The Not-So-Secret Secrets to Reaching Goals

April was a fun month.  

Aside from my beloved New York Yankees currently sitting in first place, I competed in the Tactical Strength Challenge on April 8th. The event is made up of a max deadlift, strict bodyweight pull-ups, and a 5 minute kettlebell snatch test.  Anyone who competes deserves respect and in the immortal words of Ice Cube, "it was a good day."

I was fortunate to hit a new personal record on the deadlift at 556 pounds, but kept some gas in the tank for the other two events. Still, it was good enough for the 8th heaviest deadlift in my division.

A few hours later, I clocked in with 139 kettlebell snatches in 5 minutes - also a personal record.  This performance was even better than my deadlift, as I placed 5th on snatches and #9 overall in the Men's Open.  And in true egalitarian fashion, you don't receive anything for how you perform, just a pat on the back.

But last week, I finally conquered the one goal that's been haunting my dreams (only 50% joking) - I finally pressed The Beast.

It's taken me over a year to press that bell, something I was unable to do when I attempted to Tame the Beast in August of last year.  What did I do differently?  Not much changed physically, and I actually weigh a few pounds less than I did last summer.  

But I altered my mental approach by strictly adhering to these two principles:

1. "Only the Mediocre are Always at their Best."

Ever since I heard Brett Jones repeat this quote last Summer, it's made all the difference in my own training.  Why? It's given myself permission to not always be at my best at every single exercise and event.  I'll give you a few examples.

Three years ago I would test my max deadlift once every month.  The problem?  It worked until it didn't.  While I never got hurt, I was unnecessarily putting myself at the risk of injury by constantly working above my 95% effort.  I also grew incredibly frustrated because I missed a bunch of lifts, killing my confidence.  

You think I would've learned my lesson but I didn't. Before last year's TSC, I did a 5 minute snatch test in each of the 4 weeks leading up to the competition. And just like the mistake I made with deadlifts, I constantly evaluated my progress on what I did that day.

The smarter and better approach is to take a long-term view and gradually coax "dem gainz." Since I was always testing myself, I never spent any time training and learning at the intensities I should've been using.  There's a reason the most tried-and-true training programs always hover around 80% effort and only have you peak twice each year. Building a bigger base will result in higher - albeit less frequent - peaks.  For proof, the first snatch test I performed this year was during the TSC, and my previous max deadlift attempt was in June of last year.  I think it worked out pretty well.

But I often see others make the same mistake - not necessarily with deadlifts and snatches, but with other qualities or exercises.  For example, some people aim to set a personal record each time they go out for a run and miss the benefits of a slower, more methodical approach. Others want to increase their conditioning, increase their pull-ups, pull a heavier deadlift, and improve their Turkish Get-ups all at the same time. Continuously improving every exercise or quality is not going to happen and it's a recipe for disappointment.

2. Make Deliberate Practice a Habit

Despite the recent PRs, I'm still looking for the perfect press and deadlift.  I could even point out a few small mistakes in each video that I'm now trying to fix.  It may seem like I'm being unnecessarily nit-picky, but it's my habit of deliberate practice.

In her book "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance," Angela Duckworth explains that what distinguishes deliberate practice - from normal practice - is that it's "supremely effortful." It's working with complete concentration where the level of challenge exceeds your level of skill, and many experts can only last an hour before needing a break.

Believe it or not, the point of deliberate practice is not to feel like you're repeatedly pounding your head into a wall. As Duckworth explains, deliberate practice helps create effortless flow - the moment when a challenge exactly matches your level of skill.  That's exactly what I experienced.

Rather than trying to see how much I can press/snatch/deadlift on a given day, my focus turned to doing all of the little things correctly.  How was my clean getting the bell into position? Was I wedging myself under the weight with enough tension? Was I squeezing my free hand? Was I staying in my pressing groove?  If you can believe it, the weight actually became an afterthought.

By focusing on all these small tasks during deliberate practice, I wasn't thinking about much during my PR attempts.  I vividly remember having a sense of calm before each attempt, because I'd already completed them hundreds of times in my mind.

So, what's one more attempt?