How to Loseby Jen Sinkler
Last weekend, I lost.
I am not a good loser.
This is not an apology. I tend to agree with author Tim Krabbé when he writes, “Being a good loser is a despicable evasion, an insult to the sporting spirit.”
Let me be clear, however: I did not throw a tantrum. I did not kick anything over. I did not shout or cry, or sulk or pout for even a moment. I did not disparage the performance of any of the other competitors. I did not blame the judges.
I simply do not like to lose. It sticks with me for a good, long time.
I remember it, and I use it as fuel and information.
So, before accepting my silver medal at the 2014 Twin Cities Open powerlifting meet, I congratulated and hugged the winner, my very dear friend and lifelong competitor in a wide variety of endeavors, Jenn (formerly known as) “Halvo” Halvorson, and immediately began plotting out how to perform better next time.
If you must lose, I believe there is a useful way to do it. A way that will make you better.
Next time. (By the way, USA Powerlifting’s t-shirt-under-the-singlet-rule for the women is bogus.)
Photo credit: Melissa Floyd
For all intents and purposes, I am a pretty strong recreational lifter, not an elite strength athlete. I spent my first training years in support of my rugby endeavors, and since hanging up my boots, I’ve embraced a generalist approach to lifting, experimenting with kettlebell training, Olympic lifting, powerlifting, CrossFit, calisthenics, DVRT, strongman and more. This was my first powerlifting meet.
Because I’ve refused to choose one track (I enjoy so many of them!), I am not the best at any of these endeavors. I doubt I ever will be, and that’s OK. The pleasure of variety, novelty and a broader base of proficiency is worth it to me.
There are many, many women much stronger than I am — I’ve pulled the current women’s raw American records for my weight class from the USA Powerlifting website, as a point of reference (and awe).
Had I gone up against a lifter of this ilk this past weekend, this is not the post I would be writing. That would be like an NFLer going up against a high school varsity player. That is not a contest.
As it was, this weekend was a contest. There were so many female lifters that we became the headline event, the energy of the crowd was electric, the weights were (seemingly) filled with helium, state records felt well within reach, and I ended up in the running for gold.
So let’s talk about how to win…or lose.
Shoulda Coulda Woulda
In the beginning of the second season of The Newsroom, we hear several of the main characters lamenting the “if onlys” of the situation that landed them in trouble with the U.S. government. If Jim Harper hadn’t gone on the campaign trail, if Jerry Dentana hadn’t filled in for him, if Cyrus West hadn’t appeared as a guest on the show instead of one of “Jim’s guys,” then none of it ever would have happened.
The same thing occurs in any close game or contest.
Several hours after the meet, Jenn Halvorson posted on Facebook, “What a day! I broke three state records for my weight class…won the women’s lightweight division and won overall best female lifter!”
Had something gone differently
Had even the teensiest thing gone differently that day, that status message would have been mine. Three records mine. Best overall lifter mine.
If only I’d made a more aggressive jump for my third squat based on how great the first two felt.
If only Jenn hadn’t decreased the weight of her opening bench press attempt.
If only I hadn’t unintentionally tipped her off to my strategy in the deadlift.
If only I’d tried straightening my legs a little more at the very top of my last pull.
If only I’d done rack pulls at least once in training.
If only I’d tried looking up.
It’s what I love about sport. It’s what I hate about sport.
The final result hinging on any one instant along the way. It is exhilarating.
Contrary to popular thinking, I believe the shoulda coulda woulda phase can be extremely useful for athletes, when wielded responsibly.
The fiercest competitors I have ever known dig through every one of the shoulda coulda woulda’s afterward, soaking them up and examining what didn’t go quite right. Plenty of lessons and learning lie in studying your performance in depth and assessing honestly what you would do differently, if given the chance.
Because ideally you might, at some point, be given the chance.
You Beat That Little Kid
In 2003, the U.S. women’s sevens rugby team toured New Zealand, an innate rugby country. During a stop to sign autographs and answer questions at an elementary school, a boy of 8 or 9 challenged the fastest woman on our team to a footrace. She declined, saying she was too worried he would win, and my friend and teammate Pam Kosanke immediately pulled her aside and said, “No! You beat that little kid, do you hear me? You do not back down. You believe you will beat him, and then you go beat him, do you understand?”
I laughed so hard I cried, but I agreed wholeheartedly.
