The Best Mindset for Maximal Effort

TAGS: JM Blakley, anger, motivation, maximal effort, mindset

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What is the ideal state of mind for tackling maximal exertions? What should be going through one’s head just prior to and during all-out attempts? Is there such a thing as optimal thoughts for this? Perhaps the “whatever gets you through the night” approach is best. Or, perhaps there is a better way.

No matter what I remark about this topic, I am sure to be rebuffed by those who have garnered success via an alternate route than I expound. I don’t want to make this a debate. I was plenty successful doing things my way. Others their way.  I am relatively certain that I was in a minority with my approach. So, for this discussion, I will give my two cents worth as well as offer some wisdom from some pretty reliable sources that are also worth your consideration. Let’s examine some candidates for a mindset of maximal effort.

The best advice not taken equates to no advice. Additionally, the best advice that DOESN’T WORK FOR YOU SPECIFICALLY is not worth taking. I will not be offended if you choose an alternate road. If you disagree, you need not inform me of it...just don’t follow it! I am not up for the task of defending my position on this. It’s like, if you are against doughnuts...THEN DON’T HAVE ONE! Don’t tell me not to! Don’t tell me why you think I’m WRONG to have one, either. When it comes to the minefield of your inner thinking with regard to my advice, take it or leave it! I promise only to give you my best. Do with it as you will.

Let’s start out with what is arguably the most common protocol in strength sports. I believe that this is familiar to us all. It is the employment of anger, or I’ll even go as far as to call it rage. Hey, it worked for the Viking Berserkers, right? Yes and no. They were maniacs in battle; this is legendary. But because they were in a mania, they were unreliable soldiers and would break ranks, lose military discipline, and frequently kill their compatriots in unstoppable “friendly fire” incidents. They were not trustworthy or beloved by their peers. Or, so I have read.


READ: Serious Training Considerations for COVID-19


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Anger can definitely engage the famous “fight or flight” mechanism in the human body. This is far more than the dumping of adrenalin, but that oversimplification will suffice for our purposes in this discussion. Anger can trigger the body’s readiness to exert itself. And it is no stranger to any of us. We all were children once. The temper tantrums that have a visible outward appearance on our little faces and that are reflected in our body language, indicating that we all suffered after some frustration, attest to that. The surprising strength of an enraged toddler can be shocking. The anger tactic may be the most natural and organic, not to mention the first, tactic we learn. But it is certainly NOT THE ONLY ONE!  Why does it seem to me that it is the only tool in the shed for most athletes? Quick, name another one you use or at least have heard of! If you struggle here...read on!

Getting mad has advantages but drawbacks, too. It can be pulled off in childhood, but we grow up, don’t we? It’s basic and primal ease of use is handy if no more sophisticated methods are available. But try anger in every adult situation to overcome obstacles, and you’ll likely wind up in prison. Sun Tsu wrote much about the pitfalls of anger in The Art of War. He was no fan. In Chapter Ten, Verse 18, he wrote, “The ruler may not move his army out of anger; he may not do battle out of wrath.” This is just one example. But in Chapter Three, he does not totally discount it. However, it is clear by the overall number of negative citings that his opinion is largely against it as a weapon.

His warnings mostly seem to be targeted at the folly of MAKING DECISIONS out of anger. And in Chapter Three, he clearly does suggest it for attacking enemy soldiers. It appears more useful in actions than in decisions. But it is his (and many others, like Plato and Epictetus, to mention two) overarching view that the mistakes and blunders that often stem from blind rage and overstimulation are not worth the risk. I will elaborate on overstimulation shortly. But how many decisions do we make on the lifting platform?  Not too awful many. But chiefly, one key decision that comes to mind is the choice to use the tactic of anger or not! We should not discard it from the toolbox entirely.

I side with the abovementioned wise men and eschew anger. But perhaps you find a situation that in your opinion warrants the use of anger. Once you opt to go this route, let’s try to make a very brief  list of some pros and cons. One benefit can be the increase of adrenalin mentioned earlier. It has well-documented strength implications. Less documented is the decrease in motor control that accompanies it. It is worse for fine motor as opposed to gross motor, but there is a risk of decay for both. Trial and error can be deployed to try to find a sweet spot for yourself.

