The Mental Woes of Breaking in New Gear

TAGS: Relentless Detroit, Relentless Minnesota, mental game, squat suit, Marshall Johnson, powerlifting meet, training cycle, meet prep, metal gear, powerlifter, powerlifting

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Over the years that I have been a powerlifter I have experienced both great power and great weakness from my own thoughts. Much like anyone else pushing their own limits trying to be the best at whatever they are doing, your mental integrity plays probably the biggest role in whether or not you will achieve your ultimate goals. I can think of two situations over the years that prove this point, at least to me. I have been tested, to achieve something I physically should not have been able to do. I have also completely failed at a task I was 100% prepared for.

Three years ago I participated in the very first Relentless Detroit. For those of you who do not know, Relentless is a sanctioned powerlifting competition that raises funds for children's organizations or causes. About seven months prior to this I competed in the second Relentless that was held in Minnesota hosted by Scott Nutter and Mike Hamilton. I was starting to play a big role in the momentum of the events and this being my first one in Detroit I felt an enormous amount of pressure to bring to Detroit what I did in Minnesota. Not just off the platform, but on it as well.

It was never put on me that I had to perform with the best of the lifters, but I felt it was my responsibility to do so. It is known amongst the lifters that what you lift on stage really means nothing to the kids and families watching, but there is something to be said about the electricity produced by someone attempting and hitting a huge PR lift. The lifters can feel it and so can the families; it makes the show that much more exciting. So even though what you lift doesn't really matter, it does. That being said I was extremely determined/scared shitless to perform at a high level.


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My training cycle for that meet was a rough one. I started experiencing a pain in my back between my shoulder blades that started out as a small annoyance but slowly snowballed into a huge problem. I was missing squatting sessions and missing lifts in training due to the growing pain in my back. It got to a point at around six weeks out that the pain was so intense that I couldn't even un-rack an empty bar without pain. It was so intense that my knees would almost buckle. It felt like someone had shoved a knife into my spine and was twisting it. I was forced to take four weeks off from squatting to let everything decompress. Four weeks off from squatting might not sound that bad, but this was six weeks out that I was taking a month off from squatting, leaving me one squat session at two weeks out. Horrifying is the only way to describe the feeling I had taking a break like that. I worked up to my opener, which I lowered because I had no clue where I would be on meet day. The pain was at about 70% so I felt with two more weeks rest I should be golden. Oh how wrong I was.

marshall METAL jack canvas

Meet Day

The meet promoters are good friends of mine and they did pretty thorough job of pumping me up to the people in attendance. For whatever reason, a thousand pound squat was the only acceptable squat I felt I could have regardless of how I felt. I started my warm ups and even from the bar the pain was worse that it had ever been. I tried my best to hide it from my wife and Nutter but it was pretty obvious I was struggling. Against their better judgement and pleading, I ignored them. For whatever reason, I felt I had to do this. My opener was 920 pounds. It was way harder than it should have been and hurt like a bitch. Second attempt was 980 pounds and it felt like it to me forever to unrack it fighting the spear in my back. It was a struggle and Nutter told me to stop, but I felt 1000 pounds had to happen. Third attempt, 1000 pounds, and my mind was already made up.I was hitting this squat no matter what. It felt like it took ten years to get clear of the hooks. It was actually my deepest squat and it was slow and painful. After I racked the weight and un-wedged myself, you could see me fall into the head judges arms. I couldn't stand anymore. My other two lifts I took it easy on because, for whatever reason, squat felt like the lift I had to bring it. This is an amazing example of how your mind can overcome anything your body throws at it.

Fast forward three years. I just recently went and got x-rays of my spine and did some nerve/muscle tests as well. Granted, my back is probably five times better now that it was then. I learned how to train around it and avoid that situation. But I got the x-rays back and you can see an un-natural curve in my spine and disc degeneration in the exact same spot I have the pain. If this is what it looks like now, I can't imagine what it looked like back when I couldn't even unrack the bar without wanting to piss myself.

Now we come to the part of the story where my mind fails my body terribly. It's a lot like the part in Scary Movie 2 when the priest walks in to perform the exorcism, sees her head spin around, says "fuck this" and runs out the room. My body was ready to crush it but my mind checked out. This training cycle I had a brand-spankin-new squat suit. A canvas one. I have never ever used canvas before; I have always used poly. I was of the mind set that poly was 100% capable and I didn't need anything else. But as with most of us, curiosity got the best of me, even with Dave Tate telling me to hold off and wait to see how the suit holds up. Dave told me the suit was brand new and not on the market long enough for me to make a complete change. He told me it needed more testing and even with that there was a chance it may not work as well as what I was already using. After a couple text message and emails we agreed I would be one of the guys to test it.

