Thursday, March 8, 2012

It's All Mental

We’ve all heard the terms “overachiever” and “underachiever”.  An underachiever being an individual who possesses great skill or intelligence yet consistently fails to live up to expectations.  The flip side is the overachiever.  This is an individual who does not possess remarkable attributes yet achieves great success, mostly through sheer will.  What is it that separates the two?  Why does the individual who is set up to win lose, and vice versa, why does one win when they are not supposed to win?

He was cut multiple times yet became one of the most feared NFL players ever.
To me it all comes down to an emotion, nay- an instinct- that is largely frowned upon in modern society and one that is being bred out of the modern male.  It all comes down to aggression and the quality of being aggressive.  Now this isn’t frat boy at a party aggressive.  We’re not talking about the people that are over-the-top Type A and are more or less assholes.  I’m talking about people who take challenges head on and give their all to come out the victor.  The untrained eye may even mistake aggression with enthusiasm and vigor.

Here is an example I see every day.  I’m teaching a hang clean to an athlete.  The athlete has the mechanical skill to do the lift but it still looks off.  The bar moves slow and they “catch” it with their hands out in front of them and then pull the bar to their shoulders instead letting it come to their shoulders in one smooth motion.  In other words they aren’t aggressive with their hip pull and use their arms for much of the lift.  My go-to cue in this case is to simply be aggressive.  I tell them that I don’t want them to pull the bar so that it gets to their shoulders; I want them to pull that bar so that it flies through the ceiling!  A lot of times it works, but sadly some athletes get stuck in the thought that being aggressive is bad or are too shy to display it.

Aggression takes on many forms and wears a slew of hats.  There is the example above along with the 190 pound defensive tackle who somehow leads his high school team in sacks and tackles, the 40 year-old millionaire who grew up on a steady diet of government cheese, the man who sees a mugging in progress and actually does something about it, the firefighter who doesn’t think twice about running into a burning building, or the Marine who doesn't even think once about running into a firefight to save his buddies.  These are all examples of people being aggressive.  Their stress response is triggered, there is a cascade of hormones, and they use their physical and mental capabilities to affect the outcome for the betterment of society and for themselves.

But like I said in the beginning, there is a systematic attack on aggression in society.  The largest and most successful chain fitness center in America prohibits grunting.  They actually have what are called “Lunk Alarms” that go off if someone grunts or drops a weight or does anything that might occur in a normal lifting setting.   It’s Planet Fitness if you wondering.  I could write a whole article on my hatred of that place.

The attack on aggression even starts in little kids.  Kids are going to fight, that’s a known fact.  I distinctly remember the day my sister stopped picking on me forever.  She hit me and I went and told my dad.  His response was to hit her back.  And I did, with a vengeance.  Problem solved.  But now if two kids get in a fight at school they may be expelled or suspended instead of being told to not do it again and to work out their differences elsewhere.  Paul Carter on his blog has an interesting take on why there have been more school shootings in recent years on his blog.  It basically comes down to the fact that instead of being able to release their aggression and work out differences kids are forced to bury their anger until it comes out with geyser-like force and ends in something much worse than a small fist fight.

You stay outta this, lady.
But I’m digressing from my main point.  Unless you are a genetically gifted athlete, which you probably are not, then getting better takes an attitude.  It takes an attitude that you are going to work harder than the competition.  It takes aggression towards whatever is in opposition to getting what you want.  That could be an opponent standing in front of you or it could be a heavy-ass barbell resting silently on your back.  Both want you to be a crumpled heap on the ground.

Recent research has even shown that the point of exhaustion that we have all felt at one point or another is a psychological perception and not a physiological fact.  That’s to say, when you quit due to exhaustion, fatigue or whatever YOU have made the conscious decision to quit.  Your body could have kept going; it’s your brain that quit.

If you don’t believe me I invite you to watch any of the multiple documentaries on the internet that detail Navy SEAL training or BUD/s.  Every one of the men that complete the training has the innate ability to silence the voice in their head that screams for them to stop.  Shit, just the training that is done to qualify for BUDS/s would take out most "hardcore" lifters.

Is this an optimal way to train all the time?  Some would say yes but I’m more of a mind that you need to pick and choose your battles.  But when you’ve chosen to go all out, THEN GO ALL OUT!

It is sometimes hard to coax that inner aggressor out of these kids.  A lot of times becoming a better athlete is the first thing they've ever had to put any real physical effort into.  But once they realize that going through the motions and being cautious, and trying not to stick out aren't going to cut it good things start to happen.  You can see them before a lift talking to themselves in their head, silently building a rage and contempt for whatever it is that seeks to hold them down, be it a barbell or all the people that have doubted them.

If you've never felt that primal urge that one of your ancestors felt when he scaled a hill only to be confronted with a hungry sabre-tooth tiger then you are lost my friend.  You’ve let society pull you towards the middle, towards mediocrity, towards not standing out.  But if you feel that same rush of adrenaline that your ancestor got when you’re looking at a bar loaded with a weight that you’ve never lifted before, if you imagine that bar mocking you saying, “Come on you piece of shit, give it a pull.  Doesn’t matter to me.  You.  Don’t.  Have.  It.”  And if you let that hatred of being told you can’t, of being told you’re not good enough, of being told you don’t have the genetics, of being told to give it up, pack it in and go home, and then you grab the bar and rip it from its resting place and hoist it aloft in defiance of everything and everyone that would attempt to hold you down….well, my’ve got a chance.  And if you’ve got the attitude and the aggression, a chance is all you need.

Related Articles:

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Musings on the Consequences of the Participation Trophy Generation
The New Year's Resolution Solution
Hard To Kill


The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle? Samuele Maria Marcora and Walter Staiano.  EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF APPLIED PHYSIOLOGY Volume 109, Number 4, 763-770.

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