From The Vault: Self-Esteem and Lifting

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  • By Susan "The Wife" Bartley
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From The Vault: Self-Esteem and Lifting

Admittedly, this article is rather sophomoric.  I think I wrote it back in 2004 or 2005.   But I think it is a useful stepping off point for this series.  Keep an open mind and remember I was very young.


Self-Esteem and Lifting

By Susan Bartley



I have a ton of theories about life, lifting, weight loss and many other things.  None of them are based on any scientifically proven truth.  All of them are based on my observations of the world and people in general.  I am not an authority.  I have never claimed to be so if you think this article is a load of hooey you can let me know.



My last article was about Fear and how it can stand in your way.  Hell, not just stand in your way but actually push you to do things completely opposite of what you should be doing.  I gave several examples, one of myself and my fear of squatting and how I allow my fear to totally screw up my squat form.  It is crazy what fear can keep you from doing.  Today, I want to talk about self-esteem and how it can ultimately ruin your success. 



First, I want to discuss my theory on the 3 different kinds of self esteem that you see in people.   These are what I consider the big ones, certainly there are shades of gray.



Self Esteem Level 1



This is the big one, these are the people who have the self confidence to be proud of what they accomplish and know that sometimes they will fail.  Level 1’s are secure in themselves, accept failure as a part of life and learn from it.  They let failure make them a stronger person.  These people look in the mirror and like some things about themselves, dislike others but in general are satisfied.



Go to a powerlifting meet – a big powerlifting meet – and you will run into these people.  These are the guys who walk with the arms out to the side because they really do have huge lats.  They spend their time back stage talking and learning from other lifters instead of trying to change things at the last minute or freaking out because of gear issues. Having positive self-esteem doesn’t mean that they don’t doubt themselves sometimes or question their mistakes. It does mean that they take these set backs in stride and are always looking forward to how they can change and become better.



Self Esteem Level 2



These are the people who just don’t have an ounce of self esteem AT ALL.  You see these people in the gym too, usually trying to hang out with the guys in level 1.  They are the ones who are always asking “What are you going to do today? I was going to bench but if you are squatting I guess I can do that”.  They are never confidant in their decisions, usually don’t try to learn new things and go out of their way to not be noticed in any negative way.  We had a perfect example of a level 2 working at our gym a few years ago.  He was so worried about what people thought, it drove his every move.  This guy was a trainer who never passed a certification because he got so nervous during the test, he would not train with Marc because he didn’t want anyone to question his knowledge, he would watch everything Marc did with his clients and just repeat it with his instead of stepping out and trying new things. 


Sometimes all these people need is a positive environment to start coming out of their shell.  But, many times they have such little self worth that they can’t help but stay within the vicious cycle of low self-esteem.



Self Esteem Level 3



I think these people are the most dangerous.  In fact, my theory is that if we could “cure” self esteem level 3 we would greatly reduce wars, racism and bad things in general.  Bare with me, this is where some people tend to disagree. 



Self Esteem Level 3 people are those that have bottom of the barrel self-esteem but they cover it up by pretending they are super Level 1’ers.  In this category I put people like Hitler and Saddam Hussein.   Everyone has known someone like this, I unfortunately have known quite a few.   They look and act like this:



* They have to be the center of attention and usually use that position to lord over everyone else.  They decide what the group is going to do, how everyone should train, etc… and usually they only take into account what they need to do personally.



* They know everything, even what you are thinking, and they are perfect at everything.



* Usually they throw a lot of temper tantrums until they get their way and act like spoiled children.



I used to know a guy who worked out with a group of lifters.  They trained every day at around 11 am until around 1:30 or 2:00.  One of the guys was on a time crunch to get back to work.  Well, the reigning Level 3 in the group would purposely screw around eating, pooping, cleaning up so that the group wouldn’t get started until around 12:45 or 1:00.  Every time he did this so that the one guy would have to miss most of the workout.  Typical level 3.



I know it sounds like the Level 3’s should be put up with the Level 1’s.  This is where my theory really takes hold.   Level 3’ers are so desperately low on self esteem that the only way they can feel good about themselves is by terrorizing others.  You have heard the old thoughts on racism that everybody has to feel like they are better than someone.  This is the mindset of Level 3 people – as long as they can affect someone else’s life – be it positive or negative – they are on top and they feel good about themselves.  Level 3 people rarely change.



