by Rob Wagner
Ideas on Getting Psyched
In 1985 a movie about a wrestler and his pursuit of athletic excellence, called Vision Quest made it to the theaters. At the conclusion of the movie, the hero Louden Swain is shown warming up in preparation for a match with the legend of high school wrestling "Shute". As he warms up in a room adjacent to the wrestling venue you can barely hear the chords of the Red Ryder song "Lunatic Fringe" building in the background. By the time the song is full volume Louden's warm up pace is flying. Then he bursts through the door into a capacity filled gym to wrestle and meet his destiny and pin Shute in the final second of the match. You cannot help not having an adrenaline rush. Talk about an optimal situations. If only all of us as lifters could experience this. Well actually you can and I hope to explain some of the ways you can create these optimal situations.
Before explaining how to create this type of stimulation let me discuss the idea of psyching up. Most people are familiar with this phrase. I imagine if you went into a gym tonight you could find a powerlifter telling his training partner to get psyched before a lift. What is psyching up? In reality, it is not a simple definition. In Sport Psychology circles, the term that sports psychology practitioners use is arousal control. Arousal itself is a wide ranging concept. Arousal can be defined as the general physiological (physical) and psychological (mental) activation of the organism (human) that varies on a continuum from deep sleep to intense excitement. I apologize if that sounds like scientific jargon and offer you a simpler version. Arousal is how intense or charged up your are in relationship to a given situation. In athletic activities, we refer more specifically to the situation as competition or practice. So if we look at arousal control we are talking about the regulation of this charging up process in relation to a competition or a training session. Reaching an optimal arousal level (not too little and not too much) is necessary for peak performance based upon research in this area. Using the preceding we can say that psyching up is the way in which we develop optimal arousal.
The importance of being psyched up relates to the demands of the sport. Powerlifting requires maximal efforts both physically and mentally. Research shows that psyching up techniques can have benefits in events that require significant muscle strength or power. The powerlifter needs to be in an optimal arousal state to perform to their best ability. Remember that optimal arousal means that both psychological and physiological systems will be highly charged up in preparation for lifting. Remember arousal is a combination of physiological and psychological activation. You can have all the physiological aspects elevated but not have the mental drive and your performance will lag. The opposite situation will also create a poor performance. So psyching up requires both the physical and mental aspects to be incorporated at the same time.
There are varieties of ways in which people will try to psyche themselves up. Some powerlifters may use external means like music, shouting and even slapping to psych up. Others will use an internal approach by incorporating imagery, self-efficacy statements or self-talk, attentional focus, preparatory arousal or emotive imagery, prayer, relaxation and distraction. From the external standpoint, some research has covered the effects of music, shouting and videos of aggressive behavior on strength. The results are conflicting though. It seems that using these types of strategies may or may not have an effect on performance. Studies on music have shown that certain types of music can have different effects on performance. Stimulating music ( the experiment used Led Zeppelins "Rock and Roll") showed no increase in performance when compared to a control setting where there was no music. Maybe they weren't Zep fans. The only significant outcome was when sedative music was played. In response to sedative music subjects performance decreased when compared to stimulating and no music. The use of loud sound such as shouting did elevate performance outcomes when used after the viewing aggressive behavior demonstrated on video. The weakness of this study was that there was no way to determine whether it was the video or shouting that improved performance.
Psych up strategies that are found in the research tend to be oriented around five approaches. These include the use of imagery, self-efficacy statements or self-talk, attentional focus, preparatory arousal or emotive imagery, and relaxation. Imagery is the creation or recreation of an experience in your mind. In a sense you are simulating the event in your mind. Imagery can be done in an external (like watching TV) or internal fashion (seeing the scene through your eyes). Although imagery seems geared primarily toward visual input, it should incorporate all the senses like smell and touch to aid in providing the most vivid image. In studies when imagery was used alone it has been shown to have some positive effect on strength performance. In these studies, subjects were directed to imagine themselves doing the exercise successfully. An example of this in powerlifting would be to imagine yourself performing that set of five reps with 275 lbs. on the bench press before you actually do it. Remember to not only see it through your eyes but to feel the knurling in your hands and hear the rattle of the plates. I have found the best time to use this technique is before you are ready to approach the bar. The focus should be on seeing a performance that uses perfect technique and is successfully completed. Imagery is a learned skill and takes time to develop this technique effectively. In all of the studies reviewed, no information was gathered on the history of the subjects' uses or experiences with imagery. Imagery was usually explained or introduced to subjects during the pre-testing phase of the study. This may explain why imagery had only a small positive effect on strength performance.
Self-talk is the process of taking our thoughts and putting them into verbal form. It is what we say to ourselves. These statements can be either negative, focusing on negative aspects of performance or positive, focusing on the positive aspects. The negative should be avoided as a psyching tool. Statements as "I feel tired" or "I am weak" are examples of negative self-talk that have no place in powerlifting. The self-talk strategy has consistently shown an increase in strength performance over control (no self-talk) levels in the research reviewed. In these studies, individuals were instructed to tell themselves "I will really succeed at this task." The focus is to use positive statements aimed at the task at hand. A similar approach in powerlifting would have the lifter saying, "I will bench this weight." Statements I have my athletes use are "I am strong" and "I will use good form." These statements should be used as you approach the bar. They can even be used as get on the platform and start the preparation to perform the lift. It's almost like having a coach in your back pocket.
