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Failing Reps and Self-Confidence

Failing Reps and Self-Confidence are intrinsically linked

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This lift was not performed at BRB, thank goodness.


“[We] are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit” – Will Durant, on Aristotle

Someone who fails regularly is not practicing success, but is instead practicing failure.  Failure is a harsh reminder of your limitations and leaves lasting damage to a lifters confidence.  Failing a few reps here and there may seem insignificant but a lifter’s self-confidence is linked with a sense of optimism as to what they are capable of and if they fail too often, then this optimism very often gets a harsh hit of reality and eventually becomes pessimism.  Regularly failed weight haunts will haunt you and become harder and harder to overcome. Iron plates are heavy enough without adding the weight of past failures.

Failing reps catalyzes further training failures

Missing a rep purely due to a technical error might constitute a reason to retake a missed attempt. However, if the weight is simply proving too heavy and causing failure then multiple attempts will usually compound the problem.

Watching somebody retaking and re-failing multiple times (like banging their head against a brick wall) is disheartening just to watch. What’s the best that can happen by failing over and over in a session?  Even if the lifter manages to come back and get the rep on the fourth or fifth attempt, then it will never be a particularly good attempt, form will likely have compromised and recovery from the session will take much longer than necessary.  

Learn to pick your battles

Let’s say someone has just pulled a slow ugly grinder of a deadlift several kilos under their best.  Maybe the intention of the session was to try and break a record. Perhaps the lifter’s form broke down and they struggled to lock out at 15-20kg under their best.  It’s still not uncommon to see lifters try to force the session even when it’s unlikely that they will break a record that day. 

Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale

Learning to recognise technique breakdown in your own lifts is an important skill to develop as a lifter. I am not an enormous fan of RPE (rate of perceived exertion) due to its varied interpretations.   Acknowledging bar speed, technique and perceived difficulty is imperative however. 

It seems obvious that all lifters should strive to never miss a rep in training. Why then do so few lifters manage to consistently apply this simple principle in their training?

Pride and stubbornness are not the same as determination

If someone chooses to ignore all signs that either their technique or strength isn’t there that day. It’s often a sign their pride has got the better of them. Knowing how to select training weights effectively is a key skill that separates the experienced lifter from the inexperienced. Having the confidence to pass on a weight when necessary can test even the most mature trainee. 

Learn to recognise a problem and don’t bury your head in sand

You must learn to make intelligent weight choices by recognising technique breakdown early on. Forgetting to pause on the bench, shallow squats or hitching your deadlifts are all examples of you and your training partners failing to recognise there is a problem. It is likely you’ll be disappointed on competition day.

Don’t Scrape the Barrel

Continually ‘scraping the barrel’ tends to lead to the multiplication of other issues. Technique tends to deteriorate due to repeatedly practicing with severely compromised form. A lifter’s muscular imbalances will never get addressed when trying to force reps with compromised form. Certain muscles get over used and others under-used. Risk of injury subsequently increases.

I am not suggesting that anything other than perfect form is unacceptable, it is about the frequency of practicing with compromised form. If technique breaks down every single session due to over-reaching the lift cannot be mastered.

Effective and ineffective mental preparation

Another common mistake is believing that all that is necessary is to get angrier and angrier on each reattempt, and that if you just can pace up and down enough and have enough people screaming at you then you’ll make the rep.  Psyche up can be a good thing in certain circumstances, but it can’t work miracles. If you are not capable of getting the lift without having your training partners slap you around and scream in your face then you will start to believe that you require this every single time you lift and psyche up has a very quick law of diminishing returns. That perfect music track, ammonia and your mates shouting at you all lose their edge after a while. Eventually it comes down to you being able to get the job done regardless of all external stimulus. 

Channeling Aggression

No amount of screaming and shouting will increase your strength. Aggression needs to be controlled and directed into the bar. Making a big song and dance, and pacing up and down shouting at the bar will come to nothing if you can’t then direct it into the lift. A psyche-up has to be practically beneficial and not simply performative.  In many cases all the ‘hot air’ is simply energy which would be better used for the actual lift.  It’s quite common for beginner and some intermediate lifters to get over-psyched up which clouds their ability to concentrate. 

If you can control it, and just switch it on (and off again) when necessary then its a tool which can be useful, but you can’t rely on it.   Also remember that it should be used sparingly. The New Zealand All Blacks don’t perform a ‘Haka’ prior to every single training drill and neither should you get to boiling point, screaming and shouting, pacing up and down prior to every 90%+ lift you do each week. 

If you do this all the time in training then when it comes to the warm up room at a competition and being on the platform then you will find you are missing what you previously felt was a key component, because you will likely not be able to pace up and down for 10 minutes getting angry lifting to your perfect song when it comes to a competition.  

Positive Vs Negative Emotions for motivation

Too often lifters only focus on harnessing negative emotions, usually attempting to simulate anger and aggression which in most cases is just a disguise for fear and apprehension. Whilst I am not opposed to occasionally drawing on ‘dark thoughts’ or ‘pain’ to provide  drive and focus, it is important to draw on positive sources of confidence also.  This can be a personal thing, but it is certainly the case that too much fear, disguised as anger, will drain your energy and is emotionally taxing too which will cause a much quicker build up of fatigue. 

Begin mentally preparing early to avoid failing reps

Likewise mental preparation needs to be holistic, it starts long before the comp and continues after; it’s not something that can be meaningfully completed thirty seconds before the lift.  Mike Tyson, in his Kid Dynamite phase (one of the best example of focused controlled aggression in sports)  didn’t casually saunter into the ring and then do a few war cries to get going. The confidence and mental preparation begins way before the day of competition. 

Just in the same way as you should train optimally (as opposed to maximally) when it comes to selecting weights and how close to go to your absolute limit, the same principle applies when it comes to the degree of psyche up required. If you ignore this, not only will you burn yourself out and stall your progress by pushing beyond what you can recover from, you’ll look foolish doing it.

Build a Winning Tradition

A common concept for successful sports teams and institutions is building a ‘Winning Tradition’: a pattern of success. This means making winning, the default and the expected result. This echoes the point about how important it is to use positive forms of mental preparation.

To be a great lifter you must build confidence and this comes from as much as possible, removing failure from your habits. When you don’t fail in training, then you open up the possibility of progression, and gently begin to remove the ceiling on your capability which you have imposed on yourself.  

Training Optimally is not the same as training Maximally

Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell  talks of a conversation with Mel C. Siff where they discuss training ‘optimally’ over training minimally or maximally; the point being to “save a little something [back]”. When you save just a little back, you leave the session optimistic that you haven’t yet reached your limit and that more is possible or will at least be soon.



Remember that remaining positive is essential in order to be successful. Failing Reps and Self-confidence are linked. Over-reaching and repeatedly failing will damage your confidence extensively. There is no real pride to be taken in failing multiple times. Just about scraping through getting a weight on the 4th attempt at it, having compromised form, wasted timed energy taking unsuccessful attempts,  getting progressively angrier and angrier for each attempt is no way to train. Pick your battles and remember that it counts most when done on the platform in competition so amping yourself up to the Nth degree every training session is never a sustainable strategy. Technique is best mastered when only allowing a very minimal amount of form breakdown on occasion. Even during a max effort session most people benefit from saving a little in the tank, especially when it’s just a training session.

Save it for the platform!

like this article? see our other article on tactics for when you do miss a rep(s) in training

Tips for what to do if you miss reps in training or don’t hit your targets for a session?

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