Yogi #1 notices stray pistol cartridges in my foyer. “You have guns?”
Me: “Tons of guns.”
Yogi #2, who knows my ways, adds, “It’s OK, he’s a Kshatriya.”
Yogi #1 notices stray pistol cartridges in my foyer. “You have guns?”
Me: “Tons of guns.”
Yogi #2, who knows my ways, adds, “It’s OK, he’s a Kshatriya.”
My house has been invaded by yogis! It’s great!
Everywhere you go, you stumble over someone pacing and chanting silently, hunkered down translating Bengali hagiographies on an iMac, or playing ragas on a guitar in the garden. These guys all trail the scent of sandalwood around the house, they keep the kitchen always smelling of warm cauliflower and turmeric, and in various places they have white dhotis laid out to dry and little pots of paste for painting the tilaka on their foreheads.
Imagine you are a teenage heavy metal fan and then Black Sabbath descends on your house and throws a week-long rager. Only now imagine that instead of stone-cold rockers they’re yogis, and their idea of a tear-the-walls-down-to-the-studs party is to smile a lot, be fairly quiet, and laugh frequently. It’s just like that.
Everyone should have a yogic bliss squad of Hindu mendicants who takes their home over twice a year and rejuvenates the place. Haribol! (Don’t tell the Buddha I said that. I’ll get in trouble. Seriously.)
I hate insipid sports psychology, but Faleev has two tricks that really work.
First, I dislike cheesy, bombastic affirmations (“I will be unbeatable!”) because, when I try them, I stress myself out. First, it is objectively false that I am unbeatable or certain to succeed, and I end up reminding myself of how not confident I am by the fact that I awkwardly verbalize these ginned-up affectations. I am patently, clumsily trying brainwash myself, and I’m too smart for that (I hope).
Second, I suck at visualization, and ultimately sports are just a hobby. If I’m going to bust my nut re-landscaping my entire psyche, I need a better goal, something with really loooooong-term value, like enlightenment.
But Faleev does teach one kind of visualization that I’ll deign to do, and he throws a twist on it that is authentically brilliant and once saved my bacon big time.
He starts with a technique for assuaging pre-game jitters. Lying down and relaxing, “a person imagines himself as the protagonist of a movie who has the qualities that he desires to have in real life, such as confidence, courage, and composure.” In the movie, our character enters the arena on the day of the competition. We see the weather outside, the field being set up, the spectators beginning to fill the seats, and the referees milling around the scoring table. [Editor’s note: Just by typing this, I feel the familiar chilly pre-competition jitters rising, like I might barf.] Our character is walking around there with all the qualities we want for ourselves. He’s confident and cool as a cucumber. The movie follows our character into the locker room and the warm-up room, weaving our way among the other competitors. He looks unflappable, like James Bond.
Finally, the movie shows the athletes taking their places and the competition kicking off, with our character showing all the qualities we desire. And if at all possible, on game day we should arrive at the arena well ahead of time so that we can repeat our mental movies in the place itself.
If you ask me, the keys here are that you see yourself modeling the feelings you want to feel. Let me say that again. First, you aren’t just mentally visiting the arena and imagining the pre-game buzz (though you are indeed doing that). Importantly, you are seeing yourself walking around there feeling perfectly at home and ready to rumble. And second, you are seeing yourself feeling the desired feelings. You are not focused on visualizing a physically, outwardly flawless performance. You are imagining yourself with the dispositions that make you perform your best. To me this is important because (a) that is easier for me to imagine that in detail, and (b) I am not distracted by the sense that I am imagining a lie or brainwashing myself. I really am the master of my own dispositions, they are mine to control—that much is not a lie.
Speaking of control, Faleev adds something ingenious. Sports psychologists “have found that it is not enough just to imagine yourself in a normal competitive environment. It is also important to include various [adverse] surprises in the movie.” For example, a soccer player might imagine the referee making a clearly bone-headed, possibly even malicious call that costs her team a penalty kick. Such an unjust call “can simply kill players’ morale … and lead them to lose fighting efficiency … and surrender almost without a fight.” So during training, our player imagines these bad calls and her character responding by just playing even harder. She watches these mental movies of herself handling unexpected trouble with aplomb, and she affirms to herself, “Any difficulties just mobilize me!”
Fine, that makes for unidiomatic English, but I still like it! You or I might rather have said “motivate,” but I like Faleev’s “mobilize” (мобилизуют) because to my ear it doesn’t just sound subjective or mental. As we have observed before, Faleev scarcely differentiates between the athlete’s mental and physical thriving, and when he says the athlete is “mobilized,” he means it literally.
The poster boy for this was Alexander Kirichenko, a Soviet cyclist in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In a 1000m sprint, Kirichenko got to the 700m mark when he blew out a tire. “An unprepared person could easily have been unsettled by such a failure, but Alexander just ‘mobilized.’ He rode the last 300 meters on one tire and won the gold medal.”
