Mentally Handling Workout Pressure

I had some pretty good requests for the return of The McKenna Mondays Blog, including moderating volume and intensity, working with women versus men, dealing with stress and life factors, and mental prep.  Since Mental Prep got more requests, and since I’ve started to add in some specific mental exercises to my programming, I’ll discuss the mental aspect of training first.

My most recent series of mental exercises is based on two books by James Loehr, Ph. D.  Mental Toughness Training for Sports: Achieving Athletic Excellence and The New Toughness Training for Sports.  I used these ideas in College and when I started to coach, and I’ve found them invaluable in prepping me for my own training.  I’ve asked athletes to complete the Competitive Adjective Profile in the past, and I’ll address that document and how to use it in a future post.  I’d like to focus today on how to work on your mindset during the workout or competition.

In The New Toughness Training for Sports, Dr. Loehr discusses how to approach a sport like Tennis, Weightlifting, Throwing, etc where we have to repeat actions quickly, succinctly, and precisely in a time sensitive and high pressure environment.  Dr. Loehr’s suggested response to get ready for the time in between lifts (or throws or points in a match) has four steps which I’ve interpreted for my lifters as follows:

1.     Take a breath and release all tension from the previous lift and accept the result.

2.     Recover physically,

3.     Regain focus, and

4.     Do the routine for the next lift.

What is most important about these steps is the proactive approach they force the lifter to take.  We establish routine, and ask the lifter to address their anxiety, recognize their capacity to succeed, and acknowledge their control over the situation.

For Step One, we accept the result of the previous lift.  We made it, we didn’t, but right now it doesn’t matter.  What matters now is the next lift.  Breathe, relax, and move on.  Don’t get depressed, don’t get cocky, just keep going. 

Step Two is what gives us the physical capacity to succeed.  If we have time to drink water or intra-workout or take some food we do that.  If we are in a set of two or three we relax our posture and then refocus (quickly). 

Regaining our focus, Step Three, is where we give ourselves cues and tell us what to do.  For me, it’s often: Stay tight, be patient, explode.  I like a three step mantra here, but for beginners we’ll have one step to do, or maybe one thing for a set-up and one thing for the lift. Such as Brace hard, Brush the hips.  The key to this step is recognizing our flaws and weaknesses and actively realizing what we can do to overcome them.  We can then prepare immediately for the next lift.

The pre-lift routine is vital to get down.  It should be ritualistic and quick, one or two things to let us get to the bar and get going. I’ve addressed this routine in a very old blog which you can find in the archives:


I give this entire process to the athletes at the beginning of a four week cycle.  Each week we focus on one of the points, with a specific way to focus each day. 

Week One looks like this:

Day One: This week's focus is on releasing the emotional tension between lifts. Get rid of whatever good or bad happened in the previous rep and get ready to give `100% to the next rep.

Day Two: Remember to speed up this process of letting go. When you feel the mind saying phrases like "That was hard", replace them with more specific, positive statements, like "I made that one, good job"

Day Three: Today's focus is still Step One. Remember the positive vocab, and do positive body reactions. Stand Tall after each lift, make or miss. Nod your head, assert yourself for the lift. Find active, positive postures.

Day Four: Be conscious today of all the Positives in the Step Ones. Repeat the process to yourself, write it on an index card and put it on the platform near you. Create the excellent athlete you want to be.

What you must remember as an athlete is to practice this process.  It isn’t easy, it won’t work perfectly the first time or ten, and you’ll get flustered.  Take the time before the session, or during the day before your workout, to plan the way you’ll self-talk.  This process will get you places. 


Wrap Up:  If I get to 1,000 hits on this blog post I’ll put out a nice little spreadsheet on .pdf you can request and have emailed to you.  If you have any suggestions for future topics or want me to leave feedback, please email