One of my favorite saying is that strength is 90% mental. After all my years in strength sports I still believe this to be true. I can’t even say how many times I have come across a lifter whose weakest link is mental strength. This, along with heart, is one of the biggest separators between the average lifter and the great lifter. Strength sports are not for the weak-minded; they are for those with a warrior's mind.

When talking about mental strength, there is just too much to cover in one article. So, in this one I am going to try to keep things as focused as I can on one area, because I know I sometimes tend to wander when talking about it. I want to focus on how an athlete sees their potential in comparison to other athletes.

A few months back I had a discussion about a lifter and was told that their numbers were high ranked in their class. It was implied that this lifter was doing really great because of this. I have seen this lifter and heard many things about them. The idea that someone in their training circle thought they were doing “great” frustrated me very much. This is because I believe this lifter has much greater potential then they are using or showing. I do not think an athlete or anyone in their immediate training circle should judge success based on any other athlete or statistic. In my mind, all this does is limit that athlete to what others have done; it can set limits to their true potential. I believe in focusing totally on oneself and not what anyone else is doing.

WATCH: Dave Tate on Human Potential

I am sure there are a lot of people questioning what I said in the previous paragraph, and hopefully at least just a few lifters are thinking, “hell yes!” For the questioning people, I am not saying a lifter is not a great lifter when they are highly ranked or hold records. Obviously, they are pretty damn good to be highly ranked. But are they meeting the potential they have or just selling themselves short? I never decide how a lifter is doing based solely on their numbers or their ranking. I may say something about how strong a lifter is based on these things but I do not limit them by it.

I have seen lifters do big numbers and just shake my head in disgust. In most of the cases where I do this, it is because the athlete has shitty control and horrible technique. They could be lifting a world record, but in my mind they are not hitting their potential but instead leaving weight on the platform. So great, they are strong as hell and got a world record, but they are not doing what they are capable of. What good is just taking a record when you have the capability of f*&^%$# smashing it? For me, strength sports are about pushing my body and mind as far as I can possibly push it. Yes, of course I want to break records, win championships, and put up huge numbers, but even higher than that I want to see what I can do. I want to push myself to the absolute limit of my abilities.

mario potential

I completely understand a lifter tracking themselves with rankings and records, but that is just for tracking progress and/or short-term goals. I did this myself when I start competing in powerlifting. I paid attention to my ranking and how close I was to records. I did not judge how good a lifter I was based on these, though; they were just markers for goals. Break into the top 100, break into the top 50, break into the top 25, and so on. I wanted to break records because they were there and they made for good goals. My main goal was to keep improving and learning. It was to take my body and mind as far as I absolutely could. My first meets I was not even so concerned about winning. Yes, I wanted to win and I tried to win, but I understood that I was new to the sport with dues that needed to be paid. My real meet goals were to just keep improving as a lifter and getting stronger. I knew that if I kept doing that and kept my nose to the grindstone, everything else would come in time.

I remember after my first several meets, I knew I could be a good powerlifter and I had decided to give it everything I had to find out just how good I could be. I never really set where I would eventually be, but there where goals in my mind. When I would talk about these, I usually got comments like, “that can’t be done” or, “you will never do that.” Most people were negative but there were a few that thought maybe I would do it.

All this negativity and doubt just pushed me harder. I thought how can they know what I can do and just because no one else every did it does not mean I can’t. I have even had plenty of teammates that questioned what I said I would do. They all ended up understanding I meant what I said. It was this type of thinking that let me open with some of the highest openers of the time and allowed me to break numerous records. Although there were times where people would compare me to other great lifters, I never compared myself to anyone. I was honored by the thought, but I was only focused on what I was capable of doing.

Even though I had this type of thinking from the beginning of my powerlifting career, there were times it needed to and got reinforced. When I first began competing, guys were breaking records at a crazy rate and I began to question what the human limits where. I remember talking with my team and asking how much higher could they take these numbers and how much could the human body withstand. Well, those lifters strengthened my beliefs by continuing to up the bar. I quickly remembered this type of thinking was limiting. Who is to say what human limits are and who is to say what one person is capable of except that person?

One of the lifters from this time and one that I have spoken of many times is Brent Mikesell. Unfortunately, I never thought to talk with him about his mindset during this period, but his lifting had a major effect on me. He basically took the squat record from around 1040 to over 1170. He did have some competition in there but he was a constant leader the whole way. That is a major feat to continually be upping a world record that many times and by that much weight. That does not happen with a weak mind and I do not believe that happens if a lifter focuses on anyone but themselves. It happens when they have the mind of a warrior who does not limit himself or herself by what has been done before them. This is just one story of greatness in strength sports; there are so many so others. These are the kinds of stories that are worth telling and learning because these people did not limit themselves at all.

matt smith potential

I cannot speak of the mindset of other athletes, only my own. I can say winning was fun, records were fun, rankings were fun, championships were fun — but what happens when you achieve these goals? If they were your main goals then what happens when you achieve them? Why ever limit yourself? I was never happy or content with what I had done because I always knew I still could be better. I frequently got criticized by my teammates for not celebrating longer than a few minutes. After breaking world records I would yell and maybe pump my fist, but my very next thought was “I can do more.” I would immediately start tearing apart my technique and weaknesses. I would ask my handler or teammates what they thought I did wrong or what I could improve on. I love competition and I crave it, but in the end the battle is really only against myself. I have heard athletes ask themselves what their competition is doing or how hard are they working. It is a kind of motivation but I do not ever remember doing that.

I only asked if I was working as hard as I could. If I was giving everything I could. If I was learning as much as I could. I hate to lose with a passion, but even more important that that is if I'm giving all that I can give. Am I meeting my truest potential?

RECENT: You're Probably Not Overtraining

I never limited myself to what others had done or how they did it. I did not care if they had better genetics. I did not care what drugs they were using, if any. I did not care what gear they wore. Nothing mattered but me and doing my best. I focused on what I could do and how I was going to meet my potential.

I continually set goals along the way. These where sometimes rankings, championships, or records. They were never end all, be all goals. My only true goal was getting as close as I possibly could to my potential. I think too many lifters set limits on themselves by comparing themselves to others.  hey worry too much about rankings and placings and that is energy and time that they could instead use to build themselves up.

If a lifter's goal is to make top ten but they have potential for number one, top ten is a shit thing to accept. Even if you're number one but you have potential way beyond that, number one is shit. These types of goals should merely be stepping stones to meeting your own greatness. Even wanting to be like an individual lifter is limiting. I don't care if they are one of the greatest of all time, you could be the next and better greatest of all time. There are enough things in the world that can limit a lifter; their own mind should definitely not be one.

Mental strength is a complex monster that encompasses many areas. In this article I am trying to reinforce the idea of focusing on yourself and your own capabilities as opposed to always worrying about what other lifters are doing.  Strength is a long journey that takes focus and persistence. There were plenty of times I could have gotten caught up in what other lifters were doing. I stayed the course and ended up passing them because I did what I knew I had to do.

I can’t say how many lifters I see that sell themselves short because they compare themselves to their gym, state, rankings, or what not. They settle for being the strongest in the gym or the state. They settle for making top 25 or 10. If that is their potential then fine, but so many that I see have more potential than that. Too many lifters do not see what they could be. They compare themselves to other lifters and do not think they have the genetics or ability of these lifters. They think shit like, “well I made top 50 and that’s pretty good for me.” That is complete bullshit. There is no one like anyone else, and how far you take your potential is up to you. Never judge yourself by anyone else. Never focus on other athletes. Focus on yourself and make your own greatness.