Arousal and psyching up in training and competition

When lifting for strength and speed you need to do it like you mean it but different arousal levels are optimal for different tasks. For instance, when learning a new skill it needs to be challenging but not too much, when training for strength and speed in the gym you need to be motivated and sometimes push the levels but not all the time. At competitions it’s again a different story, arousal levels are typically higher but sometimes too much and for too long.

Skill training and arousal

There are many, many factors involved when learning new skills that I will get into at a later time. For now and for the purpose of this article I will only address a few, namely: arousal, stress, demand and capacity.

It has been shown that the aquiring of a skill, whether it be weightlifting technique or learning to juggle, is best achieved with some arousal. What this means is that the task should be challenging but the outcome should be positive. Just going through the motions will not cut it. When it comes to lifting, or sport practice for that matter, this can take the shape of focusing on a particular part of an exercise, for instance properly locked shoulders in the snatch. This also means that mindlessly standing and doing the same movement over and over with a stick is not a good way either, instead it would be better to use weight and to make each set something worth thinking about, for instance by varying the load from set to set. In other words, the brain needs to be challenged in order for it to optimally create and strengthen the neural pathways needed to aquire and perfect the skill. If the arousal is too low, the interest of the skill diminish.

Don’t mistake this as going to max over and over. If the stress is too high the fatigue will be too high which wil have a negative impact on skill aquisition. Stress is created in many different ways, for a weightlifter it can be too much training or too heavy sets. If the demand is too high compared to the capacity of the athlete stress will increase and failing is certain. Failure, by the way, also has a negative effect on skill aquisition.

In other words, during skill practice, the session must be challenging but not so difficult that the athlete isn’t succesful. Arousal must therefore be present, not too little and not too much.

Strength training and arousal

I often say that as a trainer and a coach you deal with two types of athletes: those you need to push and those you need to hold back. Cartainly I’m not the first one to make this observation. It can take many shapes and forms, for instance in those who want to attempt another personal best just after breaking one (spoiler: it’s a bad idea). Another way it can manifest itself is in people going in all guns blazing every session, screaming and shouting, cursing or throwing stuff if they don’t perform what they or someone else have decided they should do. Again, we’re talking about demand exceeding capacity.

I call this “banging the head against the wall”. We’re all human reading this (I think) and I’m certainly not immune to being frustrated when things don’t go the way I want and I don’t expect anyone else to be either but if it happens on a frequent basis it’s time to take a step back and consider that banging your head against the wall will not make your squat increase but it will likely give you a headache.

Getting too fired up, whether before making a lift or because a lift didn’t go the way you wanted, has a time and a place. Do you really need to psych up for four reps at 70%? Probably not. Attempting a new one repetition maximum is another story. This shouting, kicking and screaming takes an emotional toll on you and emotional stress will play into your physical being, maybe that’s why babies sleep so much. If you find yourself breaking into tears on a regular basis at the gym you need to take a step back.

Emotional and mental stress are huge topics perhaps mostly discussed regarding working environments in relation to burnouts and the like but they are to a degree very much appearing in training as well. To speak a language every lifter can understand: the research is clear, mental fatigue has a very measurable effect on perceived rate of effort. In other words, performance goes down! If this isn’t reason enough to stop ”banging your head against the wall” I don’t know what is.

But remember, there is such a thing as too little arousal. This manifests itself when an athlete takes an attempt he or she can clearly make yet can’t budge the bar. Sometimes telling them “you actually have to exert force” is enough for them to put their mind to it and voila! As if magic they now possess the strength to lift the same weight they couldn’t even budge a minute ago.

It’s been stated by many that a training max and a competition max is not the same thing and that somehow a training max means that you shouldn’t psych yourself up. I’m fairly certain that this misconception comes from prof. Zatsiorsky. First of all, I don’t think that’s necessarily what the good professor meant. Second, even if he did, it would depend on the style of training.

The above statement is usually invoked when talking about the Bulgarian system. “You shouldn’t psych yourself up!”. This is complete nonsense spewed by people who have clearly never trained in Bulgaria. I’ve seen a lot of psyching up there when maximal attempts are made, from screaming to smelling salt. In that system a max is a max and many times their competition maxes will be lower than their training maxes.

But even in Bulgaria there’s a time and a place for it. Control trainings (done weekly) are definitely the time for it. A lighter Thursday session isn’t.

Competition and arousal

It’s assumed that competition has the highest level of arousal. If the amount of arousal is high but stress isn’t out of control the athlete should be able to excel unless fatigue hasn’t been properly accounted for. In fact, the biggest mistake I see coaches and athletes make is either overestimating the capacity of the athlete or having too high stress levels.

At competitions arousal levels are typically higher than in training (as they should be) but sometimes too high and for too long. If arousal is too high then it’s easy to make technical errors. This isn’t necessarily because the technique is “forgotten”, if it’s been drilled properly for a long time that’s unlikely. It’s rather an exaggeration of parts of the movement that makes it break down. In the snatch or the clean it can mean that the athlete bangs the bar too far out and not being able to save it no matter how aggressive they’re pulling with the arms and back. In the bench press it can mean that the overly excited powerlifter pulls the bar to the chest so fast that he or she isn’t able to keep the tension thus “crashing it” resulting in not even being able to budge it because all tension is lost.

Most understand that too much psyching up will make the technique go to hell but not everyone seem to understand that time is a factor as well. Consider a powerlifting meet (which often can run for several hours) if an athlete is too fired up on the first squat attempt it might be difficult to have the same levels in the last deadlift where it’s needed the most. That’s why you never see me hit and scream at my athletes for their first attempts – I don’t want to burn them out too early.

In conclusion

Arousal is a necessity for sports, learning and strength training. The amount of arousal depends on the situation. The problems we’re all faced with in all of these scenarios are too little arousal (skill acquisition is slower, strength is too low) and too much arousal (technique breaks down, stress and fatigue is too high). Therefore it’s important for the athlete, the trainer and the coach to manage these levels in an as efficient manner as possible depending on the specific circumstance and the goal.

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