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Power of Positive Lifting

Russian Revelation

In 1979, Dr. Charles Garfield, a good friend of mine and weight lifter, met with a group of Soviet sports psychologists and physiologists in Milan. They told him about the phenomenal effects of intense mental training on athletic performance. After spending several days with the Soviet researchers, Garfield had heard enough theory. He wanted to see results.

At a gym, the Soviets quizzed Garfield. “How long since you’ve done any serious training?” they asked. “Eight years.” “What was your maximum bench press in your prime?” “365 pounds.” “In recent years what is the most you’ve pressed?”

“280 pounds.”

It intrigued the Soviets that Garfield had once pressed 365. “How long would you have to train to make that lift again?” they asked. “Nine to twelve months,” he said. The Soviet doctors then asked him, “Would you attempt a 300-pound lift right now?” Garfield reluctantly agreed to try. Spurred and encouraged by the Russians, and much to his surprise, Garfield (barely) made the lift.

Then the Soviet doctors went to work. They guided him into a state of deep relaxation for 40 minutes. Then they added 65 pounds to the 300. They had him visualize approaching the bar, lying on the bench and confidently making the lift. They told him to imagine each phase of the lift: the sound of the jangling weights, his breathing, the noises of exertion he ordinarily made when lifting.

Garfield got nervous, certain he couldn’t do it. He began to worry about even pressing 300 again. But the Soviets calmly told him to visualize lifting the 365. They had him look closely at his hands, the weights, and said to imagine how his muscles would feel after he succeeded. As they talked him through the whole process again, the series of images, and then the total picture, began to clarify in Garfield’s mind. “The imagery now imprinted in my mind began to guide my physical movements…. The world around me seemed to fade, giving way to self-confidence, belief in myself and then to deliberate action.

“I lifted the weights!*”

Garfield had learned two important concepts in the power of mental training: concentration and visualization. It’s a lesson that more and more athletes are using to their advantage.

Sports Psychology

Stress is real. Physiologically, the pulse quickens, the breathing rate changes. A relief pitcher in a tight spot feels it. A sprinter in the starting blocks feels it. A bodybuilder feels it before posing. It’s a mistake to deny stress and the energy it creates. All of us have “choked” — tensed up under pressure. It may not have been in sports, but there have been times when the “heat” of a stressful situation has shot you down.

When this happens, it means the anxiety is out of control. You lose concentration and can’t direct your attention. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can use stress to your advantage.

Stress keeps you alert; it prods you into being more productive. It’s a challenge to control your responses to stressful situations, but it’s a challenge you can win.

In sports, wholeness is essential. The most physically skilled competitor who ties up mentally will be unsuccessful. Until very recently, the mind/body integration and awareness so crucial for athletic success had been ignored in training for most sports. Now, taking a cue from the Soviets and East Germans, who pioneered the emphasis on holistic training, athletes work on the mental aspect of training as well as the physical.

Knowing that you can control your behavior and your response to stress gives you a great boost in confidence. There are strategies and skills you can learn which help keep your thoughts positive and constructive, dissipate needless tension, and redirect your attention when you do have a mental lapse. Let’s get more specific.

Accentuate the Positive

The key to success in anything is to rehearse success rather than rehearse failure. All athletes must contend with negative thinking. It can be caused by previous negative experiences, the negative thoughts of others, or your own self-doubts.

A friend of mine, Dan, played basketball for a U.S. Navy team. In one game, Dan was at the foul line with only a few seconds left to play. His team trailed by a point. If he made the two free throws they would win. To increase pressure on Dan, the opposing coach called a time-out.

During the time-out, Dan started “rehearsing failure,” thinking what a goat he’d be if he missed. Dan’s coach saw the state he was in. “Look, Dan,” he said, “You’re the best free-throw shooter on the team. There’s no one I’d rather have shooting. Make the shots, be a hero and let’s go home.” Dan made both shots.The coach had successfully redirected Dan’s negative energy into a positive pattern.

Here’s a simple way to practice accentuating the positive: Keep your workouts upbeat. Positive thinking is not only for competitions. Work on positive thoughts the same way you work on your body — all the time.

Think positive thoughts in practice. “The world looks good. I’m glad I’m training today. I feel great.” Avoid thoughts like, “Things keep piling up around me.” Or, “I’ll never get things done properly.” Remember that your training session is probably the only time you’ll have all day that’s just for you. You want it to be as pleasant, positive and productive as possible.

