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Understanding Misery
By Donny Shankle

I have been asked by my teammates on more than one occasion - “Donny, how do you come into the gym and train everyday, not hurt, tired, or just lacking motivation?” I always give the same perverted answer - “Be miserable and love it!” Considering I try very hard to be a positive person, my response has always baffled me. Why was I telling my teammates and closest friends who are seeking advice something which on its surface sounded so negative? Where did this approach to training come from? I knew I was right to be thinking this way. But I wanted to know where this way of thinking came from and what the advantage was to thinking this way.

To me, I understood the concept of misery as a positive, and the word is a badge of honor. It was when I likened the word to honor, that I ominously came across these words in Steven Pressfield's book “The War of Art” and remembered my own time in the Marine Corps.

“In my younger days dodging the draft, I somehow wound up in the Marine Corps. There's a myth that Marine training turns baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers. Trust me, the Marine Corps is not that efficient. What it does teach, however, is a lot more useful.

The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable.

This is invaluable for an artist.

Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys, or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because those candy-asses don't know how to be miserable.

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.

The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell. “ - Steven Pressfield

After reading this, it dawned on me that this way of thinking during training was magnified in me due to my service in the Marine Corps. Even before then, I can remember taking a special pride in adversity. This is one of the reasons I joined the Marine Corps and not another branch of service. I understood them to be the best and the hardest and I was curious to see if I could measure up.

Pressfield was talking about writing, but the great weightlifter is also an artist. He continues to perfect his discipline with hard work and patience. What makes the weightlifter or any athlete more special than any other artist is his character. This is strengthened from publicly failing and waiting for the moment to compete again. He cannot hit the backspace button if he does not like his choice of words. He cannot throw the canvas in the dumpster if he feels he could have captured the light better with a brighter combination of paint. He cannot do another take in the recording studio. When it is time for the weightlifter to show his artistic ability, which is his strength and confidence, he only has one shot before an exhilarated crowd that lasts seconds. Either he gets it right at that moment or he must wait to do it again. Unlike the writer, painter, and singer the athlete is usually on a short clock. This increases the pressure they feel and it is this drama everyone loves to watch.

If weightlifting has taught me anything it is how to interpret and endure feelings of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. Those same words chosen by Steven Pressfield. These feelings are to be embraced and later overcome with hard work and rugged persistence. You do this with discipline and by finding happiness with yourself. Aristotle said the man of virtue is the man who finds peace with his own company and he does this by working hard.

Uncle Abadjiev would speak of being the champion. He said, “It is lonely at the top, but it is the only way to live!” When a man devotes his entire self to accomplishing a dream he must learn to endure the misery, which comes with it better than any other man. If he can do this, he will be the champion. If he can do this he will learn his misery can strengthen him by forcing himself to look within. If you can do this in the gym during training, you will be the great weightlifter when it is time to compete.

Competition is your time to prove it because you understand comfort is complacency. Complacency kills both in the combat zone and weightlifting. Those marines and other service men out in the desert fighting know they are miserable but they accept and deal with it. They do not let their misery cloud their judgment because they do not want to go home in a body bag. They turn their misery inside out and use it to stay sharp and vigilant. Do the same as a weightlifter, deal with your misery and let it make you stronger!

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” – Nietzsche

Be miserable and love it. Besides, your misery in the gym is not that bad especially if you love what you do. True unhappiness is not knowing what you want out of life. It is waking up each day without pain in your body or a sense of purpose in your heart. Yes, it is painful at times. I also know how frustrating it can be to get so close to a personal record only to confront what in your mind you think is exhaustion. It is not exhaustion. You are stronger than you think you are and to achieve excellence on the platform only hurts, it is not impossible.

“Don't quit! Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion”. - Muhammed Ali

That is why I tell people to love their misery. It means you are continuing the fight and have not given up. There must never be an ache or pain so unbearable it causes you to lose sight of what you set out for. Find the joy in your training each day by remembering what initially brought you to the barbell. Constantly remind yourself that you are a weightlifter and yes you will feel miserable at times but this is what you chose to do. Admire that about yourself and take pride in it. Not everyone knows what they want to be, or they might but, they are not willing to get on the battlefield.

