Thursday, September 7, 2017

The benefits of meditation... even when things don't go well

Okay okay, so I might not be the best person to try and sell you on meditation as a useful tool for sport performance right after I bombed for the first time, but I think you should still hear me out. I’m not the expert on this stuff, but I definitely follow some folks who are.
First, I want to start with the Yerkes-Dodson theory of stress and performance. Basically, it’s an inverted U which shows that at the far left, we cannot perform because we have minimal stress, in the middle with increases in stress we get increases in performance, but only to a point, because if we keep going and applying increasing amounts of stress we end up on the far right and have a decrease in performance again. Although I should probably cite this from an old textbook where I learned it, here’s a quick reference for information on this theory
The theory goes on to state that with simple, routine tasks that require less thought and skill, we can tolerate greater levels of stress and still perform, but with tasks that are increasingly complex, we can tolerate lower levels of stress before we get a decrease in performance. As athletes, we are often performing tasks that require some level of difficulty and complexity, but the simple task of practice increases our ability to tolerate more stress. I used to use this theory to explain high stress performance related to bowling. After 20+ years bowling, the movement was typically routine for me and I could tolerate very high levels of stress and still bowl well. However, when my timing was off or something wasn’t feeling “right”, those high stress levels would further impair my capacity (and any of my bowling buddies can understand this). It would be in those times I would need to employ alternate strategies to decrease my overall stress load in order to improve performance by allowing myself the ability to move into more “thinking” in the task.
See, arousal impairs our ability to think. Dr. Bruce Perry refers to this in his work with abused children all the time, but it’s neurology that we can apply beyond child abuse. Stimulus moves us up the arousal continuum. As you see in his graph below, the more we move up the arousal continuum, the less we are able to access cortex and given cortex is where we do our thinking, when we can’t access it, we aren’t doing much in the thinking department. When our complex task requires intentional thought, rather than relying on routine movement, too much arousal impairs our ability. (NMT training and
Of course, we all have individual factors that allow us to be more or less resilient to stress. We have different personalities and different inherent levels of anxiety. But, at the end of the day, we still have a choice to do something about it. The first thing we can opt to do it is the one we all love the most – practice more and practice better. Related to powerlifting, this will include more time gaining neural patterns that are efficient and effective for the lifts and practicing how you compete. Are we all perfect and able to bring the exact same flawless form to everything all the time... heck no. But, should we strive to practice well and practice as close to ideal as possible. Yes. Practice allows the complex to become routine and when it becomes routine, we can tolerate higher levels of stress and still achieve optimal performance.
Now, here’s a second strategy that I’m really all about the last year. I’ve been using this in my work and in my life for several years now (go back to the Dr. Perry reference – I’ve been following this idea of reducing arousal in clients and myself for a long time). Then I had a thought, if I use it in my work, and I apply it to the Yerkes-Dodson model, then this should work in sport. So, I went on a mission to find psychologists doing this and stumbled on Dr. Michael Gervais ( This guy is using meditation as a means of improving sports performance and his track record is pretty darn good.
How does meditation link to the theory above and improve performance. Well, one way is that it decreases our level of arousal overall. If we go back to the inverted U diagram, imagine you start at a slightly lower level of stress, now you have greater capacity to increase stress more before you reach the top of your inverted U and start to see a decrease in performance. Often sports meditations can also include tapping into a time when things felt “just right” – or when you had a sense of flow. The more you tap into this feeling of flow, the more you can pull on it in times of need and settle your system. I intentionally do this before my lifts. Squat is the most obvious example because my “hyped” behaviour is visible and not primarily in my head. While I’m getting my knees wrapped I start listening to my coach – typically he is giving me reminders and cues and I start nodding. I might start making positive remarks about completing the squat as well. I then approach the bar and often I will aggressively roll the bar into the rack as my intentional adrenaline surge. Then, I stop, stand still, close or focus my eyes and centre, both with my sense of flow and some physical cues. This all happens very quickly. The rolling of the bar and the settling is a matter of 20 seconds at most. I actually attribute bowling for so many years to my ability to do this quickly, but people who haven’t practiced this will need to go back to my first point – practice like you compete. In the gym, I typically just centre myself before my lifts, but when the weight gets heavier, I will practice getting a bit amped up and then settling. Even with the years of doing this, it’s always important to practice.
Additionally, sports meditations will sometimes include visualization and visualization taps into both the practice and the flow. We know that visualizing a task provides us with almost as much (about 90%) benefit as actually practicing, but one of the great benefits of visualization is we can visualize perfection and tap into that feeling of flow. The more we do this, the more our capacity to tolerate increasing levels of arousal and still adequately perform improves.
