Kaitlyn Burgess’s previous quote prompts another subject that I think is crucially important when trying to compete at a high level: resiliency; or, the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. When it comes to programming and training, there are an incredible number of factors that can play a role. Even if someone had a perfect program, there are so many life factors that can disrupt that plan. Work, kids, school, relationships, etc. can all be stressful. The point is clear: sometimes things just aren’t going to line up so that training is perfect.
With this idea in mind, I tell all my lifters, and my students, to focus on what you can control. In this last section of this way too long article, I will discuss a few of the strategies I used with Courtney to practice this approach. The hope was that this method would lessen her stress levels, which would make a difference in her performance on game day(s).
Before getting into the specifics, I’d like to discuss a concept that heavily influences the way I try to mold my athlete’s thinking. I believe that our minds can craft our own realities, and I try to get the athletes to do that by introducing the idea of process vs. outcome. I’ll explain this process vs. outcome idea using an example. Let’s say that someone wants to bench 315 pounds. If someone takes an outcome-oriented approach to this, then that individual’s focus is likely going to be on the weight that is lifted rather than the way it’s lifted. Maybe someone has awful form, but they continue loading up the weight. Their left shoulder starts to hurt on one side, so they throw Icy Hot on it, and change nothing else. This pain never goes away, and, lo and behold, they start experiencing pain in their right lat. More icy hot, more weight – the goal is 315.
What I’m trying to demonstrate here is what often happens to individuals when they take an outcome oriented approach. Sure, the weight moved, but the chance that that weight will continue moving is slimmer by the day because that individual is not focusing on the process, and only the outcome. Focusing on the process in this case would mean acknowledging the pain in the shoulder as a sign that poor movement is occurring. A process-oriented approach would entail assessing the movement pattern, making the appropriate changes, and adjusting the weight in order to practice this new movement pattern.
An outcome-oriented approach often leads to ignoring these types of signs in an effort to achieve that outcome. Sure, focusing on the process may take a little longer, but if someone gets injured by staying outcome-oriented, then time has been lost, as well as money for therapy, surgery, etc. It may also mean not being able to get attention through social media because a process-oriented approach is not sexy. This process vs. outcome-oriented approach is also discussed in sport psychology literature as task vs. ego orientation. Task orientation means being motivated by the desire to master a task for its own pleasure. Ego orientation means being motivated by the external rewards that mastering a task could bring such as recognition, monetary rewards, social status. etc.
As mentioned, a lot of my coaching strategies branch from the mantra, “focus on what you can control.” One of these strategies is that I tell my athletes to treat training, especially event training, like practice. Our goal is to get the athlete at least 90% competent in the lift at a certain weight. Once the athlete has practiced enough with that weight (or weight range), and has demonstrated proficiency, then the idea is to add a new challenge, or stimulus, in the form of more weight. Once the athlete has demonstrated proficiency with that weight, then it’s time to add more weight and continue practicing the movement. With proper programming and periodization, I think this combination really helps the athlete focus on what they can control, and reduces the amount of self-induced, unnecessary stress from training. Considering my belief that we can only handle a certain amount of stress before progress stalls, it’s important to eliminate any stress that does not help someone achieve their goals.
I think the self-induced, unnecessary stress from training that I mentioned should be explained a bit. Often someone will perform a set or a rep, and I will exclaim genuinely, “That’s the best rep I’ve ever seen you do!” To me, this is HUGE. But, often, to the athlete, this isn’t a big deal. I then think to myself, “WHAT THE FUCK?! WHY IS ACCOMPLISHING SOMETHING THAT YOU’VE NEVER DONE BEFORE NOT A BIG DEAL?! WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?!” If I inquire a bit, I often find that the athlete is focused on the weight they need to lift at a competition, or that the athlete totally disregards the reality of the situation – that they did something they’ve never done before, gained a new experience, LIVED, etc. – because they are focused on what someone else has done. To this I respond with a nice maxim my wonderful girlfriend told me: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I think this holds true for a number of reasons.
