If you read one thing that Blacksmith puts out this year, I hope this is it. The premise was simple. We gave the coaches 4 questions and no further instructions other than we were going to publish them as an article. The questions were:
- What has been the biggest mental hurdle you’ve faced with training?
- What do you do on days you’re internally struggling?
- How do you deal with failure? Have you ever wanted to quit?
- How has battling your own mental demons affected your ability to coach others?
So without further adieu, here are their answers
What has been the biggest mental hurdle you’ve faced with training?
Joel McCain: For me personally it was the time during my head and spine injury after I had been told by two different doctors I wouldn’t be able to powerlift again, but the hardest part was attempting to come back several times and failing, and starting to actually believe the doctors were right. I struggled with my identity, my confidence, my future, and what felt like the loss of my lifelong dream. The only way I could stay positive was to simply do something, ANYTHING, no matter how small that felt like moving forward. First it was going for walks at night because the visual stimulus was lower and I wouldn’t get as dizzy as fast as I would in the day time. Then I would work on breathing techniques and muscle relaxation drills to help me sleep. I would research for hours a day on the function of the nervous system, how to control and influence the autonomic portion, diet, different treatments etc. I would search out the best practitioners and research where professional athletes were getting treated etc. If at the end of the day I felt I was one step closer, even if it was a thousand step process, it was enough for me to want to get up the next day and take the next step.
When I was finally medically cleared and started to make my return to training, each session was coming at a pretty staggering cost – every time I would train I would get crippling anxiety, body shakes, and lose the ability to sleep and eat that night as well as the ability to focus/comprehend what I was seeing for a couple hours the next day. Every time I would train I would start to question whether it was worth the cost I was paying. I almost quit, but the only thing the kept me going was the need to physically exert myself. I’m forever wired to need a competitive outlet, so I really had no option but to find ways to push through, manage symptoms, and move forward. I’ll never be 100% but I’m getting better at managing symptoms, adjusting my training, and catching early symptoms before they get out of control.
Coach Cam Bennett at the PNE FitFest
Cam Bennett: When it comes to training specifically, I think the mental aspect that comes with injuries has got to be the biggest hurdle for me. When I tore my pec last year the injury was healed in roughly 8 weeks but the fear of tearing it again was in my head for months and months after. Every single time I would load the bar up with the weight that was on it when the injury happened I would panic and completely throw technique out the window because I was so fixated on hoping I wouldn’t get hurt again. If I felt any tightness or soreness I would immediately stop and poke and prod around my chest making sure nothing was wrong. All of this mental struggle caused me to stall out on strength for quite some time because before I even got under the bar I had already set myself up for failure by being scared of failing.
Marina Misuric: For me, my biggest mental hurdle is one I still deal with every day. A few years ago, when I was still a student, I started noticing I didn’t feel like myself. I wasn’t doing the things I loved to do and I was having a hard time even getting out of bed to go to school. I have never been the type to wear my emotions, so when it came time to talk about why I was struggling so much, I had a really hard time even admitting to myself I was having problems let alone to someone else. I’m pretty sure it took me three full days of the same conversation just to acknowledge that I was having any issues. I was putting so much pressure on myself to finish my degree quickly, excel at my new sport – powerlifting, and put career paths into place for after university. I created all these expectations I thought people had for me, when really they were just my own. All this pressure caused me to have episodes of depression and anxiety. These episodes would last a few days to a few weeks and were really causing me to struggle academically and personally.
I tried to find medical reasons for feeling like crap and fixing some of those things (iron levels, vitamin D, and low free cortisol) did help lessen the frequency of these episodes. However, it still took me a long time to realize I probably needed to talk through the deeper issues and accept them myself before I could start to feel like myself again. I talked to a few medical professionals about it, but more importantly, I’ve learned to talk to the people closest to me. My mental health isn’t something I can just push aside and ignore anymore, I have to be very aware of how I am feeling and not be afraid to talk about it. Though I still struggle, the depressive and anxiety episodes are much less frequent now. I know that when I start to feel overwhelmed with life or overtrained, the symptoms come back and have to be addressed, but because I am much better at recognizing the signs now, I can catch it before it becomes a full episode. Mental health is a hard thing to struggle with since from an outside perspective, you look completely fine. That’s why it’s so important to have someone you feel comfortable talking to to help you through those times. I find often times, even just preparing what I am going to say to someone during those times helps me organize my thoughts and put a plan in place to help declutter my mind and feel like myself again sooner. My anxiety is my every day fight, but it has made me a stronger lifter, coach, and friend.