Meditation is excellent at improving mindfulness and improved mindfulness is one of the very important things that allow us to achieve improved performance. Mindfulness is the act of being present in the moment, without judgment. Mindfulness allows us to stop getting caught up in thinking ahead, causing ourselves stress and grief over what might come and stops us from being hung up on what happened in the past. Related to powerlifting, being mindful allows us to be in this present lift, without thinking about the last lift or the next lift, without anticipating things or getting ahead of ourselves. Worrying about what might come next increases our arousal and what do we know about increased arousal? It can sometimes put us over the top of our performance curve and cause reduced performance. This can be good and bad. How many people can relate to needing to pull a deadlift for the win or a record and the anticipation and thinking ahead (increased arousal) ends up biting us in the arse? We might not realize that’s what happened and maybe it isn’t what happened, but it sure might be. Or something I just got a taste of – fighting to get that third lift to stay in the meet and thinking ahead or worrying about what has just happened might be the thing that drives arousal too high and bam, now we’ve bombed. This actually wasn’t why I bombed and I can say that with confidence. At no point was I worrying about anything beyond the lift I was facing. But, meditation and in turn, mindfulness, gave that to me.
Meditation went so far as to allow me to bomb with grace. I knew I was facing a tough total after my second 2 squats didn’t go well, but I didn’t think about it and just went into bench unphased. I then knew I was facing my first bomb after my first 2 benches. At no point did I roll into “I wish I had” or “oh my goodness, what if...” I went forward into “let’s face this lift and only this lift”. I made one future oriented joke at one point and said I sure wasn’t helping myself not have to pull a crazy deadlift. But I wasn’t invested in a total or a number. I walked off after my third non-bench and simply said “well, that was disappointing” and I took my shirt off, had a realistic discussion about why it looked like a bad day to deadlift and packed my stuff and got some food. No tears, no drama, no worries about what might happen next or what I should have done. I learned some things and approached them with curiosity and inquisitiveness, not judgment and self-hatred. I will even go so far as to say that my ability to bomb with grace and integrity is one of my proudest moments in this sport. Meditation gave that to me.
**Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list and I’m not a sports psychologist... if you have other benefits or things you think are worth adding, please leave a comment because I’m always about learning*

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Changing narratives

The idea for this blog comes from a blend of the work I do with people, focusing a lot on the stories we use to explain ourselves. For a bit of context, "stories in a ‘narrative therapy’ context are made up of events, linked by a theme, occurring over time and according to a plot. A story emerges as certain events are privileged and selected out over other events as more important or true. As the story takes shape, it invites the teller to further select only certain information while other events become neglected and thus the same story is continually told. These stories both describe and shape people’s perspectives on their lives, histories and futures."
We tell ourselves things about our world and our place in the world. We create a story and a context about events and situations. Sometimes these stories can be helpful and sometimes the stories we create can hurt us. Think of it this way, if you tell yourself the same negative thing over and over, you are far more likely to eventually believe it and create what we call the "self fulfilling prophecy". We believe something so deeply and intensely, even sometimes without realizing it, that we end up creating situations and events that feed that story and our beliefs.
How does this apply to sport? And more specifically, how am I applying this to my personal lifting? Well, see, I have created a narrative about some of my lifts that is incredibly unhelpful. I was initially applying this just to my bench press, and I will explain that here, but I can also apply it to squat and I'll even be able to show how I believe these narratives might have limited me.
See, the story I tell myself about bench is that I'm weak. I use the hashtag #povertybench... okay, I did until about a month ago. I have this story in my head that tells me that bench is my weakest lift and it is the hardest for me. I have lots of reasons (excuses??) for this, but ultimately it all feeds the story in my head that I have this unremarkable, weak bench press. What might happen if I stopped telling myself this narrative? What might happen if I started telling myself that I work hard at bench and that it is getting stronger? What if I tell myself that I'm competent in a shirt and can manage and control the weight? What if I simply stop the narrative of "poverty bench" and just eliminate that altogether? Will I magically bench 10kg more? Probably not. But, am I far more likely to make solid increases on my bench? YES!! And what I know about the power of narratives is that I'm far more likely to make solid increases on my bench with little to no changes in my training.
Now, a narrative can be developed by our own defenses, like my bench narrative was - I created a narrative about how weak I am to help my ego compensate for lack of growth and it's likely limited me. But, a narrative can come from others and become something we invest in. I've been told my squat is crap. I've been told I let myself get too bent over. I've learned to take my coaching advice on this lift from a select few people to help me resist this encroaching narrative, but all to often, I find myself accepting it. Worse yet, I often find it running in my head right freaking before I get under the bar. There's no worse time to run the story of how crappy your squat is :) Guess what? It's my choice to accept this or not. I may have limitations on my squat, but in the big realm of it, I don't have a "crappy squat". I've seen some crappy squats and I've seen some great squats and I accept that mine is somewhere in the middle. This day I choose to dismiss this imbedded story and discard it for what it is. I am bigger than any narrative that is placed on me. I choose to maximize MY squat and the way I do it. And I will make progress and I will accept the challenge to make it better, but I will not allow this damaging narrative another moment of space in my head.