First, if we are trying to be stronger to get attention from others or for social media points, then we are in for a rude awakening. Eventually injury will occur, or age will simply take its toll. Granted, there are ways to delay the onset of aging, but these goals, in my opinion, are futile. Although extremely sobering, it is a reality that eventually every single person that we know will not be alive on this Earth. Eventually, all current records will be broken. Eventually, people, even the legends, will be forgotten. I’m talking hundreds of years here (and this is coming from a historian). With these assumptions in mind, I believe it is extremely important that the passion for strength come from an internal motivation. This is the only life I know, and I’ll be damned if I live it for anyone else but my loved ones and me. I would never want anyone I coach to put forth so much effort and time – that they will never get back – in order to simply get attention from others. This, to me, is the opposite of self-actualization or self-fulfillment.
With these guiding psychological principles and philosophies in mind, I’d like to share ways that I put them into practice to help Courtney (and the other folks I train) during her prep and during the Nationals competition.
One way in which I tried to condition Courtney into a process-oriented mindset was with the mantra, “one rep at a time.” Often, especially with longer sets, I found myself and others just trying to get through the set by any means possible. When stepping back, I realize this approach has some flaws. First, it can be extremely intimidating to the think, “Fuck, I have to get through 8 reps at [insert challenging weight here]!” So, by taking a goal oriented, and process-oriented approach, I think the best way to handle this is to break the main goal down into smaller goals. A set is made up of reps, so let’s just take it one rep at a time. You can’t win a marathon as soon as the gun fires. You have to take it step by step. By taking this same approach to weight training, I believe the athlete sheds the heightened arousal of thinking about how difficult a set will be, and focuses on the task at hand – the present. The athlete can do nothing about the past (which could have been an awful rep), nor can they do anything about the future (which could be the impending five reps they have to perform). But, in that moment, the athlete can focus on the cues that help them perform the movement with the most efficient technique possible. In that moment, the brain is not focused on the external pressures of finishing a set, or not disappointing their coach, or not hitting their goals, or not being as strong as every other person on social media. In that moment, the athlete is liberated from those external pressures and free to perform the movement for themselves. Through this type of process, I believe the potential chances that the athlete achieves self-actualization, or realizes why they have undertaken weight training, is much higher. Those external pressures WILL NOT help someone lift the weight in that moment. I believe it’s more efficient to focus on what will help someone lift the weight in that moment, and that means focusing on what they can control.
Another phrase that I use with my athletes over and over again is “patience.” This falls aligns with taking things one rep at a time. For instance, when an athlete is patient, and not trying to impress anyone with the outcome, that athlete can focus on exactly what they need to do in order to complete the lift efficiently. Take the log, for instance. In my opinion, the log is one of the most technically demanding strongman events there are. As many of us have probably experienced, a log clean and press at first feels like a marathon. First we have to pick it, then lap it, then clean it, and then, finally, we get to put it over our heads.
So, as a coach, I do my best to break down this one large goal into smaller goals. The first step is the pick. Once we get that down, then we can introduce the clean. Once we get the clean down, then we can introduce the press. Sometimes I even program different steps on different days so that learning can occur in smaller steps. Then, when the athlete finally performs all those steps in the proper sequence, the lift is a much less demanding endeavor. It’s very difficult for our brains to process all the information at once that it takes to perform a lift like the log clean and press. So, after I have conditioned my athletes to remain patient, I continue to cue them on it so they know to take things one step at a time. If an athlete is just worried about pressing the log overhead, that athlete is in for a rude awakening if the clean isn’t at least 90%. In my eyes, for my athletes to be successful over the long term, they MUST perform every step of the process with at least 90% competency in order for me to view the outcome as successful.
