The Role of Fear

Michael Hulcher

Salt Lake City, Utah, United States

Coaching, Olympic Weightlifting, Powerlifting, CrossFit


There are lots of things that scare me. My close friends would recognize this and probably have a good laugh at my expense. I'm scared of heights, I'm scared of the ocean, and I'm scared to feel out of control. But regret scares me a lot more than all of those things. So, while these things do scare me, I try not to let them lead me away from experiences that I know I'd regret not having.


I experience fear in the gym all the time. Fear can be healthy. Fear lets you know that you're doing it right. Growth occurs through adaptation to stress. Without fear or at least a little anxiety, you feel safe. Safety in the gym, unfortunately, leads to homeostasis—something at which the body excels. But not all fear is equal.



Not All Fear Is Equal

I got roped into a powerlifting meet a week or so ago. One of the women who started training at my gym about six months ago has a combined Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting meet in February that I'm training her for—she very graciously asked if I'd coach her at the meet. Of course, I said yes, and then somehow that turned into her inviting me to join her as a competitor.


My gut reaction was to say absolutely not, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had to do it. I ask people here all the time to go to those places that scare them. In some cases, terrify them. I ask people to do all kinds of things they've never thought of doing. They trust me because they know I've been there before, that I'll lead the way, and that they'll have my support through success and through failure.


The Role of Fear - Fitness, strength and conditioning, mindset, muscle gain, discipline, training plan


Nothing scares me more than feeling like a fraud. Not heights. Not water. Not even failure. So, I said yes. Now that my training is ramping up beyond 80% of my 1RM, I'm encountering some very healthy fear. It's the same kind of dread that I feel all the time right before workouts like "Jonescrawl" or "those burpees suck" or a Triathlon.


It sounds something like this in my head: "This is really going to hurt." And that's usually closely followed by this mantra I repeat to myself: "I'm only going to do this once. I never want to do this again because I won't leave anything out there. I'm emptying the tank. I'm never doing this again because it will be physically impossible for me to go faster. This is everything I have."



I trust myself completely in power endurance events. I have fear, obviously. But I've been to the edge again and again and again and I've never failed myself. I'm no great athlete. I'm not competing directly with anyone else. People will always row faster than me. People will ski faster. I'm competing with myself to live up to the best version of me that I can possibly be. It's only me versus my potential.


The Role of Fear in Training

I'm in the process of learning how to apply that mindset to weightlifting. Much of adopting this mindset comes back to residual self-image and psychology. I might not intrinsically think of myself as an athlete or even "athletic," but I do know I'm capable of using 100% of my ability to work hard.



And now, for some reason, I have a lot of difficulties applying that label to myself when it comes to weightlifting. This difficulty is probably a product of my teens and twenties when I was really suffering from undiagnosed Crohn's Disease and I was languishing in the 130s, desperately trying to keep weight on, feeling tired and exhausted all the time.



I've never been particularly strong or powerful, and I've allowed myself to feed that self-image with negative self-talk. I've taken steps this year in addressing that negative self-talk and self-image. It started with getting my nutrition together. I hired a nutrition coach and we've worked together to find something that works for my health, my body, and my training.


I took the better part of six months to focus on finally putting muscle on my frame. I've never wanted to have that "victim" mentality and I had to face the fact that this myth was one that I'd been telling myself. I'd always felt that it wasn't in the cards for me to be big and strong and powerful. It was a lie. I'd been acting like I was a victim of circumstance. I was afraid.


Fear Is the Bottom Line

Fear. It all comes back to fear. I'd been afraid of the truth. I was afraid to try and change myself, to really try and become something else—and fail at it. And really, there's nothing sadder than the kind of deep regret for the things you want in life but never did, all because you were afraid to risk failure. So, I really tried.


On paper, it wasn't really that hard. It was picking stuff up, putting it down, resting, recovering, picking heavier stuff up a little more, putting it down, eating, and sleeping.


In reality, it was having to not care about my abs. I had to have a coach tell me that yes, I did deserve that food because I was working hard. I had to sell my bike so I wouldn't be tempted to ride it everywhere and self-sabotage all of the weightlifting and eating I was doing.


I had to talk myself out of nights out with friends to get that extra hour of sleep. It was constant self-esteem battles every time I wanted to take my shirt off on a walk outside or at the pool because I didn't look or feel as lean as I wanted to. It was taking time off from the things I love in the gym to actually see these things through.


And now I'm having to do the same thing with weightlifting. After a year of doing nothing but things that scare me, maybe you'd think that I'd conquered it by now. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I ever will.


What I'm busy doing is walking up to the barbell and not thinking about the weight, not looking at the bend in the bar, but reminding myself of all the things I'd regret if I don't take this time I have and wring every ounce of potential from it. Failure is hardly the worst thing that could happen.


The worst that can happen is having fear talk you out of that last rep, or that 5th set of doubles or whatever that thing is that you're busy telling yourself you want so badly. The worst thing that could happen is for you to always wonder what you could have done.

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