Now, know what's really cool? I've never told this story about my deadlift. I've also never accepted it about my deadlift when I've gotten unhelpful comments from the peanut gallery. I had this confidence about my deadlift that came early on, maybe for several reasons. Ultimately, it's also the lift that is my strongest, probably naturally (long arms hurt the bench, help the deadlift) but I bet, if I'd let it, I could have created a story that would have limited me. At Worlds in Nov 2016 I was tanked... I had nothing left after my first deadlift. I pulled 190kg on my second attempt and I'm completely convinced that the only reason I locked it out was that I had zero shred of doubt that I would pull it. I went into it with a narrative that this was solid and it was there and there was no moment that I stopped believing that. Though I'll admit, when I went to lock my knees I was thinking "wow, this is harder than I expected" (I was also thinking "just like Rhaea does" with the knees then glutes) but I never doubted it and it showed.
Now the question is.... what's YOUR story? Is it limiting you or is it helping you thrive? How can you recreate your own narratives to change the way you enter and interact in the world?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Stress, perfectionism and cutting ourselves some slack

This one is inspired by a lady I’ve gotten to know over the last 10 years, and most of that in the last year or 2. Now, Lisa is no stranger to time off the gym. She had a major surgery not long ago and had to take a good chunk of time off before taking her time coming back slowly. But more recently, Lisa lost her father after spending an enormous amount of her time and energy caring for him in his final weeks. She posed the question “How do you quell perfectionism in times of high stress?” Okay, so that wasn’t the direct quote but I am pretty sure that’s what she meant.
“Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations. It is best conceptualized as a multidimensional characteristic, as psychologists agree that there are many positive and negative aspects.”
Perfectionism can be the thing that makes us do stuff really well. In lifting, it can be the driving force that helps us be a stickler about form or always following a program exactly as the coach writes it. This isn’t always a bad thing and I often try and have folks identify how striving for perfectionism can work in our favour. The drive for perfectionism though, can have deleterious effects when it causes us grief and heightened stress, because perfection is ultimately not achievable.
Quite awhile back I wrote about stress and how insidious it is and how our bodies cannot distinguish between physical and psychological stress. It was more of a personal reflection on how stress in my life just slowly kept piling on until it essentially crushed me. The point of this, though, is to acknowledge that stress is stress. Psychological stress, like caring for an ailing parent, is just as tough on our bodies as physical stress. Actually, maybe even more so given psychological stress tends to hold on longer. While that heavy equipped deadlift session ends, that ailing parent doesn’t just magically get better after a few hours. Yet, we think that somehow, in the midst of chaos and stress, we should just be able to keep going with our bad selves. Worse, when we struggle with perfectionism, because striving for perfectionism causes increased psychological stress.
How can we manage stress? 1) Be honest with yourself about what is causing all the stress in your life. If some of it can be changed, then change it. I know that’s not always possible, but it’s worth looking at. Often, just naming it can help as well. 2) Voice it. Tell others. Talk about it. Find a confidante or, if necessary, a professional (a certified one please... another rant on that another day). 3) Meditate. You don’t have to become the next Buddha but just take 5 min a day, open YouTube and search for a guided meditation. Some will suck, some will be awesome. Headspace is another good app, as is Stop, Breathe, & Think. 4) Modify your activity. Now, most websites are just going to suggest that you exercise, but knowing that my friend Lisa is a powerlifter, I am going to phrase this as modify your exercise. That means, if you aren’t doing any, start doing something active. It also means, if you are training at a fairly high intensity (#stinnsystem4life... anyone??) you should probably back off a bit. 5) Find something you enjoy doing and schedule it into your current availability. This should not cause increased stress trying to find time and if it does, then skip it... there’s a reason it’s last.
How do we merge this with perfectionist tendencies? 1) Be realistic and honest with yourself. Does this task require “perfection”? What will happen if it’s not perfect? Will you really shrivel up and get super weak if you modify your program and take 1 extra day off per week for a little while? 2) Challenge the thoughts that drive your perfection. This is some basic Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) thought challenging stuff here. Are you really lazy if you don’t complete every set at exactly a 9.5 RPE? What would actually happen if you didn’t get 100% on that exam? 3) Decide what matters most. Decide on the tasks that accomplish this. Do them, even when the anxiety tells you otherwise. What this means is that if you don’t want to challenge your perfectionist thoughts, you won’t face the anxiety that comes when you do challenge them and you will “cave”. It is hard work and you need to have a reason for doing it. If being healthy and reducing the impact of stress and perfection in your life is a priority, then decide what tasks will make this happen. Things like, taking an extra day off the gym each week, reducing my working set weights by 10%, allowing myself to only reread a report once before signing it, etc. Then do it!! This is the hard part. This is where the thoughts creep in and the doable becomes difficult. Do it anyway and remember why you are doing it. 4) Take a look at this awesome resource
You’ll more than likely notice that the tips and strategies are specific, but when writing it’s difficult to completely separate these things. Ask any perfectionist what drives their perfection and it’s typically maladaptive, unhelpful thoughts and anxiety. Those things are stressful. Stress tells us something needs to change – that’s why we have it. Face to face with a lion, stress tells you to change this situation. Face to face with a major project due tomorrow and you’ve barely started, stress tells you to change this situation. It comes down to our ability to listen to stress, determine if what it is telling us is valid (I’m caring for my ailing parent and there’s so much to think about vs. this project must be perfect or else unidentifiable bad things will happen vs. if I can’t squat “perfectly” – whatever model I deem as perfect – then there’s no sense in doing any squats at all) and then decide on a course of action for change. Challenge yourself if you are saying “What if I make a bad change? What if my change isn’t perfect?” Is the change you are considering permanent or can you just change your change? And once again, just do it...
