Author’s Note: This is a piece on willpower, and reading this piece will require some willpower. It was supposed to be much shorter, but to do it the proper justice it needed, this article clocks in at around 2,000 words. Given the length, please be sure to allow yourself sufficient time (at least ten minutes) to read, I promise it will be worth your time.
It’s New Year’s, and like many people you probably have a resolution or two that you want to accomplish in the coming months, and perhaps a resolution that you want to maintain for the entire year and beyond. Since New Year’s resolutions rely heavily on our reserves of willpower and how we apply them, and since success in weightlifting is often contingent upon consistent hard work, it would make sense that you, the reader of this website would perhaps be thinking about willpower and how it relates to your goals for weightlifting in the coming months. You may be an elite level athlete with aspirations of being selected to an international team, you may be someone who uses weightlifting solely for the purpose of bettering your health, or (most likely) you may be somewhere in between. Whatever the case may be, this article will be examining how our willpower affects our aspirations in both weightlifting, and in life in general.
Weightlifting is not a sport where willpower is the only determining factor in who wins and loses. There are no sports in which willpower is the sole determining factor in who wins and loses, if there were, willpower would be a sport, and what’s more, Rudy Ruettiger wouldn’t have been a walk-on who got to play one meaningless down for Notre Dame, he would’ve been the starting outside linebacker all four years of his college career and gone on to play professional football. With all that being said, willpower is incredibly important to success in weightlifting, as it is in nearly all areas of life. Cliches like “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” exist for a reason, because there are significant chunks of truth in them. Since we know willpower is so important, the next thing we need to know is what is it? Is it simply a drive that we have to dig down into our souls for, is it purely a factor that comes from our genetics and chemical processes in our brains, or is it something else altogether, perhaps a synthesis of these things? The short answer is that willpower is both a drive which we dig down deep into our souls for, and it is also a part of the regular and daily chemical processes in our brains. Since it is a regular part of our mental processes it (like most of our mental processes) can be depleted, restored, strengthened, and conserved. This definition is far from the ideal and perfect concept of willpower, but for the sake of this article, it will do for now.
With this definition of willpower in hand, we come to the important questions: How does willpower play into weightlifting, and how can it be trained and strengthened over the long-term? The immediate answer, is (of course) that our willpower is incredibly influential in how much success we enjoy in weightlifting. If you have athlete A and athlete B with the exact same genetics, the exact same background in sport prior to weightlifting, and the exact same programming and coaching offered them, but athlete A is more driven and subsequently trains more regularly, with more focus, and with more overall willpower, athlete A is much more likely to succeed in the sport than athlete B. If we accept that willpower is simply a chemical force (which it is at least in part, though not on the whole), then this article is entirely pointless. However, we do not accept that willpower is simply a genetic and chemical force in our brains, instead we believe that it is also a faculty of the mind that can be trained (though never perfectly controlled) like many other faculties of the mind.
Willpower can be trained to a degree, just like a muscle can be. Everyone has different genetic ceilings on how far they can train a particular muscle, and though willpower is not a muscle, genetic ceilings on how far one can take willpower also exist. Willpower, just like our muscles, is a finite resource. We cannot constantly train our willpower without providing it with opportunities to rest and be fed any more than we can train our bodies in the same way. Our bodies need fuel and rest to perform, and so do our brains and our minds. We lose willpower in two primary ways, first by exercising self-control. This could be exemplified in a number of ways, but for the sake of keeping things short, every time you choose not to eat something you shouldn’t, or every time you choose to do that last set of squats (or whatever your least favorite exercise may be), you are exercising your self-control, and your willpower reserves will be depleted. The second main thing that depletes your willpower is the act of making decisions. Exercising willpower is not simply the immediate acts of self-control, but also the decisions we make that lead up to the opportunities to exercise self-control. Many times these decisions reside in our subconscious, other times they exist more prominently in our conscious minds, but they are such routine and low level decisions that we don’t think about them in the way we do when we make those relatively big choices like the sets of squats, or not eating that slice of cake, etc. The difficulty of exercising willpower is directly proportional to the other types of energy we exert to complete any given task. If your mind is screaming at you 24/7 to smoke, to drink soda, to eat nothing but cheeseburgers, etc. your willpower will be depleted very quickly, because every time you choose not to do those things when your brain prompts you to, you are exerting energy from your willpower resources to avoid taking that particular negative action.