I think this really paid off with Courtney at Nationals. We knew that the log was going to be tough for her, and I thought that 3 reps would be an extremely successful outcome. I thought maybe she could get two. I really wanted her to get one, and I thought she could. I did not want a zero, and neither did Courtney. So, during training, we trained the log like we imagined it would happen at Nationals. She had 60 seconds, so we used every second as efficiently as possible. If she needed to get 2 reps on her heavy set, Courtney would take her time, step away from the log, breathe, remind herself of her cues, and perform each step of the process as best she could.
It was almost eerie how similar this was to the competition. At the whistle, Courtney took a breath, braced, and picked the log easily, just like she always does. She then cleaned it pretty nicely, and dipped for a big drive. I don’t know exactly what happened on the drive (nerves are always a factor during the first event from my experience though), but Courtney was just shy of catching it and locking it out. She dropped it, and stepped away, and I told her, “Good! Take a step back! Breathe! Breathe! Take a second!” This was exactly how we treated our practice/our training. Courtney was completely comfortable here. There was nothing else to focus on, and there were no distractions from her goal because she had been there before. On top of all that, her only focus was the process and her cues. She was right where she needed to be. You can see this in action here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BbX5gaqDgmR/?taken-by=icecream_and_condescension
After composing herself, Courtney walked up to the log. After seeing only a few women press the log in her weight class, I hollered at her, “You only need one! You need one rep, right here!” Courtney repeated her same process. Easy pick. Easier clean than last time. She drove and barely caught the log, but she caught it, and locked it out for one rep, and a ton of points. Patience produces PRs.
Taking things one step at a time helped Courtney with the yoke as well. As I mentioned in part one of this article, a number of individuals dropped the yoke and lost some very crucial points. With Courtney, cues have always started with “secure the pick.” So many individuals on moving events try to start moving forward before actually being in control of the implement. This is similar to a football player trying to run up the field before catching and securing a pass.
On yoke, once the pick is secured, our goal is to accelerate as quickly as possible to reach top speed. But the key in our training is to always stay within oneself. Technique and efficiency is key. If someone loses their technique, or if someone chooses to focus on the outcome rather than the process, then they usually lean forward, or misstep, which often results in dropping the yoke. This results in a poorer outcome than they would have achieved if they remained focused on the process. Again, just like I tell my athletes, it’s simple, but it ain’t easy.
We also used these types of cues on the husafell carry. Similar to a high-rep set, max distance events like the husafell stone or conan’s wheel can be extremely daunting. So, we make the event manageable by breaking it down. One technique we used was taking the event “one trip at a time.” In other words, as soon as Courtney, or any of my athletes, picks up the stone, the goal is to get to the other end as quickly as possible with proper technique. Nothing else matters. Then, once the athlete makes an efficient turn with no steps wasted, the new goal is upon them – just get to the other end as quickly as possible with proper technique. The athlete does this again, and again, and again, until they are spent, or until they have reached the distance to win. With the goals being simple and achievable, the athlete reduces the amount of stress or worry from trying to get to a certain distance. It’s the handler or coach’s job to tell the athlete how far they need to travel to win, anyway. Now, to be clear, it’s intentional that our strategy is to move as quickly as possible. I’ve seen folks take their time on these max distance events, but I believe that no matter the speed one is moving, the weights being moved are often so heavy that there is little to gain from trying to conserve energy.
To shift gears slightly, the strategy of focusing on what we can control is just as applicable outside of the actual events. For instance, keeping in mind the idea that the body can only handle so much stress before it begins to affect performance, after every event I let Courtney take it all in, talk to her people and slap hands, and then I told her to eat, sit down, and focus on breathing. It’s totally understandable that people at competitions are amped. They have all likely worked hard to get there, and they deserve to be as amped as they want. However, staying amped all day is extremely taxing. Thinking about the next event over an hour before it starts does nothing for the athlete. All it does is introduce stress, “what if’s,” and scenarios that just don’t help the athlete perform the actual event. What does help the athlete is providing the body with nutrients for fuel and recovery, reducing the athlete’s state of arousal, and providing their body with oxygen by breathing correctly. This same routine occurred after Courtney finished every event.