Megan Walker: Motivation.
You’ve worked a long day already, and already spent a few hours at the gym with clients and all you want to do is go home and relax. So many people tell me all the time how motivation is their biggest mental hurdle when it comes to just getting your ass into the gym. That’s where having a coach can really help. I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching, I thought that because I am a trainer, I should be able to write my own programs and not ask for help. Writing my own programs it was easy to cheat and get around the motivation by not programming the exercises I’d benefit from the most, even skipping certain exercises because I just didn’t feel like it and wanted to go home.
Recently, I got my shit together and decided to ask for help from the other coaches at Blacksmith. And guess what? I’m starting to feel motivated again. I’ve got a new program that was written by the coaches as a collective, and I’ve figured out a schedule where I can get into the gym on my off days.
For myself, it’s not just motivation to get to the gym I struggle with. It’s motivation to get out of bed in the morning, it’s motivation to try new things, it’s motivation to really want to do much of anything. I’m constantly searching for something to feel passionate about to motivate me to do things, but I’m searching and I can’t find it. It’s a really weird feeling not having things that you’re passionate about and motivate you in life. I look around me and I see people that want to train every single day, that are in school pursuing their dream jobs or already working them, or even just having hobbies they truly love. And here I am; sure I like training, I like playing sports, I like doing certain things, but I don’t have that passion and motivation like I see others have. I feel very lost and alone with this a lot of the time, and I am constantly struggling to try and find my passions and any motivation I can.
I can’t say my motivation is exactly where I want it to be at, but I’ve taken steps in the right direction with my habits at the gym. If you’re struggling with motivation, the biggest takeaway from this is don’t be afraid to ask for help, be it with training or any other aspects of your life. The support system we have at Blacksmith is unreal and even as a coach, it took me far too long to practice what I preach.
Cole Thevenot: In 2016 I ruptured a disc in my lower back while deadlifting. Initially this was thought of as a minor set back as I have encountered several athletes that have had the same injury. Each day began with antagonizing pain and barely being able to put on socks without breaking a sweat from the amount of pain I was experiencing. Over the course of several months, I struggled with sciatica, muscle weakness, and chronic pain. Ultimately I sought out help from different professionals who provided treatment that would give me temporary relief, however, the issue never completely resolved. Fast forward 6 months, I was still limited in terms of exercise selection and had been able to train around the injury. While squatting I felt another pop in my lower back, this time, much more painful. I drove to the hospital and the pain continued to get worse. I was told by a medical professional to take anti-inflammatory drugs and rest. Again, I went through the cycle of therapist to therapist to dig deeper into the issue. I read books and contacted the leading lower back specialist in the nation who referred me to a therapist who was able to get to the root of my pain and gradually remove it. Over months I made progress and eventually came to a point where I could perform daily activities without significant pain. At this point, I had completely removed squatting and deadlifting out of my program out of fear of relapsing. The thought of deadlifting and squatting gave me anxiety and every time I would think about making an attempt to train them again I would find some sort of excuse to avoid it. This cycle lasted for two years before I picked up a barbell from the floor again. To this day I still have recurring thoughts of “what if it happens again.” However, with the help of my training partners and the coaches, I have been able to overcome the fear of re-injury and anxiety surrounding movements that once left me dreading putting on socks in the morning.
What do you do on days when you’re internally struggling?
Cole Thevenot: Training for powerlifting isn’t always sunshine and roses. From overcoming injury to having a bad day, there’s never a point of complete solace. Whenever I have a bad training day, I often make use of retrospective thinking where I tell myself, “so, you’re having a bad day, but was it as bad as when you couldn’t walk without pain?” This brings my self pitying thoughts back to reality and redirects it to more thankful thoughts. More specifically, thankfulness that I am actually able to continue training and live a healthy and active life.
Reminding myself that one bad day out of 10 doesn’t constitute failure or signs of weakness, rather, it’s part of the process and like any goal worth pursuing, nothing comes easily.