For now, I’m off to meditate

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Umm, really, shame connected to powerlifting??

I’ve been reading a book – I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t); Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I am Enough” by Brene Brown. I am reading it as part of a professional development book club at work. I knew going in that I am already very comfortable speaking about shame in a professional manner, with my clients. You don’t do child abuse and child trauma work for over 10 years without getting comfortable with the concept of other people’s shame. I did hope that this book would help me learn new strategies and skills for advancing my conversations with my clients. What I didn’t expect was that I would begin to alter my personal life and I definitely did not expect that I would be writing a blog about shame and how it relates to powerlifting.
Brown talks a lot about the concept of “speaking shame” in this book. She is a long time shame researcher and what she has uncovered in her years is that shame is universal and it strives to disconnect us from others. When we “speak shame”, we connect and we make ourselves vulnerable but we disallow shame’s power. I have a quote that I keep up by Mother Theresa that says “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.” Loved this for my clients. Hid behind it as a clinician. I mean, I am transparent with my clients in a clinical sense. Again, you don’t get skilled at working with high risk families because you keep secrets from them or act in ways that are anything but totally honest and transparent. But, personally, I’m guarded and people see only what I allow. That’s okay, overall, as you don’t want to constantly be experiencing the “shame hangover” (the regret that comes after sharing too much too fast with someone you don’t know or trust), but I think it allows me to be a bit too fake sometimes, under the guise of professionalism. This blog is about speaking shame. Brown introduced an idea about shame being the thing that sends us into a strong reaction. Things like blaming others, being mean or attacking others, withdrawing – either shutting down or acting out. She introduces the idea of a shame trap and how we don’t always see ourselves in it until we reflect later. I don’t want to go on and on about the book – you can and probably should read it.
Now on to what I’m trying to say, I’m starting to notice more and more that powerlifting is connected to a huge part of my shame. Not that powerlifting causes my shame, but I’m discovering that my lack of growth and success in the sport is something I feel shamed about. I find myself wanting to scream “but but but” and lash out and react. Instead, what I am going to do is write about why and how shame has become a part of this (and is intertwined with some of the most shameful parts of my life). This is my connecting and reaching out. Some of it is directly connected to shame and some of it is my attempt at saying “please just understand”.
1) I started lifting in 2007 after years of obsessive dieting and undereating. I had figured out how to trick Weight Watchers into letting me be a leader while I was proceeding with being under their required weight range. I learned the very basics in person and then my brother wrote me a program. He warned me I would put on some weight right away. After a few months I promptly increased my intake to 1500 calories a day (yes, increased). While I’ve always resisted labeling this or having any formal diagnosis, to say that miraculously I overcame this would be a lie. I am not quite ready to share publicly the extent to which my maladaptive eating has impacted me, but I need to acknowledge that chronic, obsessive undereating has seriously impacted my ability to put on more strength. These patterns and thoughts don’t just disappear one day and this continues to be a work in progress.
2) My first week in the gym I had a guy come up to me and tell me that if those “kind of deadlifts” (conventional) were “too hard” for me, he would give me an alternative that would be even better for my ass. When I started lifting, women were scarce in the sport. Women who were in the gym were predominantly cardio bunnies and if they were lifting weights it was for aesthetic reasons. I’ve always had enormous shame related to my body image. I was an overweight kid and young adult until I found extreme dieting. Extreme dieting didn’t fix anything, but at least now when people commented on my body it wasn’t totally negative. I have overcome how my body image impacts my strength, but it took quite awhile. While I still have shame related to body image, for the last several years I can say, it doesn’t stop me from wanting to get stronger. But, this stole a lot of years of strength from me.