Attentional focus is your ability to concentrate on the cues or signals you will respond to during the course of the athletic activity. This technique can be categorized in relationship to its width (broad vs. narrow) and direction (internal vs. external). Broad attentional focus will have you focus on a several occurrences simultaneously, like being a quarterback in football. Not only does he have to focus on 2 or more receivers, but he also has to watch the defensive players trying to sack him The athlete has to respond to many cues at the same time. In narrow attentional focus you are focusing on one or two primary cues like lifting the bar in powerlifting. Imagine having to worry about someone tackling you while squatting. You can see how broad attentional focus is not suggested for use while lifting. The external attentional focus directs your focus outward onto an object. Internal attentional focus will have you focusing inward on your thoughts and feelings. Paying attention to the mechanics of a lift is an internal focus. In the studies subjects are given commands guiding them towards narrow, internal attentional focus. They are told to focus on extending the leg.. The use of this technique has been shown to improve strength performance. In powerlifting the attentional focus should be narrow, focusing only on the lift and should be internal, focusing on the body mechanics of the lift. Attentional focus can be used before and during the performance of the lift. An example would be to focus on your grip while deadlifting. Initially the focus would be on getting a solid grip on the bar and maintaining it as you finish the pull.
Preparatory arousal or emotive imagery is probably something most lifters have used before a big lift. In the studies this technique requires subjects to recall an experience or they were presented with a situation. The situation they created was directed to make them feel angry, fearful, or mad. In other studies subjects were simply directed to "get charged up." Think of this technique as getting yourself fired up. The difficulty in explaining a clear method on how to do this is because it is probably done differently from individual to individual. A sign of success is when you can create an internal rage and not display it outwardly. In some of the studies this approach showed no effect on strength performance, in others it showed a big effect. The differences may be due to the design of the experiments and the lack of a true control (no arousal ) groups in the studies showing no effect. The studies that have shown it to be effective at increasing strength performance used control (no arousal) groups. This technique should be the starting point of your psych up routine. I suggest you use this starting a few minutes before you lift until you go under the bar. In Powerlifting, this technique can be carried out in a variety of ways. You can draw on a personal experience from your life or that day if you know it will get you going. Past or present scenarios seem to work effectively well.
Relaxation unlike the other techniques has been shown to decrease strength performance when it immediately precedes the task. Relaxation training will usually involve an exercise in releasing tension from your muscles by alternating contractions and relaxation of different muscle groups. Another part of the exercise may be to focus on deep abdominal breathing or actually trying to slow down your respiration rate. You are trying to minimize stress in your body. It is a useful tool when you are over aroused. An athlete that is over aroused will suffer the same consequences of those that are under aroused, decreased strength performance. Over arousal is going beyond your optimal levels. Even though powerlifting requires high arousal levels you can not go into a blind rage. The control of the bar and its interaction with your body requires you to maintain some sense of control. This can also be helpful to the lifter in between the competitive lifts. Trying to stay "charged up" for the entire meet can be draining and can rob energy that could be better used during the lifting. If you have a tendency to pace around in between flights or lifts, relaxation techniques can be used to calm you down and allow you to conserve energy. Staying up during this period especially if you are the pacing type can burn a lot of energy. After your third attempt in the squat get the gear off and try to relax little bit. Your body will appreciate it in the bench press and deadlift.
The timing of the psych up routine is also important. Based on the techniques mentioned, a psych up routine should immediately precede lifting. Do not get psyched up two hours before the meet. This is what is referred to as being psyched out. A lot of energy both psychological and physiological can get used. When it comes time to lift there may not be much energy left. The length of the psych up is also not that important. In the research reviewed subjects were usually given 20 - 45 seconds to psych up. In one study different time lengths were measured for psych up and no difference in performance was noted between any of the conditions. As long as you psych up immediately before the lift you will receive the benefits. The studies also showed that the specificity of the psych up was important in its ability to increase strength performance. If the task being measured was the bench press, subjects that were directed to use imagery relating to the bench press had greater strength performance increases.. This may explain why music, slapping or shouting may not always be effective by themselves. These techniques can get you charged up but they may actually distract from the attentional focus required. In all of the techniques the use of more specific images, self-efficacy statements / self talk, and attentional focus seemed to improve performance in strength tasks. In studies that searched for the types of psych up strategies subjects used for a task, they found that almost half of the participants combined techniques. This could prove to be beneficial since you may be able to activate the body more effectively by using multiple approaches. In a sense you are mixing an effective psych up supplement. It is sort of like ingesting creatine and glutamine together. This may also be advantageous for individuals that are less experienced in using some of the more skillful techniques like imagery.
Based upon the information above I would like to present you with a sample psych up routine that you can use at a meet or during a heavy training session. I do not recommend that you use this on all your attempts or training sessions. Use it instead as that extra kick to move you forward when you are facing a challenge. This example incorporates all of the techniques covered above and should be used before the specific attempt(s) that you deem as challenging. This can be all of your attempts in a meet or just one attempt in a workout. The initial step in this routine is to use preparatory arousal or emotive imagery while you are sitting down, roughly 2-3 minutes before your attempt. Spend a minute or so using this technique. After you get fired up, use internal imagery to see yourself perform the lift successfully. You can do this 2 or 3 times if you wish. Make sure the reps are done successfully and with good technique and try to create an image that is from your point of view. As you approach the bar use your self-talk to reaffirm your conviction to succeeding with this attempt. Tell yourself that you are strong and will succeed. Immediately before you start and during the lift, use your narrow-internal attentional focus to control the technique and body mechanics of the lift throughout the range of motion. After succeeding with the lift and if you have more than 10 minutes between attempts use some relaxation to calm yourself and to clear your mind in preparation for the next attempt. Using this routine may not create the Hollywood scene that Louden Swain experienced. In the long run it will move you closer to the optimal performance you are looking for.