I have a confession to make. I have failed at contests. I have literally finished last in my weight class. I have missed lifts in meets that I had achieved with ease in training. I remember almost all of these times, and if I don't, I'm sure that I can find someone out there willing to remind me of a time he saw me fail. Unfortunately, I fear this may be an inevitable part of competing in a sport that isn't only singular but also so incredibly taxing.
As we all know, the focus on failing becomes a contemplation on learning from mistakes, working harder at weaknesses and putting the time in the weight room. We try to find something a little more meaningful than the normal warrior culture rhetoric about how we push ourselves. In this article, we'll try to find a new way to see these struggles as a competition with the self and not just cues that we need more time pressing overhead to win at the next opportunity. We'll look for the opportunity to compete in the spirit of “no self,” and we'll discuss the role of competition in gaining insight, remaining mindful and continuing to build integrity.
Personally, I can quickly recall multiple moments in which my performance didn't meet a set of expectations that I had for a meet or a contest. In a moment of curious reflection though, I don't recall the expectations with much clarity. I recall that I failed these expectations as if it just occurred, but I don't have the immediate ability to identify what I specifically failed. Sure, I can think of times when I had a very specific number in mind for a powerlifting meet only to fall short or times when I had hopes of winning my weight class in a Strongman meet. The problem is when I start to think of my more noticeable failures, I only have the sting of the failure without the knowledge of what I wanted.
This is the nature of clinging. Often, we have such a strong attachment to something arbitrary that when this attachment is officially outside of our reach, we can only obtain the memory of our disappointment. This is a strong indicator that we were clinging to an ego-based idea that was so far outside of any real thing occurring that there isn't any reason to have this recall. The ego has moved on for lack of a better way to put it.
My most significant failures in competition have been based on a version of my "self" that simply needed recognition, validation and constant attention. It was the part of me that entered into training needing to be seen as strong, capable and possibly even important. When that didn't happen or when I performed poorly, my ego was the only thing keeping tabs on failure. No other part of me needed to be involved because those parts of me were all focused on actual goals and improvements. Because these times that I'm speaking of didn't include any actual goals beyond wanting to feel important, there wasn't anything to recall. This is where we start to approach the chance to push past these patterns of childlike need and see the possibility of transcending our clinging.
As we previously discussed, our patterns of clinging to goals have a tendency to simply show us how fleeting they are. These are the aspects of our training that we put too much emphasis on as signs that we are truly making progress only to find out, upon their achievement, that we are still not accepting ourselves. We need to build a revolutionary approach to competition that includes breaking these patterns. Here is a simple and neglected idea about training—it's supposed to be fun!!
How often have we forgotten this aspect of all the work we put in on a daily basis? At every turn, we have the potential to put ourselves into a routine of misery, self-criticism and abuse. This is our ego colluding with the outside world to create a cycle of punitive behavior. This is the overactive part of our self that is trying to say that without a doubt, this has to prove that we are indestructible warriors who understand the nature of suffering for a goal. The not so positive part in all this is that these are the behaviors that lead to plateaus, injuries and possibly even total burnout. Years of learned behavior creates a shell of shame and perceived ridicule that is most likely built on old patterns and a concrete sense of self. The missing component in this process has a tendency to be enjoyment.
I have trained around extremely isolative and judgmental people only to find out that a new environment was all I needed to start seeing personal records. Who knew?! All I needed to do was start finding a way to have fun. This shouldn't be an exception for contests. I'll admit to being the person who was happy "just beating his old numbers" and who didn't understand "getting to the next level." In this case, this proverbial “next level” would have been training to the point of injury to win contests like the Strongest Man of the Northeastern Counties of the Greater Metro Vicinity or something equally as illustrious. So I had to admit that I didn't have the qualities necessary to complete this task.
I'm not trying to criticize this next level. It has just always seemed limitless. It is this kind of goal setting that I fear puts us in a position of chasing ghosts for an entire career only to lose the enjoyment and existential meaning that can come from training toward constant, fluid self-acceptance. The first major aspect of being able to enjoy self-acceptance is the ability to restore meaningful enjoyment to your training and competing. This isn't to say that all training is tedious or without enjoyment but to reference how quickly we can cling to something for validation of our ego that we really don't enjoy at all.
