I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in strength training, there seem to be two opposite groups along the emotional barometer. On one hand, we have the rage machines. These are the people who say: You’ve got to get angry! You’ve got to get aggressive! You’ve got to take it out on the barbell. The barbell is your enemy!
I know that you’re thinking about how silly it is to get angry at a piece of metal (or, you should be) but go ahead and try telling one of them so. I dare ya. These guys look at anger like its the force. Their buddy eats a Tootsie Roll and they sniff the air, saying, “I sense a disturbance…is it?…no, it couldn’t be…happiness?”
Nah, it’s just the chocolate. Still, the rage machines understand something. To perform at high levels, you may need to “psyche yourself up.” Some people need this more than others. What this really means is heightening your state of arousal. Are there better ways to do it? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work better than standing there worrying and hoping you’ll make that next lift.
The opposites of the rage machines are the happy fairies. Surprisingly, the happy fairies are much more rabid in their approach. While the rage machines may say, “I prefer to get angry. Anger works for me,” the happy fairies are the thought police. If they sense a negative thought they break out the patented thought-censor devise called the POTUM. That is an acronym that stands for Positive Thinking PowerUp Module. Go ahead and Google it.
The happy fairies don’t just think that the key to success in your training, and in anything in life is to think positive, happy thoughts, they will shame anyone who utters a negative word! “Why all this negativity,” they say? “Why, the key to fitness, enlightenment, the universe, and everything is positivity!”
The Rage Machines Versus the Happy Monkeys
Let me tell you a story. We used to be monkeys. Really we were apes but who can tell the difference? Like the monkeys, we lived in trees and munched on fruit all day.
At some point, some of the essential comforts started lacking. You know, like fruit to munch on. And trees to sit in. So, some of the monkeys, let’s call them the rage machines, got pissed off. They said, forget this, I’m leaving. These trees are getting crowded and I’m hungry.
So they climbed down out of the trees and then made like a tree. You know. But some of the monkeys, let’s call them the happy fairies, they said, “what’s wrong with you guys? You need to chill. Things will be cool just stay in the tree and think happy thoughts!”
Long story short, the rage machines took over the world and now number in the billions. Without them, there would be no barbells to lift or to think happy thoughts about lifting. True story. Google it.
Good Things Come to Those Who Complain
So my point, with this less than scholarly treatment of human evolution, is this: Everything that gets accomplished starts with a similar emotional state. It starts with a little dissatisfaction. Even, yes, anger. You need something. You want something. You are motivated to change something; to get what you need or create what you need. To obtain what you want. If it sounds like I’m saying ‘happy thoughts’ don’t often lead to big changes, I am. That is exactly what I’m saying.
In order to accomplish any difficult goal, heck, in order to be motivated to achieve a goal, you have to at least be a tiny bit dissatisfied. If you’re happy and positive all the time, that’s great. But it’s not going to push you to achieve big things. Most big things start with a problem. A need.
Here’s the thing, though. Being dissatisfied, even being pissed off some of the time, does not mean you are an unhappy person. There are many myths associated with happiness, most of them being of the pop-psychology variety, and this is one of them.
Happy or Sad, Success or Failure?
How mood influences your success or failure in the gym is quite a complicated subject. It may be that mood has more to do with your feelings about your success or failures, how you perceive them, than your actual performance.
This is a strange thing to consider. Let’s say I am in a negative mood or a sad mood, and it’s time to test my squat. I have a certain weight in mind, or PR, that I want to achieve. What if I succeed, despite my pessimism? Will I think to myself, “you were wrong to be negative, obviously, you are master of the squat”?
Probably not. I am likely to still underestimate my capabilities in the squat! Despite my success. So, even though I still succeeded despite my “negative mood” my future perception or expectation of continued success may not improve.
However, much depends on the actual task. I am usually quick to point out that negative thoughts, or negative self-talk, is not conducive to a big PR in the weight room. But, that doesn’t mean that happy thoughts and excessive enthusiasm is the key to success.
We’ve all seen social media posts where folks say “Booyah, deadlifts! Beastmode!” as if they are ever so excited to be deadlifting and it’s just a fun romp on the lifting roller-coaster of life. For most of us concerned with absolute strength, though, when it comes to getting those big weights moving, we actually do feel just a little bit anxious.
Is anxiety bad for your performance? Not really. In general, a certain amount of anxiety seems to be beneficial to performance. If you think about it, what does performance anxiety signal? It means you understand the challenge, right? It means you take it seriously, right? It means you want to rise to the occasion! Of course, too much anxiety is a bad thing, but it would probably surprise a lot of people to know that no anxiety at all may not be best, either.
So, let’s then say that I have no anxiety at all before a big lift. Not only that, but I am just as happy as a clam. Despite my positive mood, I fail. Will I then conclude that I overestimated my chances of success? Will I think that in the future I should take things a tad more seriously, maybe even be a bit anxious about it? Not necessarily. See, I am very likely to just say, well, I failed, but that doesn’t mean I’m not awesome. I can do it and next time I’ll add a couple of plates!
The above is probably a recipe for an injury, not success. The point is, then, that happy thoughts do not lift a barbell, nor do they ensure future success, or change the actual outcome of your lifting efforts! No matter how positive you are, as they say, the numbers don’t lie. In fact, when Henry Rollins said ‘the iron never lies to you’ it may be the one useful thing he ever uttered. This doesn’t stop us from lying to ourselves, though.
I Believe in Myself!