Me, I took the “visualizing ugly surprises” technique to heart. (What could be more Buddhist?) In idle moments, I imagined myself hitting a minor obstacle and shaking it off. For example, I might see myself unracking a weight and accidentally banging it off the uprights, which unbalances you at a vulnerable moment. But then, in my movie, I went ahead and did my job anyway.
And hallelujah for that, because it helped me recover from a huge mistake. At a powerlifting meet, I’d misheard my start time and thought I had hours before I needed to warm up. So I was sitting in the audience wearing my street clothes, drinking tea and eating a snack, when the announcer called my name over the PA and said that I would make my first squat attempt in just a few minutes!! That left little time to change into a singlet and sneakers, barely time to chalk up and cinch my belt, and ZERO time to warm up.
I’d forked up big time, and as I scrambled to get my gear on and find my shoes, I should have been a basket case of catastrophizing and self-reproach. But instead I distinctly remember laughing a little bit as I mounted the platform for that first, ill-starred squat attempt that seemed destined to be a sh**show. And I must tell you, it really was a lousy squat and it got red-lighted. But I was still smiling and didn’t fall apart mentally,which surprises me to this day, and that afternoon I went on to PRs in the bench and deadlift.
Power Slang: “Red lights” – Rejection of a lift by the judges. In the squat, this is almost always because the lifter did not squat deeply enough.
In fact, it’s a measure of how little upset I was that I forgot about it right away. The whole circus happened so fast that my girlfriend was still outside parking the car and missed all the comedy, and I don’t think I even remembered to tell her that night!
In other words, Faleev trains you to respond to calamity as just a snafu, something you can bounce back from straightaway and maybe laugh about, not a FUBAR nightmare that poisons your morale and craters your equanimity.
Athletes do not grow stronger by training; they get strong by recovering from training and supercompensating. We use the workout as a brief, hard stimulus, and during this time Faleev wants us to psych up and focus our powers as intently as a man at war. But only for an hour or so! The instant the workout is over, before we even take off our sweatshirts, we must relax and luxuriate in the delicious pleasures of rest and heavy limbs. We worked out precisely so that we could recover afterward, so we want to plunge into rest and recovery just as intently and thoroughly as we went to war under the iron and not waste a moment of our precious recovery time.
We could imagine that Faleev wants us to develop an on-off switch. When we flip the switch on, we are psyched up, electrified in mind and body, and ready to fight. But in the next moment, when we flick the switch off, we do not merely end our sports performance, we positively immerse ourselves in an ocean of relaxation, pleasure, and languor.
Stated technically, what Faleev wants us to learn is to control our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system) and parasympathetic system at will. We will be able to enter a state of hyper-arousal at any moment and be prepared to kick butt—breath quickening, nostrils flaring, and muscle fibers crackling with incipient tension—and then just as quickly pull the plug on that arousal and fall downward into a deep valley on the ocean floor of relaxation.
Reading this, you may not think “That sounds just like yoga!” because we associate yoga more with the pole of relaxation and calming. (And not without reason. Yogaścittavṛtti nirodhaḥ, says Patanjali: “Yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuation,” which if we take him literally would be a catatonic state!) But there are two sides to the yoga coin—tension and relaxation, quickening and calming—and yoga works both sides. Not sure what I’m talking about? Go to a Bikram studio and take a hot yoga class. For $15 you will get a 90-minute tour of heaven and hell. (Ok, mostly hell.) Then you will re-read this paragraph and nod sagely.
Faleev does not mention yoga in his book, but he inherits a tradition of Russian breath work rooted partly in Soviet military research into pranayama that diffused into the world of Soviet sports, and it works on the famous yogic trio: body, breath, and mind.
Faleev teaches three ways to hack the “fight or flight” system and switch it on at will. In fight or flight mode, there are three things happening inside us. Our (1) muscle tension and (2) breathing pick up to prepare us to run or fight, and we feel (3) emotional alarm or anger at the approaching danger. Before a big lift, says Faleev, you can deliberately create any of those three conditions and turn on the sympathetic nervous system artificially.
Breathing: Either take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, and/or tense your thorax and force out a thin stream of breath under high pressure, like a compressed air hose. Pavel Tsatsouline teaches the compressed air technique brilliantly as the center of his truly peerless system of “skinny strength,” and also a technique for purposely hyperventilating to pump your blood full of excess oxygen before a huge effort.
Hyperventilating does work, sometimes too well. In my experience, I get a few seconds of “beast mode” strength from hyperventilation, but I also get tunnel vision and lose a lot of coordination. So I can only use it to deadlift, since it’s a fairly low-skill lift; I wouldn’t use it in the squat or bench, which are more technical.
Muscle Tension: Like rapid breathing, Faleev says, the subconscious associates a rise in muscle tension with danger and so we can hack into the fight or flight system by purposely loading our muscles with extra tension. “Instantly,” he writes, “all resources are mobilized – emotions change, adrenaline and anxiety hormones like corticosteroids are released, and the work of the internal organs goes into danger mode.” This works well together with the breathing tricks above, in my experience.
