Psychology of Olympic weightlifting

16 Oct

The learning and practice of  Olympic Weightlifting from a Psychological point of view

By Andrew Stemler

As a quick introduction, Crossfit london has a central role in the development of Olympic weightlifting in the UK. We try and understand this sport on every level

This paper describes the learning and practice of the snatch, from the sport of Olympic style weightlifting where a barbell is pulled from the floor to overhead and caught in a deep squat. Many of the skill and learning issues are the same for the other Olympic lift the clean where the bar is caught on the shoulders), so illustrations will be used from both activities. It is described as a discrete, gross motor skill and a combined throw and catch. The learning curve is initially positively accelerated then becomes stepped, and pyramidal at advanced levels. Demonstration and extensive cueing are used in the early stages of learning as is segmentation and light weights. Feedback focuses on knowledge of performance. The strength element of the move influences the selection of practice type. The whole spectrum of imagery and self talk moves from technical to motivational.

Chiu and Schilling (2005) observe that Olympic weightlifting is associated with improvements in motor control, noticeably improved activation of muscle groups and motor units, and activation of more fast twitch fibers, hence the skills are also taught to many athletes as part of their strength, conditioning and power  programmes and are  not pursed as a sport  in their own right.

The Olympic Lifts are   a sole participant, self paced skill, performed in a static environmental context.  The move is initiated by the performer, which  according to Gentile (Schmidt  & Weisberg, 2000) makes this  a closed motor skill. It is an object manipulation action function involving the change of position of a barbell  (Magill 2007), requiring correct management  and the adjustment of body position to counteract the in-balance created by the object and conforms to  skill definitions suggested by both Knapp (cited in Guthrie 1953) and Magill (2007): a learned ability, maximum certainty, minimum of time and energy with predetermined results and, according to   Schmidt & Weisberg (2000) produced as a function of practice.

The snatch is   a ground based  multi joint weightlifting exercise, the athlete  exert large  multiple muscle group force whiles standing on his own feet thus developing balance and  coordination: the speed   develops the nervous system (Garhammer, 1985) requires a triple extension at the ankle knee and hip, a  jumping athletic movement, demands the athlete recruits muscles in  a synchronized pattern, develops explosive power:  requiring a high degree of kinesthesis or proprioception (Magill, 2007) The larger muscles are mainly used, making this a  gross motor skill,  requiring both gross motor  and psychomotor ability (Magill, 2007)

According to Charniga (2001) the lifts involve a combination of lifting and catching which, using Gentiles (Magill, 2007) taxonomy   is a mixture of 2B, a throw, combined with 4B, a catch.   4B is higher up the skill table (Magill, 2007) suggesting the catch element of the move to be more problematic than the throw aspect. Hence Newton (1984) recommends that athletes should learn the receiving position 1st,, then the 2nd pull.

Lears (1989) observes  the sport  to be  a changing apparatus:  the aim is to lift more each time, and thus  creates  different velocities  and changing weights resulting, in  intertrial variability  (Gentiles, cited in Magill, 2007) .  When demonstrated as a sport, the lifts are performed as single attempts, making this a discreet skill (Magill, 2007).

When the move is evaluated as a learning or performance curve, the early cognitive stages represent a positively accelerated progression.  However, the skill ultimately reflects dynamic strength (Zatsiorsky,  2006)  with practice stepped , pyramidal and periodized as  higher gains  are sought and progress becomes slower (Rippetoe and Kilgore, 2005, Bompa, 1999)  reflecting the associative and autonomous stages of Fitts and Posners model (Magill, 2007)

Learning stages reflect much of the literature with the need for an overt cognitive  Stage ( Fitts and Posner 1967, cited in Magill, 2007 ) where very clear progressions and skill break downs are deployed. Crossfit London (2005) indicates some 32 separate stages or progressive practices. For absolute novices, its best to use a wooden pole or polyvinyl chloride pipe (Hori and stone, 2005).

According to Hedrick (2004) most  strength and conditioning coaches avoid teaching the lifts  because of the technical demands but he   suggests he has taught thousands of (US air force academy) athletes to clean with good  technique which  is essential (Chiu & Schilling 2005, Hori and Stone, 2005) as is   attention to detail (Lear, 1989)

Many teaching practices simplify the skill, thus addressing  the degrees of freedom issue (Magill,  2007) but also reflect the fact that part of the skill can be used to develop power generation.  Hori and stone (2005) recommend practices that begin from the hang or from boxes, to simplify learning and  take  advantage of the  high velocity and acceleration output.

Hedricks (2004)   suggests 12 steps: Education, modelling, foot position, hand position, grip, start position, jump shrug, low pull, high pull, clean adjusting foot position and squat clean.  Garhammer (1984) sees three distinct phases the 1st pull, the second pull (including the transitioning double knee bend) and receiving the bar.

Some teachers focus on the Double knee bend teaching  and practicing it  segmentally; research suggests this does  not need to be  specifically taught or practiced. (Gentry, 1999)  Some believe this to be an overt coached move, others that it is a natural move that some do or don’t have (Jones 1991, Walsh 1989) Never the less, Johnson (1982) details segmental exercises.

In order to assist learning in the cognitive stages, BWLA ( the British weight lifting association)  rely  on a set teaching  sequence with demonstration at its heart (Lear 1989) . According to Magill (2007) demonstration works best when the skill to be acquired is about  mastering unfamiliar patterns of movement hence there is a widespread use  of observational learning (Bandura, 1986), modelling, and demonstration (Magill, 1998, Cumming et al., 2005).