I tried this suit and my mind was blown. It was like running in mud for three years and then getting a chance to hit the pavement. Everything was easier, stronger, and effortless in comparison. I was crushing weights I used to grind. Now, I must preface this with the fact that anyone who knows me knows that I am piss scared of squats. I am a wreck waiting to squat on meet day. I spent a couple weeks training in this suit and I had zero fear of squatting on meet day. I am talking none. I felt that any weight I picked I would annihilate. And in training, I did. I felt unstoppable. Then it happened.

Two weeks out from the meet I was doing my opener for squat, as I always do. Everything was perfect, I was the Hulk, invincible and unstoppable. First rep in the suit comes up and the main seam on the leg blows out a four-inch gash. At that very second, looking down and seeing that hole in my suit, my spirit was crushed in an instant. I immediately became the most angry I have ever become as a powerlifter. I was Charlie Bucket, and instead of that wanker Slugworth offering me money for an everlasting gobstopper, he just kicked me in the nuts and grabbed my ticket and ran. I had no game plan anymore. I felt I had no options to remedy my problem.

squat suit canvas

I had just learned what being a “product tester” was all about. This sucked and now I know why Dave wanted me to wait. I also see why Dave didn’t want to sell the suit when it first came out. While it was not on elitefts, I knew several people who were ordering it direct from METAL and figured it would be fine for me.

I was sent a replacement suit four days later, which I was extremely grateful for. I tried it on a week out from the meet and did a body weight squat straps up, and the seams on both legs blew out. At that point it felt like Augustus Galoop saw me on the ground crying like a little girl, stopped and took a huge dump on my head, then muttered something about sauerkraut and kept walking. After texting Dave, he told me to find a shoe repair shop and reinforce all the seams as well as cement them down, and to do so with the first suit as it was already starting to break in. Well, as it turned out, one of the guys at the gym's wife repairs horse saddles and he said she could probably fix my original suit for me. At that point I was willing to try anything. She did in fact fix the suit and it was stronger that ever. By then, the damage was already done. I no longer felt capable or indestructible. The morning of the meet I was actually looking for legitimate reasons to pull out of the meet because I was so scared and nervous. My will to win was gone. I went up and gave three attempts, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, but my squats were garbage. I got my opener of 953 pounds but it was rough and everyone could tell something about me was different. I missed my second and third attempt at 1053 pounds. Didn't even come close.


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Looking back on this now, the most frustrating part is that nothing changed. Not one fucking thing. On meet day, I still had on the very same suit I felt invincible in. I was not hurt or physically incapable of hitting the attempts I had planned. My confidence was absent. Let's say on the day of the suit held up and I hit my opener as planned. I would have went into meet ready to destroy with no fear. In both of those situations, nothing physical changed. Not one damn thing. The only thing that changed was my mental game. Having two suits blow out the last two weeks before the meet devastated me mentally but it shouldn’t have. Breaking in gear is part of the multi-ply process. You get it, size it, feel it out, make alterations, break it in, alter again, train more weeks, and maybe alter again. I have no idea what I was thinking. Having used the same suit and same gear for the last couple years, I got spoiled and know better. Dialing in gear is not something you do weeks before the meet. I let my excitement over something new come before the desired results of the meet.

Even with all of this, I should have been able to step up on meet day and follow through with my plan, I had the very same suit, but my mind said, "fuck it, I'm out." It was no one's fault but my own, and that's a hard pill to swallow. With this said, I should have been able to jump back into my poly and lift. While the suit needed more time to get dialed in, I should have been ready. A good lifter will be prepared for anything, and I wasn’t.

It is absolutely amazing the things your mind is capable of, both positive and negative. I was physically uncapable of doing something and did it because my mind was made up that I could. I was physically capable of doing something and and I completely failed because my mind was made up I couldn't. If you can find a way to be both physically capable and have your mind made up, you can't be defeated. You will accomplish anything you put your mind to. The hard part is getting to that point. I don't feel that it is impossible to get there; it just takes the will to do so.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”

—Sun Tzu

metal-canvas

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