Sports are Not a Stress Outlet and Being Elite is on You, Not Your Program


Written by: Kevin Cann


I hear this quite a lot, “I lift to deal with my regular life.”  Maybe not that exact same quote, but something like that.  This may feel great on some days but will come back to bite you in the ass at some point.


When we are stressed, we can’t just take that anger and frustration we feel and put it into the weights.  Stress, anger, and frustration all change how we accomplish movement tasks.  This was a lesson I learned the hard way.


In my early 20s I started the MMA thing as an outlet for my stress and anger.  I quickly learned that when I allowed my feelings from my personal life to leak into my training my reaction time was slower, my combinations did not flow as smoothly, and punches actually hurt more because your neck is stiff and tense and not rolling with the punches.


The combination of those things would lead to subpar performance that would only make me more frustrated. When this happens you have two options: Figure it out or quit.  In a sport where you are getting hit in the face, it kind of forces you to make that decision.


Going through this taught me a lot about dealing with my emotions.  Sport taught me how to deal with life.  It is not an outlet for when you feel bad, but instead sport is a teacher to teach you how to deal with those emotions.  This difference in perspective is huge.


Powerlifting is a bit different as no one is getting hit in the face (although some should), I see so often a lifter allowing the perceived negativity from their personal lives to flow into their training.  The lifter does not take a few minutes to get their mind right, but instead just starts warming up.


Everything from their facial expressions to their body language tells you that something is not right with them on this day.  When I see this as a coach, I want to ask them who is messing with them and do a few MMA rounds with them, but every moment like this is a teaching moment with life skills that can be taught.


I know things will probably not go well in training for them that day, but I often do not interject. It is on them to figure it out. It is on them to get their mind right before they lift and to make the right decisions for the weight to put on the bar.  I know neither of those things will often happen.


Instead the lifter will sulkingly take a top set, which I plan around an RPE 9 based off of last week’s performance, probably when they were in high spirits.  They will miss the weight and throw the equivalent of an adult temper tantrum.  During this temper tantrum there are no good training decisions being made.  This training day was a complete waste of time, except for the lifter now dumping all of life’s frustrations on me.  This sure as shit didn’t work as a good outlet for stress.  Now I need a stress outlet!  I am kidding, this is the coach’s job, to guide the human, not just write a program.


We have all done this too. I have definitely done it myself and there is not a lifter on PPS that hasn’t done this.  It is recognizing it, recognizing it is on you to figure it out, and to stop putting blame on everything else.  It isn’t the program, it is you.


I think that the majority of lifters involved in this sport want to be somewhat competitive, whatever that means.  For me, I got started in this sport in my early 30s.  I didn’t touch a barbell too often throughout college soccer and MMA after. I did some dumbbell stuff and picked up a trap bar and front squat occasionally.


I knew I was well behind the 8 ball for this sport.  However, I set a goal to be more competitive as a masters lifter.  Then I saw that the masters lifters are just as strong as the open lifters, so maybe a competitive M4.  I am kidding here, but by 40 I will only have 7-8 years of training behind me.


Dave started powerlifting around the same time as I did.  However, he played college football.  They usually squat and bench with coaches in football.  This usually extends back into high school.  A college football player that gets into powerlifting in their early 20s has 8 years of weight room experience, usually with a barbell, and usually with a coach, before they get started.   I won’t have this experience under the bar until I am 40.


With that said, this is why I am not competitive.  If I want to be, I have to do everything right to make up for that lost time.  I have a very high pain tolerance and will train through almost anything.  Not being an asshole, but wisely training through things.  I can make up days here.


I can’t afford to allow my negative emotions to give me shitty training days.  Each shitty training day pushes me further behind everyone else.  For every shitty day I have, I know my competition is having a better day.


In other sports, I was reacting to an opponent.  You would be analyzing them the whole time, pick up on tendencies, and slowly pick them apart.  When things weren’t going well you could really make the game smaller.  Get rid of the ball faster in soccer to an easier outlet and gain some momentum or go out there and control distance and get a jab working in MMA.


