“The bar is loaded for Taryn Wahl.”
I lock my belt into place, take a deep breath in and slowly let it out as I step onto the platform. My heart is pounding and all I am thinking is “Get tight. Be fast.” I grab the bar in the same spot that I always do while squeeze my upper back as hard as I can and duck under the bar. I stand up tall while staring at the ref in front of me. The weight feels heavy and so I repeat to myself, “Get tight. Be fast.” The ref yells, “SQUAT!” I shift the weight into my heels, suck in as much air as possible, squeeze every muscle in my body as hard as I can and pull my hips back. Controlling the weight of the bar I hit the bottom of my squat and explode upwards. I’m staring at the ceiling, pushing my shoulders up into the bar while the crowd yells. I lock out my hips, stand strong and wait to hear the ref yell, “RACK!” before walking the bar back. I turn around and look at the white lights behind me while the announcer says “Aaaand it’s a good lift.”
When I was working with a personal trainer two years ago and was asked if I wanted to try a powerlifting competition I laughed SO hard. “What?! Me?! I’m skinny and weak. Why would I do that?” I was told something that I will never forget: “Powerlifting isn’t about winning. It’s about competing against yourself. Having a goal will push you to train harder than you thought possible and you’ll be surprised at what you can actually do if you try.” At this point in time I wasn’t a very happy person. I was struggling with school and was working a job that I didn’t enjoy to pay for it while feeling stuck in a bad relationship. I decided that I wanted to try something new and exciting so I said yes. I competed in my first powerlifting meet in December 2012. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done. I have come a long way since then and feel like a completely different person today. I competed in the 2015 Saskatchewan Powerlifting Championships last weekend and it was my best meet yet. I hope that by sharing what I’ve gone through I will encourage anyone else who struggles with self-doubt to start making changes to be healthier and happier.
I am not a naturally strong or athletic person. I didn’t play sports as a kid. I was painfully shy and extremely introverted. In high school I felt so left out that I decided to try something new so I joined the wrestling team because it was a sport that was new to everyone else in the school, unlike basketball or soccer. I ended up loving being active and even joined the rugby team in grade 12. However, I lacked a lot of self-confidence and because of that was never very competitive. I was scared to really push myself because if I tried and still failed then it must be because there was something wrong with me. This self-defeating mindset affected all areas of my life and I was not a happy person for most of my adult life.
A few years ago powerlifting became the one thing in my life that made me happy. I looked forward to training with my coach because no matter what happened during the week I could set it all aside and focus on myself while getting stronger in the gym. I could smash weights around with big, beefy dudes while listening to heavy metal. My coach made me feel like I was strong and capable while encouraging me to keep at it. I competed in three meets within a nine-month period in my last year of university. I wanted to pay off student loans quickly so I got a job in the trades with the hope of being able to save up enough to get into Physiotherapy Masters program at the U of S. Things didn’t go as planned. I worked long hours doing physical labour and was so exhausted that I stopped training and didn’t even see friends.
In October 2013 I was injured on the job when I coworker dropped a wooden plank on my head. X-rays showed that my neck lost its natural cervical curve and was now straight, resulting in chronic whiplash. Dealing with WCB, my employer and my union hall was extremely difficult because I was not assertive at all. I had no self-worth and didn’t know how to stand up for myself. I toughed things out on the job for two months until things became so bad that I developed TMD in my jaw, tendonitis in my shoulders, elbows and wrists, nerve damage that was similar to carpal tunnel syndrome and was so overstressed that I had a chronic skin rash over my whole body. I was in constant pain and was completely miserable. My doctor finally told me that I had to stop working in order to get better. My boss begged me to stay on for light duty and I so I did that for two weeks before being laid off. At this point WCB told me that because I was laid off I wouldn’t receive loss of income but could still get physiotherapy and chiropractor sessions covered as long as I wasn’t working anywhere else. My union hall said that they wouldn’t hire me out to another company because I was injured. It seemed that my only option was to stay at home and be broke. My doctor prescribed me some heavy-duty muscle relaxants to help me sleep and deal with the pain I was in. The pills made me feel so tired and groggy that one day while driving I veered into the lane beside me and caused a car accident. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt but the cop on the scene said that I had to go with her to the hospital for drug testing and a psychiatric evaluation. I didn’t have illegal drugs in my system but still lost my license and eventually had to pay for a course and testing to get it back.
This was the lowest point of my entire life. I was referred to a psychiatrist and put on suicide watch for the weekend. In January 2014, the psychiatrist put me into a group therapy program at the hospital where I went Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm for four weeks. She told me to make being happier my full time job. It was in this program that I had to let go of all the expectations I had for myself and how I thought my life should be. I was desperate to get better and was willing to try anything because it was clear that how I’d been living was not working.
