Psychology in the Weightlifting Arena, Part 7 – The Lifter’s Trance

We now come to a point in competition just before the lifter is to lift the barbell. So what happens at this point? He or she goes into a light trance. Yes, a trance – a weightlifter’s trance.

In our exploration of the psychology of a weightlifter, we now come to a point just before the lifter is ready to lift the barbell. All physical and psychological preparations have been completed. It is now time to reef on that bar. So what does a lifter do at this point? He or she goes into a light trance. Yes, a trance – a weightlifter’s trance.

Being in a weightlifter’s trance is being in an altered state of consciousness (ASC). I had first heard of this technique from the York Barbell Company lifters who trained in the Pennsylvania Dutch area of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The trance is like the centeredness feeling discussed previously but only more intense. In a trance you can take control of higher energy outputs while intensely focusing your concentration. You will be able to explode with the weight. A lifter’s trance can produce the best charge and discharge of our lifting energy. We have all heard the story of little old lady who lifted her Oldsmobile off of a trapped child. If there’s any veracity to the story it is definitely a case of someone getting in an ASC, i.e. a trance, and giving everything she had to do the job at hand.

What is necessary to enter into this trance state? You don’t need psychotropic drugs to get there. It’s really very easy to do. You probably can remember when as kids you’d lean over and look back through your legs at an upside-down world. Remember how different the world seemed to look? This was actually an ASC (too bad more in the ’60s didn’t stop there). The main ingredients are a state of relaxation, proper breathing, a mind free of clutter, and concentration. This will eliminate all the distractions that can prevent entering an ASC.

According to sports psychology Edward Smith, an ASC is simply this:

Any mental state which can be recognized subjectively by the person herself or himself, or objectively by an observer, as being a significant deviation in subjective experience or psychological functioning from what is the general norm for that person during alert, waking consciousness. So the altered state of consciousness can range from a mild alteration in the usual alert waking state to a profound shift in that state.

There may be a disturbed time sense, where time is either sped up or slowed down. Emotional expression may display extremes, either very excited or very calm. These are just general observations. Every lifter may be different.

There is an optimal range of stimulation from the outside world that is necessary for maintaining this normal, waking consciousness. The sensory system is constantly scanning the environment in order to stay oriented. You’ve probably noticed this yourself when you’re walking or driving. You are constantly looking left, right, up, and down. You take note of every sound. All of this is what keeps you in the real world.

However when the level of stimulation is either above or below the optimal level, an altered state of consciousness can be induced. Without this constant scanning you can easily slip into a non-ordinary altered state. Therefore if you want to go into a trance (a process called induction) the easiest way to do it is to stop this constant sensory scanning. Instead concentrate on only one thing, ideally your deep breathing or your mantra. This generally involves suggestions of relaxation and concentration.

weightlifting, psychology, psych up, psyching up, how to psych up for big liftWhen it comes to weightlifting, your trance results from an extreme concentration on the present moment, centered solely on the barbell and its need to be lifted. You see nothing else. Soon after induction the noise of the crowd is shut out. As you walk up to the bar the trance is maintained. Then as you prepare to lift you get your feet into position, and then get your hands on the bar. You are grounded. Then you lower your body to the bar. You are especially aware of the feel of the knurling of the bar against your hands. All that is left is to lift the bar.

In my lifting career some decades ago, all of this was not known in any great detail. We went into our psyching act and maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. No one knew exactly how to consistently make it work. But sometime after I discovered Smith’s book, Not Just Pumping Iron, I was fascinated enough to attempt a short comeback to lifting, just to test it out. My best years in the sport were long behind me. My lifts were about 15% below my old personal records. I had not trained seriously for some years and my technique suffered accordingly. I did get into some modicum of condition, just enough to lift halfway credibly in my test competition.

But I learned some visualization techniques that would work for me and added these to the various grounding, centering, charging, and discharging techniques that I wanted to put to use. I did visualizations whenever I had a few spare moments in the weeks before the meet. Finally the day of the competition came and I was eager to experiment. I lined up with everyone else for the athlete introduction and my gut tightened just like a novice.

Soon my name was called for my first attempt. My gut tightened a bit more. However unlike the way it was in the past, I was ready. I did snatch visualization in the warm-up room. I mounted the stairs and did some more visualizing while shutting out the crowd noise. I walked over to chalk up – more visualization but quicker. And I walked onto the back of the platform – more visualization. Then I carefully approached the bar – more visualization, still quicker. Finally I got into position, grabbed the bar and started my first snatch.

performance anxiety, sports psychology, olympic weightlifting, weightliftingWhat happened next I don’t remember too well, but those who saw me did. I was told that I lifted the bar like never before. I made all three attempts, finishing with what was 85% of my best. All three lifts went up fast and with fairly good technique considering. This was quite a change from the sometimes erratic lifting in my youth. The same thing happened in the clean and jerk with about the same percentages.

All of this naturally sent me to wondering. All too many coaches concentrate solely on the reps, on the sets, and on the intensities. But with the mental side of lifting, although all acknowledge its importance, few seem to want to get involved with. Perhaps some think it’s just another form of voodoo. But I know it works. I certainly was wondering what life would have been like had I learned these techniques in my early days. Where would my lifts of gone? Who knows?

I am only left with the old Pennsylvania Dutch saying: “Too soon ve get oldt, und too late ve get schmardt.”

Read the rest of the series:

Psychology in the Weightlifting Arena (Part 1 of a Series)

Psychology in the Weightlifting Arena, Part 2 – Fighting External Noise

Psychology in the Weightlifting Arena, Part 3 – Controlling Internal Noise

Psychology in the Weightlifting Arena, Part 4 – Getting Centered

Pyschology in the Weightlifting Arena, Part 5 – Charging Up

Pyschology in the Weightlifting Arena, Part 6 – Discharging


1. Smith, Edward W.L.,Not Just Pumping Iron, Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Springfield, IL, USA, 1989 (ISBN 0-398-05544-0, Library of Congress 88-27569)

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