The Mental Game of Getting Strong


By Travis Mash


The mental game is critical to building strength, but sadly it is very rarely talked about. But this is fact – When athletes are at the top of their game, their mental approach to training and competition usually makes the difference.

One of the best examples I can think from weightlifting. is Illya Ilyin. For a while he was getting beaten at the 2014 World Championships. Actually, the entire competition came down to the final lift. Lily needed to break a world record to win gold, and I don’t think anyone watching doubted him. It’s not that he is that much stronger than his competitors. His mental game is just on a whole different level and everybody knows it. This is the level that all great athletes discover, and something we can all aspire to. That will only make us stronger.

The back squat is one of the most primal lifts. It’s also the first contest at any powerlifting meet, as it takes the most effort, the most precision, and the most guts.

The guts part is what we need to focus on.

The right kind of intensity

There is no place for fear when you put 1000 pounds on your back, trust me.

If you doubt yourself you could end up buried in the floor. For that reason all great squatters have a high level of confidence that most people can’t grasp. But where does this confidence come from?

I think you start with mindset. A person who squats a lot of weight is 100% focused. They are fearless. They’ve figured out a way to channel all of their energy – every drop of emotion from love to hate – into this one intense effort. Some folks confuse intensity with yelling and screaming, but that’s something that kids do to get attention. When great powerlifters like Ed Coan or Steve Goggins perform a big squat, they are totally silent and focused. They have channeled all of their energy deep inside, and they are holding it there. Instead of releasing it during a yell or fit, they put every drop into record lifts.

That’s real intensity.

It’s the impossible standard of focus that we’re working towards every single time we train. I can’t tell you exactly what a lifter like Ed Coan thinks when he lifts, but I can share my experiences from years and years of big record attempts in powerlifting.

Erase your fears

Every competition or record attempt starts the same. You always open up with something that is very easy. The initial focus is always on technique and quality of movement. It doesn’t matter how strong you grow, start with the basics every time you lift. Keep your standards for everything very high.

But here’s what you have to understand. When it comes time to set a record you need to exorcise your demons a little bit. This is the time to use every incredible thought you can imagine. Anything to move big weight. I would block out all of the outside distractions and turn inward just before stepping on the platform. I would think of everything that had stood in my way up to that point, the bad breaks, the criticisms and nay-sayers, you name it. Then I would draw out all of that negativity like a poison and burn it as fuel.  

But like I said, being truly intense is more than that. The burn got me going, but as soon as I was down in the hole with a crushing weight I would start thinking about all the things that I loved most in life. Call it a near death experience if you want, because maybe it was. I would think about my daughter, my family and friends.

Can you imagine the emotion that comes flooding over you when you somehow stand up and rack the barbell? That moment is what I’ve always lived for.

I don’t think all lifters should go to this kind of place when they lift. It’s not for everyone. I’m just saying that you need to go some place special. If you can find a way to erase or displace  the fear then you will grow very, very strong.

Visualize every lift

Wes Barnett was a two-time Olympian and one of the greatest American weightlifters of all-time; his record 220 kg clean & jerk at a bodyweight of 108 still stands. He was also my first weightlifting coach.

Wes in action.

I learned countless lessons from Wes, but one of the most valuable things I took away from this time was the importance of visualization. He always told me to walk up to the barbell, close my eyes, and imagine myself performing the perfect lift. Every rep, you had to see it first.

This wasn’t ever intended to be a casual exercise. The more you intensely you focused – the more you could actually experience and feel the lift in your mind – the more successful you were usually.

With the feeling still lingering you would step up to the bar and lift. The movement wold be automatic, which is exactly what’s required. Weightlifting is too fast for a lot of thinking. That’s why visualization works so well.

Find a balance

The mental differences in powerlifting and weightlifting have always intrigued me. The cultures and the athletes are like two parallel universes, but both are uniquely amazing in their individual worlds.

If you want to get as strong as possible you have to build your mental game, there is no question. The best way to do that is to learn from both of the barbell sports, then apply what works best for you.

Be intense. Be fearless. Imagine that you are successful, even before you step out on the platform. With that sort of mindset you can’t go wrong.

Think big,