In the Recovery Support Program I took group classes on anxiety, depression, anger, handling stress, assertiveness, goal setting, developing coping skills, and positive thinking. I was still injured and in a lot of pain. It was difficult to sit in a chair for six hours a day so I had to take frequent walks and stretch breaks but I am so glad that I toughed it out. Most of the people in the program were transitioning out of the psych ward back to living in their own homes.
I learned a lot about myself in that program. I realized that I had tied so much of my identity into the things that I was doing and now that I was injured and off work I had nothing left. I was a science student, which meant I must be smart. I was a bartender so I must be sexy and super fun. I was a powerlifter so that meant I must be strong and totally badass. When all of those things went away I was lost. I felt dumb, ugly, boring and weak. I completely withdrew from family and friends and hated myself.
From February to April 2015 I was in a physiotherapy program where I went to a clinic for 4-6 hours a day to rehab my neck injury. I don’t think that I would have made the physical progress that I did if I hadn’t spent a month focusing on my mental health. Pain is an interesting thing. We assume it always means something is wrong but often it is more than jus simple cause and effect. Pain is affected by everything going on in your nervous system and can be influenced by your mood, emotions and past experiences. There is a strong link between depression and chronic pain. I learned that I had let stress get the best of me and that’s why I got sick. I ignored my problems for so long that they built up and caused anxiety. Anxiety that goes on for too long can actually cause depression. I let myself become an angry, negative person because I felt like a victim and didn’t take control of anything in my life.
In the last year and a half I have made a conscious effort to pay attention to my thoughts and change them to serve me better. It has been a very difficult process but now it’s a habit that I don’t even think about. Looking back, I can see a major shift in my happiness, mental strength and self-confidence. I notice what I’m thinking about, evaluate how those thoughts may affect me if I let myself believe them and then decide what to do with them from there. Thinking objectively this way has eliminated so much of the guilt and shame that I used to feel.
When I was in my 10-week physiotherapy program, my therapist told me that I had to push myself to get better and that it was going to cause more pain but eventually it would go away. I had to believe that I was going to get better and that the pain would go away otherwise it wouldn’t. There were many people in the clinic with me and some had been there for months. It was clear that the people with negative attitudes who were afraid to push themselves with exercise weren’t getting better. My natural instinct was to complain all the time, try to get sympathy from others and lay around with heating pads on my neck all day. And I did that for a long time. Then I decided that I didn’t want to stay that way. I had this amazing opportunity to focus on fixing myself and I was squandering it.
I decided to take control and get all the help that I could. I kept going to counseling and working through my negative thought patterns. I was afraid that because of what happened to me I would always be broke, always be in pain and would never get to compete in powerlifting again. I had to stop holding myself back by thinking that way. I made a list of things to repeat to myself throughout the day and typed it into my phone, wrote it on paper to put in my wallet and then on stickie notes that I placed around my bedroom and bathroom. These are the things I told myself over and over for months until I believed them:
I am strong and confident.
I am getting better every day.
My pain is temporary.
The past has no control over me.
I can stop negative thoughts and choose positive ones.
I can’t control the waves but I can learn to surf.
I love myself just the way I am.
It was in June of 2014 that Trench Fitness announced they were hiring a new personal trainer. At this point I had been off of work for 8 months. I knew that I wanted that job but my old self-doubt crept up and told me I couldn’t do it. But instead of letting it stop me, I called a friend to talk me into applying. I sent Erika an email, typed up a resume and showed up at the gym a day later. After talking to Neil and Erika, they saw my potential and thought that what I had gone through was an asset that could help others. I wanted to work with them because they knew how important mindset is for changing your body and improving your life. I was hired a week later and started working with clients and teaching group classes.
I decided to start training for powerlifting again in August 2014 and compete at the Last Chance Invitational in December of that year. It was difficult to get under the bar again and not be as strong as I used to be. It was really hard on my ego and I pushed myself to lift too heavy too fast in an attempt to feel better about myself. I had numbers in my head that I wanted to hit to prove that I was strong and instead of focusing on improving my technique, I kept piling on the weight.
Last Chance wasn’t a very good meet for me. I had a lot of support from family and friends and was afraid to disappoint them. I was anxious, unable to focus, wasted time watching other lifters and compared myself to them, was dealing with side effects from medication, had a bruised tailbone (don’t take two boxers rollerblading EVER) and was worried about what everyone else thought of me. I felt like I had to let everyone know that this was my first meet back since my neck injury so that’s why my lifts weren’t impressive and my numbers weren’t big. My expectations of myself and the feeling of needing to prove myself to others left me feeling embarrassed and disappointed after this meet.
In January 2015 I got back into training and wanted bigger numbers on my squat, bench and deadlift. However, pushing myself to train as heavy as I did with a bruised tailbone had taken a toll on my body. My squat pattern was thrown off and I ended up with tendonitis in both knees. I wanted to quit. I spent a week forcing myself to train through the pain and then quit. I didn’t lift for about two weeks and then decided that I had to do things right this time. Worrying about what others thought of me and comparing myself to them had gotten me nowhere. From January to the end of March the only squats that I did were with an empty barbell to a low box with a band around my knees. I was in excruciating pain while doing my job and daily activities. I went for massage and chiro weekly until I got better.
