columnist author photo

Recently, at powerlifting meets, I've seen people dealing with performance anxiety. Some lifters do amazing things in the gym without anyone watching, but as soon as they step on a platform, everything falls apart. I think that this performance anxiety has a lot to do with distraction control. This article aims to talk about the use of distraction control as a performance enhancer.

What is distraction control? During anything in life, there is signal and there is noise (to steal a bit of Daniel Silva). The signal is what you need to pay attention to, and the noise is everything that is trying to cloud that. For instance, let's look at a college football game. If you're one of the players, there are many stimuli that you have to process or ignore. There are the lights, the sounds, the flash and the glamour of the game, which has become big business. There is the crowd waving their signs, yelling, screaming, stomping, cheering and jeering. There are the opponents across from you as you try and read what they're doing and what their movements say. They're also probably talking some smack about you. There are the opponents on the sideline who are doing their best to infuriate you and distract you from playing your best game. There are your coaches calling in signals. With many college teams running a no huddle, you have to know which coach is calling in your signal because many coaches are calling in cues for the different positions. You have to decipher which signals are real and which are distractions so the opposing team can't read the calls. If you're on the defense, depending on what defense is called, you have to cue in on "your man" to see what you need to do. With 11 opponents, if you cue in on the wrong person, you break the whole defense.

RELATED: Visualization

With all these things to think about, it's quite easy to get distracted. But what can you focus on? Or better yet, what should you focus on? Only the things that matter like the coach who is specific to your position or the person on the opposing team who you need to cue on. What matters for you to be successful in this football game is probably less than 0.1 percent of the information presented to you. If you pay attention to the other 99.9 percent, it decreases your probability of success.

Now, how does this work for powerlifting? Simple. There are only a few things you need to focus on and nothing else matters. It doesn't matter if you're at a local meet with ten lifters or an international meet with 1,000 lifters. The same things are there to focus on. Let's chat about what those are.


The first one is the head judge giving out the commands. You need to be focused on him and the commands such squat, rack, press, rack or down (and there could be others depending on your organization). If you miss a command, you miss the lift and that would be detrimental, especially because it was just a misplaced focus. What else matters? The cues from your handler, training partners or trusted friends. What doesn't matter? Everything else.

Does the crowd matter? It doesn't. It doesn't matter if there is a large crowd or a small one, a loud one or a quiet one. It's irrelevant because your motivation comes from within. What about any smack talk that is going on? It doesn't matter. The only talk that you should pay attention to is the talk from the judges and those who know your lifting. What about the weights on the bar? Aren't they going to be heavy? The great thing about weight is that it weighs the same everywhere you go. Three hundred and fifteen pounds will always be 315 pounds so that doesn't matter either, unless you're doing a meet on the moon, which would be one helluva experience.

Sometimes the previous attempt went well or it went poorly. When a lift goes badly, oftentimes a lifter goes into a downward spiral and is afraid of what might happen. Whenever I said "might" around my dad, he would look at me and say, "Mites are on a chicken's ass. Just do it." In reality, you can't go back and control the past. You can't change what you did on your last attempt. You can't worry about what happened on your last one when you go up for this one. What can you do? Figure out what you did wrong and focus on doing it right. As with the self talk, focus on doing it in the positive sense because the brain-body connection doesn't understand the negative words. For instance, "Don't let your knees cave in" as a cognitive thought forces the body to make the knees cave in. Instead think, "Knees out." It's succinct, it's positive and it will have the intended outcome.

WATCH: How to Control Arousal for Bigger Lifts

Many athletes who suffer from stage fright aren't really afraid of the stage at all. They simply aren't focusing on the right things or on what matters. So what does matter? You, your thought process and your mental routine. If you remember back to the circle of control and the circle of concern article, there are many things that can concern you. There aren't a lot of things that you can control. You can't spend your energy focusing on the things that you can't control.

It's human nature to start thinking about the different cues and things that you see and hear. People are naturally curious. At some point, you'll find yourself paying attention to the crowd, to the other people, to the heavy weight. And what can you do? This is a great time to use thought stoppage, which, if you remember from previous articles, is just simply stopping your thought and replacing it with another. This works quite well because it's impossible to think of two thoughts at the same time. Any time you notice a distracted thought in your head, simply bring your focus back to what matters. You'll be back on track thinking about the right things.

It's hard to focus on the right things. It takes practice. But just as lifting weights builds muscle, practicing this mental skill will build a strong(er) mind.