Besides, did you really think weightlifting was a leisurely activity? What Pressfield said also applies to weightlifting. “This is war baby, and war is hell.” Did you really think it would come easy?



Addition to Acceptance
By Donny Shankle

Acceptance applies to the here and now. For the weightlifter, it’s when you take the bar in hand. The now refers to an act of volition in this moment. To either lift the weight or not. This all starts with acceptance. Tomorrow refers to change and it may be different, but that depends on how strong you are today.

I hesitate on using this word too often because many lifters will not initially understand my meaning. Acceptance as a virtue means believing in the good within yourself during this moment in time. Change as a virtue means making the good greater. There is no negative definition to this virtue for the athlete. Although it can be misinterpreted once the athlete stops finding joy in his discipline or just discipline in general.

To accept things within the moment, as they are, removes your attachment to the rest of the world. It makes you indifferent to the trivial which increases your focus. For the weightlifter this means lift the weight. Nothing else matters in this universe except lift the weight. All pain is gone. Any emotion you feel is directed towards lifting the weight. All doubt is completely removed. It is no wonder many people become addicted to being strong. It feels really good.



Bold Openers
By Donny Shankle

I’m not a fan of starting the competition with a lift very near your best. The first lift sets the pace of each lift to come. You do not have to start too light but set yourself up for the completion of all of your lifts. Leave your boldness for the last lift. If you are within range to win it all on your last lift then put it on the bar. The first lift should demonstrate your professionalism.

Any amateur can go out on the platform for his first lift and get lucky. However, the professional is calculated. He knows he can make the lift he needs to win on either his first attempt, second attempt, or third attempt. The attempt is not what is on his mind. He doesn’t have to demonstrate his boldness either. The champion enters the competition to win and you get six lifts to create a total. Not one.

Some may say, “Well if you’re capable of this weight then open with it.” Absolute nonsense. Lifting this way will never intimidate your competitors. At the end of the meet, even if you did get lucky and make your bold opener, this will not leave your competitors with an intimidating impression of you. Make all of your lifts, starting small, and ending with an impression that makes sure your competitors know what’s to come in any and every competition to follow. Subdue them.

Everyone already knows your bold. You’re a weightlifter. This means you are one of the most courageous athletes there is. You are literally the embodiment of strength and confidence. Remember, competition is not entertainment alone. It is a test among good men and women to find out who is the best at one thing at one specific time. Your gambles are already made elsewhere and your challenges go much deeper than a risky first attempt.


Here and Now

Avoid Complacency
By Donny Shankle

Stay away from comfort zones. The best way to do this is to avoid complacency in your training. No one is ever completely satisfied with their performance and this is good. By always pushing yourself to improve both physically and mentally, you begin to accomplish extraordinary feats you may not have thought possible. Complacency will creep up on you though from time to time without you recognizing it. When it does, seek a new personal record in your attitude and extinguish it.

The saddest state of man is to wake up with nothing to do and nowhere to go. It’s the work you put in and look forward to which brings you joy. Each morning you wake up, think about your training for the day and how you will leave the gym stronger. Always doing this makes training both fun and exciting. The weight on the bar does not always have to be the challenge. Your application is the challenge or your growth as an individual. This attitude leads to becoming a professional in the gym and prepares you for competition more than adding another kilo to the bar. Training is more than the improvement of skill, it’s also about the improvement of the man. 

Complacency will also torment your mind. Your thoughts will always be in the future and not in the present. It is true champions are constantly planning and looking ahead but not at the sake of surrendering the moment. When you are on the platform always be in the moment for each attempt. The easiest way to miss is to think about your last attempt when you haven’t even made your first. Make the promise to be in the here and now when you lift each day and you will fulfill any expectations you have for yourself. Training this way will not allow complacency to find shelter in your mind.

Train diligently.