Emotions of Anger or Threat: More than in almost any other sport, weightlifters can benefit from emotional arousal bordering on blind rage. At powerlifting meets, you see certain competitors working themselves into hysteria before they mount the platform for a big attempt. They might scream, grimace with wide eyes and bulging veins, and maybe punch themselves or have teammates dish out slaps or other simulated abuse. It is easy to mock these displays–I confess I find them adolescent-looking and embarrassing to watch–but there is a legitimate purpose to their histrionics. “The blows cause feelings of rage” and arouse an “emotional spirit of danger and struggle.”
But “all this can be done more quietly,” Faleev adds, “without … blows to the head and loud roaring.” How? “Remember some injustice.” Get mad. I knew a lifter who prepared for max attempts by remembering childhood beatings. I don’t use emotional triggers much, but when I do, it always involves some story of a man left behind to face the enemy alone or someone who throws his life away on purpose to buy time for the women and children. Faleev tells of a colleague who volunteers at searching for unburied remains of soldiers on the old Eastern Front. One day this colleague found an unknown soldier in the middle of nowhere, a man sent into a hopeless attack against German machine guns armed with just a stick and a bayonet. This man knew for a certainty he would be shot to pieces and end up as a bullet sponge, yet he went anyway. Since he had no dog tags, this man’s family will never know what became of him or what he did for them. Before you squat, Faleev suggests, ask yourself whether perhaps this man was your grandfather? Examine yourself: do you have even a fraction of his mettle?
In case you still have not grokked Faleev’s point, he spells it out: If using the emotional method, then “before your attempt, you should cause yourself an attack of rage.”
The emotional approach is not right for everyone. Personally, whenever I have used it in powerlifting competition, I have turned in my very worst performances. I get too wound up and lose good technique. Instead, since my teen years I have always competed best when I’m doing mindfulness meditation right up to the moment when I touch the bar. Eyes open and walking around, of course, but with a spooky, detached calm that reminds me of a scuba diver deep underwater, watching strange shapes move with crystal clarity through a glass mask and his ears filled with the sound of his own breathing.
“Athletes don’t lift with their muscles,” writes Alexey Faleev. “They lift with their heads.” He makes zero effort to separate physical performance from the athlete’s thoughts, moods, and happiness. In this, he is following some other great Russian physical culturists. The “father of Russian hockey,” Anatoli Tarasov, tracked key statistical indicators like a true scientifically Marxist Soviet planner long before the Moneyball revolution in America, but he trained his players to approach their hockey as a beautiful act of creativity. He kept them mindful that playing hockey is supposed to give you joy. Otherwise, why play games at all? Famously, he would call out to his players on the ice, “Smile! You’re playing hockey!”
Accordingly, Faleev loves to talk about how to get into “the zone.” Except he calls it vdokhnoveniye, “inspiration.” I love it!
“There are different practices to achieve ‘inspiration,’” he says, “but they all boil down to regulating the pulse.” (Remember what we said? Faleev doesn’t differentiate between mental readiness and physical readiness!) To get “inspired,” you need to maintain your pulse in its optimal range. Above that range you can get ragged and sloppy. Worse still, below that range you’ll be understimulated and too sluggish and unfocused to do your best.
He illustrates with a story from sports psychologist Anatoly Alexeev about his work with the Soviet shooting teams.
At the national trap shooting championship, Alexeev approached one of his athletes as she stood on the firing line shortly before the final round. He noticed something “off” about the athlete, so Alexeev took her pulse. “As expected,” he wrote later, “it was just 88 beats per minute,” much lower than her optimal 124 bpm. “Quick, give me the gun!” he snapped. “See that birch tree over there? Sprint there and back. Now! Go!” Confused, afraid, and a little irritated with Alexeev, the athlete did as ordered, came back with her pulse suitably elevated, and went on to demolish her opponent.
What’s your optimal range for “inspiration?” It differs by sport and athlete, but if you want my opinion, a good formula for strength sports is 160 beats per minute minus your age. Stay within +/- 5 beats per minute and you’ll be good. (Keep in mind, I’m nobody. This is just one mid-level amateur’s opinion.)
“So,” you ask, “does that story mean I should do sprints before a workout or competition?” No! That was an emergency measure. Faleev says that you should get up to your sweet spot in some way that doesn’t involve using your legs, which would tire you out.
How creative can you get? Weightlifter Yuri Vlasov, the great Soviet sportsman of his generation, was a bespectacled poetry fan. Just the kind of “muscular intellectual” we like here at Lean, Solid Dogs! To bump up his heart rate before big attempts, Vlasov would silently recite macho, stoic verse like Emile Verhaeren’s poem “The Sword” (Le Glaive): “Your body, where the blood of unsullied ancestors sours, / fragile and clumsy, will break itself with each effort / You will be the febrile man bent upon the windows (??) / whence we can see leaping life and its golden chariots.” Damn, get me to a barbell! I’m inspired!
If you are not as literary as Comrade Yuri Petrovich, who did wear pop-bottle glasses after all, Faleev recommends shadow-boxing or “fast and loose” drills. They will elevate your heart rate suitably without fatiguing you.
In our next installment, Faleev’s dark arts of applied yoga.