Weightlifting is a physically, mentally, and emotionally brutal sport. Outside of an injury, nothing is worse than a bad meet, whether that’s a bomb out, failing to achieve a qualifying total, narrowly missing out on a medal, or simply not performing as well as you know you could have that day.
What makes weightlifting exceptionally challenging is the time and effort required to improve, with so few opportunities to actually perform. There are hundreds of hours and thousands of reps over the course of a year that go into training, and most athletes only do a handful of big meets each year. To hit the weights that you know are possible requires a near perfect intersection of physical preparedness, emotional excitement, and mental fortitude. Many lifters perform well in the face of adversity, but when it gets down to it, if any adverse variables are thrown into the mix, your chances of success dwindle. There are no guarantees. Your best efforts, and all of the training you’ve completed can seem meaningless in the face of a poor performance. For these reasons, it can be particularly disheartening to have a bad meet, a feeling that will stick with most lifters until they compete more successfully. It’s important to then do everything possible to ensure that the next big meet is an improvement on the last one.
In early 2016, I worked with weightlifter Jaci Long as she prepared to compete at the Arnold. She was fresh off of a bronze medal at 63kg at the 2015 Nationals. Her training wasn’t perfect. A hard weight cut sapped her energy and the PRs were few and far between. Still, we had high hopes for a top 3 finish by Sinclair. The weight cut went as planned, and Jaci made weight without a huge water cut. In the warm-up room, everything was initially going well. The back room was crowded with lifters, handlers, loaders, and undoubtedly a few sneaky spectators. It quickly became cramped and chaotic, but we knew that was all part of the sport.
Jaci missed her last snatch warm-up at 77, typically an easy weight. The distractions were becoming a challenge, but she was capable of going out and hitting her opener at 80. Unfortunately, it was not her day. Three times she attempted 80, and every time she missed it narrowly. By that point, she was physically drained and ready to be done with the day. She went on to clean and jerks, made a lift, and missed a couple.
The meet was a big disappointment for Jaci, after so much effort was put into training and cutting weight. She handled that initial disappointment like a champ, but with Nationals just a couple months away, we had to establish a plan quickly in order to perform well.
Take Some Time to Regroup
Some athletes will want to immediately go back to training harder than ever in an effort to start fixing whatever they think went wrong at the last meet. While this might be a natural inclination, most people should take some time at the very least to rest and recover after a hard peak up to a big meet, and even more so when that meet didn’t go well, since there’s extra psychological stressors involved.
Beyond simply taking an easy week, spend some extra time away from heavy classic lifts if time permits. Maintain consistency with a higher volume of reps under 70% and with complexes targeting weaknesses. Incorporate assistance exercises that address your own deficiencies, along with movements you simply enjoy.
In Jaci’s case, we couldn’t take much time to regroup. She resumed training after a week off. And though we immediately got into a cycle with plenty of heavy singles, we put effort mostly into consistency, and didn’t try anything over 90-95% for a couple weeks. On top of that, we added in heavier power versions of the lifts. That may seem like a strange selection leading up to a big meet, but it gave her an opportunity to push a lift varuation she hadn’t in awhile, and built confidence in her full lifts without adding pressure early on.
Set Appropriate Near-Term Expectations
Get over the idea that if you train hard enough now, it’s like the bad meet never happened. Many athletes come off of a bad meet without giving themselves rest, and get back to training harder than ever. The idea is that they can somehow make up for a bad performance with what they do in the gym. But this puts too much emphasis on what they do in the gym, and not on the platform.
Lifters get stuck in a cycle where they want to hit even bigger numbers in training, and won’t compete again until they feel “good enough”. In reality, bad numbers on the platform may have little to do with training, and you’ll wind up focusing on the wrong thing rather than fixing the underlying issues. At worst, you’re setting off down a path of always training and never competing.
Work With Your Coach
If you don’t already have a coach, now is probably a decent time to get one. It’s incredibly difficult to have an accurate perspective of your own needs as an athlete. An experienced coach will be able to determine what you need as an individual to make your next meet better.
If you do have a coach, now is the time to have some open discussion with them. Every situation is different, but look for ways you and your coach can improve your communication and relationship. One bad meet isn’t a good indicator that it’s time to jump ship.
The most obvious item on everyone’s post-meet checklist is to ask what went wrong. How can I keep this from happening again? It’s an important step in the process, though your perspective will change as the days/weeks/months pass after the meet.