Adeyanjou (2005), Heyes and Foster (2002), Hebert and Landin (1994), all suggest that repeatedly watching live or video taped performances can result in enhanced skill acquisition. Magill (2007) shows beginners, observing other beginners, will perform at a higher level.  There is an emphasise on verbal cues, (Landin, 1994) which are used extensively in coaching the lifts (Crossfit London 2005), and are often combined with demonstrations (Cissik, 1998)

As with many skills and sport, feedback is essential to assist learning and the development of the snatch.  In the early stages there is sufficient task intrinsic feedback (Magill, 2007) as the lift is either achieved or failed. However, it is possible to successfully lift weights badly; so much coaching focuses on feeding back knowledge of performance, rather than knowledge of results.  Learning is about force control and applying the right amount of control (Magill, 2007). The teaching aim is to over  overcomes the  end state comfort control issue, were trainees use incorrect form as it feels easier, but drill  correct mechanics.(Cohen & Rosenbaum 2004, cited in Magill)

However, feedback tends to mirror all spectrums of coaching available: Kono (2001) suggest that many early stage athletes receive poor quality coaching.

Like many challenging skills the problem is in the transition from one phase to another, throw to catch, which relies on a strong stimulus response bond created by practice (Magill, 2007).

The sport has a large foundation in deliberate practice. Much of the repetition levels are low i.e. one to five repetitions of amounts reflecting 90+% of the lifters one rep max. According to Ericsson (Magill, 2007) this is not intrinsically motivating, requires high levels of attention and does not leads to immediate social or financial rewards

Much practice focuses on retaining skill at escalating levels of maximal muscular contraction (Lear, 1989).

Many psychological studies are on continuous skills rather than discrete skills (Lee and Genovese, 1988). The snatch is about maximal lifts and practice tends to be grouped at the minimal repetition/ maximal strength end of the training spectrum, there being no strength  benefit to training with lesser weight ratios, with higher ones not physically possible (Zatsiorsky, 1995)  conforming to Ericssons  ( Magill, 2007)  view  that training  quality is vital and needs to be appropriately difficult.  However at the elite end training sessions are  variable as athletes would be unable to tolerate a maximum lift regime.(Rippetoe, 2005).

Both schmidts  Schema theory and   Gentiles learning stage model (Magill, 2007), suggest  variability to be the key to successful future performance. Standard variability practice  is not conducted against a maximum effort  back ground, but well within the  students capability (Shea et al., 1990). This  is clearly distinguished from an attempt to lift the heaviest weight possible. It is note worthy that some athletes win competitions by lifting a weight they had not achieved in practice, lending possible support to both of the conflicting theories of motor programme learning as advocated by Schmidt versus dynamic theory pattern as advocated by Kelso (Magill, 2007).

The study of lifting practices can be deceptive as many athletes use the lifts as a power training system, and not as a competitive event in its own right,  and  focus on weights in the 70% of 1 RM (Garhammer, 1985).

Practice can be subdivided into structural units: training sessions, training day and various periodized cycles (Bompa,1999), where the aim is to keep athletes fresh and vary the training intensity (Zatsiorsky, 1995 ) Elite practice tends to be shorter, multiple session and distributed, rather than massed, practice to allow for rest as fatigue negatively influences learning (Magill, 2007).

As the skill is  high in complexity  there is  substantial use of Whole Part Whole practices, but with variation at various stages of learning. Some exercise regimes will take the novice back to basic muscle strength and set isolating exercises (tricep extension, and hamstring curls).  This is not without controversy, as some coaches see no value in breaking exercises down to individual muscle level as they offer no specificity of practice (Magill, 2007).  Some advanced coaches even object to the inclusion of the back squat as having little transfer to the speed  of the snatch (Charniga, 2001)

At an elite level, the tendency, in the absence of rehabilitation, is to focus on compound movement   (Lear, 1989) or meaningful chunks as the associative and autonomous stages are reached (Magill, 2007)

Various experiments have concluded that the correct imagery can enhance strength (Chaiwanichsiri et al., 2006 &  Ranganathan  et al.,2003).  Silbernagel et al (2007) ascertained that many weight trainees use the whole spectrum of imagery, both cognitive specific and motivational. Munroe-Chandler (2004) identifies that weight trainee’s use imagery in the following order: appearance, technique and energy, but grouped body builders in the same category as athletic lifters and studies the subject as “exercise addiction”. These experiments were single joint isolation exercises and may not apply to athletic moves. Zatsiorsky (1995) notes that Olympic lifts do not primarily provoke hypertrophic growth: making it an unsuitable mechanism to discharge body dismorphia.   Kono (2001) states that positive thinking clues and technical phrases are used by Olympic level lifters, suggesting technique and success (in lifting) imagery and self talk is the focus of the weightlifting athlete.

Rushall (1984) indicates that athletes use self talk to cover all aspects of training, both specific and motivational. Milller (2006) notes the use of cues and self talk raises from technical to motivational as higher skill levels are reached.

This paper ascertained that the snatch is a discrete, gross motor skill and a combined throw and catch. The learning curve is positively accelerated for beginners, and then becomes stepped and pyramidal at advanced levels.  The practice of the sport is influenced by its unique strength nature, but never the less follows traditional learning patterns of using demonstration, cueing, segmentation, imagery and self talk.


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2 thoughts on “Psychology of Olympic weightlifting

  1. so all that sweet talk I do should be directed at myself rather than at the bar!
    wondered why it never got itself up!

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