So, how can we train willpower in order to achieve our goals in weightlifting more narrowly, and life in general more broadly? The easiest method is risk aversion. If you have any experience with dieting for weight loss, trying to quit smoking, trying to quit drinking, or quitting any other bad habit, you probably know this method. Since you only have so much energy to give towards making choices at any given time in your life, it’s best to avoid temptations altogether, whether those temptations come from your own actions, or the actions of others. Like another cliche mentioned earlier, the phrase “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” exists for a reason. It’s because we know that if, for example, we are trying to drop a certain amount of weight that spending time with our friends who like eating out a lot (especially junkier types of food), we are probably not as likely to reach our goals, because we will be constantly tempted to consume high calorie, low quality food. So, just like avoiding going out with your foodie friends when you’re trying to lose weight, finding ways to avoid placing risky decisions in your pathway towards a given goal is going to be incredibly helpful in developing and maintaining the long-term willpower necessary to find success in weightlifting. It’s a lot harder to eat junk food if it isn’t in the house, and it’s a lot harder to skip training if you just show up to the gym. Risk aversion (or avoiding temptation) is one great way to build willpower. The longer a habit of avoiding a negative behavior is developed, the more successful you are likely to be.
The other major method besides risk aversion is multi-pronged in its application, but very specific in principle: To develop greater strength of will-power, you must focus intensely on whatever one given task you have at a time. This sounds extraordinarily simple in theory, but in practice it is an incredibly difficult thing to do. In the information age our lives involve so many distractions at any given time that appropriately focusing on any single task becomes incredibly hard at times. To avoid this problem, there are number of smaller steps that you can take to create a better and more focused environment for your mind. First, make your goals as clear and specific as possible. When setting specific and clear goals, using the SMART acronym is often very helpful. SMART can be used for a number of different acronyms, but usually stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Trackable. That is, each time you set a goal, in order to make accomplishing that goal as easy as possible the task needs to be narrowed down as far as is appropriate, or else it will be seem much too large and unattainable.
For a weightlifter who wants to go to the Olympic Games, simply setting the goal of “One day I want to go to the Olympics” is not enough. Following off of that example, to allow for proper focus, your goals have to be measurable. If the only standard of measurement is the ginormous lifelong goal, maintaining and developing mental energy to pursue the big goal is extraordinarily hard. You eat an elephant one bite at a time, and if you have a pace to measure how fast you have to eat the proverbial elephant to get to the Olympics, you can keep up day by day how well you are doing in achieving that larger goal. Third and fourth, they have to be attainable and realistic. To go back to the example of the Olympics, for some people in the sport of weightlifting that is simply unrealistic. If you find yourself a full-grown adult male at 25 years old with no experience in weightlifting, standing at 6’4”, and weighing 180 pounds soaking wet, you probably aren’t going to be an olympian as a weightlifter. Setting achievable and realistic goals is much healthier in the long-run, and like in the other examples usually involves setting smaller action-oriented goals. That is, you can have the big goal, whether it be going to the olympics, qualifying for a national meet, or hitting (x) total in a meet, but if that goal is not broken down into smaller bite-sized pieces, it is unlikely to be achieved. Instead of focusing your goals simply on end achievements, focus in on the smaller parts of the whole, the individual actions that are necessary to achieve the larger goal. This is what makes a goal achievable and realistic, is breaking it down into action-based rather than outcome-based goals. Because actions are something we can control much more easily than outcomes, focusing our goals around them is better for us in the long-run. Finally, the goals that you set need to be time-bound. Time is an incredibly powerful tool in getting the engine of our willpower up and running. It’s been said in one form or another that there is no such thing as writer’s block, simply being too far away from a deadline. In the same way, if the only goal and the only deadline you have set as a weightlifter is something that may or may not happen in four years (especially relevant since we are at the beginning of an olympic quad), maintaining the necessary willpower to get there will be much harder because you will not have broken the elephant up into single bites in your mind, but instead view it as one big goal to be swallowed all at once.
Willpower is an incredibly important element in the success of any athlete in the sport of weightlifting, much like it is in every other sport. Ultimately willpower is not something that we can control entirely, but it is something which we can train and strengthen by creating specific habits, behavior patterns, and goals. It cannot be properly be quantified in advance of weightlifting competition (for there are far too many contingencies to say with any degree of certainty), but having strong willpower is consistently correlated with more regular and greater success in life across all population types. If you really want to take the next big step in your life as a weightlifter (whatever that step may be), the first small step you should take is avoiding things that tend to cause bad behavior patterns, and the second is setting up realistic and trackable goals for your future progress. With these two tactics in hand, going forward into a new year of weightlifting will be much more profitable than without.