In powerlifting it is tough, because the opponent is not the weights, but it is yourself.  This is the toughest opponent you will ever face in your life, because they know every single one of your weaknesses and they will exploit them better than anyone else.


Coaches and athletes are always looking for weaknesses within the lifts themselves.  I do feel that this is important, but these are often not the biggest issues that need to be addressed.  Many of these issues can get better from appropriate training.


The bigger issue is within each and every individual.  I will set training up as a coach to bring these emotions to the forefront.  I firmly believe in training with consequences and I will make you frustrated at some point.  Some are stronger than others here, but they will all experience it.


Each one of these experiences is an opportunity to learn and to face your biggest opponent in this sport, YOU.  You will want to blame the program, the coach, the equipment, and so on.  This isn’t facing your opponent; this is running away.  This is the opponent winning, and you either figure it out, or quit.


If you are working with a coach that has had some higher levels of success with lifters over a period of time, it is not the program that is at fault for anything.  I would have never left Sheiko if he did not stop taking distance lifters.


I have not hit a PR since I started working with Hartman about a year ago.  This has absolutely nothing to do with him as a coach.  He coaches girls that can’t legally drink that will out lift me.  This all falls on me as an athlete.


I was forced to find a new coach and Hartman does things very differently than Sheiko.  I think if I had reached out to Hartman under different circumstances that the transition would have been different.  I wasn’t fully bought in because the situation was forced upon me by circumstance.


The switch in program style was very drastic too.  It actually pissed me off at times.  He elicited an emotional response in me for sure.  At times I wanted to put my fist through a wall and the frustration made me hate training at times.


It didn’t help that I am coaching at the same time and lifters dumping this same frustration on me too when their training doesn’t fit their ideal picture.  With Sheiko you just did what you are told.  He gave me a little flexibility, but not much at all. I coached in a similar way and the frustration as an athlete and coach was far less at this time due to this.


With Hartman, it wasn’t setup to just do as I am told, but I lifted as if it was.  I missed a lot of reps and made some really poor decisions within training.    I would then come in for the next session frustrated and try to get it all back that day and have another shitty day of bad decisions and poor lifting.


It took me a while to realize this.  I learned how to apply general principles in training and the technique of the lifts from Sheiko.  This was such an important period of time for me as a coach, more so than an athlete.


Hartman, whether it was intentional or not, taught me how to handle my emotions in training.  This allows me to handle the emotions of the lifters I coach.  Hartman forced me to be a better lifter.  I am lucky I had past experiences in other sports that allowed me to improve this very quickly once I recognized it.


I took more of a role in my lifting.  I write my own program, but Hartman gives me his insights and thoughts on my decisions. Almost always I take what he says, and I do it as he has much more experience than I do and a more objective view of my lifting.


I have not benched over 300lbs in a meet since August of 2017.  For the first time since then, I am confident I can hit that 303lbs bench press on any day, with any grip.  It took 2 years to get to this point for me.  Probably would have been less time with a better attitude.


My squat feels the best it has ever felt.  I have had some good runs with squats over the last year that just fizzled out by the time I got to singles or a competition.  Some of this is due to my inconsistency with the technical aspects of the lift.  I am pretty confident that I can chip a PR on the platform right now if I had a meet in a couple weeks.  This weight would be a 3rdI missed due to depth last summer at a competition. It took a year for me to feel like I am back to that number with technique that will hold up under the rules of the sport.


My deadlift is weird. It is my strongest lift, but it experiences some big ups and downs.  With Sheiko my deadlift went to 505lbs in my second meet, to 455lbs the next time I tested. It then went to 485lbs a few months later when I tested again.  9 months after I pulled the 505lbs on a deadlift bar, I hit 518lbs in a USAPL meet. I put 15lbs on my best deadlift with tougher equipment in a year, but it just went backwards for a while for me to get there.  Long term progress isn’t too bad here at all.  At the time it seemed terrible, but I wasn’t so worried without a meet scheduled.


