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About being alone, feeling good with your own company and being an athlete

 

“The bar is loaded”

The lifter walks up alone to the platform.

The spotters are busy getting setup into the safety position. Someone or a lot of people shout words of encouragement from backstage. Three referees are silently watching in intense expectation. Photographers are flashing lights on the scene.  The speaker is announcing the next lifters, receiving instructions from officers on the table. They are talking among themselves, busy with the mess that organizing a meet represents.

The lifter sees nothing, hears nothing. He faces the bar and he knows it’s all on him.

He is alone.

For some people, this is scary.

On a first look, an athlete’s life is socially intense: he may train in groups of peers, socialize after training with them and there may be a lot of talking during training sessions. Being alone on the platform sounds discrepant from his previous experience.

For the high performance powerlifter, however, it is not. High performance powerlifting is an essencially solitary endeavor.

Except for the writer, we could probably say the same for every over achiever in any of the main cultural realms of civilization. Scientists work in big, populous labs where they are frequently busy discussing the interpretation of results with students and colleagues. Many artists are also depicted surrounded by all sorts of people directly or indirectly involved in the production of their project.

This is, however, the outmost superficial layer of these people’s work. The relevant, productive part of any of these cultural agents’ actions is performed in perfect solitude.

Alisson Malafronte, senior editor of American Artist Magazine, quoted Ernest Meissonier, a successful XIXth century artist in saying: “Here is a piece of advice worth having: Never let your daughter marry an artist. You will bring her to sorrow if you do. … An artist cannot be hampered by family cares. He must be free, able to devote himself entirely to his work”

I believe most of my readers will be able to recall more than one relationship gone bad because the partner was unable to accept the degree of involvement and devotion his or her powerlifting significant other had with the Iron Art. Most successful relationships are so because the non-lifting partner has projects of her/his own and/or fully accepts that powerlifting is a full time obsession and passion for the lifting partner. That, or both are lifters.

As I often say, there is no free lunch and excellence is achieved at the expense of time spent in social activities. Even team work outstanding achievements require the members to have spent years in solitary pursuit of their individual excellence.

So let’s break the solitary components of excellence into items to have a better understanding of this argument.

Learning and improving technique

Technique takes a long time to learn and a whole life to master.  The literature about skill learning and mastery in sport is related to studies about sports talent. One of the telltale signs of an athletic talent is how the individual learns the skills related to that sport.

Skill learning is divided into three stages according to Fitts and Posner (1967):

• cognitive (or understanding) stage

• associative (or practice) stage

• autonomous (or automatic) stage.

The cognitive stage corresponds to a time when the movement is being introduced to the practitioner and he is consciously employing different cognitive resources in order to perform it. The neural paths required for movement execution are being constructed or, if you want, the neural mapping of the movement is being done.

The next stage is one that requires less time-consuming cognitive operations. It is said that the skill is “mastered” and the practitioner is actually performing the movement.

The third stage corresponds to one where there is little thinking involved and, according to the literature, the athlete devotes more cognitive resources to strategic planning.

At this point it should be obvious that this line of thinking is frustratingly inadequate to the understanding of powerlifting or weightlifting. So is the separation of skills into motor, cognitive, perceptual and perceptual motor: powerlifting encompasses elements of all of them.

Powerlifters and weightlifters work on their techniques their whole life. After the first stage of acquisition of the skill, it will be perfected, lost, improved, lost, changed, lost and so on forever. The heavier the weights being manipulated, the higher the degree of influence of technique on the success of the lift.

Although a coach is extremely important and even fellow lifters can make huge contributions to the improvement of an athlete’s performance, in the end, again, the lifter is alone with the loaded bar to face the challenge of performing a lift. Technique is learned, incorporated, changed and improved in this solitary fashion: lifter and loaded bar, alone.

Focusing for each and every lift in life

While first learning the technique, we often see the practitioner talking to herself, giving herself commands as reminders of important items of the movement’s execution or even scolding herself. Whether this self-talk is manifest or not, it exists and reflects the type of mental operation in course.

As learning moves forward, the conscious effort employed in the beginning is more and more substituted by a harder skill to master: focusing. It is simplistic and naïve to assume there is less analytic and rational activity at this stage. One has only to observe a high performance training session when the interval between sets is occupied by interminable discussions about angle, speed, rhythm, groove and many other aspects of the lift’s performance. Frequently this is done while watching the video of the performed lift in order to study it.

However, the moment the lifter faces the bar, he is practicing the difficult skill of  modulating her sensorial acuity and shutting down the perception of all stimuli except the ones directly related to the lift. Besides that, focus involves mental operations not fully understood in neurological terms. The result is an altered form of perception and ability to recruit one’s own actions.

As we will see, the extreme form of this condition is called “the flow” or “entering the zone”.

All the processes involved in this specific mental skill (producing at will the various degrees of focus) are equivalent to being more and more into oneself, alone.

The loneliness of injury and pain

This item is somewhat obvious and self-evident: the only person feeling the injury’s discomfort and pain is the injured athlete. The loneliness of the injury experience, though, goes way beyond the pain and physical discomfort. Injury is the highest threat to an athlete’s identity.

