How to Build Mental Toughness Through Powerlifting

My coach looked at me as I took a deep breath. “I’m ready for this,” I said.

He smiled and said “That’s what I like to here!”

It was my second deadlift attempt at my very first powerlifting meet, the USA Powerlifting California State Championships in Laguna Niguel, to be exact. Up until that moment, I had failed my third attempts in the squat and bench press, but deadlifts? This I knew I could do.

So I walked up to the platform, unaware of how much was on the bar and nailed it.

By the third attempt, I hit a lifetime personal record (PR) of 95kg/209lbs – my strongest ever! I skipped off the platform when I saw those three white lights shoot up in the air.


To the uninitiated, powerlifting is a competitive sport of weightlifting in which contestants attempt three types of lifts – squat, bench press and deadlift – three times in a sequence. The first lift, or opener, is an easier set. Something you know you can hit, have done so a million times in training, and really, a confidence booster. The second and third attempts are heavier and more challenging, with the third usually being where contestants try to ‘best’ or PR.

I saw lifters miss their second attempts but nail their third. Or others, like me, who nailed their first and second attempts and botched the third.

It’s a game of numbers, rules and technicalities. Missing a command, like pressing the barbell in the bench press too soon, results in a ‘no lift’. While not hitting depth in the squat, as I did in my third attempt, can also result in a no lift.

The meet moves fast. Trips to the bathroom are frequent (nervous bladder anyone?). The crowd is energized and excited for every lift, cheering contestants on when they’re grinding out that last, heavy rep or breaking American records.

Coach Jesse giving me a pep talk before I hit the platform

Coach Jesse giving me a pep talk before I hit the platform

The training

Training for any sport can get monotonous at times. Powerlifting isn’t any different. You train the squat, bench and deadlift until you want to puke, and just when you think you can’t take anymore, you get some accessory lifts. Pull-ups, curls, planks, dips on repeat. Multi-passionate, multi-sport athletes might want to smash their face into a brick wall by month two but the monotony is part of the journey. It’s part of the struggle. And boy did I struggle.

Weeks after signing up for the meet I got injured, started traveling a ton for work, spent late nights working all while splitting my free time between the Pilates studio, the weight room and weekend training sessions at Equinox. Little by little, the hours left over for training started to dwindle, my motivation plummeted and my health suffered as I got less sleep and stress levels elevated. Eventually I landed myself at the doctor’s office with a chronic infection and a warning to manage my stress better. Needless to say, training did not go according to plan. It was a rough ride the entire three months and while I knew competition day might be challenging, I embraced it with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old at her first dance recital: confused, excited and completed uncoordinated.

Was I happy with the outcome?


Could I do better?

Oh yea. A lot better.

There are lessons to learn behind the bar…

We often hear how important it is to trust the process. Yet, we focus so hard on the outcome that we miss the entire beauty and lessons in the journey. As a fitness instructor and trainer, it’s rare that I ever feel like a beginner. Picking up Olympic weightlifting a few years ago was a gentle reminder of what it takes to go from zero to some level of profiency. It’s a test in humility and patience. With powerlifting, I got to take a step back and view training from my clients’ and students’ perspectives. Trainers spend a lot of time designing programs and coaching clients. It’s very frustrating when participants are inconsistent or don’t show up to do the work. However, us professionals often forget that at times shit just happens. Kids get sick, work gets hectic, relationships create chaos, challenging our consistency, motivation and energy. For three months, making it to the gym to train felt like a victory in itself.

Despite my lackluster training, competition day was full of energy and excitement.  Behind the platform is a sea of nervous athletes warming up, jamming to their own music, getting in the zone or running to the bathroom every 10 seconds (seriously, I’ve never had to go so much in mu life. It was a huge pain getting out of that singlet every time). But the nervous energy was also what brought people together. I loved watching how other athletes prepare; women encouraging and congratulating other women that they’ve never even met – that’s the beauty in competition that no one else sees. Spectators see the flashing lights, the hard work, the glory, the defeat. But they don’t see the athletes who sit quietly between lifts to visualize their next attempt and breath out their internal chaos. They don’t see friendships forming among athletes from cities all over. They don’t see the smiles, the frustration, the tears or the nervous jitters going on behind the scenes.

Building mental toughness

Mental fortitude is the single most important aspect of training that is often overlooked. Once we get into the groove of showing up and doing the work, there’s the practice of mental strength. While I’m no expert in creating mental toughness, it’s a topic I’ve studied for years. Powerlifting showed me exactly where my strengths and weaknesses are in mental strength.

I was nervous. I practiced breathing exercises. I did some Pilates to open up my back. I near-cried in the bathroom after a failed bench press attempt (I didn’t it, because I stared in the mirror and gave myself a pep talk. Like a winner!).  Knowing that I could easily control my emotions, focus on myself and not compare my strengths to others are examples of mental fortitude. But it’s a work in progress. It’s easy to look at another lifter and think “she’s stronger than me. I can’t do this.” It’s just as easy to get distracted between lifts and work yourself up with nervous energy. I’d love to improve my visualization techniques and mental toughness for the next competition.

I showed up. I gave everything I had on every lift. I approached the platform calm and focused every time. I cheered my teammates on. I was happy with my performance even thought it wasn’t perfect. I struggled. I almost cried. I laughed a lot. And I had an amazing time.

Our strong, strong team and Coach

Our strong, strong team and Coach

Failed squat

Third squat attempt

IMG_0913 (1)The quiet before the storm



Meeting Juggernaut founder and badass powerlifter Chad Smith


With powerlifter and YouTuber Megsquats

What lessons have you learned from competition or training? Comment below or head over to Facebook or Twitter to share your experiences!


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