3) Sleep! Anyone who knows anything about strength training knows how important sleep is. Here’s the thing, when I started training I had a 5 year old and an 18 month old. I was commuting 2.5 hours a day, training over my lunches near where I worked. My days looked like – up early, kids up, I left the house by 7:15. Drove, worked, trained, worked, drove. Home by 6pm usually, unless the roads were bad and in Central Alberta in the winter, they often were. Try and be a mom and a common law wife – cook, clean, get kids to bed. I often didn’t go to bed until after 10pm because otherwise I heard that I didn’t spend any time with my common law. My 18 month old still wasn’t sleeping through the night either, so I’d be up at least once or twice. Oh, this doesn’t include the one evening a week I worked as well. This switched when I got a new job – only 90 min a day of commuting, but no gym at lunch. I started going to the gym at 5am. Now, going to bed after 10pm was really tough, but to keep the peace I did it. I was chronically sleep deprived... did I mention I was still undereating?! When I stopped going to the gym at 5am, I went at 8:30pm. I was a mom, after all and I worked full time. I wasn’t prepared to miss seeing my kids in the few hours I had with them. I continued to be chronically sleep deprived to try and be exactly what everyone wanted and needed.
4) I was unhappy in my relationship and this spread in my life like wildfire. I would stay at the gym later and later to avoid him. This impacted my sleep in worse and worse ways. It also meant I was avoiding him when I could and would try and see my friends. This made me feel like a terrible mother, which only served to throw fire on my shame related to motherhood. This buried me in sadness I didn’t know how to get out of.
5) Add these up and toss in a bit more – STRESS! I’m a bit of a high strung kind of person (my friends and family will laugh, because I said “a bit”). I started training right around when I also needed to start getting licensed. So, my first several years of training were riddled with young children, commuting, working full time just to survive, financial stress, an unhappy relationship, and licensing (which included several applications, supervision hours, a couple big ol’ exams) and a fairly big move. This has been followed by a major move to Moose Jaw, a divorce, single parenting in a city where “dad” doesn’t live, and so on. I also work a somewhat high stress kind of job (though it’s quite a bit lower stress than my job in Red Deer, which I loved). I’m currently in a much happier relationship but now I travel once a month to see him, which introduces a different kind of stress. My kids are older, so the same kind of parenting stress I had when they were little isn’t there, but brings new stuff.
6) Bowling was a really important part of my life for about 30 years. Now, I am proud of what I have accomplished in this sport and someday I might go back. But, bowling did impact my ability to get better in the gym. Bowling is not exactly an overly athletic endeavour, but it can be pretty good for chronic overuse injuries – like my right shoulder that would often flare up and cause problems in the gym. After I quit bowling a couple years ago, my shoulder got really bad, funny enough. Bowling is also a bit of a party sport. So, when I was bowling I was partying and partying isn’t exactly conducive to recovery from training. The partying also made my relationship worse and made me feel like a crappier mom, all spinning back on itself.
7) I was a lazy kid! This is going way back, but it has some relevance. My youngest would be a better lifter if she decided to start, even if she started at my same age (I was 27 when I started, so I was already behind a few years) because she has been a gymnast for several years. The strength and muscle base you build as a child can never be adjusted for when you start training at my age. I was a lazy, overweight kid who bowled. I can never make up for those years.
8) For the first 4 years of my time in this sport, I trained mostly alone. I had these homemade pink boards perched on my chest tacked there with duct tape on board press days haha!! I sent my brother videos a few times a month (nothing like what he does with online clients these days). I developed bad habits and then I’d come to MJ every few months and one bad habit would be “fixed” while I’d go home and something else would fall apart. I learned gear in MJ, but came home to train mostly alone. This is a sport where you might lift independently, but you do require a team. Even when I acquired a few training partners after several years, it was sporadic and somewhat unreliable if we trained together, but at least I didn’t have to duct tape boards to my chest every day LOL When I moved to MJ almost 5 years ago, I made some quick progress actually, because some of those bad habits got fixed right away. But, some of them have been more stubborn 
I am sure there are more reasons I’m not where I “should” be in lifting. I can’t compete with the young women in this sport today and most new lifters surpass me very quickly. Some of them are friends  I can be okay with this when I stop finding myself in the shame trap. I’m closer to being an M1 now than most of the Open lifters who are new to the sport and maybe it’s time to start shifting my comparison group. Or maybe it’ simply about what attracted me to the sport in the first place – being better and stronger than I was before. In that sense, I’m making gains and I’m doing okay. I have a lifestyle and a history that I cannot and would not change. It doesn’t need to shame me, but rather, I can simply use it as my understanding and explanation.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The ongoing battle between women in powerlifting

Probably not what you think I'm going to write about from that title, but it is a battle, and it is between women and it is in powerlifting. It does not seem to be in all strength sport as I have not seen the same things happening in strongwoman, though as that sport continues to gain popularity it still might. What battle am I talking about? The battle between "it's what my body can do" vs "my body looks so good". It's how some newer women into powerlifting are trying to pull it down from where it has been to a place where it's not about what you can do but how you look.