Any person’s identity (or identities) is a composition of elements at the core of which is the focus of her symbolic investment. Very frequently, an athlete will think of himself as an athlete before thinking of himself as a man, or a Canadian, or a black person or an engineer. A broken limb might have not only hurt human tissue, but might have damaged the ties between that man and his life project in such a way that he might have a hard time recognizing himself.

Several studies describe athletes’ dramatic emotional reactions to injury as a response to such threats to his identity, which eventually lead to depression.

Identity threats are among the most lonely experiences a person may undergo. Identity is what allows a person to experience the world in one way or another and to interact with others accordingly. Identity is the key to belonging.

An injury might be equivalent to cutting the rope that ties the astronaut to the ship. If it is serious enough as to make it impossible for that athlete to lift again, then it probably means a radical deconstruction of this person.

It is no surprise that many injured lifters will ignore their injuries for as long as possible and would rather live in pain than to face the possibility of changing his lifting habits or level.

The uniqueness of each lifter’s preparation

Wise coaches, even the ones who fathered successful methods, like Brandon Lilly (the cube method), know that no two lifters respond the same way to a training protocol. First, they come from different places in terms of training history, trainability, skill mastery, injuries, etc. Second, they respond differently. Lifters respond differently to different protocols, to different lifts (in a certain protocol, they may respond well for the squat and not so well for the bench press) and in different times of their lives. The same method that worked wonders two years ago won’t produce equivalent results now.

The lifter is a microcosm with its own rules and interconnections.

Unlike a team sport, where everybody is working on a common challenge, one powerlifter’s challenge is different from the next athlete’s. You can’t cheat by copying the answers from the guy sitting next to you. You really got to figure it out for yourself.

“Incomensurability”: about being different

“But… is this all?…” Many of us have heard from friends and family when we show a video of what it is we do that is so important as to make us miss such and such family ritual. They look at an amazing squat, for example, and instead of the awestruck expression we would expect, there is some mixture of surprise, disappointment and contempt. After all, is it “just that?”

Let’s face it, it hurts. If it didn’t hurt, there wouldn’t be hundreds of banners, t-shirts and other visual art with phrases such as “powerlifters: proudly scaring gym members for four decades” and others (T-Nation, cafepress, powerliftingwatch). http://www.cafepress.com/apapower/6944638 http://tnation.t-nation.com/free_online_forum/sports_body_training_performance_bodybuilding_strength/powerlifting_quotes http://www.powerliftingwatch.com/node/1904 It is all in the line of “see how badass I am, you may treat me like shit, but you actually know I’m better than you”. The subtext is obviously “your unwillingness to see me as I am and to acknowledge the beauty and value of what I do hurts me”.

The anthropological term for that is incommensurability: it is the failure to translate the deep layers of meaning in a term, an act or an object into someone else’s world view. Somewhat like the native Americans felt in their first contact with Spaniards. At a certain point of failure in getting the other to even grasp what you are trying to communicate, you withdraw and cease to talk.

And again, the lifter is alone – not on the platform or the gym, but at the library, the streets or the mall.

The desert place called “the zone”

In a previous item, I discussed the solitary nature of becoming focused to lift. An extreme form of focus is the flow. The flow has been studied for many sports (find a storify story bellow with several interesting books and articles). “Flow” is an altered state of consciousness that could be roughly defined as a very deep focus. More than that, “flow” in sports defines a condition of heightened perception of the task at hand at the expense of any sensorial input not relevant to it.

It is often described by the subjects as being in a place without time and a feeling of merging with the object of the action, somewhat transcending the limits of the self. Many commentators compare the flow experience to a mystical one.

Although most will agree that it is the most pleasant feeling one may ever experience, it is undeniably the most lonely. The solitary nature of this experience or of its pursuit, is, nonetheless, not seen as a burden at all. Anyone engaged in this path happily delves deeper and deeper into finding the flow again.

Solitude is bliss.

The importance of autonomy

The path to excellence requires autonomy. With autonomy comes responsibility and decision-making challenges, but they are a price to achievement, since, as we have seen, it is a lonely path of unique structure.

Autonomy and freedom rhyme with solitude. There is no way to be autonomous and dependent, free and committed to actions decided and commanded by others.

Autonomy means to take full responsibility for choices. Even if you consult with others, research its foundations, discuss its possible outcomes, true autonomy implies the decision and the plans are designed by the autonomous subject.

She must have full control of the whole process, from inception to conclusion.

And yet, we are the truest of brotherhoods

High performance powerlifting is a solitary game. And yet, if you are out, you would give the rest of the days in your life to be back on the game, back to the solitary life of a true powerlifter.

Because it is in this solitary game that the greatest manifestations of solidarity are seen. Perhaps because it is right that the only way two spirits may actually see each other is if they are truly free.

 

Bibliografical references besides the readings in the storify stories bellow

FITTS, P.M. and POSNER, M.I. (1967) Human performance. Oxford, England: Brooks and Cole

Malafronte, A. , Art for Thought: Artist—A Solitary Profession? 31 May 2011 http://www.artistdaily.com/blogs/theartistslife/archive/2011/05/31/art-for-thought-artist-a-solitary-profession.aspx

 

From storify:

 

  • Lynne Boshoven

    I enjoyed your article. The only person who could write it is someone who lives it. Powerlifting is a very unique life style. I actually do live in a gym and I love the life I have!! Lynne

  • I know you do, Lynne, and I knew you’d understand… 🙂