Meaningful training is based in the process of learning how to set daily goals that reflect what you care about in training regardless of external pressures. Goal setting is an often neglected tenet of training despite our ability to quickly verbalize some kind of goal. The neglected aspect is the obtuse nature of this goal. Often, we want to get stronger or faster, but we aren't considering our true nature in this process. We are running the risk of externalizing.
In my own path as a strength athlete, I've had goals ranging from being able to carry a 300-pound Atlas stone to being able to do a handstand. In their own respective times, these were things that I considered important to keeping my training interesting. This is how we find our way. We gauge our intensity, ability to enjoy the process, tolerance for discomfort and the likelihood to enjoy a payoff even if it is tedious. It is optimal to have a true understanding of our genuine nature if we want to find our next level of meaningful activity. If you know that competing is the only thing that will help you feel like you have direction, you must find contests that maintain this interest. A significant part of this process is gaining the ability to be unapologetically yourself. Find the music you like while you train, find the right environment, find the right people and learn to love your limits and failures because these will always be your best teachers. No accomplishment carries value without the humbling nature of the failures it took to get there.
To create the best process for meaningful training and accomplishment, we have to learn the nature of failure and resiliency. We can't learn this nature without developing a great level of tolerance for discomfort and distress. Many of us are aware of times when we have felt pushed to our limits, and many of us recall these moments as moments of great growth and development. This is what we call resiliency.
Every accomplishment that you obtain in the weight room should have the opportunity to be framed through the lens of resiliency. Our resiliency throughout the process of our development as an athlete is something that is unique to each individual. The importance here is learning which situations we can see as involving our own distress tolerance without falling victim to our inner critic. Failure is a constant sign of resiliency and has to be treated as such. In every failure, there is an opportunity for mindfulness, and it is my suggestion that we utilize this opportunity for growth while still working to reduce the process of the ego.
In the field of psychotherapy (my full-time profession), we have finally started to see the true nature of resiliency and this has allowed us to fully appreciate that every situation that includes great struggle or difficulty is also the most likely place where a person will start to grow. Mindful practice puts us in a position to stay present without judgment as we further our ability to cope with failure. Take the chance of a failure as the means for getting in the moment, reflecting, identifying intention and moving past the failure. At the point of mindfulness, the failure is no longer relevant from a critical point of view (even viewing it as failure is essentially judgmental and lacking in terms of immediate presence). To access the present moment without judgment means that any part of your ego that is focused on the failure from a shaming point of view is officially an irrelevant portion of the process. We can acknowledge our critical self and then thank that part of ourselves without becoming hyper focused.
Once we have started to access this part of ourselves, we are in a position to reframe the story. Imagine that once we start contemplative practice with failures, misses or just uncomfortable reps, we can also reflect on the multitude of times that we have utilized the practice. We literally start to see that we have practiced mindful reflection over and over and, in doing so, we can see that our failures have become an integral part of our training.
If we are able to gain access to a part of ourselves that is inclusive of failure as a part of the story, we are more capable of creating a more productive narrative. It is in this reframe that we start to see our failures as something to process and our successes as a byproduct of our relationship with failure. It isn't a directly original thought to say that simply succeeding to not have to deal with failure is a limited narrative, which is probably littered with avoidance. As we have briefly noted, any time avoidance is a significant part of training, we should seriously consider “leaning in.” Actively attempt to find any part of training that is avoided, degraded or neglected in the name of a fear of failure. Once you have found that point of contention, find a way to interact with that aspect of training at least once a week.
The best example of this is squatting because the multitude of variations means that we can potentially squat throughout the week. The level of helpful variations in the squat brings about two very important realities: we have a great strength somewhere (many people can find a strong groove in a low bar box squat and deal with a significant load) and we have an amazing limitation somewhere (I can recall the level of angst present in my Strongman crew when we all attempted full depth overhead squats).