In April my knees finally started to feel better and I decided to start training for Provincials. I gave myself loose goals of numbers that I wanted to hit on the platform to focus my training cycle on but my main goal was to have a better competition than Last Chance. Better does not have to mean more weight. Lifting pain free, getting better after an injury and hitting short-term goals are all wins. You do not have to set new personal bests to have a good competition.
In the sport of powerlifting there are common sayings among coaches that have inspired me beyond belief, they are “you are competing against yourself” and “attack your weaknesses.” While trying to get as good as possible at only three lifts, the squat, bench and deadlift, you have to analyze your technique and really push yourself to get stronger. When trying to lift a 1-rep max there is absolutely no room in your head for self-doubt. It is an all out battle against your brain to focus and push yourself as hard as possible. To be strong and explosive, you practice all three lifts in the gym and treat each rep as if it’s the heaviest thing you’ve ever lifted. Powerlifters are continually trying to beat their last PR and improve their total. After a meet, you start a new training cycle that is programmed specifically to attack your weaknesses to improve your lifts.
To attack the weaknesses that held me back at Last Chance I had to focus on myself, build my confidence, not compare myself to others and just follow my training plan as best as I could. I wanted to squat over 200lb but knew that it would take a long time to get there. Real change takes time and consistent effort. I shifted my focus from numbers on the bar to the effort that I was putting in. Purposefully shifting my perspective to finding positives in everything made all the difference. When a set didn’t go well, instead of beating myself up about it and being angry I would remember my goals and figure out what I needed to do to get better. I had to be objective and focus on what I wasn’t good at.
While I had target weights I wanted to hit, getting better and beating my old self was the true goal. I beat myself up so badly after Last Chance yet all of the people who supported me were proud of me for stepping on the platform again and didn’t care about how much I lifted. For provincials I wanted to be mentally stronger and not waste a second thinking negatively about myself. True strength comes from overcoming challenges not lifting a certain amount of weight. I worked with my coach and focused on training as consistently as possible in the months leading up to Provincials. I started meditating and visualizing myself crushing my lifts. Instead of being a nervous wreck the night before provincials, I packed up my food and equipment and went to bed like it was any other night. I woke up and was excited to see what I was going to do on the platform that day.
In the warm-up area I kept my headphones on, did my warm-up lifts and ignored everyone else. I didn’t watch any other lifters, kept clearing my mind of distracting thoughts and pictured myself being tight and fast under the bar. Over and over I told myself to keep the weight in my heels, take in all the air, stay tight, and drive your chest up. My coach said that he had never seen me so calm, focused and confident.
I ended up squatting over 200lbs that day and set PRs in all three lifts. I hit all of my lifts except for my last bench press but I didn’t let it upset me. I was back at the gym on Monday starting my new training program that is focused on continuing to build strength while attacking my weaknesses. I need to get faster off the floor when I deadlift and stronger off my chest when I bench. There is no guilt and no shame, just objectives to help me move forward.
It may seem strange to care so much about lifting a heavy barbell but that’s not really what it’s about. Getting stronger physically has made me stronger mentally and emotionally. When you can learn to push yourself, focus on a goal and try to continually get better at something that is challenging, it builds character that carries over into all aspects of your life. When I first starting squatting heavy my old coach would stand behind me and say “strong and confident” every single time because he knew that I was scared. Now I say that to myself whenever I am scared of a lift. I repeat phrases to myself all the time to focus my mind on whatever I need to in order to accomplish something.
Here are a few phrases that have made the biggest difference for me in the last year:
1) Why not me?!
2) Eff self-doubt.
3) Progression not perfection.
4) Focus on what you can control.
5) Attack your weakness.
I now believe that I am a strong and confident person. I am smart, beautiful and fun not because of anything that I do but because I just am. I will continue to improve as a person not because I hate myself and need to change for other people but because I love myself and want to get better every day. There is nothing so wrong with me that I can’t be happy and healthy. Self-doubt will only hold me back. If I try to be perfect I will only be miserable because that is an unattainable goal. I am in control of my thoughts and can use them to my advantage. I accept that I am flawed and love myself anyway. If there is something about me that I want to change then I have the power to change it.
A year and a half ago I was in constant pain, mentally and physically. I never dreamed that I would be where I am at now. I am healthy and happy. I am the strongest that I have ever been. I am so glad that I didn’t give up on myself and am grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way. I am training for the 2015 Last Chance Invitational and want to lift enough to qualify for Nationals. I’m confident that I will, but if by some chance I don’t, then I will figure out what went wrong and keep working at it. Setbacks will happen, they are a part of life but they don’t have to hold you back. Embracing the challenge will make all the difference.
– Coach Taryn