Strong is Happy but Happy is Stronger

By Hugh Gilmore

This article was provided by Peformance Menu and originally published on

Photo credit: LiftingLife, Joseph McCray

Positive psychology sounds like a bit of an invitation for every hippie with their chakra aligned to go and spread the good word of fluffy feel-good vibes. Thankfully, it’s not. Negative thoughts and emotions have evolved because they are important to our survival as a species. If the tiger chased you and you thought, “Oh, this will end positively” you were removed from the gene pool. Thankfully, none of you are related to those people.

In the world of psychology, nothing pisses me off more than well-meaning morons who say things like “think positively” or “don’t be so negative” to anyone having a bad day. That approach has the same effect as saying “don’t have a cold” to a person who has a cold.  Hopefully this article will give you a better approach.

In my role as Sport Psychologist to the British Weightlifting team, I am focused on improving performance. As you may be aware, happy people perform better than unhappy people at everything. Of course we all know some anecdote of a miserable person who was a great athlete. This is possible because one factor alone does not determine performance. A great bit of research done in the workplace found a difference in 12 percent in performance between those employees who were made happier compared to those who were not.

Happiness is not merely being drunk and having a hundred fluffy puppies to play with. The classical definition, as described by psychologist and author Martin Seligman, is that of life satisfaction, measured on a scale of 1 to 10.

But Seligman’s research on happiness delves beyond life satisfaction. It dissects happiness into five influential factors, also known as the acronym PERMA.

PERMA stands for:

Positive Emotions





Positive Emotions

Positive emotions are essentially feelings that come over us: joy, hope, happiness, all those big fluffy feel-good words. How people perceive the world determines how often they experience these emotions. People’s minds invariably wander between good thoughts and bad ones. That said, we can prime the mind to focus on positive areas, therefore building a more positive lens to with which to perceive the world. This in turn has positive consequences of making us less stressed and more productive, as well as being more optimistic. Being aware of how you typically view situations—and able to reflect on other ways you might view it—is crucial. Narrowly missing that PB snatch attempt after putting in 12 weeks of work may frustrate you, but another way to look at it is to be aware of how much closer you are than you were 12 weeks ago. Reviewing that video and/or getting feedback from your coach can give you the feedback to get even closer to that new PB. Being so frustrated and annoyed that it negatively affects you will not get you closer to your goal, and in fact can have negative repercussions. A common issue athletes struggle with is ruminating about a problem. Rumination is essentially a thought spiral. Each time we have a thought, it becomes more likely that we will have that thought again. Our brain thrives on repetitive thought processes because they save energy, even if that repetitive process is harmful. These repetitive or reoccurring negative thoughts cause the athlete to become stressed, and make it difficult to view the event in a more positive angle.

There are daily activities that can increase and develop the ability to frame situations positively, and build the ability to change thought processes. One example is starting a “what went well” journal. This is a journal where the person records three things that went well each day, and positively relates them to themselves, such as “I trained through a tough session today, and this shows I am committed to my goal.” As a coach, you can encourage your athletes to start a “what went well” journal, or add a “what went well” comment in their current training log.

A key feature of the process is not picking the same thing twice. For example, if every day you write, “I put in effort and finished the session despite having a crappy day,” that won’t develop your ability to look for the positives. Picking a new thing every day requires conscious thought.

The above process may sound cheesy. In fact, I’d skip it myself if I didn’t know the science behind it was so solid, the research firmly supports its effectiveness.  In addition to this the US army also integrated this into its Solider Readiness/Fitness program.


How engaged are you in what you do? This could also be interpreted as experiencing flow.  Flow is the experience of having tasks that are in the Goldilocks zone: not hard enough to be needlessly frustrating, not easy enough to be boring, but just right to keep you challenged. This effectively is also the learning zone. Ask a beginner to do a hang sn + sn + ohs + split snatch complex, and they will panic. Ask an experienced lifter to just do multiple reps of PVC OHS and you are creating a recipe for boredom. An example of modifying a session might be changing a set of eight doubles in the snatch to a competition with another athlete to see who can be the most consistent in hitting their eight doubles, each miss deducting a point from their score thus increasing the challenge level. As a coach, you can’t make all sessions perfect for everyone, but you can move them one bit closer by using such techniques. Keeping a running dialogue with your athletes about how they’re feeling about their training is also a good idea. People also experience engagement or flow in the social interactions that occur in the gym as well. Experiences of engagement or flow are characterized by the feeling of time flying. Creating a program and environment that facilitates your athletes being in the moment and enjoying the experience will encourage them to return.