We can utilize the squat as an example of a daily crossroads in our training. This crossroads is our essential reminder that we always have a choice. As with all things, this choice also has a shadow. On one side, we have the choice to frame the utilization of squat variations as a sign of diversity, learning and acceptance. On the other side, we have a choice to verbally criticize the utilization of variations that we perform poorly while swearing by the constant use of our personal strengths. The issues arise with this second narrative in very subtle ways that are worth our exploration. The most subtle way this occurs is by taking away our ability to take ownership of our narrative as a strength athlete. Essentially, by heavily criticizing a specific lift that would help our training but harm our view of our strength, we are victimizing ourselves. We are doing this by not only creating an enemy but by then putting that enemy in a position of constant victory by not doing the lift. Remember, we can't be a victim without a perpetrator, and if that perpetrator is a construct in our mind, we have become our own victimizer.
Many of us have seen the Hindu deity Ganesh at some point. It is a remarkable religious figure most noted for the appearance as an elephant. One of the major roles of Ganesh is as the remover of obstacles. I have admittedly always regarded this figure highly and both of my current psychotherapy offices are littered with these statues. At one point, I had a teacher who reminded me of the very important duality of this particular God. The lesson was that for something to be responsible for removing obstacles, that same figure would be responsible for placing obstacles as well. It is the recognition of the cyclical nature of things. There isn't a God out there who is the placer of obstacles. There is only the natural pattern in which removing obstacles and placing obstacles is an interdependent process, and the ability to flow with this interdependence destroys the possibility of being overwhelmed by clinging, criticism and the other markers of giving up or self-victimization.
In our training, we can take the opposite view of our previous limitations and reclaim ownership through acceptance. We can view all things we do through the lens of strength, even our proverbial “failures.” This is how we reclaim our narrative and get stronger in all ways and it's how we can create a relationship with failure that is one of strength. We have to enlist the potential of failure as a teacher, a sign of our resiliency and a companion on our personal journey of strength. Without this insight and narrative, we will lean toward patterns of self-criticism while ultimately turning ourselves into a victim of our own fear. This is why I suggest working these previously avoided lifts and exercises into training with purpose. Place very specific shortcomings into programming as a way to spend time each week taking ownership over something that previously enlisted fear or avoidance. This allows the opportunity to rewrite the narrative and, in doing so, become a more authentic version of yourself.
Here is our chance to embrace our role as the person responsible for placing obstacles and the person responsible for their removal. It is an amazing opportunity to look to your training as a general way to learn how amazingly resilient you have always been. In doing this, we have the chance to see that even our weaknesses are strong points for learning.
When I started out as a counselor, I worked in a prison providing substance abuse treatment. I will never forget the day when a young inmate was being especially confrontational in group because the older members of the group were pushing him to be more open and revealing about his struggles with addiction. After the group, I was approached by one of these older inmates to discuss the difficulties in that particular hour. I remember he told me that the difficulty with a young person having to confront reality is that he hasn't learned how to be “strong enough to be weak.”
We are all strong in this amazing world of strength athletics and here is another way to be even stronger. Here is our chance to ensure that our personal narrative is never clouded by fear and avoidance but is marked by resiliency and acceptance. It is an angle of our training that we can always tap into to see the big picture and understand the reality that without failure, we would never know success.
Chaz has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from McKendree University, and a Master of Social Work degree from Saint Louis University (SLU). Chaz received his clinical license in 2009.
Chaz has been practicing therapy full time since 2007. Since the beginning of his career as a therapist, Chaz has worked with trauma and its long reaching effects. This work has included extensive work with all ages and all walks of life. Chaz specializes in psychodynamic process, and integrating Eastern thought and philosophy into the therapeutic process .Chaz has participated in training with important figures in the field of therapy and psychology such as Dr. Ira Chasnoff, Ronald Siegel, and Dr. Bruce Perry, and is currently employed as an adjunct professor in the psychology department of McKendree University.
As a strength athlete Chaz has over 13 years of training experience with the last 9 years focused on training, coaching and competing in Strongman. Chaz has competed in national Powerlifting meetings, St. Louis Strongest man, and many other levels of competition.