When I was on my high school track team, the mile and two mile were my specialty races and race days were my favorite. Unlike sprinters, I had to maintain focus over an extended period of time and a race was as much a test of my will as it was my conditioning. If I faltered for a second and slowed by pace, my heart would have to win over my head in order for me to continue to push myself to victory. Distance events absolutely require mental fortitude, but the beauty in the distance is that there is room to correct errors if you lose your will momentarily.
When I began competing in CrossFit, it felt, in many ways, similar to race days from my younger years. A WOD can only last so long and as long as I find that delicate balance between pacing myself and pushing myself, I can conquer it. And like a race, when the clock is ticking and I’m down to my last few reps, I can increase my pace and “kick” for the finish. Because of my background in running, transitioning into CrossFit competitions felt natural and I understood what I needed to do to be successful.
Olympic weightlifting was a complete other story.
To begin with, I don’t like being the planned center of attention. If I happen to be with a group of friends and all eyes are on me while I tell a funny ancedote from my day, I’m happy to experience the joy of making others laugh. But when the center-of-attention moment is expected rather than spontaneous, my anxiety kicks in full force. I hate this feeling so much that my husband and I skipped the church nuptials when we tied the knot and eloped because the thought of being gawked at while I walked down the aisle was just too much.
In Olympic lifting, you have no choice but to be front and center. When you walk out onto that platform, the entire room is focused on you. Out of respect, spectators fall silent so you can focus before your lift. For me, that silence just made the voice in my head louder. Instead of zeroing in and visualizing the lift I was about to make, I became increasingly aware of the fact that everyone was staring at me. The few times I was able to block that out, I’d catch the face of the judge as I began my pull and lose my focus resulting in a missed lift. Even walking onto and off of the platform made me feel self-conscious.
I share this because I am sure that many others have felt this way, whether it be during an Olympic lifting competition or other aspect of life. And feeling self-conscious should never be a reason to shy away from an experience or keep you from thriving in a competition. For me, self-consciousness and bravery have always been separate things, but for some, they fall hand in hand. I have always been brave enough to try that which scares me. Often times, I find that what scares me ends up being the very thing that propels my growth. But despite being brave enough to try (almost!) anything, being self-conscious has held me back in many ways.
Competing in Olympic lifting was something I began because I truly love to lift. I’m inspired by the other women who I see dominating the platform and achieving great feats of strength. The way a snatch or a clean and jerk looks when executed well is like poetry to me. I wanted to create that poetry myself, but being self-conscious on the platform prevented me from performing at my highest ability.
Recently, that has changed. I’ve gone from feeling and being incredibly awkward on the platform to loving the spotlight and basking in the attention. And I’ve seen that confidence carry over into my every day life as well.
So how did I transition from the girl who panicked and did a clean deadlift instead of a clean in my first meet to one who hit a PR clean and jerk in my latest competition?
I can boil it down to four things:
I utilize some coping strategies for when I am on the platform. – The fake it till you make it ideology if you will. I had to admit to myself that I was uncomfortable before I was able to find a way to deal with that uneasy feeling. Once I passed that hurdle, I was able to find a way to make myself calmer. For me, scanning the crowd as I walked out onto the platform was a big help, as much as that seems counter-intuitive. When you realize that most of the crowd is whispering to one another instead of watching the platform, the number of eyes on you seems to reduce greatly. Those who are left watching are less intimidating when you notice that most of the crowd is the parents and friends of other lifters who are just politely watching you while waiting for their daughter/friend to be called to the platform. Suddenly, a room full of 100 spectators seems more like a room with 5- the three judges, my coach, and my husband. That, I could handle.
I was willing to put myself out there. Repeatedly. -This one is key. Everything in life will feel strange and unfamiliar until you experience it many times. This applies to trying new foods, traveling, going new places, etc. Why would it be any different when it comes to competing? At this point, I’m on my 9th meet and it feels a hell of a lot less nerve-wrecking than my first few meets. Plus, I’ve been fortunate to experience many different types of meets. Two meets ago, I was the first to walk onto the platform because most of the competitors were there to hit national qualifying standards. This past meet, I was one of the lifters who went later in the session because many were university students who had just begun lifting. Being in one meet inspired me to push harder to reach a new level whereas being in the other gave me the opportunity to reflect on how far I’ve already come.
I realized that my performance in a meet did not define my character.– When I began lifting, I idolized the National level lifters and so badly wanted to be one of them. Because I could not snatch what they snatched or clean and jerk what they clean and jerks, I beat myself up mentally and believed they were better than me and I was awful. This wasn’t just about lifting. Hell, they were/are better lifters than me. But they weren’t “better” than me in the general sense. My value as a person is not the number that I total in a meet. My total in a meet is what I lifted in a meet that day. That number doesn’t tell you what kind of wife, daughter, or friend I am. It just tells you how I performed on a given day in a weightlifting competition. Of course I want to hit a total that enables me to qualify for a National meet one day, but that total, or any total, does not define who I am. What does define me is the way I behave- the effort I put into my training, the mental toughness I have to push through when things aren’t going my way, the sportsmanship I show when congratulating a competitor. And no matter what I total, I can contribute to this sport in my own way like I’m doing by creating this website. People do this by judging at meets, hosting meets, coaching athletes, counting cards for lifters, taking photos (side note: check out @everydaylifters on Instagram for great lifting photos), etc. This sport exists because we are all working together as a community and thus, we are all valuable -both inside this sport and in the outside world. Realizing this through conversations with my husband, my coach, and my friends has enabled me to take an unnecessary pressure off myself, to accept myself, and to enjoy myself in a way I hadn’t before- especially when it comes to competing.
I put my trust in my coach.– Lastly, I put my trust in my coach, Michael McKenna. I trust him with everything- lifting and otherwise. I know that he will program for me what he believes I am capable of handling during my training sessions. If I’m tired, I can keep going because I know he would not have asked me to do something that I can not do. I know that he would never have me walk out onto a platform to attempt weights that I am incapable of lifting. Thus, if he says I can lift those weights, I can and I will. I trust him enough to share my feelings when I’m upset or frustrated, and I trust that he knows when to listen and be supportive and when to push me to move past those feelings. Having a great coach has allowed me to become a better lifter but also a stronger person and that support has helped me to transition from someone who is petrified on the platform to someone who feels they deserve to lift in the limelight.
My point is that competing in sport is one avenue to help you grow as an individual. And when you allow that growth to happen, you’ll in turn become better at your sport. My first challenge with weightlifting was overcoming self-consciousness on the platform and learning to feel confident. Now that I have truly overcome that hurdle, I’m excited to transition into the next element of my weightlifting career which is not just enjoying the platform experience, but excelling as a lifter. My perseverance has enabled me to achieve that mentality and I am just as proud of the emotional barrier that I smashed as I am about having hit a PR lift.
So, if you are scared to compete, or you have competed but find that being intimidated has prevented you from feeling successful in competition, remember that those feelings are normal. Push through adversity and develop confidence by repeatedly putting yourself in uncomfortable situations and surviving them. If you stick with it, you’ll eventually develop the confidence to begin to truly enjoy what you’ve been working for and that is the most wonderful feeling.