L.J. Maile, Ph.D.
Over the course of two and one half decades in powerlifting, one of the most dangerous confrontations that a lifter experiences is the head-on collision with reality. Loss of such a confrontation may mean the end of a lifter's career, in fact, it almost always does. I've worked with probably more than 100 lifters in that period of time, and with more than 50 individual national titles, I think I've had adequate opportunity to witness success, and at the same time, failure. Achieving success does not make one immune to the "reality" problem, and sometimes may worsen it.
When a potential competitor comes to powerlifting, he or she brings experiences from other sports, and in life that may either help or hinder. If the person was a successful athlete, there are a number of positive attributes they can bring to our sport which can be helpful. These may include work ethic, tolerance for pain, and "mental toughness." Depending on the length of their other sports careers and the pattern, they may bring persistence, and resilience in the face of defeat. They are often better equipped to both savor victory, and to put setbacks in perspective. Finally, they bring with them, expectations, and this may be their downfall. It may be a harder fall or a harsher reality than for the novice.
But what is the reality problem? In a nutshell, painful encounters with reality happen when a lifter's expectations are not supported by their performance. As an example, a lifter may set a goal of 1200 lbs. for his or her next competition, but have never totaled over 800. As the cycle progresses, it becomes apparent (at least to those of us who are watching) that their goals are not realistic, and that they haven't a possibility of reaching them.
That is not to say that it is not helpful to have goals. Rather, I would say that it is mandatory. If one doesn't have a direction to go, probably they aren't going. I would even say that it is equally damaging to have unrealistically low expectations. Even though the person experiences success because they surpass their goals easily, this may not match the performance of that individuals competitors. They may reach each plateau they've visualized but continue falling behind in competition. Most of us who enter a contest at least hope to receive some payoff for it, i.e. trophies, recognition, etc. Without that, many will lose interest and move on to pursuits in which they can be more successful.
So, it is incumbent on those of us who train athletes to provide palatable doses of reality as training progresses: feedback, such as, "I don't think you are going to squat 750 this meet. You only did 500 twelve weeks ago. Maybe 540 is more realistic." It is also the responsibility of the athlete to accept these cues. (As a very wise friend of mine said, "you can't coach the uncoachable.") If not, the gap between reality and expectations increases until a natural correction occurs, such as getting crushed by your competitors when you expected to win by 200 kg., having a three for nine day, or even bombing.
How does a new lifter stay grounded in reality? By surrounding him- or herself with people who provide accurate feedback. That may be a coach, or may just be training partners. Whoever they are, they should tell you how deep your squats really are, whether you paused your bench, or if your deadlift is locked out correctly. They should also be able to use their outside perspective to compare your past lifts with what you say you want to do, and tell you whether the gap is to great or too small.
But, finally, it is your responsibility to listen. Someone saying, " I don't think you will be able to do that this cycle" may be helping you, not trying to discourage you. They may be saving you the embarrassment of a public failure, or maybe more damaging over time, failing to progress relative to your goals. So…try to set realistic goals, find supporters who give accurate feedback, and LISTEN to their advice.