Great Expectations and Failure

At some point in their life, anyone who ever tries to do anything worthwhile will fail. Specific to powerlifting, at some point you’re going to walk into the gym for a training session or a meet, and the shit is going to hit the fan. Maybe you go 3 or 4 for 9 (or bomb), maybe you miss a PR that should have been easy pickings… whatever, it doesn’t matter. At some point you have high expectations, and you fail to meet them. How do you bounce back from that? How do you take a loss and use it as a learning experience? It would be so easy to storm out of a meet after your squats going badly (“Fuck powerlifting, it’s a stupid sport anyway!” etc.), or to fall into a slump.

We’ve all seen the motivation quotes on Instagram (“I’ve found a thousand ways that didn’t work, what they see vs. behind the scenes, blah blah blah”) as captions to photos of some Instagram model in a bikini, but how do you really turn it around?

Goal Setting

To quote Jean-Luc Picard, “it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not failure, that is life.” If you go to a meet, go 9/9, set three PRs in every lift, a total PR, a wilks PR, and have a great day, but you walk home with the silver (or no hardware at all), but your only goal was to take home the gold, then in your own mind you are a failure. It sounds riculous to me even writing this, but there are plenty of people who think that way.

At the risk of sounding like one of those “S.M.A.R.T. Goals” posters you probably saw in high school, goals need to be things that are under your control. I’m about two weeks out from a meet now – is it appropriate for my only goal to be to win? Of course not. A better goal might be “total 580 kg.” If that brings me a podium finish, then that’s great. If it doesn’t, its still a huge competition PR for me, and that’s always a win.

One other idea I heard recently on The Canadian Powerlifting Podcast was using a tiered goal setting system. I think this is a great idea – there’s almost always something good you can take away, even from a shitty meet or a terrible training cycle. Here’s an example I’ve just whipped up for my own upcoming meet, with Tier 1 being my top goal downwards.

  1. Silver Medal. There’s a guy nominated way ahead of me, the only way I can beat him is if he bombs.Myself and one other lifter look tight for second place, but there is one more lifter close behind us. So top goal? Bring home the silver (in saying that, if there’s even an outside chance of finishing first, I’m taking the shot.)
  2. 580 kg total. This would be a big competition PR, would give me about a 370 wilks, and would require (modest) PRs on all lifts to be realistic.
  3. Go 9/9. Not missing any lifts would be a big achievement for me.
  4. PR on squats. Squats are my bugbear lift (for now; I’m going to fix this for nationals) so even a modest PR would make the entire day a win for me.
  5. PR on bench and/or deadlifts. Any PR is a good PR when you live life 2.5 kg at a time.

So there is my 5 tiers of goals. Good goal setting is step one to having realistic expectations of yourself, and not letting yourself down.

What’s really important?

Why do you lift, why do you compete, what is your why? You don’t lift for fame or money, there isn’t either of those in powerlifting. I doubt you lift for your family, they probably don’t even understand what powerlifting is. Maybe you lift for your team mates, or maybe for yourself. Either way, it helps to step back and ask yourself what is important. Are you less of a person if you fail your last squat attempt? Will you lose your job, will your significant other leave you? Probably not. Although I strongly encourage everyone to treat themselves as an athlete, powerlifting is, at the end of the day, a hobby sport. There’s no money, no university scholarships, no Olympic medals (yet.) It can’t be your everything, it can’t (totally) rule your life.

The really important thing in powerlifting is personal progress. There’s no way to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced, but the greatest feeling on Earth is to set a goal and work, maybe slowly, but surely, towards it. I love competing, but even if I could never compete again I would still set goals and work towards them. I think that mental aspect is one of the best things about our sport. Its hard, but over time you can learn to shape yourself and your environment, and that things worth having take time to earn.

So, when you fail to meet a goal, and you feel bad about yourself, sit down and think about what’s really important. (Especially if the failed goal was squats. You still have two more lifts, and the really important thing now is not letting one shitty lift ruin your entire day.) 

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

I read a book recently called Mindset, by Carol Dweck. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you add it to your reading list, its fantastic. The author postulates that there are two broad ways to view yourself and others – as either fixed or changeable entities. When you view yourself, or some characteristic of yourself as being fixed, the habit is to only display it when you know you’re going to do well. You’ve probably heard someone say “I’m not going to compete until I’m sure I can win” before; that’s an example of a fixed mindset. Its hiding yourself from the risk of failure and potential embarrassment. People with this fixed mindset at the people who walk away from lifting the first time they have a bad meet, or when they miss a PR they’re sure they’re good for. Missed a 180 kg squat (or whatever)? “Powerlifting is fucking stupid anyway, I’m going to do something else instead.” Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but you see it all the time.

By contrast, people with a growth mindset use these same failures as a chance to develop. They realise that people aren’t judging them (people only care about themselves anyway), so they can use their bad experience to improve themselves. That same person fails a 180 kg squat, and asks why. Did some aspect of their form break down? Is there some muscle holding them back? Identifying that weakness then means that they can improve in the future.

It sounds cliche, but no-one remembers the guy who quit, everyone remember the guy who came in first. The classic powerlifting example is probably Layne Norton. The story goes that Layne was an aspiring natural body builder with twig legs. The fixed mindset person would say that they have small legs, they can’t be a body builder or a powerlifter. Maybe knitting would be more appropriate. The growth mindset person (Layne) said that no-one who can squat 500 lbs has small legs, so he set out to do just that, despite his awful proportions for squatting (Layne’s femurs are like 28% of his total height, which is part of why he has so much forward lean when he squats). Now, he has the world u93 kg IPF squat record – 303 kg.

Wrap Up

Everyone fails to meet their own expectations at some point. The first step to bouncing back from those failures is to have properly set goals from the outset. When you do fail, use that failure as an opportunity to grow. After all, how strong can you really be (mentally or physically) if you fall at the first hurdle?

I hope everyone got something out of this. Maybe its helped you set some goals of your own, maybe you saw a damn good world record squat, or maybe you just realised that Rory thinks way too much!

I hope everyone’s training is going well, see you on the platform!

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