Eyes Front

Stay Single Minded
By Donny Shankle

Single-mindedness is defined as concentrating on one aim or purpose. It is a feature of the mind possessed by champions which will determine whether or not you improve your capacity. The degree you choose to take your single-mindedness I leave up to you. It has to be this way because you are the one who is after becoming stronger.

As I trained and competed I never allowed any confusion to enter my consciousness. I was very focused on my goal. This included becoming the best in my gym then leave for another to be the best there and so on. After this was accomplished, I set my focus on becoming the best within a given region. This included winning multiple state championships.

Once this was done, the next goal was to become the best in my country followed with the best in the hemisphere. Afterwards my focus shifted to becoming the best in the world and eventually Olympic champion. I did not complete what I had set out for but this had nothing to do with my ability to focus. 

“The Mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer.” - Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi - Flow

Winning as a weightlifter was my sole focus. How I would make money or pay my rent was secondary. Hourly jobs come and go and careers are not much different. School was an interest of mine and I was a very good student, but still I thought of being on top of the podium more. Aches and pains I felt daily as anyone does but I did not feel them enough to keep me out of the gym. I beat the screams of my body by concentrating on putting the bar over my head. The idea of losing to me was unacceptable.

The only identity which made sense to me was being the best of all sportsman or for me weightlifters. My single-mindedness never wavered as I envisaged winning and becoming the best.  



Sense Of Awareness
By Donny Shankle

After being in the gym so many years, I’ve noticed my sense of awareness is improved. I’ve always had good peripheral vision but now it’s even more amplified.

Never turn your back on someone lifting. This is a good rule for any Weightlifting gym. You protect yourself from a possible miss falling your way.  The bar overhead is sometimes difficult for a lifter to control especially when a PR is on the bar. Bars will tip in the squat rack if unloaded improperly and platforms not cleared of discs will cause the bar to bounce out of control when the bar comes down. Always know your surroundings in a Weightlifting gym.

A pleasant surprise after always being aware in the gym is its carryover out of the gym. Your sense of awareness will become better at whatever you’re doing.


Happy Is The Man

Show a Little Stoicism
By Donny Shankle

I’ve admired the Stoic philosophy and its principles since my time in the Marine Corps. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is a book I brought with me to Iraq. In it Seneca (Roman philosopher and statesman) discusses the morals of a Stoic man and how life should be lived.

Seneca and his friend Lucillius exchange over 100 letters of counsel between each other which makes it very engaging. Questions are asked in letter writing between friends and this leads to conversations which often become very personal. I still have the same copy of the book I read in Iraq and carry it with me on occasion to refresh my memory of its principles.

I am not so bold as to say I am a Stoic or that I have tirelessly studied the Stoic mind. No. What follows is merely a collection of some of my favorite lines in the book and how I incorporated an ancient philosophy into my training to become a champion. These principles helped me stay single minded. I leave it up to you the degree you wish to take your single mindedness.

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”

As an athlete you will spend a lot of your time alone. The night life must be kept at a minimum in order to get the proper rest to optimally perform. Unless your friends share the same dreams as you, it’s wise not to keep regular company with them. Train and go home. Spend your off time with those closest to you.  

“The simple way of life need not be a crude one.”

Enjoy the simplicity behind straightforward training. You will Snatch, Clean and Jerk and squat every time you are in the gym or do a close variation. This same principle will be applied out of the gym. You will sleep, eat nutritiously and get occasional massage and/or some other form of consistent health care. Whether or not your total improves is not hidden within some polished program. It lies within discipline and consistency.

“Men learn as they teach.”

When you are not training, take time to teach others how to lift who are interested. This not only helps to grow the sport but also makes you a better Weightlifter. As you teach you will see things you can do better in your own training. Teaching will encourage you to carry yourself more as a professional and in turn lift like one.

“Indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. It needs to be treated somewhat strictly to prevent it from being disobedient to the spirit.”

You may have heard its muscle that moves the bar. This is not true. Your mind is what moves the bar. The mind is the engine and the body or muscles the vehicle. Take care of your body. The mind and body are one unit. If you poison your body or abuse it, the mind will also suffer as well as your spirit.

