Some athletes shock you. One day they are performing extremely well, absolutely crushing their training sessions, and you are sure they will peak come competition time. But then something goes wrong. Either they fail or just do not have a good performance.

I have seen many of these struggles through my years as a trainer. It is easy to think it is all in an athlete's head. But it is not. It is something in their performance that differs compared to their training sessions. You can almost see them move in a different movement pattern and see that they do not look smooth in their movements. Maybe they are stiff in their muscles due to nervosity. 

Nervosity tends to change breathing patterns. If you inhale more with your ribcage, you lose your diaphragm breathing. When you are stressed, you tend to raise your diaphragm and inhale faster. When you raise your diaphragm, you lose your abdominal pressure. This is one of the most important stability muscles. If your core is not stable, it will fuck up your posture, and it is harder to perform with a bad posture since your external muscles have to compensate for trying to keep stable during your lift. 

Compensating Weakness

Here is how it works. Energy (movement) is like water—it will always try to seek the easiest way out. If there is a leak in your posture, stability, or movement, it will leak out the power of the movement. Your body is a master of compensating weaknesses, so it will try to cover for the leak. The muscles that try to cover do not have the ability to copy the work of stabilization, which will lead to poorer movement, and can also lead to an injury if your body fails to compensate. This is something you do not want to have in your muscle memory. We want as clean of a movement as possible that will create the most favorable position possible.

As a coach, look for signs of improper technique. When an athlete shows technical flaws in their lift, they lose maximal energy that they can produce to complete the lift at their highest level. When an athlete falls into improper technique, this creates the body to find other ways to still perform the rep. When this compensation happens, the injury risk becomes extremely high. Coaching proper technique should always be a priority to increase the athletes maximal performance while decreasing their risk of injury.

Muscles Need Proper Oxygen

It is stress that forces the muscle to develop, right? Yes, when you put stress on a muscle in the form of muscle work, it will get stronger and grow. But when you have mental stress and your nervous system becomes affected, it will change your breathing pattern which can lead to worse abdominal pressure. Your muscles get less oxygen, which leads to worse aerobic function. Low aerobic function means that the muscles that depend on oxygen to work properly lose power. If there is not enough oxygen, the anaerobe muscles take over the work and their function is mainly to develop movement.

As a coach, you need to understand how mental stress can affect the athletes performance. Breathing is a major component to how the muscles perform, especially when related to short, explosive movements like anaerobic exercises. When breathing patterns have been changed, you will see a loss in power production from the athlete. 

Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

I do not think you should compete too often because you take time away from training, time you need to train to get stronger. But if you are one of those who perform well at the gym but not at the competition, you need to compete to get more comfortable to compete and not get stressed out over competitions. If you do not have enough competitions to get into, you can try to arrange the same kind of environment that puts stress on you. For example, go to a new gym at another time than you are used to. If you always do legs at Golds Gym at seven o'clock, try going to another gym after breakfast to do your squats and ask someone you do not know to spot you. Get more comfortable with changes.

As a coach, you can look into creating competitive environments. Have them compete in their workouts with others such as seeing who can hit more reps at their personal intensity or something simple like a plate grip hold. You can progress this to doing something like hosting a mock meet at your gym to get your athletes comfortable with the flow of a competition. Or finish workouts with a mental challenger that will push the athlete, such as EMOM (every minute on the minute) or AMRAP (as many reps as possible) to push their mental boundaries and make them uncomfortable.

Stefan Waltersson has been working as a personal trainer for 20 years. He is Westside Barbell certified as a special strength coach. He is also educated and trained by Professor Boris Sheiko. Stefan works as a lecturer and gym owner with 350 members. Previously, he worked as a nurse assistant in healthcare, with neurology as his main focus. You can find him on Instagram as @coach_waltersson. Check out his website.