This is another guest post from Sheldon Kreger. Read all his articles for WA here.
Many human endeavors require mental focus. Olympic Weightlifting undoubtedly requires high levels of concentration. It’s a sport that pushes the athlete into peak experiences every training session, but with unique challenges which push the mind and body to obscure and valuable extremes.
I have had several opportunities given to me throughout my life, and I can genuinely say that I have explored many different activities to the greatest depth of my ability.
I’m NOT the kind of person who takes things lightly (pun intended). I don’t have normal “hobbies” and I don’t feel like I have a “job” – I have obsessions which I support with every ounce of my being.
For me, every moment of every day is a precious opportunity. Every decision I make is oriented around optimizing my time and energy – I am always concerned with either performance, training, or preparation for training.
In my teenage years, I was incapable of identifying this trait in myself because I had never seen it in other people. My transition into adulthood was a battle of either embracing my drive or experimenting with various ways to escape from it.
Thankfully, had a handful of teachers who I chose to work with independently of my schoolwork – my drum instructors, computer science tutors, math tutors, and debate coaches. Over time, I realized that no matter the skill they had mastered, they all shared certain similar traits – primarily, this insatiable and irrational drive to improve their skills.
It was only when I discovered the work of Csikszentmihalyi that I realized that, in fact, there are many people in the world who cope with this kind of existence. Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that certain individuals crave experiences which require 100% mental focus – a state of awareness which he calls “flow.”
In flow consciousness, a person is unaware of the world outside the task at hand. They are completely engulfed in the activity they are pursuing, and there are no distractions. It is as if the whole mind is in alignment to push the limits of performance, knowledge, skill, or empathy.
Throughout his successful career in psychological research, Csikszentmihalyi has had the opportunity to dive deeply into the minds of many of the most successful, skilled, and creative people in the world. Regardless of WHAT such a person does, there is a common characteristic – they find peace in honing their craft, and orient their lives around making time to spend in flow consciousness. He and his colleagues have displayed that top performers in all areas of life – from business to music, from sport to surgery – have dedicated years of their lives to creating circumstances for peak flow consciousness.
Weightlifting is a Sport of Peak Experience
For a weightlifter, this means creating a lifestyle that allows daily training, an extreme diet, and time for recovery. For a doctor, this means leveraging time and finances to spend endless years studying, being tested, and being accepted into the schools and hospitals where they work. In any case, there is always a prioritization of skill development which is chosen repeatedly over all other life experiences.
Although it is useful to conceptualize flow as a universal experience across countless domains, there are of course differences between the experiences we all have. Depending on the skills we choose to learn, our minds and bodies are forced to understand different concepts and execute different movements.
In the past, I have been enchanted by skills which require intellectual performance (intercollegiate debate, computer programming) and high levels of kinesthetic awareness (drumming). In fact, as a drummer, my primary interest has not been in music – but in the development of the technical capacity to play things that are hard to pull off. But, that’s a different story.
After years of practicing drumming, I remember starting off as a Crossfitter and trying to learn the Olympic lifts from videos on the web. Knowing how much I had learned by watching other drummers explain their technique and performing on the drum set, I immediately sought out weightlifting videos. Within days, I realized that I had stumbled into something amazing. The hours of practice in the studio enabled me to see that Olympic weightlifters were executing movements which pushed the boundaries of human capacity – both physically and psychologically.
I couldn’t stop watching.
It was so foreign yet so familiar. When I see a lift, I don’t just see that moment – I see the hours of practice coming to fruition. It was like watching my favorite drummers play at festivals . . . but, I had NO idea how these athletes did it. It made me excited, but also frightened because I understood the dedication required to master a skill like this. It was both terrifying and liberating to contemplate mastering the lifts. In the end, the decision came down to one factor.
The reason I’ve chosen to pursue weightlifting is not because I want to be a champion. It’s not because I want to be big, strong, and intimidating. It’s not because I love sports, and it’s not because it pays the bills (insert laugh track here). There are only two human activities which require the combination of unwavering focus, extreme kinesthetic precision, and absolute aggression – the snatch and the clean & jerk.
By training the Olympic lifts, I’m not only becoming a stronger, faster, and more powerful human being, I’m choosing a lifestyle of flow. It’s not about the weight on the bar – it’s about the process of lifting and the state of awareness it creates. The guarantee that I can always add more weight to the bar as my technique improves and my strength levels rise brings me great comfort because I know that this sport will always be able to push back harder than I can pull. I can trust that when I get to the gym, I will be met with a challenge I cannot overcome – a guaranteed grind which ensures peak experience on a daily basis.
Speaking of following your dreams …
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