Nicu Vlad is one of the greatest weightlifters of all time. He lifted in the 90kg weight class and is most well known for having the heaviest double body weight snatch; he snatched 200 kilos while weighing 100. He won an gold at the 1984 Olympics, placed second in 1988, and placed third in 1996 (when he was 33!). He also placed in the top three in seven World Championships (winning gold in three) and placed in the top two in six European Championships.
There are only a few videos on YouTube of his prowess, and here are two with the best video quality (note the Gordon commentators).
The 215kg clean and jerk from the same meet.
A few years ago Matt Foreman wrote an excellent article about Vlad in the Performance Menu. The story under the heading “A quick 185 snatch, then some RDLs…” stood out to me. Foreman was watching Vlad snatch, and Vlad missed 175 twice and then jumped to 180 and missed that twice.
I will never forget what he did next.
He loaded 185 on the bar. This time, as he stood in front of the bar preparing for the lift, he stood motionless, tilted his head back and closed his eyes in the famous Vlad-concentration pose we had all seen him strike on the platform at the Olympics and world championships. He had not done this before any of the other lifts of his workout, and the gym went completely silent. After ten seconds, he reached down, grabbed the bar, and nailed the easiest, strongest snatch of the day.
Foreman later found out that 185 was his goal weight for the day, and he pointed out how Vlad didn’t make a big production out of missing the previous reps or getting ready (or “psyched”) for the 185. I admire this trait in Vlad and other weightlifters as it represents maturity and discipline in the mental aspect of training. The ability to mentally induce a hurricane is much more impressive to me than requiring external stimuli like music, slapping, and yelling.
However, I don’t like how Foreman chose to explain it here: “When he got to 185…he just applied an extra level of concentration and focus. It was a big weight, he was having a bad workout, and he needed to tap into his extra reservoir of inner strength, mojo, or whatever you want to call it.”
Foreman and I admire Vlad for the same reasons, but this quick explanation is merely an over simplification on what Vlad was probably doing. Profile studies of the most successful athletes — the elite — show that they score the highest in “vigor”, a summary for strong mental health. This is typically innate in the highest performers, but their ability can be augmented by various mental strategies. World class athletes are typically taught things like arousal regulation, imagery, routines, self talk, and thought stoppage that focus on physical cues or improve concentration, motivation, self confidence, and subsequently performance.
While it’s possible that Vlad closed his eyes and merely gave himself a pump up, I like to think it was a specific psychological method that he regularly uses. The techniques above aren’t just used once in a while; they are practiced hundreds and thousands of times in congruence with the sport itself so that they become as much habit as the sport. For example, if a lifter takes fifteen minutes from each day, relaxes, and visualizes hitting a smooth snatch with whatever his primary cue is (like stabbing the rack position), then when he finally steps back on a platform he has mentally practiced the snatch hundreds of times. He has seen or felt his body perform it, so the lift itself becomes a part of the story that has played out in his head every day. This is just one very specific type of example.
On that particular day, it may have been something as simple as Vlad thinking about wanting to win the 1990 World Championships (Foreman’s stories are from earlier that year). He may have thought about one of his top adversaries lifting better than him. He may have been just been pissed off about missing and was giving himself an ultimatum. Maybe he thought, “Don’t look like a loser in front of these fucking American kids.” Who knows what he thought about, but it wasn’t merely that he “focused harder”. There are many psychological skills that can be implemented whether they are taught or not, and a complete change in performance doesn’t occur from a vague “inner strength”.
Either way, Vlad was an amazing weightlifter and someone whose technique — physical and mental — we should study and learn from.