“…self-sufficient though he is, he still desires a friend, a neighbor, a companion.”

Without a positive support structure in the form of knowledgable coaches, positive relationships and encouraging friendships your progress will be limited. Your capacity in the gym will not always be enough. Make sure you surround yourself with strong people.

“Happy the man who improves other people not merely when he is in their presence but even when he is in their thoughts!”

Carry yourself always as a professional. Great Weightlifters are self assertive and confident. When other people you train with see this in you they too will emulate you. This makes the gym a place of champions. Each person will hold themselves to a greater standard and learn to feel disgust at the thought of losing. Once everyone in the gym thinks this way, personal records change at the rate of the morning sunrise. 

“No one can be held a prisoner in life.”

You are alone on the platform and at this time your capacity is put to the test. Stress, discomfort and pain do not command you. The negative does not exist unless you let it. In order to be the champion on the platform, you have to free yourself of the idea that any one of those things I mentioned slow you down. If they do exist at all it’s only to make you stronger.

“Of this one thing make sure against your dying day - that your faults die before you do.”

I am surprised when people bring up the bad in people. I like to focus on the good in men. People are fallible. Don’t let the mistakes of yesterday affect your training today. Why? Can you change what happened yesterday? Yesterday was then and today is now. As you become a better Weightlifter so also you will become a better man. The body does not look the same as you grow in strength and neither does the mind. Your faults will die as you stay focused on great accomplishment. Because that person who was will no longer be the same. He or she will be changed.

“Nature will never ask of you more than you can handle.”

Neither will your coach. The athlete and coach relationship is special. Each of you work closely with one another for a long time and a trust is developed. You cannot have this training alone. Sometimes the pull may feel slow when in fact it was fast. The feet may feel they jumped forward but in fact stayed in place. Encouragement from someone who watches you will push you out of comfort zones which are the Weightlifters death knell. You can handle more than you think and your coach is there to help you believe it.

“Be harsh with yourself at times.”

A champion Weightlifter is disciplined. If you know the lift could have been made but you failed because of a silly mistake then correct it. The Weightlifter has to be perfect in execution. Be hard on yourself then let it go.

“Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources.”

Reading the science is good and study is a requirement to improve your focus. However, you are a Weightlifter. Through training and competing you will grow. Improved focus means nothing without putting it to the test. Your focus will also begin to improve more as you start contributing. This ties closely with learning through teaching.  

“Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s.”

Here is the central principle to the Stoic. Do not place value in the things which can be easily taken away. If what you have wasn’t fought for then it’s probably of no use to you. Your strength, mind and spirit can never be taken from you by the parasites of this world. Hold on to these and your identity will be strong.

“Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born.”

The ideal state of man is not to be happy. Whoever said your happiness was deserved? Happiness must be pursued and even in your pursuit there is no guarantee you will achieve the virtue of joy. However, it is attainable. The natural state of man is tireless work. Through man’s work he becomes happy as long as he has great passion for the thing he does. Get in the gym and work towards being happy. It will not be given to you. Do you think you’re the only one who wants to be the best?

“Straightforwardness and simplicity are in keeping with goodness.”

It’s also in keeping with training. When you go into the gym keep it simple and straightforward. What is required of you is to Snatch and Clean and Jerk more the the next man. You can do this with a confident mind and well trained body. 

“There are times when even to live is an act of bravery.”

Life requires you to be brave as does Weightlifting and it’s the attribute of courage which is most easily misunderstood. This is trained too in the gym during each attempt. The day has already given you what you require as a human being. Be brave in your efforts if you want more. 

“…pain is a trivial sort of thing…let’s stick it out.”

The pain Weightlifting brings doesn’t last forever. The muscles will relax, the aches will subside and you will adapt. Even the callouses on your hands disappear when you stop lifting. The champion welcomes his pain because he knows it intimidates the meek. Ya it’s gonna hurt but you can choose to show it or own it.

