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Mental Blocks: Breaking Through the Wall

“You had that!” is probably one of the most common things I hear when I’m training. As a lifter who struggles with confidence, I often bail our of pure fear. All the technical elements are there, but my brain isn’t.

It’s something I’ve been struggling with for almost a year now. Last October, I started working with my first coach who’s training style was very different from mine. While I saw a lot of technical improvement with him, I also developed a lot of self-doubt. With the Olympic lifts in particular, I ran into a very hard, solid, and dense mental wall. Repeatedly.

Hitting a new PR at WODSunset.

Hitting a Mental Block

Every month or so, my previous coach liked to test our maxes. Every month, we would load the bar up for me to test my clean and snatch. I remember hitting my first 35kg/75lb snatch PR and feeling like I had seen so much improvement. I avoided Olympic lifts for the first few months of starting Crossfit after injuring my shoulder by moving too fast, too soon. I knew I was off in the mechanics of the movement and I needed a coach to fix it.

When I started, my clean PR was somewhere around 40kg/88lb. Not too shabby for a beginner, but something I wanted to build upon. As we practiced, one of my coach’s techniques was to overload the bar and then drop the weight back down so the lighter weight felt easier. It’s a practice that works for some, but not me. After doing this repeatedly, all I really trained was how to validate my subconscious belief that I was just no darn good at cleans.

So, invariably, whenever we worked on increasing the weight up to 50 kilos, I would bail. Every single time. Even on the times when every other person in the Crossfit box would yell at me, “You had that. It was practically up to your shoulders!”

I just couldn’t do it.

Breaking Through

Every time I tried to test my max above 50kg, I would get so frustrated. I knew I had the physical capacity to do it, but I just couldn’t get under the bar. It was as if someone was literally holding me back. The goal was so close, but I couldn’t touch it.

In order to feel more confident and to trust myself more, I spent a few months practicing cleans at a much lighter weight. So I did. I basically forgot about testing my max for a few months. Instead, I focused on the mechanics of the movement, different variations, mobility, and recovery.

Finally, after all that time, we had a PR day in class. I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m going to do it today.” Little by little, I increased the weight on my bar – literally, by about 1 kilo at a time. Finally, I got to 50kg, pulled as hard as I could, and it landed right on my shoulders, in a power position, no less. I screamed. It was such a release after all those months of banging my head against the wall. The wall that I had built, after all.

I felt like it was possible to move forward, that all of my hard work had paid off.

Until, of course, it was time to hit the next PR. Let’s just say, these mental barriers are a tricky, moving target.

So what’s helped?

1. Get a coach.

For me, finding the right coach changed everything. Even as you progress and learn more about how your body responds to training, it’s easier for someone who’s, well, not you to see your weaknesses and what you need to work on. Subconsciously, it’s easy to avoid what you don’t like if you’re the one programming for yourself.

My coach now was able to pinpoint extremely quickly what my weaknesses are: confidence in Olympic lifts and explosive strength. He’s working with me on it a lot. Because I know the amount of time and care he puts into my programming, it’s important to me to not let him down by skipping anything that he writes for me. Even when it includes things that I hate like box jump overs or snatch balance. He wrote it for a reason – he’s trying to get me stronger and I trust him for that.

2. Various variations.

Particularly with Olympic lifts, there are a wide variety of areas where you can struggle. For example, some athletes have a hard time generating power from the floor. Others, like me, battle with getting under the bar. In each case, different variations of the movement can help.

As an example, on both clean and snatch, I struggle to get under the bar. Particularly in the snatch, I don’t trust the strength and stability of my shoulders to safely land underneath all of that weight. (To be fair, I know this isn’t a natural movement and the vast majority of people would probably get freaked out by throwing a bunch of weight over their heads, too.) As a result, my coach has been programming a lot of snatch balance and high hang squat snatch. Both of these movements help to – surprise! – get comfortable getting and stabilizing under the bar.

3. Train your confidence.

When I was struggling with my clean progress, the hardest part was how much I felt like a failure every time I missed a lift. My self-talk always reverted to feeling like I just wasn’t good enough, strong enough, or would never get better. Each missed lift was a confirmation that “Olympic weightlifting just isn’t my thing.”

Lifting is just as much mental as it is physical. You need to train your mind and your body. In order to do that, you may need to consider: lowering the weight, taking a break from the movement, or practicing few reps. By doing so, you give yourself space to get easy wins. These, in turn, can help build your confidence (and strength!) over time so that you trust yourself the next time you need to max out.

4. Trick yourself. 

Sometimes you just need some plain ol’ mind games to get through your mental block. For me, I’m lucky to have a built-in trick that I can rely upon every few months: switching from kilos to pounds and back again. I don’t enjoy math, so I don’t do the conversion very quickly in my head. In other words, there’s a lot of times when I simply have no relative idea of how much weight is on the bar.

A few weeks ago, we were testing, yet again, our PRs for cleans. This time, I was doing it in the US. The last time I tried to PR, I hit 55kg/121lb, but failed at 60kg/132lb back at WODSunset. So imagine my surprise when, during our 14-minute EMOM, I put 130lb on the bar, cleaned it, and was ready for more. When we finished, I ran back to my calculator to do the math. I started laughing because I had no idea that’s how much that was!

Some other possibilities are to use smaller plates (i.e. two 15lbs, a 10lb, and a 5lb instead of a 45lb plate) or have someone else load the bar for you. Even though, logically, you have an idea of how much weight is on the bar, it’s not a number stuck in your head for you to get caught up on.

“Trust the process”

Ultimately, it comes down to patience. There’s no quick fix for a mental block, as frustrating as it is. As you keep working on it, you need to know that you’re getting stronger, no matter what. Even when you’ve dropped your weight down. Even when you need to take a break. Whether you’re letting your body build the muscle memory to perform the movement, or giving your mind a break from all the pressure, you will get there.

Typically, I hate the phrase “trust the process” since it seems like such an oversimplification. Nevertheless, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the “trust” is about trusting yourself. Ultimately, everything we train comes down to having the self-confidence to know we can do it. Or, if not, we know how to protect ourselves when we fail. (Most of the time, at least.)

I also talked about this in my last YouTube video. Check it out here!

2 thoughts on “Mental Blocks: Breaking Through the Wall

  1. “It was such a release after all those months of banging my head against the wall. The wall that I had built, after all.” Such good insight for so many things in life.

    1. Yes! That’s so true – I feel like I find so much metaphor for life with yoga/Crossfit/sports.

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