There is what is known as the “inverted U” phenomenon to motivation. When adrenaline is too high, this rears its ugly head often. What it basically refers to is “choking,” or wanting it so bad that you push yourself into failure. In a word, overstimulation. We use the term in pressure situations and attribute the failure to the pressure alone. This is partly true, but it’s not the whole story. The simple increase in motivation with or without pressure causes the inversion of positive results. As motivation increases, success does in kind...at least AT FIRST! The more motivation, the better the results.  But there is a leveling off whereas more motivation is added to the optimal level, success plateaus, then begins to actually fall! That’s right. Once you have whatever it means to have an “optimal” level of stimulation or motivation, it hurts you to keep driving it further. This is counter-intuitive but unavoidable. Nobody is immune.

One threat to victory when using anger is that adrenalin causes over-motivation.

As a contrast to this caveat, a positive reward for anger can be its decay of pain sensation. This may allow for an override of the inhibitory effect that pain has on muscle action. Muscles and joints in pain resist contracting to extremes. Adrenalin has a pain-killing effect that is certainly long enough for maximal lifts. Not too much longer, though, unless there is a method of the continued release of the adrenalin. But people can stay mad for remarkable lengths of time. Just ask my exes!

If the adrenalin is kept up too long, there can be adrenalin burnout. And a crash can ensue. This makes the tactic more potentially useful for only one or maybe at most two lifts. If you have nine attempts for the day ahead of you, it can backfire.

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Another clear advantage of rage or anger is the remarkable speed at which it can be summoned to apply. There are situations when there is little time to effectuate some of the other methods, and by default, anger becomes the only option.

I assess that the anger technique is more likely to succeed in novice and intermediate lifters who are less at risk to over-motivate. They are familiar with it from childhood and quite possibly have advanced it to a workable level solely because they have learned no alternative. It is also more applicable on low-energy days, where a boost is warranted. I observe that advanced athletes need no extra motivation or energy, and anger gets in the way of clear thinking and success more than it helps. Still, many high-level lifters use it regularly. But ...could they have done better with a few other options had they been aware of them? Hmmm....

If you choose anger as a device to set your mind for max efforts, it begs an important question. Namely, how will you GENERATE AUTHENTIC ANGER in the first place? This is not a trivial concern. If you aren’t really mad, how do you convince yourself that you are in a high-enough proportion to cause a noticeable effect? This is certainly a dilemma that few, if any, ever consider. If it’s not REAL anger, will it be enough emotion to fool one into the fight-or-flight response? Without an ardent-enough release of adrenalin, you will only be upsetting yourself and become irritated. Not enraged. The effort that might have to be exerted to try to fake your anger to code red level may actually be more expensive in terms of energy than it is worth.

I abandoned the anger method long ago, and not anywhere near my prime lifting days. So I cannot answer how to fraudulently trick oneself into a rage. But I’ve seen it done! I am guessing it is akin to method acting. The burden for me was always too much. And the phoniness that accompanied it was just not in my vibration. So, I advise against it. I felt that I had to mention it solely because of its prevalence. Having said my peace, I feel we can move on.

What about fear? There are legion stories about how men did unthinkable things when it came down to life or death. Fear is a great motivator in some instances. I think that all of the same caveats and concessions are true for the use of fear as in anger. It may be a very useful tool when motivating others. But it will be a false fear if one tries to drum it up without being genuinely afraid. Having said that, the fear of failure does seem to pop up without being asked! But this is a far too negative thing for me to grapple with, and I believe that it is playing with fire. You can juggle hand grenades if you’d like, but I’ll watch from a safe distance. I’ll pass on this as well.

This brings us to pain. The right amount of pain or discomfort could be useful in eliciting an adrenalin release. This is a tactic that is more physical than a mindset per se. But I'll touch on it in passing. This is what I suppose a lifter who has a handler slap him or her in the kisser before a lift is after. The ammonia sniff is also in this ballpark. It seems fairly plausible and harmless enough. Although I’ve seen more than one squat never come out of the rack after a lifter head-butted the bar just a little too enthusiastically! Out like a light, and down like a stone. No lift. I’ve used ammonia on low-energy days and felt it bracing. My handlers on rare occasions gave me a smack or two in their own excitement, but I have never requested it. You just want to make sure that the pain pageantry isn’t distracting you. The benefit will be small and again perhaps not worth the expense of energy. But if it floats your boat, sail on!

Very briefly, let’s examine the mindset of “proving” something to somebody. You may have heard someone say, “Just tell me I can’t do something…. and watch me do it!” or some similar nonsense. This is common, I understand, but I’ll give you something to think about before you adopt it. If you are not doing something for YOUR OWN REASONS, can you possibly expect to be motivated to your highest? That is, if you aren’t really doing it because YOU want to but instead because someone else wants you to or thinks you can’t do it, how will you be able to muster your absolutely best effort?