Do I think that this is was what pushed Courtney over the edge to win? Probably not. But I do know that, just as in training, the accumulation of factors can play a significant role in how the body responds. So, we did our best to reduce the amount of stress that Courtney experienced by only focusing on what she could control. I would argue that her resiliency, as demonstrated by her consistency in finishing no lower than third place, and then finishing better in day two than on day one, are bits of evidence that support the benefits of focusing on what she could control.
Now, as it often happens at strongman competitions, changes occurred at Nationals. The order of some events changed, and some events were altered. While walking around during the competition, it wasn’t difficult to hear folks say that they heard this was going to change or that was going to change. When I saw Courtney talking with folks about these types of “what if” scenarios, I did my best to diffuse the situation by saying something along the lines of, “Hey, we don’t know what it will be, and that’s ok. All we know is that they will tell us what the event is, and everyone will have to do the same event. Worrying about this stuff now does nothing to help us. All we can do is focus on what we can control.” Then I would do my best to pull Courtney back to the present and tether (as controlling as that sounds) her to it by telling her to lay down, do STIM if she needed it, breathe, eat, etc. Again, I think this paid off. It was likely not something that made her performance, but I was not willing to take that risk.
The last strategy that I think is important to discuss is the RPE scale. As many of you likely know, RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. This numeric scale (1-10) is a way to help athletes autoregulate their training in order to manage fatigue in hopes of providing proper stimulus to maintain progress. When I prescribe RPEs, a 7 should feel like a solid warm up, an should 8 feel like the athlete can definitely perform two more reps at 90% or better technique, a 9 should feel like the athlete can definitely perform one more rep at 90% or better technique, and a 10 should feel like the athlete can perform no more reps at 90% or better technique.
To further explain, it’s helpful to compare this programming strategy to percentages. With percentages, there is often little flexibility or variability. Individuals can feel beholden to the weight or percentage prescribed, and if they don’t achieve that weight, they may be disappointed. Now, if we think back to one of my assumptions – that stress comes in all forms – it follows that sometimes we just don’t feel our best when we walk into the gym. Again, family, friends, children, work, politics, etc. can affect our stress levels and leave us feeling pretty worn out before we even start warming up. This sounds like trouble if we are “supposed” to hit a prescribed weight or percentage that day.
This is where RPE’s come in. For instance, if you prescribe 7 sets of 3 reps on squats with the goal of the last rep of the last set to be an 9 RPE, then the weight does not matter. I will say this another way: I prescribe RPEs because the outcome does not matter. I prescribe RPEs because they are, in my opinion, a wonderful way to help the athletes take a process-oriented approach. If the athlete comes into the gym only running at 80%, then the RPEs allow that athlete to get 100% of that 80%. Then, the athlete can leave the gym happy that they did what they were supposed to do. They put in the work, they TRUST that following these RPEs will help them reach their goal, and, essentially, they have become process-oriented.
In a sport like strongman, in which events are incredibly taxing and it’s very difficult (in my experience) to be precise with proper sets and rep schemes, I believe that the RPE scale is an enormous help. It allows for flexibility, it allows for the athlete to focus on what they can control, it forces them to think about the process, their technique, and their fatigue, and, frankly, it’s extremely low pressure. The RPE scale, which I learned about by reading Mike Tuchsherer’s The Reactive Training Manual, is all about tailoring the strength training stimulus to that specific athlete’s fatigue situation.
The last bit I’d like to say about using the RPE scale is that it fits with how I try to get my athletes to think about training. For instance, someone could get under a yoke and try to beat a time they posted in the past. This sounds like a solid plan, assuming all things are equal. But – that’s the rub – all things are almost never equal. Trying to beat a time that someone may have posted on an awesome day is asking a lot. It’s also setting oneself up for failure if the only goal is an outcome. What if the athlete hits an 8.1 second yoke and they wanted a 7.9 time? Does that .2 seconds mean that everything the athlete did that day was a failure? I sure hope not! Because, again, the outcome tells a very small part of the story. If we want to change the outcome, we must focus on the way that we achieved that outcome. We MUST focus on the process.