The Athletes’ Guide to Sports Psychology (Leisure Press, 1984) deals with “mental skills for physical people.” It has a long list of negative thoughts and their positive counterparts. Here are a few:

Negative Thoughts

Change to Positive Thoughts

I can’t. I can do it.I have done it many times before.
I am tired, I can’t go on. The hardest part is almost over, I know I can finish.
I am getting worse instead of better. I will set daily goals and evaluate my progress on a regular basis.
The heat is so bad I cannot do anything. The heat creates a greater challenge.
I am really nervous and anxious. The last time I felt this way I performed my best.
I am afraid that I will make a fool of myself. Unless I face the challenge and take the risk, I’ll never know what I can accomplish
I don’t want to fail. What is the worst thing that could happen? I could lose. If so, I will work harder the next time around.
I don’t think I am prepared. I have practiced and trained hard for this performance so I am prepared to do well.
I lost again. I’ll never be a winner. I can learn from losing. I need to talk with a coach to get some help regarding those things I need to improve.
It is not fair. I work just as hard as ______ but don’t do as well. I may have to work harder than some to get to the same level. I will work as hard as I have to because I want to succeed.
I never seem to be able to do this. This time I am going to think it through and mentally prepare to do it.


In July 1985, John Howard set the world land speed record for bicycles of 152 mph (drafting behind a race car). “I was very absorbed,” said Howard. “My main concentration was on what was on the road in front. A helicopter was 10 feet above me, and I have no recollection of it. An atomic bomb could have exploded 1000 yards away and I wouldn’t have known.”

Top performance occurs when you focus on a goal, ignoring the distractions on the sidelines. You narrow the band of attention to the task at hand: hitting the pitch, catching the pass, or lifting the weight. It’s like tuning in a radio station; you want to eliminate the static.

Note: You don’t need to concentrate intensely all the time. You can burn out mentally just as you can physically. A runner does not concentrate on form every time he trains. Sometimes he just runs for the joy of it. Likewise in lifting, you don’t need to use visualization for each rep of each set. Save it for the last few reps of your key exercises. To maintain the power of intense concentration, you must do it at selected times, not every time you work out. Once you develop the knack, you save it for those special times. When you need it, it will be there.


Imagery or visualization is the technique that helped Charlie Garfield lift 365 pounds. It’s used by many athletes today and can help you achieve your goals.

I used my own version of imagery in 1971 when preparing for the Mr. Universe contest. I knew that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be my main competition, so I got the best possible photos of Arnold and taped them to my bathroom mirror. As I shaved each morning, here was Arnold in peak condition looking at me. Nose to nose with him, I’d tell myself, “I’m going to beat this guy.”

I carried these thoughts with me everywhere. At meals, I’d tell myself that the food I ate was making me stronger, leaner, less prone to injury. And that it would help me beat Arnold. When I went to sleep, I’d concentrate on the sleep making me a stronger, better person and athlete. And that this deep relaxing sleep would help me beat Arnold. In the end, Arnold withdrew from the competition. But I was ready and won the title.

Herschel Walker, the great running back, uses visualization in his training: “My mind’s like a general and my body’s like an Army. I keep the body in shape and it does what I tell it to do. I sometimes even feel myself almost lifting up out of my body and looking down on myself while I run sprints. I’ll be coaching myself from up above. ‘Come on, Herschel…pick up those knees. Pump your arms!’”

Bruce Morris of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, made the longest field goal in college basketball history — 89' 10". Morris said, “All I could see was the rim, the basket, and the backboard. It seemed real close…it didn’t seem that far away when I did it.”

Janet Evans, a woman who won three gold medals for swimming in 1988, a gold and silver at the Barcelona Games in 1992, and won the World Championship in 1993 said, “I continue to visualize all my races days and weeks before they happen…I have never been to a competition, including the Olympic Games, where I didn’t see myself win in my mental images before I got there. It is just part of the whole training package.”

Tommy Moe, Olympic gold medallist in downhill skiing at Lillihammer, Norway said, “I always picture myself on the victory podium when I practice my races, so that I can’t imagine ending up anywhere else.”

Danny Everett, 1988 Olympic gold medallist who set the world record in the 400 meters and broke the 1990 indoor world record in the 400-meter race in Stuttgart, Germany said, “During the race I felt like I wasn’t even moving fast . . . It felt like a comfortable jog around the track. It was easy; there was no struggle, and I felt a floating quality to the race…almost like I was in slow motion. I felt like I had been to that race in Stuttgart in those weather conditions in my mind already . . . I looked up and couldn’t believe my time. It didn’t feel like a world record.”

An excellent book on the subject is Mental Training for Peak Performance by Steven Ungerleider (Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA, 1996).

© 2001 Shelter Publications, Inc.