About 6 months ago I hired a weightlifting coach. You might be wondering why. There are 2 main reasons - first, he owns a gym less than 50m from my front door. Second, he was a national champion weightlifter in Cuba, national champion in Canada (in his late 30s), silver medalist at the World Championships, coached a world champion and has worked with many athletes from many sports around the World. Needless to say, I was intrigued.
Below are some of the lessons I’ve learned; in training, sport and life.
“If I trained kids in Canada the way I trained them in Cuba or Spain or France, parents would think I’m crazy. In Cuba for example, sport is a way of life, in Canada, it’s a hobby”.
For him, when he was young, sport was literally 1 of 3 ways to get out of the country (the other 2 were either by joining the army, or the marines) - he chose sport. Life was weightlifting. He would train 6 hours a day or more. And the sessions weren’t easy. Six days of lifting weights, performing explosive drills, sprinting, gymnastics movements, deep stretching, mental training, relaxation exercises...and one day off, to go dancing, hang out with friends, swim in the ocean or just kick back on the beach.
His pupils were treated similarly. Constant, systematic, persistent training. What many of us in this part of the world would call dangerous OR crazy OR even impossible. In fact, it would be impossible in our culture. The way he put it, “the system here is just not set up to handle this type of training, this type of athlete...here, a 60 minute session is enough”.
Sometimes I would probe him, as I was interested in what he had to say. I once asked him if he could help me become a national champion weightlifter - his response: “Maybe. But it will take at least 3 years of dedicated work and training”.
Mastering a sport is difficult. It takes commitment and daily practice over several years. Whether you want to be a national champion tennis player or a ATP/WTA pro, it’s almost impossible to think that even a few years of consistent training will get you to your goals.
“Every sport requires a certain amount of general physical preparation. When we were training in Cuba, at the beginning of every season we would do up to 3 months of general work.”
When he was an athlete, it was not uncommon to do lots of general type training at the beginning of the season. Early on, while he was a developing athlete, this included a wide variety of exercises and training modalities (anything from gymnastics, to athletics, to rowing etc.) but as his training age increased, the general work became more specific to his sport - i.e. lots of cleans, snatches and their derivatives at low loads with high reps. He said “This is what we called work capacity, it was my least favourite time of year, but I got in shape”.
Of course I asked him if tennis players should lift. Here’s what he said: “I worked with many players in Spain and during periods where they weren’t competing, they would lift 3, 4 days a week. This included squats, cleans etc. But during competition, maybe just 1 day a week in the weight room, to keep their form”.
He saw many tennis players in their preparation phase performing Olympic lifts - and many young players learning the movements so when the time was right, they could add load and train with higher intensities. As for in-season, he wasn’t keen on too much lifting - and that goes for most sports (excluding weightlifting, powerlifting etc. where the objective is to lift as heavy as possible). If you do lift in-season, the loads should be light or moderate at most. His point was that at that time, you should be focused on competition - either getting ready to compete, or recovering from competition.
Good Coaches Will Help Athletes Find a Way
It wasn’t always what he said, but what he did that made an impact. Let me tell you a story (video below). This happened early on in our training together, maybe the 4th or 5th week. He had already helped me increase my clean and jerk from 90kg when I first started, to 105kg by week 3 (I was training consistently 5-6 days/week). It was a max clean and jerk day and I hit 105kg quite easily, then 107.5kg...again not much of a struggle. But then came 110kg. If you’ve ever weightlifted, you know how frustrating it can be to move up in weight by so little, yet have so much trouble with it. This was one of those times. First attempt, failed. Second attempt, clean was tough but made it….can’t say the same about the jerk. This pattern continued for about 6 or 7 tries. He kept saying ‘again...again….again’. Then he did something. There was a class going on and he yelled out at everyone (with a heavy latin accent) - “this is Matt, he’s going for a new PR, I need everybody in front of him right now!”. So they all gathered in front of me and started cheering me on. Next thing you know, I was standing in a split jerk position with the bar overhead….so much adrenaline had built up inside me, I felt like the bar was going to fly through the ceiling (even though it didn't look that way). Then he walked by me and said 5 words, “I know what I’m doing”.
“I have a plan, but it changes daily. If you come into the gym destroyed from the previous session or tired from the previous week of training, I have to adapt the plan.”
On days where I’d come in sore, he’d still try to get the necessary work done but if there was really no use, that day turned into a technical session (as long as I was still feeling mentally well). A technical session might have been something like 10 sets of 10 snatches with an empty bar (i.e. just the bar, no added load). There were days when he would even tell me to rest and get a massage instead...how many coaches will do that these days?
I noticed pretty quickly that we would try to hit a new max about once a week and it was generally towards the end of the week. And for the first little while, I was hitting maxes on a consistent, weekly basis. Within 3 months I was up to 120kg on my clean and jerk and 90kg on my snatch. Not bad for a tennis player but not quite up there with the national level weightlifters. That said, in the next couple months, I could only get up to 125kg on my clean and jerk. The progress you make early on can be exhilarating, uplifting and motivating...but as a high level athlete, hitting a so called ‘plateau’ is inevitable. As simple as it sounds, you must stick to the process and carry on with training, whether you feel your best or fatigued from the previous session. This was something he strongly believed in.
I asked him what he does for fun or as a hobby. His reply. “This”.
I can tell he enjoys coaching regular folk - that said, when he’s working with athletes (or those aspiring to become athletes), there’s a bit of a twinkle in his eye. He’s more focused, more present and you can feel that he wants it just as bad as they do, if not more.
“You have to do it, nobody else can do it for you”.
I came into the gym a little gloomy one day and he asked what was wrong. I told him I felt as though I could accomplish a lot more. That I hadn’t felt like I had done enough. I’ll paraphrase what he told me. He first said that he had no regrets in life. That if he were to go tomorrow, he would go in peace. The reason. He has always set goals for himself and gone after them with an unprecedented drive. However lofty something seemed, he would continue and continue and continue, until he reached his destination. Essentially, he told me that I talk a lot about doing various things in life but I’m not “doing” them. To quote him “If you want to cross the river, no matter how dangerous the current seems, you must try. You must jump. Nobody can do it for you, you must make the decision and find your own way”. He also told me to stop being a daddy’s boy...that made me laugh.