Let me get this out of the way - I'll be the first to acknowledge the importance of appearance. How we look every day matters because the world treats us differently based on how we appear. There's a reason my coworkers and I don't wear jeans and sweatshirts every day. There's a reason I colour my hair (I love fun colours but also hides the grey because growing old is not considered okay socially) and a reason I wear make up. I'm all about trying to meet basic social standards of attractiveness. That is not what I'm talking here. I will even acknowledge that once, after a fierce weight cut (the worst and something I never intend to do again), when I looked ragged having been in a hot bath for hours with my hair in 77 directions, I did my hair and basic make up in the bathroom after weigh ins. I wear make up to meets because I wear make up. I do my hair when it's too short for a ponytail because that's how I tame the chaos. Again, I'm not talking about the basics of looking decent. I'm talking about something bigger... I'm talking about the culture of this sport I love.
Culture is defined as the beliefs, customs, way of life of a certain group. Workplaces have cultures. Sports have cultures. It's not just about a nation or an ethnic group. In powerlifting, there is an attempt to shift the culture in some ways. We see this in the equipped vs raw debate a bit, where the culture used to be one of simply "lift more", it's now shifting to accommodate a new culture where it's not just purely "lift more". That's okay. Cultures shift and change. When it's for the good of the group, then it's great. When a workplace shifts the culture of being cutthroat with coworkers to one of more respect, that's a great shift. But, when the cultural shift seems to be negative in the eyes of many, then it's not so welcome. Again, let's imagine a workplace where there was a culture of teamwork and then a bunch of new people get hired and they try and bring in this new culture of being independent and competitive with each other, that will not go over smoothly with the existing team. One of the things that is fantastic about the culture in powerlifting is that despite it being an individual sport, the lifters are by and large there and cheering for each other. It's not uncommon at all to see two lifters, in the same weight class, going head to head, both wanting to win but both legitimately cheering each other on. When new lifters come to the sport, they see this and so far there is little issue with people assuming this and becoming a part of the existing culture related to this.
Where we are seeing some upheaval is in the sexualization and appearance based importance of the sport in women. Now, one of the things I have said since I got into this sport almost a decade ago was that it took me from a place where I was consumed by how I looked related to fitness and it shot me into a sport with a culture where no one cared how I looked, it was all about what I could do on that platform. No one cares what you weigh because weight has no intrinsic value. It simply categorizes you into a class for matched competition. This was one of the biggest draws to the sport for me. It's quite funny when I go back to a regular gym now, because even my "nice" gym clothes make me stand out like a sore thumb. A sports bra is a bra... and a bra is made to be worn under a shirt... which I wear when I am in public and the gym is public ;) I joke, but there is a little truth in that for me, at least. Although I joked with some of the ladies around the time of nationals about their fingernails getting done, there was a little truth in that jest as well. My sister paints her toenails ridiculous colours for her major crazy runs... but that's a superstition not because she needs her nails to be super "fleek". I commented on a post about ladies getting these beautiful gel nails and said I was going to nationals to lift and as a result of tearing my natural nail off on my quad the week prior, I would actually be trimming my nails because beautiful nails are not worth losing a deadlift. BECAUSE THAT IS THE CULTURE!!! It does not matter how I LOOK, it's what I can DO!
Ultimately this isn't about fingernails or a sports bra. Heck, if you can pull heavy deadlifts with gorgeous nails, sweet! Here's what it comes down to. There are a lot of "us"... by us I mean women who've been around this game for awhile now. Y'know, powerlifting since before it was cool. And most of us have a strong attachment to this sport and the culture in it. The culture of it being more important what we do on the platform than how we look, how nice our butt is or whether we have abs. Y'know, that culture that allows every one of us to say to new lifters "no one cares how you look in that singlet... trust me!" What this means is that we are going to kick up a bit of a stink when we see new lifters coming in and trying to make it about something else. Figure gets to be about looks. Leave that there. I have nothing against figure, because that's what their sport is about. Powerlifting is about what you put up on a platform. Whether powerlifting "built that body" or gave you a "squat booty" really doesn't matter because you might have a wonderfully round butt, but if you can't out total the other people in your weight class, no one cares. Let me say that again - at the end of the day, NO ONE CARES! I have watched beautiful women over and over win and lose on the platform, and not once did a watch a World Record squat and think "but her ass is so flat" or a World Record bench and think "she should've done her hair differently"... or a World Record deadlift and think "but her nails are not fleek". And I definitely never watched someone lose and thought "if only she'd looked better". Those of us who have been around for a decade or more, we are not just going to let this culture we love be steam rolled. You can do what you want to do, but we will continue to strive to maintain the culture in our sport, because culture is THAT important to groups of people. Culture is our common understanding. I'm not "judging" you. I'd be remiss to think I'm somehow holier than thou and should be in a position of judgement. If I were judging, I'd be spending my time figuring out what about this bugs me. I've done that already - what bugs me is an attempt to shift the culture. A culture that I love and has become an integral part of me and my self image.