Megan Walker: Usually cry. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I can’t help it. Motivation isn’t the only thing I struggle with. Like many people, there are a lot of other things people don’t see.
What do I do to make it better? I usually take my dog for a walk. After a long walk on the dike with my Wilber by myself or with my best friends, I start to feel this mental clarity. Being outside in the fresh air is one of the best things to clear my mind.
You don’t have to struggle internally, because that means you’re struggling alone. As I said before, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I have a few close friends I can turn to when I’m feeling shitty and can always count on them to be there for me. And of course Mom and Dad are always there for me and checking on me to make sure I’m ok and to help with anything I need.
Coach Joel McCain Setting up for a squat set in training
Joel McCain: Peaking is a really hard time for me, a lot of the symptoms I dealt with during my original return to training come back full force during periods of high mental and physical stress – which is pretty much the last 6-7 weeks of powerlifting preparation. Sometimes the stress from a squat or deadlift session will bring on anxiety and shakes that leave me with 2-3 hours of broken sleep, but the next day would still be a training day and I’d somehow have to put together another training session when I didn’t even feel like putting two feet on the floor that day. As the weeks went on these nights start stacking on each other where most nights are rough and the symptoms would compound. On these days I would make a deal with myself that all I had to do was show up and start, I didn’t have to finish, I didn’t have to hit my prescribed my numbers, but no matter what I had to show up. I’d break up what seemed like an unsurmountable task at the time into tiny little accomplishable goals and do them one at a time: just show up – check. Do your warm up – check. Start your first exercise, you can stop after if you want to – check. Ok you made it through that, the next exercise is easier right? So just do them – check, and so on and so forth until the work was done.
Marina Misuric: Some days are harder than others, but the main thing for me is taking a step back and checking whether it is my brain or my body holding me back. If it’s my body and something is really hurting or not feeling right and I can’t fix it, I will stop and do some recovery and try again the next day. The much much more common issue is my brain, whether it’s the anxiety, low energy, or I’m feeling unmotivated. If it’s just my brain not letting me perform I will try to find a way through it, either by picking some music that I really like or talking to someone about it for a few minutes in between sets. Some days, these things work and others they don’t. When they don’t work and my brain refuses to get out of its rut and let me train, I will try to silence it by training anyways. Some days it’s just about getting through the work no matter how I feel because I know I would be worse off mentally if I quit on myself.
Cam Bennett: This is by far the hardest question for me. I cannot really pin point any exact things that I do to help myself when I’m having really rough days. To be completely honest there’s been days that were so bad I wouldn’t even get out of bed if I didn’t have to. Training has been such a good outlet for me and has helped me get through so many terrible times. Knowing this, I do whatever I can to inch myself toward getting there. Once I’m there I’ll put my phone away and forget about everything else for that hour or two hour or sometimes even 3-hour training session and always feel at least a little bit better afterward. I know that I will regret it and be mad at myself if I skip a workout, but I’ll never regret going.
How do you deal with failure? Have you ever wanted to quit?
Joel McCain: …Not well, haha. I place extreme pressure and demands upon myself. I expect success no matter what the circumstance, and I’m very slow to forgive myself for delivering anything other than my perceived best performance each and every day. This mindset has served me well and helped me push past some pretty large barriers, but it’s a double edged sword that I’ve certainly felt the edge of when things are going wrong. Have I ever wanted to quit? Yes. Right in front of the other coaches in the middle of a deadlift session. It was about 6-7 months post bicep surgery, I had switched to hook grip so I could start deadlifting earlier, and hopefully reduce the chance of it happening again, and I couldn’t break 606lbs off the ground (this is a weight I should have been able to rep easily). It was right in the middle of peaking and at the worst point of my anxiety/neurologicalsymptoms/sleep issues, I feeling sorry for myself and I actually said it out loud “I’m done, I’m going to have pull out of this meet” but fortunately Cam Bennett caught it right away and just said “I’ve never seen you quit anything, there’s no way you’re quitting now”. I’ve had talks with Marina about whether the price I was paying was worth it; It always seems like it when things are going well, but to pay that price and feel like I was losing the battle anyways, that’s a tough pill to swallow. She always had a way of talking me off the ledge. That really highlights the most important part – I’ve always had good people around me; at Blacksmith the coaches coach and push each other, and I think we can all say we wouldn’t be where we are without the rest of the team’s support.
