Life Lessons From the Weight Room

What you learn in the weight room applies everywhere else.

The growth in maturity and confidence I have seen in the young athletes I coach has led me to believe all students should have some training in lifting. As I’ve stated before, society should creatively and openly reexamine what we consider core curriculum in our schools, and the lessons taught in the gym should be valued by all.

Adults often complain that younger generations are entitled; that they lack resilience and independence, and are apathetic about world affairs. All these are very real concerns, but they are not the fault of the kids. If these traits are generational, they are consequences of a culture we bring children into through parenting trends, teaching methods, or exposure to pop culture.

But before I lose you in a yawn about how “in my day, things were different,” let me get to the point: the weight room is a microcosm of life. A lifting program taught to youth with proper implementation may be the most valuable education students ever get. Lifting teaches lessons that permeate all life. Here are five I’ve noticed working with the younger generation.

There are unlimited lessons to be gleaned from your time spent sweating with plates and bars.

1. Humility

Nothing is more humbling than your first day working with a good strength coach. Whether it’s uncovering a host of mobility needs or realizing that there is a correct way to squat, honest self-evaluation is the first step in any program and it is essential in life.

In the mind of every 8-year-old boy is a dream of going to the NFL. Dreams are fantastic, but at a certain point they must be tempered with reality to uncover the candid truth about the steps needed to chase down those dreams. You cannot hide from the truth in the weight room. Can I lift this weight? Is he squatting more than me? Can I broad jump my height? The feedback is undeniable and immediate.

2. The Need for Honest Feedback and Goals

Clear standards and feedback are essential for development. However, kids today are shielded from honest criticism. Youth rec soccer leagues hand out trophies to every team, even to those who didn’t win a single game all season. Many leagues even advocate not keeping score.

Teaching kids to enjoy the game and maintain self-esteem is well-intended. But removing comparison from sport deprives them of the amazing life lessons of how to compete, how to persist through frustration, and most importantly, how to lose and win with grace. In one of life’s many paradoxical truths, learning humility is a prerequisite to feeling pride and accomplishment.

Many youth are petrified of failure because they have never been allowed to experience it. Self-esteem is vital, but it can’t be created from handouts. Confidence is a byproduct of the hard work it takes to achieve goals. Self-esteem is the result of evaluating yourself against your peers or your former self and feeling good about the comparison.

Competition is not a curse word. With the right priorities, competition is the fuel that has propelled nearly every great accomplishment. The weight room offers a structured environment for competition to flourish. The competition may not always seem fair, but fairness is an illusion that holds you back. There are no victims in the weight room, just people trying to be better today than they were yesterday.

3. Patience

Every athlete plateaus. Six months into a program, the impressive leaps in strength and power that you were making slow down or stall completely. No matter how hard you work, these plateaus will be a constant presence throughout your training career. Even harder is watching others continue to make gains while you’re stalled out.

To survive these times, you must learn to break your goals into small steps and focus on the process of reaching each one. These incremental wins eventually stack up through persistence and consistency.

If a 315lb deadlift is eluding you, loading 315lb on the bar and pulling with all of your might day-in and day-out won’t make the bar leave the ground. You need to take a step back, re-evaluate your form, tempo, assistance work, nutrition, sleep, and other variables to come up with a plan to attack your goal. It may take time, but if you focus on the process and remain patient, success is likely.

barbell in front rack

The goals you set in the weight room will require patience and tenacity to achieve.

4. Persistence and Toughness

There will be days when the weight room is the last place you want to be, and yet you punch the clock because you’ve built good habits. You’ve learned to override the desire for instant gratification and gut through because you have clearly defined goals. That level of maturity is a beautiful consequence of time spent in the weight room. More often than not, your habits and support system will get you through the door, and sheer toughness will guide you through workouts.

The legendary marshmallow test proves that willpower is the greatest indicator of future vocational success. The days when you grind it out are the days where you are made. The ability to skip the easy route and delay gratification because you know what you want is the key to success in all areas of life.

5. Play

I tell my athletes that it’s not what you do, but how you do it that will separate you from the rest. Everything from form and tempo in training, to the spirit of play on the field can be seen as an opportunity for self-improvement. At the end of the day, athletics are games. The greatest progress in any endeavor comes from people who find the ability to play. 

Embracing the spirit of play is necessary for long-term success in the weight room. The same holds true for any career choice, parenting strategy, or home improvement project. Remember when building a fort was the coolest thing you could do? Let that spirit overflow into every area in your life. My wife and I just found a tetherball pole on Amazon for $40. Our friends make fun of us, but we don’t care.

Lifting Transforms More Than Just the Body

The high school team that I coach recently had a strength testing day. Their first time we did it, they carelessly rushed through sets and had no clue what weight was on the bar. For the next three months, we set expectations, worked off of percentages, and built confidence as we worked toward the next test.

When that day came, they were like a completely different team. Every athlete was focused on beating their previous test, and they not only knew what weight was on the bar, but also what their teammates were doing. Barbells were lowered with form, under control, and with great confidence as they attempted weights they had never tried before.

WWE great Triple H (Paul Levesque) once said, “The gym teaches you everything you need to know about life.” Truer words were never spoken. In a society where youth focus on little more than 140 characters and parents get lost in the rat-race, maybe it’s time we all take a second to get back to the fundamentals of life. What is essential? Maybe it’s the gym.

More Ways the Gym Trains the Mind:

Photo 1 courtesy of The Training Hall.

Photo 2 courtesy of Cara Kobernik.

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