Performance Lies in the Subconscious, but so do Your Demons

Written by: Kevin Cann

I have been experiencing something in training that is different from anything that I have experienced before.  The last two months, I have been on a tear with PRs.  One week after the next just hitting PR after PR.  Some of these have been smaller 5lb PRs, but a few, like yesterday’s 37lb PR, have been much larger.

I have not changed up anything in training.  Perhaps I have made better training decisions, but those decisions haven’t been anything different from what I have done in the past.  This led me to think even deeper about what I am experiencing.

At an individual level, coaches and lifters have made claims that personality type could have an impact on the type of training someone is best suited for.  I have never fully bought into this, but also have never disregarded it either.  Humans are adaptable and just need the appropriate tools to excel in any training program, but at the same time if I had to run a hyper-specific comp lift program I would quit out of boredom.

The one thing that has been different for me, is the mental work that I have been doing behind the scenes. Since April I have been going to therapy to help deal with the demons of a traumatic past.  My therapist works perfectly with me as it tends to be a more educational/coaching relationship.  He suggests books to read, explains concepts, and helps me better strategize my daily meditation and journaling exercises.  Things I have been doing for a long time.

High performance exists in the subconscious mind.  The subconscious mind processes an incredible amount of information, including proprioception.  The muscles communicate with the brain, this is a simple definition of proprioception. It is not a conscious task.  In fact, the conscious mind is extremely limited in what it can process at any given time.  It is also slower to create action.  You cannot think your way into high performance.

Self-awareness exists in layers in the brain.  There is our self-awareness about who we are in the present moment, but there is also a self-awareness etched in our subconscious that includes all information about our lives.  This is where we write our autobiography about ourselves.

If we are insecure and have feelings of inadequacy, they exist here, whether we are consciously aware of them or not.  Carl Jung refers to this as the shadow and has said:

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

The subconscious mind runs the show.  It has to, because there are so many jobs that the mind has it requires a lot of energy.  Most of the things it does, like keep our heart beating, is stuff we don’t think about until perhaps something makes our heart race faster.  These physiological changes are usually a good sign the subconscious is bringing something into your conscious awareness.  The problem is, we may not understand what caused our heart to race as our conscious mind can easily tell us we have nothing to worry about.

There are times though where we might lash out and say something we regret without even thinking.  This is the subconscious hijacking the conscious mind.  If we have insecurities and feelings of inadequacy in our subconscious mind, and our subconscious mind controls performance, we can see how that could be a potential problem.  This is why elite athletes often will say the mental aspects of training are more important than the physical.  They are often blessed with physical talent, so the ability to be the best of the best lies in the subconscious mind firing on all cylinders.

The evidence-based practice called Internal Family Systems (IFS) states that we have many sub-personalities.  I can relate to this, and I feel it gives myself context to work with.  Deep inside of my psyche is a scared child.  Before the age of 5, my father would attack me and pin me on the bed in rage.

I have no memories of this but had a recurring nightmare at this time that felt real.  A “person” that looked like Frankenstein would fall from the ceiling and be laying on me on my bed and I wouldn’t be able to move.  There was a black mark on the ceiling that I thought they came out of, so I would stare at it.

My mind to protect me as a child, created this nightmare to dissociate from the trauma.  When I think about that dream, I have a very strong physiological response of fear.  That fear quickly becomes rage.

In an IFS framework, that young child is lost somewhere inside of my psyche, and there is another sub-personality that comes to the surface.  It is a personality created to protect me.  Anytime I feel challenged, embarrassed, taken advantage of, etc. this personality will come out to protect the scared young child.

I can tap into this sub-personality pretty easily.  This is what I have done for a long time with lifting.  I can get myself angry and muster up a PR.  However, to do so requires a lot of energy and an increased recovery cost.  It also pushes the scared young child deeper into my psyche as he doesn’t feel the world is safe enough to come out.

I always knew I had this rage, but I never knew that at the core of it was fear.  I lost contact with that young boy a long time ago.  My subconscious never lost touch with that scared young boy and sets up my physiology in a way to best survive a dangerous world.

This influx of adrenaline leads to hyperarousal.  This has allowed me to excel at sports and school for a long time.  Adrenaline is responsible for learning information.  I can read a book very quickly and absorb almost everything without taking notes.  It is truly a superpower.

However, stress becomes toxic over time.  I have high blood pressure and have now suffered 3 rare tendon tears as a drug free athlete.  I refuse to take a day off even when injured and this leads to further problems many times.  What set me up to be resilient, over time becomes a weakness.  In your greatest strength lies your greatest weakness.

My potential in powerlifting was most likely capped with how I was doing things.  No matter what program I ran, or who coached me, I wasn’t going to lift more.  I could get a tighter suit or gain weight to act as a band-aid, but not much would have changed.

What I am doing now is trying to get all my sub-personalities to work as a team.  It is a framework that I can relate to because of my time playing sports.  My mindfulness practice has come in very useful here.  It isn’t easy.

The reason I chose aggressive sports like mma and powerlifting is because I wanted to protect that young boy by being strong and knowing how to fight.  It is why I can push hard and don’t miss days too as that is some strong motivation right there.

The days that I have been successful in bringing everyone together as a team, are the days like yesterday where I hit a massive PR.  I would typically hit a 5lb PR and walk away because of recovery reasons, but lately I have been able to just pour large PR after large PR and recover better than I ever have.  I will say these PRs were not even that hard so that does help too.

When people argue that lifts too close to failure are more difficult to recover from, it is just not so simple.  Variations to change up the force posture curve are critical as these studies are done on comp lifts only, but also what the lifter is doing to develop the mental skills outside of the gym.

I know that the majority of this sounds nuts, but again, there is a reason why elite athletes all vouch for doing the hard mental work.  Maybe I am just talking out of my ass though so who knows?

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