There are many myths in sports and exercise psychology. This particular myth about positive thinking is one that extends to psychology in general. If we could name it, we might call it the “I believe in myself” approach.
The key to success in strength training is not to believe in what you can do, but to understand it! This means that the more you learn about your strengths, weaknesses, and true capabilities, the more success you’ll have.
Before you even think it, or some self-help yahoo tells you, not going with the “I believe in myself” approach does not mean you have no confidence. Confidence isn’t a thing you either have or don’t have. It is much like motivation, which is subject to just as many myths.
What is Confidence?
In terms of athletic performance, most people think having self-confidence means that you believe that you will always win, or always succeed. So, basically, self-confidence is the complete lack of self-doubt.
Thinking you will fail is probably a detriment to success. I’ve said so myself on many occasions. But does this mean that thinking you will always succeed is a guarantee of success? In other words, does thinking you are a winner make you a winner?
Let’s ask some questions about confidence, then, which may shed some light on these myths:
If you ignore your weaknesses and failures, are you confident?
What do you think? Does a confident person stick his or her head in the sand, pretending to never fail, pretending to have no weaknesses? Pretending instead that everything is just perfectly fine and nothing will ever go wrong? You got the answer in one, didn’t you? This is not how a confident person behaves. A confident person faces failures and weaknesses head-on! He or she uses them as sources of information with which to plan future success.
If you expect to achieve unrealistic things, are you confident?
I want you to think about this one a moment. I put a key word in the question: unrealistic. What would make your beliefs about your chances of success unrealistic? What if you have not prepared? Can you expect to deadlift 400lbs if you haven’t even lifted 350? If you’ve never even attempted to lift your max? Is this realistic? Believing you can do something that you haven’t even bothered to truly prepare for is not confidence, it is over-confidence, which often is no real confidence at all! That is, over-confidence is akin to cockiness, and cockiness is brought out by a lack of belief in your abilities. It is a way of shielding yourself from a true assessment of your successes and failures, your strengths and weaknesses, etc.
In truth, over-confidence is not really confidence at all. When you are truly confident, in a realistic way, you cannot be over-confident. So, when we say someone is over-confident we mean that they are unrealistically confident. They have hyped themselves up.
Confidence Improves Performance, Over-Confidence Impairs It
Having a realistic sense of confidence, what sports psychologists would call optimal confidence is nothing but good when it comes to performance. Yes, the confident outperform those who are not confident. This is both a direct and indirect affect. That is, confidence seems to directly correlate to improved performance while also influencing other mental factors that govern performance, in a positive way. For example, being confident means you have less negative self-talk. This improves performance.
But, even if you are very accomplished, and very skilled, believing you are better than you truly are often means that you will fail to adequately train! You will simply think that you are more prepared than you are. Even for the strongest person, becoming complacent is not conducive to lifting success!
Given this, if a truly gifted and prepared lifter’s confidence is a bit over-inflated, this person still can develop a more realistic level of confidence, given time, and the proper lessons in disappointment (and well-earned success).
Often, however, what we see as overconfidence is no confidence at all. It is false confidence. You see, many of us believe, and have even been taught, through some of the pop-psychology I mentioned above, that acting confident is as good as being confident! It is a common belief that even if you are full of self-doubt and anxiety, if you exude outward confidence, you will overcome this! If you fear failing a lift, but you outwardly pretend that “it ain’t nothing but a peanut,” your fear will melt away. You will become what you outwardly portray.
You probably have come accross both the overconfident and the falsely confident and called them both cocky or arrogant. The overconfident person is often the type of athlete that makes us say, “damn, he’s cocky but he IS good!” We know that he’s not quite as good as he thinks he is, but he can back up at least some degree of confidence with actual performance.
On the other hand, the falsely confident person, whom we also call cocky, is simply hiding their lack of belief in their abilities. Like so many of us, they have been led to believe that confidence is the key to success so they manufacture it and wear it like a suit of clothes.
However, since what really underlies this facade is anxiety and self-doubt, they will have a much harder time overcoming this “positive thinking” delusion and actually doing the things they need to do to improve both their mental and physical game. In being told that positive thinking leads to success, they have failed to gather the skills that WILL lead to success, and will likely remain stuck in a cycle of failure, excuses, and blame. They will avoid failure rather than facing it.
No Replacement for Hard Work
The more you think about the myth of “positive thinking” the more it comes back to what the truly confident already know: There is no replacement for hard work. You have to work hard to earn confidence and that confidence comes from your many successes and your self-knowledge.
Happy thoughts and a barbell may make you want to shout “Deadlifts, boo-yah!” and work yourself up to a frenzy of enthusiasm, but if that is you, you may be just the kind of person who will say, “oy, I would have gotten that lift if it hadn’t been for this or that.” This or that usually being something that is out of your control.
I want to leave you with one more thought about confidence. The personal training industry, especially that portion of it that is afraid of heavy weights, often preaches that only competitors should attempt max weights. Yet, they also preach about positive thinking and confidence. They may have missed that confidence is much more enhanced by success in truly difficult tasks than by success in easy ones! And, at the same time, failure in truly difficult tasks is nowhere near as damaging to confidence as failure in relatively easy ones.
For example, it is much easier to add a few reps to some light weight than to improve your 1RM by a large number. Yet, to fail to add a few light reps to a light weight, is much more detrimental to confidence and enthusiasm than not getting a PR! You expect to succeed on easy tasks, and if you do not, it is a mental setback. You expect to struggle on a difficult task, and if you succeed, it is all the more rewarding. The truly confident do not pretend they are confident by being positive. They earn it!1`