By Coard Wilkes

There is one thing I have learned to be fact over the years of competing in weightlifting; if you’re going to take weightlifting or any other sport more seriously, then you’re going to need to work on your mental game. It doesn’t matter if training has gone well and you’ve PR’d just about everything leading up to a competition. That voice in your head can and will control the outcome of your competition.

I used to think that if I just trained my butt off leading up to a competition, that I would have the confidence to perform well at every competition. And at first, it worked really well for me! Yes, I of course did have bad competitions. I didn’t win every competition I went to (and still don’t). I had those 2 or 3 lifts out of 6 performances, but I just chalked it all up to a bad day, or it just wasn’t my day. I was unshaken from it all. I’d just get back to the gym and work even harder.

Then something happened to me leading up to the 2012 Senior Nationals. Coming off a win at the 2011 American Open I felt that something that I wasn’t use to: the pressure to perform. Up to that point I had never won a senior-level national competition, and it made me feel pressured to win again. That thought and pressure completely changed my mindset leading up to Nationals for the worse. The thought “What if I lose?” kept creeping into my head and I could not shake it. It affected my training; I never had such a long period of time of terrible training and missed lifts leading up to Nationals. And I’m not just talking about lifts at 90% and upwards. Routine 70% lifts that I could normally make in my sleep became tougher than I could ever have imagined. Frustration started to set in and I started quitting on workouts. Not just mentally, but physically too, quitting and walking out on my workouts.

I spoke with my dad – my coach – about everything just a week before Nationals, about all that was going through my head and my bad training. He talked to me about focusing not on the competition but on one lift at a time, one attempt at a time. Everything else would fall into place. I wish I had written down word for word what he had said, because it was one of the most inspiring and motivational speeches I had ever heard. It was so good that it sounded like it came straight out of a Rocky movie. The week leading up to Nationals was one of the best weeks of training I had ever had. Perfection is an over-exaggeration but it’s the only word that comes to mind. My head was clear and focused on the moment, not getting ahead of myself.

I arrived at Nationals feeling pretty good about everything. I weighed in and then it was go time. I then got to the warm up room and began to loosen up. Then I heard a familiar voice: my own. Asking an all too familiar question. “What if?” And just like that, in a matter of seconds, my confidence was shaken and lost again.

Needless to say, Nationals didn’t go well for me at all. I only made my opening snatch and bombed out in the clean and jerk. I had never bombed out before then and I just did for the first time on the biggest stage of my life. My “What if?” had become all too much of a reality, because it’s all I could dwell on.

To be honest, I don’t think I would have learned anything if I had managed to make a total that day, so to an extent, I’m glad it did happen. It forced me to take a long, hard look at myself and to be honest with myself and my weaknesses. It was clear to me that I had to work on my mental strength and fortitude from that day forward.

The deeper and deeper into this sport you get, the more you’ll have to work on your mental game. It’s a constant and ongoing process that you can never let up on. Pressure and shaken confidence can sneak up on you when you least expect it, even after a victory. Your mind can become your worst enemy unless you start to take the steps to making it your greatest ally.