The other day, Motor and I had an interesting conversation about how to reliably optimize performance in the Olympic Lifts and it made me realize that not everyone has discovered the importance of a performance ritual. Golfers have a ritual when they approach the tee. So do Baseball batters when they approach the plate. Lifters do too. How about you?
Sports psychologists explain the importance of having a habitual practice that prepares you to perform. A ritual that you use to focus on the task at hand. ritual allows you to reach that unusual state of relaxed focus that shuts out the world around you and all the negative thoughts and allows you to tap into your full physical potential.
Grip and rip used to be my approach to lifting. Get psyched up, beat my chest, growl and try to tear the bar off the ground and hope I succeeded. The results were mixed; sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I failed and sometimes I got hurt. After suffering an injury some people might shun the barbell altogether but I don’t learn too quickly. I am not however impervious to learning and after several years of setbacks I began to think there must be a better way.
Gradually a ritual was born. It developed organically and unplanned as a result of hours spent alone lifting in the gym. First it was out of fear of injuring myself again. Experience taught me to respect the heavy barbell and my own mortality. Instead of adrenaline-fueled lifts I began to embrace a calmer, more technical approach. And as it brought me more success and less pain, my ritual gradually grew becoming an integral part of my lifting protocol. Here is how my ritual formed:
1) The Chalk
You’ve got to have chalk. It improves your grip on the barbell and makes you 20% stronger – scientific fact! All lifters chalk before addressing the barbell. But too much chalk is counter productive so after applying chalk, you clap your hands together to shake off the loose chalk. And then you walk through the resulting cloud of chalk because that’s just cool.
2) The Prayer
The chalk routine predates any lifting injury but the prayer was an add on. I’ve learned to respect the barbell and approach it humbly, aware that at any time it could break me. As an athlete, believing in a higher power is important. So many things that are out of our control (birth place, genetics, etc) went right for us to be here we must give thanks to the blessings we’ve received. We can’t let our ego touch that bar. Pray to God, the universe or anything that works for you. Personally I ask protection from my dearly departed, people who have loved, supported and guided me in my life who are no longer with us. I like to feel they are with me still in the lessons they’ve instilled and that maybe they’re watching over me, cheering me on and protecting me. To overcome my fear of that barbell, it is great to know that there is someone in my corner. It’s a small gesture that many may miss but I say all their names as I send a prayer their way and so doing I get out of my own head and my own doubts and instead embrace the miracle of our existence and put the outcome and everything outside of my control in the hands of a higher power. If I succeed or if I fail is no longer on me, I just perform to the best of my ability and accept the outcome.
3) The Set Up
This is the one that you see: the pre-lift victory “V”, raising my arms in the air before reaching down for the barbell. It may look like a call back to the 70’s and the Village People but actually it was born from the need to engage my lats. I struggle to get strong lat engagement when bent over in the set up for the deadlift, clean and snatch, so I started priming those muscles by setting the lats while standing before bending over to grip the bar.
Of course this looks like a victory pose. And it feels like one too. As I grew less self-conscious about it, it began to feel like I was celebrating the lift before I made it. Almost as though I knew it would be successful. This was a empowering head space. Like many, I’m fueled by an audience but I most often train alone. So sometimes I would wait to lift until the end of an orchestral piece when the audience gave the symphony an ovation and as I raised my arms to set my lats I could pretend they were cheering for me and the lift I was about to perform. How can you fail with so many cheering for you?
This worked so well for me that it became a part of my ritual before any lift, not just those requiring lat engagement. And then it became part of my pre-game ritual in competition even when lifting wasn’t on the menu. It has become my way to prime myself for any performance.
My ritual doesn’t vary. I use it before every big lift or every competitive event. It grounds and centers me and primes me for peak performance. If you want to perform at your best, you need to create a ritual. It need not look like mine but I encourage you to create one that addresses the same issues: mental focus, physical preparation and spiritual grounding.
Most people operate this way: Feel-Think-Act. You feel nervous or frustrated about the barbell. You begin to think about times you hurt yourself or failed on a lift. Your body gets tense, your set up is poor and you are distracted when you try to rush the lift.
Rituals allow you to reverse this operational order: Act-Think-Feel. As you go through your pre-lift ritual (act), you’re priming your body and mind for success. You’re thinking about what a successful lift feels like. The negative non-productive thoughts may still be there but they are now pushed to the back ground. Because you’re in your zone, following your ritual, you set up the same way as always, relaxed and focused, your mind sharp. As a result you feel calm, at peace, ready to perform to the best of your abilities. The past and future fall away, you are living in now.
Whether the lift goes well or not, it doesn’t effect your next lift because before the next lift you will once again start your ritual leaving behind all thoughts or feelings of your last performance to be present in the moment. Ritual separates you from past or future and concentrates you on the now which is where you need to be to succeed. Any success achieved during distraction is merely a fluke and cannot reliably be replicated. Creating a ritual allows you to become intentional about your success and provides a formula by which you can reliably recreate success.
Your ritual will be unique to you. It is not important how it looks but that it works for you. Start developing one and watch your performances improve. Refine it based on results as you gain experience. Eventually it will be something you do without thinking and it will take your performance to the next level.
Disclaimer: a ritual is an effective performance-enhancing tool, it is not magic. It doesn’t make every rep perfect. If your max snatch is currently 95lbs, it will not get you a 125lb snatch overnight. You might not even get 95lbs every time. Ritual does not eliminate the need for practice or progressive overload training but with a good ritual you will see improved consistency in your performances. You will more reliably be able to recreate previous performances and you will start scoring personal bests more frequently.
Barbell or barbell substitute
1 min Scap Rock
1 min Scap Reach (alternating)
1 min OS Push Up
1 min Cross Touch Plank