Cues, Mentality, & Focus
*I wrote this in response to a few emails I got asking about what cues I give myself before a big lift, how I focus, etc. In my usual fashion, I took the question and ran or rather rambled with it. If you have any questions/random things/inqueries/requests you want to see me write a post about - email me! gabbysgfree at gmail dot com. PS - I'm not a coach, a seasoned athlete, or super experienced lifter - I'm just a girl who rambles & thinks a lot :)* I say this all the time, but I feel like I need someone to lobotomize me before I lift. My head gets in the way all too frequently, which in truth is not suprising, because whether I'm on the platform or in an office chair, I overanalyze and overthink everything to the extreme. For example, last week I was going for a 190x5 back squat and only got 2 reps. The weight didn't feel unmanageable, in fact, it felt pretty decent, but I psyched myself out. I could have (and should have) stuck with my third rep and just ground it out. I probably would have been able to push through the entire set, but instead I bailed because I freaked myself out. Basically, I told myself I couldn't do it, so I didn't - I knew that, my coach knew that, so I just cleared off my bar and moved on. My focus wasn't there, and I could give a million excuses why, but it doesn't matter - it just matters that I realized it, figure out why and what to fix, and do better next time.
The more time I spend with a barbell in my hands, the more I realize the importance of focus. Not just focus in the "I'm going to do x,y,z to reach my goals" sort of focus but the focus it takes to take a barbell from the ground, hit that sweet spot on your hips, get adequate layback & full extension, keep the bar close, dive under, catch that sucker, and stand up. It's A LOT to think about, and for someone like me who lives in their head and overanalyzes everything to death, that can be paralyzing. That is where I think the importance of proper cues (both self-cuing and cues from others) comes in. I wasn't consciously aware of any of this for awhile until I paid attention to it and it has been extremely helpful.
If you have a good coach who you have spent enough time with, they're going to know what you need to hear (if not, get a different coach). A good cue (or rather, an effective cue, for me) gives you something to think about and correct while not overburdening you with too much information - its about striking that delicate balance between consciously fixing something and paralysis by analysis. After you hear those cues so many times, they become something you repeat to yourself. I love when I get a chance to watch some of the Fundamentals classes at our gym during my warm-up or mobility work because you can really see this in action, especially with inherently strange movements like the overhead squat. The coaches will sort of run through different cues and when it clicks for that person, you can tell and the coaches will continue to use that cue for that individual. Hopefully then, that person is able to internalize that cue and use it for themselves when the time comes. Short verbal cues help me tremendously - I need to help me focus. For example, I can't count the numbers of times I heard "knees outER, elbows up" when I was front squatting over the past year, especially when I first started. Now, I unconsciously repeat that to myself every time I squat and because I've practiced it, I've gotten better at those things.
Another thing that helps me focus is my pre-lifting routine. I'm a semi-dramatic lifter, there are no two ways around that. I yell, I make dramatic gestures, I violently slam the bar, etc. - I think that may be surprising to some people since I'm not necessarily to most loud or dramatic person in regular situations. But those things help me focus. When I go to do a heavy clean, I slam the bar a bit, set my feet, get my hook grip just right, pump my hips, cue myself "patient 2nd pull, pull under", set my back, and completely clear my mind. My mind gets zen-like and then I just lift. This whole process is completely different when I do something like a max effort deadlift. For that, I will stand back and look at the bar, rub chalk into my hands, and get pissed off - I need to be angry, aggressive, and just straight up ragey. I tighten my belt, put my arms up a bit, air up, and then rip the bar off the floor. These are two totally different processes but they work for me because in each, I'm taking my overly analytic mind out of the equation - I give it something to focus on via my own cues or my coach's cues and then, just do it.
At some point, all of this translates over to other parts of your life. If you spend some time becoming aware of your routines, habits, and how you talk to yourself in the gym, you are probably going to do the same thing when you're at work, making dinner, etc. If you are constantly telling yourself that you can't do something, whether that is squat 200lbs or start a business, you more likely to NOT do it. If your morning routine begins with looking in the mirror and telling yourself that you need to lose this and that and be like this person or that person, you're putting your head in a bad place for the rest of the day. Similarly, if you try to analyze every little bit of your life and tell yourself you're going to change all of these things, all at once - you're going to get some paralysis by analysis. You use cues in your daily life, whether you're aware of it or not and you internalize the social and verbal cues that others give you. Telling yourself "be confident" is no different than your coach telling you "chest up" - if you hear these cues and internalize them, changes will happen. If you actively work at making those changes, your chest is going to stay up at the bottom of your squat or alternatively, you're going to be a more confident person. In reality, standing on the platform with a heavy bar on your back is not so different from standing in your house, trying to navigate the complexities and many stressors of your day.
That's my long way of saying that I think people can benefit from paying attention to those things, finding what works for them and practicing that. Now becoming aware of these things is different than analyzing them to death. Finding what works takes some trial and error but more often than not, you have a routine and that routine serves as an important ramp-up for your brain, both in and out of the gym. While you're in the gym, you can video yourself or ask someone who sees you lift often to describe your routine, they can probably tell you all about little idiosyncrasies that you didn't know existed. Outside of the gym, make a conscious effort to pay attention to what you tell yourself and how you ramp yourself up for things that matter. If it works, keep it around - if it doesn't, toss it out. Just don't underestimate the power of your mind - willing yourself into a 400# deadlift isn't going to happen but analyzing the situation to death isn't going to make it happen either. At some point, you have to get your mind ready and shut up and squat.