It makes women in the sport a "joke" when everything we do on the platform comes down to how much your butt sticks out of your shorts or whether your latest IG photo of "side boob" got 4x more likes than your squat video, and you happened to hashtag #powerlifting and #girlswhopowerlift in both the picture and the video. Although those new to the sport might not know this, but a few years ago the IPF tried to have a "ballgown" competition between the women at the banquet. Now, I think they were trying to say "powerlifters can be beautiful... don't stereotype us" but what happened is that many of the women who had qualified for Worlds kicked up a fuss and said "our sport isn't about beauty, judge us on the platform." Plus, have you ever thought, man, it might be nice to be respected for what I can DO and maybe not have the bulk of my self worth based on how compliant I am with the current social standards of beauty?? Huh... Give that some thought...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

When food tracking goes wrong

This post is near and dear to my heart and something that I’ve resisted writing. With the fitness and nutrition industry the way it currently is, everyone seems to be tracking food in some way. Maybe you are on Carb Nite and only track your carbs (it doesn’t take much to track less than 30g carbs a day, but still). Maybe you just pay attention to hitting a certain number of grams of each macro per meal for a certain number of meals per day. Maybe you only eat from a certain list of foods. Maybe you have custom macros from any number of the programs out there that offer this (both qualified and not so qualified folks unfortunately) and you eat what “fits”. What I have discovered though, is this can be great for people who need increased awareness of food quality, quantity and how to eat based on goals. This can be bad when is goes wrong. When it goes wrong it can lead to the realm of the eating disorders. If you believe you have an eating disorder, contact your local Mental Health service or talk to your doctor. This is not psychological or medical advice that can take the place of a true assessment from a qualified practitioner. In this current fitness atmosphere, I need to emphasize the qualified part of that. Please, your health and wellbeing is that important. Now I got that out of the way...
Tracking food and having a structured plan is actually a method of treatment for eating disorders in some centres. It’s a fantastic place to start for many people to help “quiet the noise” as Dr. Laura Hill states. It allows folks to eat without spiking anxiety and when we keep anxiety from spiking, we can keep people from spiraling back into extreme restriction. The Center for Balanced Living has some information on this I’ll just refer to here, because I’m not really talking about those folks who have a diagnosed eating disorder and are working with a qualified practitioner on wellness. I am talking about the people that are walking the fine line on the slippery slope of maladaptive eating. Instead of referring to this as eating disorders, I will refer to this as maladaptive eating. Just because you don’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis, does not mean you don’t have problems with eating. It just means that given our current diagnostic manual you do not have “enough” symptoms or they are not severe enough. It’s well acknowledged that there are a huge number of people that walk this line between healthy eating and full on meet the criteria. While I haven’t read anything on statistics about this lately, I suspect it is only growing. I understand the idea of flexible dieting is that it should reduce the tendency to restrict and fear certain foods (I definitely think it is miles ahead of something like carb nite where almost all carbs are restricted) but what happens for people that become inflexible with “flexible dieting”.
Things I have actually heard from people – “I forgot to track the 15 grapes I ate and when I log them I’m over my carbs”, “you can buy a scale to put in your purse and take it to the restaurant to weigh your food when it comes”, “I went over my macros today, should I restrict tomorrow?” Most of these seem pretty harmless, but they are all subtle warning signs that something is not right with food. Can you pick out what might be wrong here?
Tracking your food is a tool. It should not dictate your life. You should not avoid social situations on a regular basis out of fear you cannot track something (keeping in mind, I understand when people have a deadline that is different – when I need to make weight soon, I’m not going out for supper with the rest of you!). You should not be panicked if you forget your purse scale at home, or alternately, refuse to eat. You should not fear one day of going over a certain macro (or even all your macros!!) You should not believe that this is the ultimate in truth and you base everything about your day on it. As Dr. John Berardi once said “it’s all estimates” and he’s right. The science behind this isn’t perfect anyway, so don’t treat it as such.

Friday, April 22, 2016

A brief look at the psychology of doping in sport

On the heels of the recent positive drug test in the Canadian Powerlifting Union, I wanted to appease my own interest on the subject and figured, what better opportunity to explore the psychology behind the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and write about it. I really want to be clear right from the start. If you are someone that is using PEDs and you are lifting in a federation or sport that permits, allows, condones, etc doping, I am not and will never cast some form of judgment on you. I respect and honour everyone’s right to choose and I hope everyone gives me the same back, even if we choose different things. As well, please forgive me in advance for not writing this as a journal article, but rather as a blog. I have referenced everyone, but mostly with hyperlinks for internet ease.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind when someone asks “why?” is the response “to win”, but when considering the factors involved, it is unlikely that simple. In fact, the first article I clicked on stated the exact same thing ( In discussing winning as a factor, this article highlights that even this concept is larger and more complicated than it might initially seem. Consider in some countries where athletes are financially rewarded for success or international medals. Or perhaps, what if an athlete is not permitted to continue to participate in said sport when s/he returns from international competition without some hardware to show for it? This highlights that in some instances, “winning” is bigger than just winning. From the article, “Donovan, Egger, Kapernick and Mendoza (2002) used principles from social cognition to conceptualise a model for an athlete's decision to use PED. The model explores the effect appraisals of threat, benefit, morality and legitimacy have on attitudes and intentions and subsequent compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code....other influences such as reference groups (e.g., coaches), athlete personality, and the affordability and availability of PED are explicitly addressed” (as referenced in
Strelan and Boeckmann (2003) use a model of deterrence theory. Deterrence theory is a theoretical approach to understand compliance with the law ( The model is as it sounds – athletes make decisions to use PEDs with an analysis of deterrents (consequences) vs. benefits (gains), but importantly, moderated by situational factors (such as the type of drug, the culture of use, acceptance from others).
