How to Embrace the Mental Challenge of Strength Training

As a coach, one of the most powerful tools you can possess is an understanding of your athlete’s motivation to perform. You think that the easiest way to get this information is to simply ask them:

“So why do you train?”

“Well, I’m good at it and I want to go professional.”


“I really enjoy the challenge of strongman and competing with my friends a few times a year.”

It would be easy to stop there and then simply plot a course for your athlete or yourself if you are in charge of your programming. The reality is that it is very unusual for an athlete to compete out of love alone. It’s a promotional concept that dedication to a sport is solely for the pure nature of competition. Due to the makeup of human psychology, something deeper drives our goals that takes place in the subconscious. Uncovering this true motivation often requires lifting something mightier than your heaviest stone: self honesty.

Strength Training

Questions such as:

  • “But why do you want to win?”
  • “What do you not like about losing?”
  • “What do you think about during your most painful training sessions?”
  • “If you don’t win how does that make you feel about yourself?”
  • “What does the group support provide for you?”

You may need to ask several variations of these questions to your athlete or yourself to uncover the truth. Once the true reasons are revealed, you will be able to manage the emotional side of their efforts to help them heal psychologically, and turn the focus to more purposeful training. The answers you uncover will be more along these lines:

  • “I was always trying to please a parent and I couldn’t. If I win I will show them that I am good enough. Then, I will get their attention.”
  • “I was horrible in gym as a kid and they made fun of me. Now I am a champion. I deserve respect.”
  • “I had an eating disorder and starved myself to get attention. The athletic lifestyle helps me control this. If I keep competing it helps me stay on weight.”
  • “My PTSD (anxiety, depression, OCD) is only relieved in this environment. I need this.”
  • “I like how the group builds me up and makes me feel part of team. My work and family neglect my role and importance.”

Strongman competition is simply a form of self expression. By winning or even beating just a few people, it validates our base emotional state and gives us temporary relief from our psychological problems. Our outward victories and the accolades they bring are medicine more powerful than any prescription drug.

Never forget that winning is temporary.

What each and every one of us are truly searching for through sport is control of our lives and the emotions we experience on a daily basis. Often the roller coaster of our emotional state can influence our desire to train or commit to our long term goals. The extreme high of winning is often displaced by the realization of having to increase the stress of training to move to the the next level. Some use this as a motivating factor, some it discourages too much. Sometime the inverse is true. A loss can fuel a fire or quench it.

“So, Mike. You just explained to me that I’m a mess. What’s the point of all this?,” you may ask.

The point is that day after day, the athlete works at one of the most challenging tasks on the planet with very little financial reward. They have hardened not only their bodies but the spirit as well. Knowing exactly what someone is seeking though training will help you communicate with them better and see them through the low points in their programming. Avoiding burn out and keeping motivation high is part of the job. You need to understand mental stress and how it can be alleviated by programs built on constant success.

Stone Load

As an individual, you should be proud to keep showing up, win or lose, be it training or a contest. While you may not be allowed to fix the direct problems that fuel your motivation, you should see how important it is for you in dealing with it. At the points where it feels overwhelming physically, you should realize the mental rewards. When you are battling your demons and can’t get to the gym, go anyway and take your medicine.

An added bonus to all this is the fact that your issues are not unique to you! See how you inspire others and let it help you be a better parent. Remind others “that kid” may not have just found their stride yet and tell them your story. Find groups of others that deal with eating disorders and share your story and seek help; you have the courage now. People with PTSD or other issues would love to know the secret of how you cope. I bet that in your group, people genuinely value your friendship and teamwork and they may have the same feelings of neglect at home. Don’t let them down.

Whatever path of self discovery you or your athlete is on, remember that no one’s problems have been solved by winning World’s Strongest Man (or King of Podunk County for that matter). They are on the same journey as we are; facing logs, stones, and tires that are designed to physically break the lifter. Rise up daily and meet the challenge. Face all your fears; that’s the real victory.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Mike Gill is a retired 105kg professional strongman and currently a broadcaster forStrongman Corporation. He has a background in all weight disciplines and has competed in Bodybuilding, Powerlifting and Weightlifting with a lifetime best 252 kg total. He can be reached for coaching at Michaelgill100 [at], @prostrongman on Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and on Facebook.