Humans are social animals. We live for connection. We seek belonging, and when we have connection, we are happier.  Within the gym environment or club environment, we innately seek out connection.  As a coach you can encourage this behavior by ensuring that new people are welcomed in. In a club, there is a tendency for cliques to form, which can be detrimental to the gym environment. You can minimize this by routinely changing pairings of people on the platforms. Encouraging other social interactions, such as club nights out, can also help people find camaraderie with fellow gym members.

In addition to what psychologists call social cohesion, you can also create task cohesion by setting challenges with lifters. Dave Hemborough from Sheffield Hallam Barbell club sets an entertaining challenge for new lifters paired up in groups of three. They have to keep one hand on the bar at all times when it’s on the platform.  This requires help and organization when changing plates and setting them up for the next person. At first this sounds like a pointless distraction, but it is an example of a non-invasive constraint that will encourage communication between people, and give people who might not know each other a common task to talk about and organize. At worst, it gives people something to talk about.  At best, this shared experience and goal increases the likelihood of relationships forming.


The big WHY.  People do things because they have meaning. Your job as a coach is to understand the athletes’ why. Some people lift to compete, some people lift for health, some people lift to learn, some lift because their friends lift. If you want to understand their whys, ask them why, and then keep asking why to each successive answer. Up to five times is normally enough. This technique was developed in 1970s by Sakichi Toyoda to find root causes of manufacturing faults, and has been adopted into therapy by psychologists because it helps get to the root of people’s behaviors or motivation.

An example might be

Q: Why do you lift?

A: To get stronger.  

Q: Why?

A: Because I want to be a better athlete for my sport  

Q: Why?

A: Because I play a sport that requires speed and I am slow.  

Q: Why do you play that sport?

A: I enjoy it and it has a meaning and forms part of my identity.  

Why do you enjoy it?

Because I like the fact that I can compete at any age. I enjoy being able to maintain health and function into my older years, and it also feels good to challenge myself. I like the buzz of competing.

If an athlete’s only why is competing and reaching their best, once they have peaked (after a number of years) and are not likely to hit a new PB again, there is a good chance they might just walk away from the sport. In this scenario, if they want to stay and continue lifting, they may need to change their “why,” or their reason(s) for lifting. As a coach, you can assist them in becoming aware of other reasons to maintain lifting over time by emphasizing the health or social benefits. If a lifter understands their need for social connection and appreciates the health benefits of lifting, they may become more committed and resilient throughout their lifespan.

It is important to note that where someone’s identity is made up entirely of one thing, that is a vulnerable place.  Viewing your identity through one lens is a recipe for disaster when that one area of their life is not going well. A great example is that of lifters who are fully engaged and committed to their sport but also make an income out of their involvement in it. When their career goes bad, their business becomes harder. They find it difficult to decompress because two very big parts of their life contain the same element. The research clearly shows that elite athletes have other outlets or hobbies and that these are useful for facilitating dealing with stress. This is something that may be worth discussing with your athletes when appropriate.


People like achieving. Your job as a coach is to structure the training so that people improve their lifting.  If the only aspect time they are aware they have achieved is once every 12 weeks when they PB, then you are a missing out on helping them get extra motivation by setting daily goals These could be based on quality (having a lifter or coach judge their positions or movement and keeping a score out of 10 for positions), quantity (sets, reps, volume), or something else altogether.

Improvement is a daily process. Asking athletes to set minimum and maximum goals for each day’s session is a great practice. For example, if the minimum goal or standard for the day is hitting five doubles above 80 percent, maximum goal (or gold standard) could be hitting nine doubles above 80 percent.

Setting a minimum and a gold standard for the day’s session increases the likelihood of a minimum level of achievement, and increases motivation to aim for a gold standard.

Both questions elicit the motivational responses associated with ‘prevention’ and ‘promotion’ goals. Unfortunately, a lot of sport psychologists don’t like the SMART acronym because it oversimplifies complex research, rendering it less helpful than thought.  However, there are other evidence-based ways of increasing the five elements of positive psychology, all of which have been scientifically validated.   So often we hear examples of bad coaching and bad coaches, but how often do you spend the time looking to model the things great coaches do beyond drills and programming? Positive psychology can be a key component of creating success at both the individual and club level.

Hugh is the current Performance Psychologist with the Great Britain Olympic weightlifting team and Paralympic Power Lifting Team. He also works closely with the tutor education and course development team in British Weightlifting. In addition to this he has been involved in the development of weightlifting in Northern Ireland, and was formerly a GAA coach and Hurler from Ballycran. Check out for further information.

The views expressed in this article may not be that of USA Weightlifting. Publication of all articles is to share different opinions and viewpoints. For instruction on the lifts from USA Weightlifting visit

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