I suggest that you can’t even come close. You are doing it for THE OTHER PERSON, NOT YOU, and I do not believe that you will dig to the bottom of the barrel. You may be protecting your ego by “showing him or her,” or not wanting to be embarrassed to fail. But there is a world of difference between not wanting to lose and wanting to win. It stands to reason to me that for you to give everything you have, YOU  need to want it for yourself. As soon as anybody else enters the picture, the purity of purpose has been corrupted.

I’m not saying that this or any of these strategies are not useful sometimes. I’m saying that for MAXIMAL performance, they fall short. When only your best will do, you can’t do anything second best. When it is personal and internal, it is going to matter in ways that external motivation simply cannot match. The discussion on the difference between internal and external motivation must wait for another day. It has been well studied, and the verdict is in. But if you are not doing it for yourself, then I say you’re not doing it! And what’s worse, when you do achieve something that is for someone else, you don’t feel the reward as deeply! You get a moment to gloat that you proved you could do it, but because it wasn’t your goal in actuality, the glow fades quickly! Only the things we choose for ourselves have any concrete and lasting value. You have nothing to prove to anybody except for yourself.  It is worth thinking about.

These are some of the common mindsets that plenty of people use. Some get great results. Your mileage may vary. But I will now explain what I feel is the best maximal mindset. In the end, perhaps you can use a blend of ideas. There are no rules about this. But there is only one best. It is up to you to find your way. This is what I found.

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I came to the understanding that the most powerful motivator for me was DESIRE. If you want something so badly that you believe you NEED it, you are beginning to get the idea. Desire is the most powerful thing I know of. If you have it, you no longer need discipline. You no longer need motivation. You no longer need lots of the things that many motivational speakers and coaches talk about incessantly. If you have desire, then you transcend them. They are covered in spades. Your desire fuels your training and drives you to do the work. Even extra work. It lets you look at obstacles with x-ray vision to pierce through and see only the goal beyond. It vaporizes distractions and sidetracks. It crushes apathy and boredom. It eliminates interfering and competing activities. And oh so much more. I’ll write about desire in another article someday.

By concentrating INTENSELY on what you desire and fueling that passion, you can fill your mind with it and actually “go blind” to all else. There is one huge caveat to this mindset: your training must be FLAWLESS. Wanting it is not enough. Let me explain.

The perfect mindset (what is going on in your head) prior to and during a maximal effort is...NOTHING. A giant burst of WHITE LIGHT that blinds everything, including your ego! This is not rage; this is a calm CERTAINTY of what WILL HAPPEN. It is the assuredness of a reality that is just around the corner. In your mind, you are empty, and in this situation, ALL THINGS CAN HAPPEN. You make room for what you want to occur. You must let go of everything but your desire. It alone remains, and hence there is only ONE reality that is forthcoming. You must “get out of your own way.”

“You” become small, and your desire becomes big. You actually stop thinking and just feel the desire. Thoughts give way to a clear-headedness that is difficult to describe. But it has been famously described in the literature as the “flow state.” Lots of athletes have reported it from lots of different sports. The interesting thing that they all speak of is that they are NOT TRYING! They are just doing. They are NOT THINKING. They are just doing. If you want a better description, you can look up Mikal Czmen and his work on flow.

But this “trying by NOT trying” is in congruence with plenty of Eastern philosophies. Taoism in particular. It seems that people have known about it for at least 6,000 years! It is a very hard pill to swallow for Western minds. But don't pass judgment too quickly. Perhaps you have brushed up against it already in your own sporting life. It is like when you have a game or day that everything goes right and your sport seems comically easy. You wonder why it has been so hard thus far. Your every move is golden. You can't miss.

We inevitably fall from this grace and have to put our nose to the grindstone again. But there was that brief but glorious moment…

We were totally relaxed yet sharp as a tack. We seemed to know what was going to happen next. We didn't have to TRY! We just played. We just did our thing. It seemed effortless. Perhaps you have felt this. Perhaps not. But you have certainly had a “best day.” What was that like? Do you remember trying hard? Or did it just...flow?

If you can cancel your ego, you can let the training take you home.

But for this to work and for things to go well, you have to have laid the groundwork deeply. It is like letting go of the reigns and letting the horses run. If they are well trained, they will take the right route and return to their stalls in the barn ALL BY THEMSELVES. They know the way. They know the drill. They have been trained to follow the plan by countless perfect lessons. They have done it over and over exactly the same way thousands of times. Now, they will NOT STRAY from the course. YOU CAN TRUST THEM TO DO WHAT YOU TRAINED THEM TO.

