The Zen of Aggression

February 9, 2015

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This morning, I had a private training session with the legendary Sean Waxman—a champion Olympic weightlifter who has coached many of top athletes in the sport. He’s as big as a refrigerator, with hands like ham hocks, but he’s also gentle and kind, and as enlightened in spirit as he is strong in body. I’ve been working with him casually since last November, but I stepped up the program to weekly one-hour intensives after I lost my nerve in the NorCal Masters and my fear cost me my spot in the competition.

We were working on the Olympic lift called the Clean: pulling the bar from the floor to the shoulders in one clean movement. This was the lift that had rattled me in the NorCal Masters. There is a formula for estimating what a person should be able to Clean based on a percentage (80-85%) of the pounds they can bear in a back squat. I can back squat 205 pounds. So it is reasonable to expect that I could eventually achieve #150 in a Clean. Your reaction might be, “Whoa, that is way too much weight.” Let me reassure you that it is not my immediate goal. But in the CrossFit Games last year, women my age were expected to Clean #125, and in the NorCal Masters the women in my division were Cleaning #115. Clearly, something is holding me back from my potential, but I hadn’t been able to figure out what it could be.

Today, Sean identified it: I lack aggression. I was skeptical. This isn’t football or boxing we were talking about. This is me and a barbell. Until a few years ago, when I started to learn about Olympic lifting, I thought that weightlifting was a crude display of (mostly male) strength. But now that I have done it for a while (and even though I am far from proficient) I recognize it as an elegant, sublime, and artful sport, more like surfing or rock climbing. Success depends on mastering a series of delicate, subtle actions. Aggression seemed like the opposite of what I’d come to appreciate in lifting.

But Sean talks about the nuanced deployment of aggression—channeling its power to get up to and beyond one’s potential. He explained it this way: each time I prepare for a lift, I run through a series of deliberate actions. I sit in my chair, resting and visualizing the rhythm of the barbell moving upward, then I walk to the chalk bowl and ready my hands, then I stand in position, straighten my back, squat down and put my chest up—all done in a calm, meditative, Zen frame of mind. This ritual, Sean told me, should culminate when, at the moment I tighten my grip, I tap into my aggression and rip the barbell off the ground.

That’s what distinguishes a champion: the ability to deploy that fierce emotion in a split second, fast as lightning, and a split second later to let it go.

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I’m still learning. But I felt a palpable difference the next time I approached the barbell. And my one rep max inched up, to 110 lbs. Have you ever had a positive experience by channeling your aggression? Please share it in the comments.

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