Coach Cole benching in training
Cole Thevenot: If I had a dollar for every time I thought about quitting I would be a millionaire. Hanging it up and seeking other less risky forms of competition has been a thought that crosses my mind every time I have a significant injury that hinders training. Heck, even if I have a rough patch of training where I’m lacking progress or just simply dealing with nagging pain I’ve had that thought cross my mind. It is incredibly frustrating looking back and reminiscing about where I was and comparing it to where I am now, but getting trapped in this mindset is dangerous and breeds thoughts that make me feel like a failure. The important thing is to remember that with every failure there is an opportunity to learn; simply admitting defeat and letting yourself be consumed by a missed rep, injury, or a bad meet doesn’t help – Experience it, accept it, strategize how to do better next time, and move forward.
Cam Bennett: There has been times in the past, as recently as 2-3 years ago where I was so scared to fail that I wouldn’t even try. This includes a lot of things outside of the gym as well but when it came to training specifically, I was so worried about how embarrassing it would be if I failed that I would actually wait until I knew people in the gym were busy and couldn’t be watching me to do my set. In my opinion, this mindset held me back more than anything else. Over the last couple years, as I’ve become more open about my mental health issues and have stopped caring so much about what other people think, I’ve learned to use failure as motivation to get better. Instead of moping around and being upset about missing lifts or fucking up a set I’ve been able to change my negative mentality into using those experiences as fuel to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s okay to be scared of the weight on the bar but don’t be afraid of failing.
Marina Misuric: When I first started powerlifting I was terrible at handling failure. I had never been good at it in any aspect of my life and I still struggle with it at times. Failure can feel like a personal defeat and it used to make me feel like I was not good enough to succeed. Powerlifting has taught me that failures should be treated as lessons instead and they now make me even more determined and stubborn to reach my goals. The way I deal with failure now, whether it be a missed lift or a bombed career opportunity, is that I allow myself to feel upset for a few minutes, then I distract myself with something completely unrelated to get my head out of the funk. Once my head is clear and the feelings of anger and defeat are no longer affecting my rational thought, I reflect back and take a moment to learn a thing or two about what went wrong and how I can do better next time. I can’t say that I’ve got this down perfectly yet as fear of failure is one of the main triggers for my anxiety still, but I am getting better every day and using this sport to help me get there.
I have absolutely felt like quitting powerlifting, training, and anything associated with the gym at one point in my life. Back in one of my final semesters of university, my brain, my body, and my mental health were all falling apart. I had done way too many semesters in a row, a powerlifting competition or two, and I was burnt out both mentally and physically. I wasn’t enjoying school, training, or my life in general like I used to and I wasn’t taking the time to take care of myself. I had depressive episodes that lasted weeks where I could barely get out of bed due to lack of motivation to start my day. I lost my spark and my energy; all I wanted to do was sleep all day. This low mood and energy obviously made it very difficult to train hard and peak for meets. Sprinkle an injury on top of it all and there was very little keeping me together during my training sessions. When peaking for my third meet, I think I cried through more sessions than not. I have never wanted to quit something more than during that time. Having an absolutely amazing gym family is the only reason I did not quit. They listened to me when I needed to vent, they gave me space when I needed it, and they found the perfect moments to encourage me in a positive, supportive way. They are the only reason I got through that competition and learned to enjoy powerlifting again. I have since had a few brief moments of “why do I do this?” and “this is too hard, I want to quit”, but they are never very serious anymore and I know I have the right team to back me up and motivate me to continue pushing myself to see what I can accomplish.
Megan Walker: I think about quitting all the time. How easy would that be? Just quit everything that is hard in life and live the easiest life ever. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?
There’s a difference between thinking something and actually doing it. I think about quitting, but I wouldn’t actually do it. If I quit my job, quit playing sports, quit everything, then I’m not only quitting on myself, but quitting on everyone else.
I hate disappointing people, so quitting isn’t an option just because I failed or because something got hard.
How has battling your own mental demons affected your ability to coach others?