You can release control to the training. I call this “trusting the training.” You can do this for your lift only IF you have concentrated unerringly and diligently for many, many sessions. If there is any variance or inconsistency in your training, it will ruin this. To trust the training and let go in a maximal attempt, you MUST have done your work in the gym with attention to EVERY SINGLE DETAIL. If you haven’t, anything could happen! But if you have, then you will get EXACTLY what you have practiced.

The reward for all of the extra attention paid in training is the FREEDOM to step outside of yourself and let desire do all of the driving. It becomes a SUBCONSCIOUS endeavor. I believe our subconscious to be vastly more powerful than our awake minds are. By giving over to its DESIRES and training properly, we can let pure energy flow from our core beings to propel whatever tasks we have before us. We STOP thinking and simply start WANTING. We don’t think. We want. Our desire kicks in, and our training controls the placement of that desire.

This begs the question, “How do I cancel my ego,” or “How do I think nothing?” How can we submit to our subconscious if we are conscious? The answer is so simple that you will find it hard to believe me. You will chastise me for talking nonsense and leading you down this inane rabbit hole. I know that’s coming. I know because I said the same thing when I was introduced to this. But I never abandoned the idea. And I practiced the method. And ultimately, I reaped the reward for having done so.

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You don’t have to trust me. It’s not my idea. It has roots that go back as far as our written record. The reason that I stuck it out was that some of the greatest feats of human super-achievement have come about via this kind of thinking. I read so many mythical and legendary stories that it seemed plausible. Then, I read stories that had more verification and that happened in the modern era. Then, it seemed likely. Then I read and met some real people who practiced it. There was no doubt that this was something. I saw it and felt it.  At that point...I wanted it!

This little introduction will probably not be strong enough to convince you. I know that. But this is the seed. If you wish to unleash your FULL potential, then you owe yourself the courtesy of taking it seriously and at least taking a sip. I drank deeply from the well. But you can go as far as you wish.

So, to answer the above question about how to let go, we must begin with meditation. The answer of how to stop thinking is...STOP THINKING.  How can you not eat a gallon of ice cream tonight before bed? By NOT EATING A GALLON OF ICE CREAM BEFORE BED. How can you not cheat on your wife? By NOT CHEATING ON YOUR WIFE. How can I stop thinking and let go of my ego? Well, you guessed it. STOP THINKING AND LET GO.

Here's how to learn. The habit of clearing your mind in meditation will teach you how. You just sit and empty your mind. There are books upon books written about this, but in the end, it really boils down to the practice of quieting the mind. This is exactly the best mindset for maximal effort. I will not belabor the point of how to meditate. But I will simply state that by learning how (and in my opinion, all you must do to learn how is to practice doing it everyday), you will understand the clarity of mind that allows the desire of the subconscious to bubble up and ignite the trained body to perform.

If this is not complicated enough for you or seems too simple, then you have at least heard me correctly! It is not complex; it is laughably simplistic. But it has a track record that is absolutely unmatched by anything else. Nothing is even close.

To recap, the best mindset for maximal effort is a tabla rasa. A blank slate. Anything can be written on it. Any reality can happen. By letting go of thought and self (ego), you make room for excellence. You get out of the way of your subconscious desire and flow in the moment without trying. This will end in disaster if your training is not perfect. You cannot trust faulty or slipshod training. But diligent and arduous work in the gym will make your performance AUTOMATIC. You just need to step aside and ALLOW your potential to flow.

I reread this, and I can feel for you at this moment. Especially if you have a dearth of Eastern ideas under your belt. I'm sorry. But this is how it is. All you or I can do is see how much of it we can put into use for ourselves. I want to make sure that nobody thinks that I advocate only Eastern methods. That's not so. I grew up on the Western ideals, and they are part of me. I am able to blend them. I speak about the Oriental stuff so much because the Western stuff is covered by plenty of others. I want to state here that I'm not discounting it. But so few of the people I've met have tried the Eastern stuff that it seems to be a great breeding ground for new growth. It might benefit you to some degree or another as it did me.

Get a book on Zen meditation, and actively look for things you can agree with. DO NOT focus on the stuff you can't swallow. Leave it. Just focus on what you DO think makes sense and not on what rubs you the wrong way. If you open your thinking in this way, you can blend the best things (for you) from differing sources. If you fail yourself in this area, you will be forever missing out on at least a few ideas that could have otherwise helped you. You don't need to convert, just INTEGRATE.

Suggested Reading

  • Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • The War of Art by Sun Tzu
  • Zen Meditation by author of your choice

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