Below are 6 important principles that I feel make up a mentally strong athlete. These are things that take time to fully grasp and appreciate, but are very beneficial for the development and growth throughout your own athletic endeavours.
1. Respect your environment
2. Be Open to learning
3. Be Disciplined
4. Lean to grind through
5. Be patient
6. You will fail…
Respect your environment
You are here to learn. From the coaches, your teammates, and the barbell (or any other equipment you may use, but I will stay specific to weightlifting for now). Both of these things will teach you; how to push harder, how to move faster, how to fight through mentally. All of those people (and objects) are there to support you in some way, shape, or form through your training. For that reason alone, the utmost respect should be shown to all.
When your coaches speak, listen to them, give them your undivided attention. They probably did not open their mouth just to give you an opportunity to stop paying attention to them. They might (Read: will) have something useful to say.
Likewise, your teammates are there to bust their asses just as hard as you are. Show them respect. If someone goes for a PR, give them the focus they desire (Whether that be yelling or complete silence). I am sure you will appreciate that same level of respect shown towards you later on.
Lastly, your barbell is more than just a strip of metal. It is the medium through which you are taught how to become an athlete. That 20kg bar, if you allow it to, will teach you how to push through failure, and become stronger than you ever thought possible. Show it respect. Consider it a teammate. Do not walk over it. Don’t mistreat it. A good bar can easily last 20, 30 years.
Openness to Learning
The easiest way to do this, is to accept the notion that you know nothing. You might know a little bit more than the average person, but unless you are an international competitor or coach, you still probably know nothing. A coach is not going to try to change your technique because they know it will absolutely screw you over. They are going to try to help you.
The advice they give is likely based off of experience, and has a high probability of helping you improve. Do not just disregard their advice because “my current technique feels just fine”. The mentality should always be “But what more can I do? How can I be even better?”. Be open to trying new suggestions.
So, your goals are lofty. That means you are going to have to work for them. Sometimes that means making certain sacrifices. It might mean having to give up partying and drinking, or it might mean having to lose an hour of that blissful sleep-in so you can get in a morning training session on days where meetings run late into the day. If you really want to see improvements towards your goals, then you need to have the discipline to actively direct your life and daily activities towards those goals.
Let’s face it, drinking, partying, and sleeping in can all be quite fun. But they can take away from the goal at hand. The harder the goal, the more discipline you are going to need in order to attain it. You need to show up every day, and you need to give up on the things that might be holding you back.
Training gets tough. Really tough. And sometimes it might seem like it is not enjoyable anymore. But it is all just a test. If you can push through when it gets hard, then you can overcome a HUGE mental barrier of what is and is not possible for yourself.
You might wake up one morning, check your program, and think your knees are a bit too stiff to handle all of those squats for the day. But you need to push through and show up for training, because you will be better off in the long run because of it. You will reach your goal by pushing through when it gets hard, but you definitely will not reach your goal by sandbagging your training.
It takes time. Lots of time. Lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of time. Sometimes, your goals take so much time that it does not feel like you are improving at all. But you need to keep showing up. You are not going to reach your goals by quitting, so you better keep showing up and busting your ass, slowly accumulating those 10,000 practice hours. In weightlifting, it is often said that it takes 10 years to hit your peak in the sport. For an elite few, that means showing up 5-6 days a week, often twice a day, for 2-3 hours.
Suddenly, that brief 2 week plateau probably does not seem so bad, does it? Sure, maybe the approach is what’s holding you back, but it all boils down to patience. You need to trust in the coach, trust in the program. Do not get romanticized by the “perfect training method”. There isn't one. Everyone is different. It all takes time.
Just show up every day for a few years at least, and then we can talk about a lack of improvement. But for the most part, you WILL improve if you just keep showing up.
You will fail
You are going to fail. The higher you set your goals, the more you are going to fail. It is a test. It is all a test to see how strong you are. You want to go to the Olympics? You’re probably going to bomb out, at least once, and probably a couple times. But you are not going to get better unless you learn from your mistakes.
Okay, you set a goal. You failed. Now what? Something obviously went wrong. Figure out what it was. How to avoid it. How to ensure that the next time your goals get tested, there is absolutely no possible way you could fail in a remotely similar way to last time.
Prepare to fail again.
You will probably fail again. You will probably succeed again too. But not if you give up after failing the first time.
Dan is a national level Canadian weightlifter and coach at CrossFit Queen Street. He recently set two new Junior Provincial records in the Snatch and Clean & Jerk, and is working towards finishing his degree in Kinesiology.