Joel McCain: Hard to answer this one without sounding like a motivational poster, but I wouldn’t be half the coach I am today without all the struggles I have been through. Understanding what it feels like to be down and out, and everything that comes along with it, the depression, the anxiety, the loss of self, watching your body change for the worse and feeling helpless, dealing with extreme physical pain – there are some things you have to go through in life to truly understand, and I think it helps to have someone say “I know how that feels” than just “that must be hard”. I think seeing a piece of my own struggle in someone else makes me that much more passionate to help people succeed no matter what odds face them and that much more rewarding when they do; it really feels like we’re in this together.
Megan Walker: I’m more compassionate and understanding because of it. If you come into the gym with no motivation and don’t want to lift, I’m gonna do my best to get you motivated and doing your best that day. I completely understand that some days are long and you just really don’t want to do anything, but there are always ways to work around it, and I’m determined to find those ways. You’re not going to lift heavy every day, and some days that prowler will not make it across the gym, and I get that. But we’ll find a way to make it work and to make it fun. Hell, once and awhile you might say “fuck it, I’m not feeling it today, I need a night off” and I’m totally ok with that, because sometimes I need a night off too.
So I honestly think my own internal struggles have made me not only a better coach, but just a better, more understanding and compassionate person. I hope I can help my clients and any clients at Blacksmith through any issues they may be going through fitness related or not. Because what a lot of them don’t know is that they’ve helped me so much, so it’s only right I return the favour.
Cam Bennett: This has been both a blessing and curse for me when it comes to coaching. I have been struggling with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember and up until about two years ago the only people that knew were my doctor and my mom. Now that I am much more open about it, I find I am able to relate to clients that may be going through the same or similar things. Being that I’ve gone through the mental struggles myself, it definitely helps me to see the signs of it in someone else and be able to offer help and advice to get them through bad days. The downside of dealing with this while being a coach is always being extremely hard on myself and constantly overthinking. One of the worst things about anxiety is that you always feel like the worst possible thing that could happen in a given situation, will happen. So anytime something isn’t working or a client is skipping days for example, I’ll immediately blame myself and beat myself up in my head about what I might have done wrong. It’s a never ending battle when it comes to mental health but I’m very glad that I’m in a career where I am dealing with such a variety of people every day and have the chance to try and use my own personal experiences to help other people battle their own mental demons.
Coach Marina Misuric working on breathing and bracing with a client
Marina Misuric: Overall, I think dealing with my own issues has positively impacted my coaching. The hardest part about my own mental health battles has been talking about it and admitting when I’m having a rough time. I know mental health is something a lot of people shy away from talking about. As a coach, I know people tend to want to fight their battles internally, but I try really hard to show my clients that I am there if they ever need someone to hear them. I don’t ever want to pry into issues they don’t want to share, but I know what it feels like to need to talk about what you’re going through (even if sometimes you don’t even know what that is). Sometimes you just need someone there reminding you that they are there for you and are willing to listen. I feel responsible for my clients’ physical health, of course, but also their mental health. I realize that sometimes life throws us obstacles we can’t just brush away and I want to make sure I am doing my part in getting them through that. Sometimes we have to take a detour route to reach our goals, but getting there in healthy, positive ways is worth the delay.
Cole Thevenot: I think it makes me more relatable. Dealing with my own mental demons and listening to those who might have their own history of mental issues brings us down to a human level which is extremely important when coaching PEOPLE. From a bad training day, injury, the end of a relationship, stress at work, financial troubles, etc, we all have issues that batter our mental resiliency. Many people, myself included, often get trapped in the mindset that not expressing their troubles and bottling them up is the right thing to do because “no one truly understands,” “what will they think of me if I tell them what I’m going through,” or “no one cares about my issues.”, but opening up and vocalizing these issues can be a huge relief. It’s not an easy task to open up and express emotions to someone, but it can help explain why we act the way we do and the reasons for the goals we choose to pursue. When a client confides in me and informs me of their woes, I can often pick a scenario that I have been through and recall strategies of how I overcame it. Being a coach and having understanding of the reasons behind someone’s goals helps me make their training truly personal, and when I can relate to the motives behind someone’s ambitions it gives new meaning as to what is it to be a coach.