blood.
In the 1975 World Championships, in Moscow, the mighty 90kg Russian weightlifter David Rigert had torn a tendon in his ankle a few months prior, and was hurting pretty bad going in to the contest. Rigert had planned to also take just one attempt in the clean and jerk, enough to win the overall title. However, with compatriot Poltoratsky also lifting, the weight needed would be reasonably heavy. As it turned out, 210kg was the weight that would seal the championship - just 6kg under the world record. On his first attempt, Rigert pulled heavily and could not get out of the squat clean. He limped off the platform as the crowd fell silent. On his second attempt, Rigert couldn't get the weight to his chest as he fell backwards and was helped off the platform. While Petzold of East Germany tackled the same weight, Rigert backstage received some treatment for what seemed to be an injured ankle. Without enough time to take his lifting shoe off, he was quickly injected with a pain killer through his sock! No one knows whether there was enough time for the pain killer to work but Rigert came out and made one of the gutsiest lifts (if not THE gutsiest) ever seen at a world or Olympic championships - hard at every stage, the pull, getting out of the squat and struggling to hold the jerk - before finally holding it for the down signal and a standing ovation from the crowd as his coach, 1964 Olympic Champion Rudi Plyukfelder, raised his arm in victory and he helped him off the stage. The fear of failure, of not making the weight must have been massive. If you type David Rigert in to YouTube, you can see this video for yourself, on the 3rd and final lift, Rigert raises his finger to his mouth and urges the crowd to be quiet, this would a prime example of an athlete dealing with and overcoming fear.
There are things we can do to help lessen the pressure of competing; there is nothing worse than going to a contest with negative thoughts in your mind. In powerlifting, preparation is everything, you compete as you train and training is where you master your craft. If your training cycle has gone to plan, chances are you will be confident going to your competition. You won’t break records or win contests by accident, try to plan sensible lifts and goals each week leading up to a contest. If you can back up your competition lifts with a solid training routine, your confidence should be very high come contest time. If you’re out partying every weekend, burning the candle at each end, your mind will be all over the place. Try and find relaxing things to do when you’re away from the gym, spend time with your family, go and buy a book to read, anything to relax your mind. We are not all full time Olympic or professional athletes, some of us have to work and provide for families, however we can all perform better if we plan ahead and take advantage of what we have to work with. The very small things that people find trivial can make a big difference, always make sure you arrive early for a contest, book your hotel room months in advance if possible, you will already be under extreme pressure before a competition, don't do it last minute. Try and find videos or results of some lifters you compete against, work out strengths or any weaknesses they might have. If you have ever seen Pumping Iron, Arnold Schwartanneger used mental warfare as a tool to psychologically take his opponents apart.
"The gentle art of psychological warfare: At the 1980 Olympia at one point I leaned over and told Frank Zane a joke...and, sure enough, he was laughing so hard that his concentration for his next pose was gone." (Page 664; Arnold Schwarzenegger: Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding; Simon and Schuster, © 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger)
Be very careful if you decide to become involved in this type of psychological warfare, it can backfire on you. By winding an opponent up you could motivate them to beat you even more. With today's technology, most of the planet has access to the internet, it's not uncommon to see lifters playing mind games on different web sites and posting videos of their latest training session. As crazy as it sounds, things like this can have a negative impact on the lifter going in to a show. Last Christmas I had the honour to train with UFC Welterweight champion Georges St Pierre, in Roger Gracie's gym, in London. GSP is a prime example of somebody that gives his opponents little or no motivation from smack talk or pre fight hype. This can be mentally derailing for an opponent and can beat a person psychologically before they even get to the contest. Mike Tyson used to talk about looking in the eyes of his opponent, on the pre fight stare down in the ring. He would stare, stare, and stare until his opponent looked down or away once, then he would know he had them and they were afraid.