In which I learn how to fail well
This morning we were working on back squats at the gym. This is when you squat with a barbell on the back of your shoulders. (The fabulous Elizabeth Akinwale demonstrates above.) Typically we'll work our way up to our "max" weight—so we start on the lighter side and with each set we'll add a little more weight.
Before we got started our coach explained what to do if you're at the bottom of a squat and you can't get back up. This is a bit dangerous, because with back squats we're usually dealing with heavy weights, maybe too heavy for a spotter to help. So if we're stuck, we let the weights fall to the back while we shoot our hips forward, out from under the barbell. Simple enough, right?
This would have been a good time to do some visualization exercises to really internalize that process. But I excel at hearing what not to do and then doing exactly that. And I kind of didn't think I would need to dump my weight because I don't usually do crazy heavy.
But today it happened. I did a squat with my body weight—a first! And then next set I added five more pounds. And then five more after that. My breath was off this time. I inhaled before starting, but I exhaled as I sunk down, instead of waiting to exhale as I stood up. Too late, I had nothing to push up with.
I could feel the weight pushing me forward. The barbell was going to roll over my neck, which is terrifying. You don't want 100+ pounds rolling over your neck. Panic forced a ridiculous animal noise out of me, kind of a roadkill deer bleat. My coach was there, reminding me to push the weight back. Not today, death, I thought. Not today. I awkwardly maneuvered the weight behind me and avoided breaking my neck. Phew.
So. Now I knew how that felt. I hadn't anticipated was how much exertion it would take to fail well, to throw off the weight safely. You don't just passively collapse and let the barbell roll off your back. You actually have to force it back.
After a rest I went one more time, five pounds lighter, but my confidence was a bit shaken. I got stuck at the bottom of my squat again. This time my body knew what to do. I shoved the weight back and kind of wriggled forward. I was disappointed that I'd failed again. But what a relief to have dumped my weight more safely this time.
So I was thinking about this on my way home afterwards. About how failing well enough to recover and do it again still takes skill and exertion. What if I'd started each rep visualizing success and visualizing a "good" fail? Can I hold both ideas in my mind at once?
What does that look like? How do you plan for success and give yourself the best chance while also rehearsing for failure? Because failure is inevitable. Any time you're reaching for something big, something that scares you a little, that you're not 100 percent sure you can pull off, failure is lurking behind you. And if it's failure's turn we can either let it crush us or we can have an emergency plan and exert the will to throw off that weight so we can live to fight another day.
That's something I'm mulling over this morning.