How Do the 3 Levels of Self Esteem Fit into Lifting?



Training, as we all know, is not just about lifting weights or getting better at a sport.  Giving your self a goal to strive for does all kinds of things and it becomes the perfect setting for people who are striving to feel better about themselves.  Take bodybuilding, everyone in a gym has seen this transformation.  A young kid weighing 165 lbs comes to the gym and wants to be a bodybuilder.   He begins working with a trainer, eating correctly and putting on size.  In 6months a gangly kid goes to ripped up and on stage showing off his new body.  The girls love him, other guys are asking him how he did it and his parents and teachers are telling him how proud they are of what he has accomplished.  Even better, none of his friends were able to do it so he stood out.  It doesn’t really matter that he placed 6th out 6 because next time he will be better.



This happens in all sports, as people excel they get more self confident.  Athletics are the perfect place to help someone that is a Level 2 – no self esteem – become a confident Level 1.  Every day in your gym you have the opportunity to affect someone’s life positively and give them a chance to grow into a better and stronger person.  Not just physically but emotionally as well.



Putting It All Together – The Vicious Cycle



Add extreme fear to someone who doesn’t have great self esteem and you get a true disaster.  Think about it, your new guy gets ready to squat with bands for the first time.  You are sure he is going to be fine, so you make him do what everyone else is doing – 2 blues on each side plus a 45 lb. plate.  He goes to un-rack it and can’t even lift it out of the rack.  So, you lower the weight to a 25 on each side and still he can’t get it out of the rack.  You give him a pass, tell him to get his head on straight and he will get it in the next go around.  While he waits for his turn to come around again he is watching 5 or 6 other guys doing the same band combo with 3 times the weight.  Everyone else is doing it with no problem, but he just keeps thinking about how he couldn’t even get it out of the rack.  His self esteem, not the best to start with, has just gone and hidden in his gym shorts and setting up shop in his head is that old devil Mr. Fear.  By the time his turn comes around the fear of the weight, being embarrassed, heck even pooping himself, is so huge that he can’t do anything right.  When the training session is over this guy is a complete mess.



We have all seen this type off scenario time and time again.  How many of these guys come back for the next training session?  Not a lot. Over coming a situation like that where low self esteem and fear tag team you is not easy for a Level 2 and it is impossible for a Level 3. 



Simple Rules to Keep Positive Self Esteem Afloat in Your Gym



#1 – If you are a Level 1, look out for the lowly Level 2’s.  Don’t just give out advice but hand out compliments as well.  Use your coaching status as a way to not only make people better lifters, but better people as well.  I don’t mean you have to be a Pollyanna all the time with sunshine and daisies all over your gym, but if a guy does a good squat say so.  You never know what a difference you can make just by being in someone’s life.



#2 – If you are a Level 2, or think you are, watch the guys in your gym that you think are Level 1’s.  Don’t just take in their training form and technique, but watch they way they get ready for a lift, finish a lift, act towards other guys etc… You can learn a lot by watching they way someone acts.  Do they treat people well? 



#3 – If you have a Level 3 in your training group – get rid of them.  You will never know how much better your training can be for everyone until you get rid of the tyrant.  Making your training a positive time as opposed to a swirling black hole of drama will not only increase your productivity, but it will help out all those guys who are to afraid to stand up to the Level 3 guy.  As long as you have a Level 3 in your group, you will be stagnant.  Make them work by themselves.  Focus your energies on the people who can learn and get better and watch your team/gym/environment grow and prosper.



The Bottom Line



The bottom line is that we need to remember every day what we are dealing with and how easy it is to build people up and tear them down in a gym environment.  You may have the power to make someone believe just enough in themselves that they turn the corner and start on their way to be a Level 1.  Lifting is hard, it is heavy, and it is very testosterone driven.  Lifting is not about communication and feelings and touchy, feely schmaltz.  But even in the hardest core gyms out there you have a chance to make people better.  And who knows, if we all try to do that just a little bit maybe my dream of ending war and racism and all those mean nasty things out in the world will come true.


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