I missed 545lbs a couple weeks ago, which is about 20lbs behind my best ever meet pull from last summer. It is in my head a little, and this is why I have a coach.  Hartman gave me some ideas, so I threw them into the program.  I know it will come around, I just need to train hard and make good decisions.


I had 2 very different programs that yielded very similar results.  No matter what program I would decide to do, this would have been the case because the problem was me and not the program.  Find a coach you can work well with and stick with them while addressing those individual weaknesses we all possess.


Take ownership for the things that YOU can do better as lifter.  This includes maintaining bodyweight, sacrificing drinking on weekends, bringing 100% to each training day, and your attitude.


If you choose to go out with friends and eat like shit, it is ok to do these things as you got to live life but accept the consequences that comes with these actions.  This sport can fit in your life however you want. World champions aren’t going out every weekend and sulking between sets.


My motto right now is “No reps off.”  This includes every rep from the empty bar up through my top sets.  I noticed I was only getting focused once the weight gets heavier.  This was a lot of missed opportunities to get better.  We can always improve our mental and physical attributes.


Training Needs to Have Consequences

Written by Kevin Cann


A big part of my job is handling the emotions of the lifters.  We do not just follow a simple program.  The lifters are responsible for a large amount of their training.  They are required to pick the weights for their top sets each day.  These weights should be at or near maximal.  We put an RPE 8.5-9.5 on it, but I would prefer them to overshoot than undershoot.


Training at these intensities on a daily basis can be pretty tough, both physically and mentally.  As all of us know, the training process is non-linear.  We do not just come into the gym and hit PRs every day.


There are days where we will fail to get to our top sets, days where weights feel much harder, and this can go on for a period of time.  The human is an open complex system, it is not a machine.


The brain analyzes an enormous amount of information from mood, energy levels, core temperature, hydration, as well as expectations, beliefs, past experiences, and makes a decision on perceived effort based off of this information.


The coach needs to juggle this uncertainty with the lifters.  There is a difference between risk and uncertainty when looking at predictive processes.  Most coaches assume there is a risk of, let us say increased fatigue leading to a drop in performance.  They may add in a lighter day to help to dissipate some this fatigue.


This is assuming quite a bit of information.  Uncertainty on the other hand, according to Nate Silver, is a risk that is hard to measure. We cannot measure fatigue.  Even if we could we do not understand how it actually affects performance.


I am not saying that fatigue does not exist, I am saying that the human body is capable of handling its shit. We choose to stop an exercise long before we die.  These feedback loops are in place for a reason and it is a remarkable thing.


The brain of the individual can measure the unmeasurable and make decisions that are best for that person at that time.  One way it does this is by increasing perceived effort.  This will make lighter weights feel heavier and almost always leads to less sets being completed.  There is volume control.  The opposite happens as well.


In ecological psychology there are two different paths that can alter the individual’s behavior. There is a global and local part to the system.  The local part is the individual and the global part is the coach.


If the coach tells a lifter that they are tired and that is why they are seeing a drop in performance and they should perform a lighter day, they are projecting their beliefs onto the lifter.  They are assuming they understand the variables and can make a calculated risk. This is what data driven programs do. They attempt to find trends.  In this case powering through may be a better option.


College professor of cognitive sciences at MIT, Tomaso Poggio stated, “These evolutionary instincts sometimes lead us to see patterns when there are none there.  Finding patterns in random noise.”


In this day and age of overwhelming information, we are no smarter now than we were before.  Just like with volume, more information is not necessarily better.  Instead we decide to find those studies and explanations that confirm our bias.  We all do this, even me.


This is why philosophy is so important.  It makes you think about the world in very different ways.  It poses open ended questions without answers and teaches you how to embrace uncertainty instead of taking calculated risks that ignore bias and uncertainty.


In order to take a calculated risk we need to understand all of the variables involved.  Something like poker has a finite number of possibilities.  Measuring human existence is far more complex than poker.