Consider all of the things in your control, and do your best to ignore everything else. You can’t change certain things that may happen, but you can change how you’ll respond to them in the future. Make a list of the things you did well in your preparations and performance, and a list of things you didn’t do as well. Commit to continuing to do the things that were a positive impact on the meet, and work with your coach to address what you could have done better.
A non-exhaustive list of things in your control: training, recovery, body-weight and nutrition, attitude, expectations for the meet, selection of attempts, and how you respond to negative factors during the meet.
What you don’t have complete control over: the result of your training, the result of your efforts on the platform, the actions of those around you during the competition. There’s a great deal that you can to influence your performance, which is kind of the point of training and competition, but you have to come to terms with what you can and can’t control.
It’s easy to spend too much time considering the above, to the point where it impacts your ability to think clearly about the big picture and make reasonable steps to improve future performance. If you’re going to make changes, prioritize what you’re going to work on, and limit your focus to what will have the largest impact on your performance.
Accept That Bad Days Happen And That You Can’t Control Everything
In some cases, there may not be specific reasons that caused your poor performance, in which case it’s especially dangerous to overanalyze your performance, because it may end up being a wasteful and fruitless venture. Accept that there are no guarantees, and that sometimes great training and a great plan can lead to a poor performance. Some might find that negative and disheartening, and doesn’t fit well with the prevalent culture of bite-sized Instagram inspiration. However, I think that it’s more rewarding when everything comes together on those days of big PRs and historical performances.
Establish Bottom End Consistency
If you’re coming off of a bomb-out, there’s two probable scenarios: either you opened too heavy relative to your max in training or competition, or you opened at a reasonable weight compared to your max, but you have consistency issues.
It’s crucial to establish bottom end, any day of the week weights that you are able to lift successfully. The closer this is to your best, the better. An important note is that some lifters perform much better in competition than training, and will have a bigger deficit between their training maxes and their platform attempts. It sounds almost too simple to mention, but so many lifters are more concerned with the best they lift on any given day than how many attempts it took for them to make that lift, and what weights they missed along the way.
Jaci missed an 80kg snatch at the Arnold three times. 80kg was a weight she made routinely in the gym, but it was closer to a 50% success rate rather than 100%. I’d hold my breath each time she hit 80, because that weight let me know whether or not she was having a good day. 78kg was her “any day” weight, and looking back, was a better option for an opener at the Arnold.
After the Arnold, we used heavy singles and waves to slowly build up her bottom end. We restructured her warm-ups on her heavy single days so that she progressively could hit 79 all of the time, then 80, and onto 81. Waves were arranged to progressively increase very slightly so that she was lifting 80+ under fatigue. Building frequency at around 90% helped demystify 80kg as the number that caused a previous bomb and made it much easier to open higher at Nationals a couple months later.
Do a Meet to “Reset”
Often, after underperforming at a meet, athletes set their sights on new, sometimes larger goals, as if that will erase the previous performance. On the other hand, some are nervous to compete again and will carry that anxiety until their next big meet. A better idea in either scenario is to compete in a purposefully low-key, low-pressure meet, with low expectations. This could be as early as a month after your last meet. Open light, shooting for consistency and a high success rate. Focus on moving well, getting your lifts in, and reestablishing your confidence. Set reasonable goals, such as X number of successful lifts while intentionally opening light, or if your last meet was a bomb-out, working up to the vicinity of last meet’s openers on your 2nd or 3rd attempt. The idea is to be able to go into your next big meet without having the prior poor performance fresh in your mind.
Jaci did a meet a couple weeks out from Nationals. Her training was going better than it had leading up to the Arnold. We opened up at 80, and she missed it. There’s no doubt that Nationals was still in the back of her head. However, she came out and got it on her second and went on to lift 83 on her third, a meet PR. Clean and jerks went great, with a meet PR at 108 on her second. Jaci knowing she could come back and hit 80 after a miss was a big confidence boost, especially a couple weeks out from Nationals.
Fast-forward a few months to Nationals 2016. Jaci made a competition PR snatch at 84kg, and a hard fought 109kg Clean and Jerk to secure another bronze medal. It was an incredible meet for her. She looked fresh, strong, and ready for anything. The same challenges remained: a difficult weight cut and a hectic back room. Despite these challenges, she was able to put a bad meet behind her and perform at her best.
It’s a story that I tell our newer lifters who have a bad meet, or a bad day. You can take a bad situation, and come back in a short time to be better than ever with some small changes to your training approach and mental state.