“I’m suffering severe pain, you may say. Well does it stop you suffering it if you endure it in a womanish fashion?”

If your back hurts will the pain go away complaining about it? Don’t look to me to help you. Swallow some Ibuprofen or see a doctor and carry on. The most disgusting person in the gym is the person who bitches and moans. I remember the first time I front squatted 215 kilos. After I stood up I went down to a knee and started shaking. All my coach did was look at me. No helping hand was given. Weightlifting is chosen by you. If you don’t want it then walk. If you want something to complain about, complain about your taxes. Complain about the weather. You have just about as much control over these as your so called confessed pain.

“…there is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant.”

Have you never noticed when you stand on the podium in first place all of your pains go away? 

“…but virtue only comes to a character which has been thoroughly schooled and trained and brought to a pitch of perfection by unremitting practice.”

Unremitting practice will make your actions perfect. It will bring the bar in the right position. It will increase your sense of touch to the point it becomes your strongest sense. When you feel the bar against your body as it moves through space you will react without thought. This is how you become blindingly fast. Practice your ass off and become virtuous. Understand this now. There is only one way to become great at something in this world. You have to work at it. Unremittingly.

“…the growth of things is a tardy process and their undoing is a rapid matter.”

A tardy process is understood by the champion as a gradual process. If you take on more than you have trained for you welcome ruin. The great Weightlifter trains the same way he pulls. Patiently.

“…we should be anticipating not merely all that commonly happens but all that is conceivably capable of happening.”

It is common to think you want to be the best in your gym. In a small group. It is common to think you want to be a national champion. It is common to say I want to go to the Olympics. The champion is not common. He is alone in this world because he visualizes more and his actions make it real. He puts no limits on himself or what he can conceive.

“Many things have fallen only to rise to more exalted heights.”

Each miss in training will teach you how not to miss again and move on. This is good because in competition you may have gone 1 for 3 in the Snatch but the competition isn’t over. Rise on the Clean and Jerk. The competition is not over until the last Clean and Jerk comes down.

“When she created us, nature endowed us with noble aspirations, and just as she gave certain animals ferocity, others timidity, others cunning, so to us she gave a spirit of exalted ambition, a spirit that takes us in search of a life of, not the greatest safety, but the greatest honor - a spirit very like the universe, which, so far as mortal footsteps may, it follows and adopts a model. It is self assertive; it feels assured of honor and respect; it is a master of all things; it is above all things; it should accordingly give in to nothing; in nothing should it see a burden calculated to bow the shoulders of a man.”

Roll your shoulders back and pull the bar. The human animal has successfully endured more struggle in his existence than any other animal. There is no burden too great. Men have literally moved mountains and gone to the moon. Take your journey one step at a time.

“It’s not because they’re hard that we lose confidence; they’re hard because we lack the confidence.”

The Weightlifter is the most confident of athletes and the universe is benevolent but only for the strong.

Weightlifting does not follow the path of least resistance. It’s all about resistance and you overcoming it. This is how you become strong and a Champion. The whole idea is to continue adding the resistance until everyone else has either fallen or been beaten by you. Weightlifting pits man against man and man against himself at the same time. Few sports do this so elegantly as Weightlifting.

In order to keep adapting to the stress and lift more weight, you have to let go of negative emotions and be tough. There is no other way. Whether you want to practice a little Stoicism is up to you. I’ve found strength and guidance in certainly more places and persons than Seneca’s letters. Whatever it is that gives you strength hold on to it. Bring it into the gym each and every day.

Do not place value in what can be taken away. This is the hallmark of Stoicism. This plus learning to abandon negative feelings and dealing with pain are the three chief ideas I take mostly away from the philosophy. Whether you follow the principles of Stoicism or some other good philosophy a Weightlifter needs a system of beliefs to meet with both success and failure. A proper philosophy in Weightlifting establishes the belief of magnificence in the self. This is a romantic idea only felt by the drug-free weightlifter because he is not an actor or an entertainer. His honest life is his love and this makes him the good man. The good man is grand.