So, as a way around focusing on the outcome, RPEs force the athlete to do what they can right then and right there. To me, this sounds a lot like a strongman competition. Things are almost never going to be perfect, so focus on what you can control during that event and give all you have with the proper process (aka form and technique). It doesn’t matter how tired the athlete is due to sleeping in a loud hotel the night before or driving for 4 hours that morning. It doesn’t matter that the athlete is in between jobs, it doesn’t matter that during the previous event the implement was damaged a bit and it didn’t feel like the implement the athlete trained with. That stuff just doesn’t matter. So, why don’t we practice how we want to play? Why don’t we take situations as they come, focus on what we can control in those situations, and give all that we have right then, and right there, and know that we left it all where we should have?
This entire article can be thought of as a way of structuring training by starting with goals. I think that training using RPEs is a really beneficial strategy for eliminating, or at least reducing, external stresses that do nothing to help the athlete in the present, especially if their long term goal is success and health in the sport.
I think this last section of the article is really key in wrapping up this entire piece. I started the article by explaining the importance of goal setting in guiding training and competition decisions. I then explained how those decisions influenced the programs I created for Courtney, and how I thought about justifying every rep that I prescribed. In this last section, you can see how virtually every single decision was guided by the question, “What can we do or control that can help us qualify for the Arnold?” We can always do something. We can always act in some way. We can all exercise agency.
Even when Courtney and Ashleigh Dinkins, another athlete I coach, were waiting in line to get yoke heights the night before Nationals started, I bought them some snacks because we thought we would eat dinner earlier. Sure, standing in line sucks, and it really increases anxiety because no one wants to be there and everyone is sizing each other up. But, it had to be done. That didn’t mean that we could do nothing to help our situation, though. Once we thought about it through that lens, the decision was easy. Now, did getting 50 grams of carbs into these folks change the entire competition for them? Heck no! But as a coach who is doing everything I can to help my athletes reach their goals, I won’t take that chance.
With all this being said, it would be an insult to not praise Courtney’s ability to maintain her composure throughout her entire prep. She had to put her trust in me to do the right things, and she had to trust the process. When I think about it more, I think this is a wonderful example of self-discipline, and it is no easy feat. But Courtney did it, and she went all-in, and she won. As in all things, I’m sure there was some luck involved, but I considered it my job to do everything I could so that Courtney made her own luck in Las Vegas.
First, thank you for spending time – time that you will not get back – reading what I had to say. You may not know me from Adam, and even if you do, I know your time is valuable – so thank you.
Second, I know that I do not know everything. I know there is no perfect approach to training, and that any number of factors will play a role in each prep, macrocycle, etc. I also know that success can be achieved in ways other than what I described in this article. However, for the longest time I’ve done exactly what I tell my athletes NOT to do: compare. I’ve wanted to share what I think is valuable knowledge because I want to help others, but I’ve been afraid of what people will think about it. Will it be shot down? Have I just been really lucky? If I haven’t achieved the same types of athletic success others have, will anyone listen to me? If I don’t fit the identity of a typical strength athlete, will I be accepted?
Frankly, these questions don’t matter. From a coaching standpoint, and I believe from a life standpoint, it is important to actively seek opportunities to reflect on our experiences in order to improve something, even if it is simply our understanding. I hope this piece has accomplished that somehow. I hope it has made you think differently, even if it is about the tiniest bit of information. If I made you at least think your own thinking, then I have accomplished what I wanted with this piece, and I thank you for your willingness to let your thinking be affected. I would love to hear any feedback or thoughts that anyone has about what I’ve written, as I plan to continue reflecting on my process in order to continue achieving the outcome of successful, self-actualized athletes. Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, thoughts, or comments you have!