Wiefferink et al (2008) indicated that nonusers held more restrictive norms and has less optimistic views of the outcomes, whereas, people who tended to use viewed others as more likely to also participate in the use of PEDs and overlooked the negative side and risk of use (
Ehrnborg and Rosen (2009) highlight these main factors as the major contributors to athletes deciding to use PEDs “improving and maintaining physical functioning, coping with the social/psychological pressures and striving for social and psychological goals, including economic benefits. Factors such as, “doping dilemma”, “win at all costs”, cost versus benefit, and the specificity of some specific doping agents, also play major roles.” (The Psychology Behind Doping in Sport
What is clear across these articles is that it’s not a simple answer. It’s not easy to determine who will decide to venture down the road of PEDs and why they make that choice. What is common across all references is there is an attitude of PED acceptance, a risk vs. benefit analysis that underemphasizes risk and/or overemphasizes benefit, and a social group or setting that permits or condones the use.
But what about morals? Don’t these people care they are cheating? How many people have, for one brief moment, snuck a peak at a fellow classmates test? What about in a board game, in a moment of bitterness at being beaten, gave yourself an extra point or 2? What happens when someone starts cheating and then doesn’t get caught, but maybe even passes that test or wins that board game? Humans are simple in that we keep doing what works and we stop doing what doesn’t. When cheating works to meet our needs, it becomes sustained. Go back to previous where I talk about the cost vs. benefit analysis and think about how the benefits here start to really outweigh the costs, since we aren’t getting caught. Heck, recently I got a speeding ticket because for years and years I was speeding and didn’t get a ticket and slowly my speed crept up. I was maintaining my behaviour because it worked to get me where I was going faster and I wasn’t being consequenced for it. I can assure you I slowed down immediately after that ticket and have not pushed it since.
I believe in a previous blog I wrote about the theory of cognitive dissonance. A state of psychological distress that occurs when our behaviour does not match our beliefs. In this state, one of 2 things alter (this is a very simplified version of the theory) – beliefs change to match behaviour or behaviour changes to match beliefs. If the benefits of doping increase so that the pros far outweigh the cons, even in a case where the person initially did not believe in what s/he was doing, but the behaviour persisted, well, that person’s belief system will come in line with whatever rationalization required to calm the psychological distress. People may start telling themselves that “other people are doing it”, “it’s not really that bad”, “it’s not helping that much anyway”, “I’m sure my competition is also doping”, “quitting is worse for whatever reason than continuing” or anything else you might think of. The mind is powerful and it really wants to be in psychological peace. Now, I’m not condoning doping! On a near daily basis I say to someone that an explanation is NOT an excuse... we can explain behaviour without excusing it.
I could probably pull at a bunch of other broad psychological theories to understand doping in sport (particularly referring to doping in sports and federations where it is not permitted), but I also wanted to talk about how any one person can have an impact on this. TrueSport Canada is an organization that helps to promote fair and honest sport across the country. You can find information and their guiding principles at When I spoke with a woman from the organization she talked about the TrueSport ambassadors being people who went around and simply embraced and embedded a culture of fair play, including anti-doping culture. We can talk about this in powerlifting in terms of anti-doping, using only approved equipment (not putting knee wraps under knee sleeves, not using supportive briefs under a suit or singlet), not having a referee agree to give special considerations, and any other way you can think of engaging in the sport that would not be honest and fair.
So, back to WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT? We create a culture in our spaces of anti-doping. We go to our gyms, meets, groups every day and we don’t ever condone or glamorize doping. We encourage our teammates to check their supplements – all of them! We help them find resources and choose things that are in line with anti-doping. We support supplement companies that are willing to put the stamp of approval on their products. We educate others on the risks associated with doping and if we don’t know, we encourage them to find out. We don’t agree to turn a blind eye to it or to rationalize it with them. We don’t judge harshly or meanly, we simply don’t agree with doping in sport. We encourage fairness. We allow our teammates to lose gracefully rather than pressuring them to win at all costs. We encourage the idea that living with integrity is always more important than winning. We continue to support anti-doping initiatives. And then we pass this down to our youth in our lives and in our sports. We allow our children to grow up believing in these things. While this will not stop every instance of doping, for every young athlete who chooses the road of integrity over the road of doping, we have placed one more brick in the path.