The most common questions I receive are “What type of program should I be following?” and “What type of program do you follow?” In my opinion, too many athletes concern themselves far too much about what training program they’re following. They don’t focus enough on the other myriad of factors that are more influential in determining how far they’ll go in their sport.

I’ve argued many times that while programming is important and plays a role in athletic success, it doesn’t determine the level of success an athlete achieves. I firmly believe that programming isn’t what separates the good athletes from the greatest ones. Case in point, many athletes follow the same or similar training protocols, but only a select few ever reach the top. Also, consider that when you look at the very best athletes in any sport, they all follow different training protocols. If training programs were the key to success- all of the athletes at the top of their respective sports would be following virtually identical programs. As we all know, this certainly isn’t the case.

So if the training program isn’t the most important aspect of athletic success, then what is? I believe it’s the psychological makeup of the individual. Now, this is comprised of many different attributes, but in this article I am only going to dissect one such attribute- the expectations of the individual. An athlete must not only strive for success, he/she must expect it. Athletes must be certain of their probability of achievement. A good example of how this attitude affects athletic success comes from my own training and that of my training partners.

Back in 2002, my friend and training partner, Chad, and I were training together for the same meet and made a friendly bet concerning our deadlifts. The bet was that in order for me to win, I had to out-pull Chad by 55 pounds. In order for him to win, he had to pull within 45 pounds of me. If I out-deadlifted him by 50 pounds, then it would be considered a draw. It was no coincidence that I pulled a PR that day at 716 pounds to beat Chad’s PR of 661 pounds, which equaled exactly 55 pounds.

We both pulled personal records that day, but I went into the meet not only expecting to win the bet, I was 100 percent certain that I would. I have no doubt that if Chad had managed to pull 700 pounds, I would have pulled 755 pounds.

Recently, Chad benefitted from such an attitude. At the Orlando Barbell meet in October, Chad pulled his first deadlift over 800, with an 805. The most important reason that Chad pulled 805, was because another mutual friend and training partner of ours had recently pulled 804, and made it a point to mention that to Chad via text in between benches and deadlifts. As soon as I heard about the text, I knew Chad would beat 804. It was his mental outlook, and the fact that he expected to out-pull our friend that enabled him to achieve it. Had the number been 795, Chad would have pulled 780, and I am certain that if the number had been 805, Chad would have pulled 810. That is the power of the mind.

Athletes must always believe they can achieve a certain goal, and believe in their own ability to succeed. Doubt always leads to setback and failure, confidence to progress and success. However, even if an athlete knows they must adopt this attitude, it is easier said than done.

How can you go about successfully instilling this belief system in not only yourself, but in your training partners as well?

First of all, success breeds success. A key component is the expectation of success. More specifically, this means many small victories over time, gradually lead to greater victories. Now, don’t misconstrue this to mean that you should enter a slew of low-level local meets knowing that you’ll easily win and expect that this will somehow manifest itself into victory at the highest levels. Such a strategy is actually contradictory to the goal. An athlete that desires to reach the top of their chosen athletic endeavor should always strive to compete at highest level. Competing against champions helps you become a champion.

What I’m trying to communicate to you is that achieving numerous smaller successes in the gym, where daily battles are fought and won (or lost) is what leads to success in competition. If you go into the gym on a daily basis and consistently fail with maximum weights, how well do you think this prepares you to achieve success on the platform?

Ed Coan (in my mind, the greatest powerlifter of all time) was known to purposely “leave a rep or two in the tank” during his training and rarely ever missed an attempt while training. He felt that this not only helped to avoid overtraining, but was also conducive to developing a psychological expectation of success when in competition. It’s important that goal setting be done aggressively, but realistically. If you’re one of those lifters that never hits the numbers you’re hoping for in a meet, or even worse, you’re a lifter that bombs out as often as you total, then you need to sit down and evaluate what you’re doing wrong. You need to ensure you’re not allowing your ego to prognosticate numbers you’re not physically capable of at that time. Again, if you’re never able to achieve any of your training goals, can you really expect to achieve any of your competitive ones?

Another strategy for conditioning your mind to expect success, is to train on a daily basis with athletes that are at a higher level than you. This is undoubtedly one of the most effective methodologies. You’ll not only learn invaluable lessons from training with superior athletes, you’ll expect to achieve everything they have and possibly to exceed their achievements. If you train everyday with a group of guys that routinely bench press in excess of 700 pounds, how long do you think it’ll be before you’re also benching over 700?

My group of training partners is a perfect example of this. In a day where competitive deadlifts in excess of 800 pounds are a rarity, how is it that in my small group of training partners (six to eight of us train together on a semi-regular basis) four of us deadlift over 800 pounds? In fact only one of my training partners deadlifts under 700 pounds, and he’s 50 years old and competes in the 198-pound class. I fully expect him to break the 700-pound barrier at his next meet.

We often get asked at meets how do so many of us have such big deadlifts? How do we train to achieve this? The truth is even though we often train together; we all follow different training routines. My brother, Kurt, who currently leads our group with a competitive deadlift of 815 pounds in the 242 pound class and has pulled 855 for two singles in one training session frequently deadlifts every week in full gear, and is the only one of us that pulls sumo style. I currently have a PR of 810 pounds in the 220lb class and I almost always train my deadlift raw working up to a single in the conventional style. Josh McMillan recently pulled 804 at 275 in a meet and actually has traditionally deadlifted infrequently in training except when getting close to a meet. Chad Walker, who trained with us for many years but moved from Michigan to Florida two years ago, just pulled 805 less than two months ago. Although he trains much like I do, we only see each other three to four times per year. The important thing is that we all talk to Chad frequently and he knows exactly what our numbers are and we know where his numbers stand.

So looking at the disparity in our training programs, it’s easy to surmise that it’s not our training protocols that lead to our deadlifting prowess, but our mental outlook and expectations. Seeing those numbers in front of you on a regular basis quickly desensitizes you to their significance. You develop the attitude where you expect to lift big numbers because you see this being done often. You also learn to see yourself as being no different than your training partners, and thus reason that there is no excuse for you not to expect to achieve the same level of success. Kurt pulls over 800 because I do and Josh pulls over 800 because Kurt does and Chad pulls over 800 because the rest of us do. All of us succeed because we expect to and so should you.

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