When the Patriots were down 28-3 in the Super Bowl against the Falcons close to the end of the 3rdquarter, the probability of them winning was less than 1%.  We all saw that play out much differently. Scenarios like this happen all of the time.  We are terrible at predicting things.


The coach needs to understand this and let these situations play out.  Their language and decisions need to embrace the uncertainty. Attempting to measure these things may be right sometimes, but it will be wrong more often than the coach would like.


I follow a dynamic systems theory approach to training.  There are 3 constraints the coach needs to be aware of; the individual, the environment, and the task.  All 3 of these will pull training one way or the other whether we like it or not.


The individual is not just bones and muscles.  We are very good at measuring physical components of the individual’s training. However, we are very poor at measuring the psychological pieces that come with training.  Many use RPE in training and forget that it is perceived effort.  The brain can be trained just like the muscles to perceive things differently.


In order to do this we need to train with consequences.  The weight on the bar has to be enough to create an emotional response from the lifter. The lifter then needs to learn how to deal with this emotional response.


I was listening to a podcast with Keith Davids (wrote the book, literally, on a constraints-led approach) and he was talking about Parcor and how this is good training for athletes. He gave an example of an athlete approaching a wall and stopping 3 times before he finally performed the task.


He spoke about the emotional stress this was causing on the athlete and how the athlete had to learn to deal with it.  On the field, that wall could be a linebacker trying to tackle him.  There is a lot of carryover here.


This really resonated with me because the PPS lifters approach that wall every day, but we perceive it differently each day.  That wall is the top set of near maximal weights.  Sometimes the jump looks further, or the fall looks further down, our legs may be tired, it may be hotter temperatures outside, we may not be feeling into it on this current day.  Maybe we missed this same jump a few times before.


All of these factors will affect the outcome.  Sometimes the outcome will not be the one that we want.  This will increase levels of frustration.  When these frustrations arise the lifter needs to be able to separate emotions from decision making and figure out what to do next to get the most out of this training day.  Pouting and temper tantrums will not help to make them stronger.


This can be very tough on the coach.  It is always easier to just give into the lifter and just give them lighter weights for multiple sets to help build confidence.  I get this argument, but I disagree with it.  This does not teach the lifter how to deal with the inevitable frustrations of competitive athletics.  Powerlifting is competitive athletics.  Instead it is the coach having them self-organize globally, based off of the coach’s beliefs, and not locally.  This is not easy on the coach, but the coach needs to trust in the individual to find a way. The coach can offer guidance on how to deal with these frustrations.  Sometimes this may be pulling back a bit from training, but more often than not it is keeping frustration high to force adaptation to it. We do not only compete when we feel good.


The internal load is moat important for building physical strength within the lifts.  As long as we keep effort high, we are getting a training stimulus.  We alter the task to punish inefficiencies and promote a recalibration to more efficient techniques of the lifts.  We also set up the training to elicit a continues emotional response.


Building an emotionally strong lifter is important for them to be the best lifter that they can possibly be.  Elite athletes all share this in common in other sports.  They have this sense of irrational confidence mixed with mental resiliency to be able to push themselves beyond typical levels of perceived effort.  This is what we are learning to do in the gym.


Doing this allows us to practice less to get a strong training stimulus.  We can spend less time in the gym with greater outcomes. There are greater life lessons to be learned here as well.  It gives each lifter tools to deal with frustration that will be inevitable in all aspects of life.


This requires the coach to educate the lifters as well.  They need to understand that they are not losing strength because there is a down day in the gym.  You do not get weaker by training hard.  The coach needs to teach the lifter about expectations, beliefs, and past experiences and help to guide the process by violating preconceived expectations and building new experiences.


The lifter can allow the frustration to spiral and lead to many bad training days and a plateau in strength.  However, if they learn to handle this frustration with high training skill, they will be able to push progress and hopefully avoid long standing plateaus.  Unfortunately, plateaus will still be inevitable, but if they understand that, accept it, and know it will turn around with high effort and good decision making it will lead to a much longer and enjoyable career. We learn this by training with consequences and emotions.