For over a decade now, “You beat that little kid” has remained our mantra for mental toughness. Any time either of us becomes fearful, it serves as a verbal reminder, both to each other and to ourselves, to skip playing it safe, to roll the dice and play to win.
Because the teams that play simply not to lose almost always do.
The Definition of a Gamer
Several years after that tour, I was at a U.S. selection camp for the 2006 Rugby Fifteens World Cup, and the coach asked each of the players in attendance to write down the team we would select, if we were the ones picking the team.
“Sinkler, you are on my team,” said legendary Eagle Diane Schnapp, “because you are a gamer. I just made a list of gamers.”
I asked her to explain what she meant by the term. She did.
Gamers thrive under pressure.
Rather than cracking, they perform even better. Gamers are the players you want to have the ball when it matters, the players you want on the field as the final minutes of a close match tick away.
To this day, it remains the best compliment I have ever received. Not to mention a handy framework for sorting people.
The gamer’s defining characteristic is a combination of confidence and competence in their area of expertise, and I believe it’s a quality that can be taught, if you practice taking wins where you can and then celebrating your ability to deliver. Do that, and your ability to thrive under pressure progressively increases.
Meet Your Match
Though I’ve been lifting weights for 13 years, I trained specifically for this event for just five weeks. I’ve bench pressed only a handful of times essentially ever, and I’ve paid much closer attention to my deadlift than my back squat in recent years. I did, however, have access to some pretty incredible resources, such as Juggernaut Training Systems founder and American-record-holding powerlifter Chad Wesley Smith, who was willing to answer all my noob questions via text message (for example: “Am I supposed to wear these neoprene sleeves during the deadlift, too?” Answer: “No, the bar might get caught on them”); my USAWA-world-record-holding husband, David Dellanave, who is well-versed in weight selection and meet strategy; and even a “beverage coach” in local coffee shop owner and former powerlifter Caleb Garn (his tips on when how to manipulate water helped me make weigh-in). Plus, coach Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake wrote up a high-volume program that was sure to move the needle in a hurry, and we wanted an excuse to wear emerald green singlets and start a club called Movement Minneapolis Barbell.
Movement Minneapolis Barbell coaches.
Photo credit: Melissa Floyd
Team Rawr With Our Mascot, Kitty Fierce
If there was one sure win on the day, it was the pure joy of participating in an event with a community of people who celebrate each other’s successes as surely as their own, who conquer longstanding fears with bravery and wit, and who maintain perspective about their being much more to life than lifting. (That said, three of our seven Movement Minneapolis lifters left with medals, and every single one PRed in something that day. Lifting does make life better.)
Allll the Female Competitors at the Twin Cities Open
Remarkably, the day of the meet, Jenn and I were exactly the same bodyweight, to the hundredth of a pound: 66.85 kilograms, or 147.07 pounds. This meant that the usual tie-breaking rule of the win going to the lighter lifter would be rendered moot. It was a remarkably level playing field.
At weigh-in, you must announce what your first attempts will be for the squat, bench and deadlift. You have up until three minutes before your flight begins to make a change, if you’d like to.
Attempt 1: I decided to open at 102.5 kg, or 226 pounds. As I mentioned, I haven’t been back squatting very heavy much these past couple years, and as a result, there was only so much progress I could make in five weeks. That said, I’d started the program around 213 as a near-max lift, so the fact that I could open here was a relief. Beforehand, I warmed up to about 90 percent of that per powerlifter Jordan Syatt’s advice in his excellent article for beginner powerlifters.
Attempt 2: I’m no math whiz, especially when it comes to pound-to-kilo conversions, so in my notebook, I’d jotted down an array of potential options for each attempt ahead of time so that I could call an audible on which of those options I wanted to go with based on how easy the attempt before it felt.
My options, written down ahead of time for easy access after each attempt.
In this case, the options I’d given myself were 105 kg (231.5 pounds), 107.5 kg (237 pounds) or 110 kg (242.5 pounds). I’d been messing around with my squat depth quite a bit in the lead-up to the meet — before starting this program, I was squarely a high-bar back squatter, and as such, I kept burying my squats…and then getting buried by them. I’d been working on low(er)-bar back squatting, but due to engrained habits, I would occasionally revert. Two weeks prior to the meet, I’d gotten stuck at the very bottom of a high-bar back squat with 238 pounds, so although my first meet attempt with 226 felt easy, I didn’t quite trust the same thing not to happen again if I went for 242.5. So, I picked the middle option and opted for 237. ’Twas again a breeze.
Attempt 3: I mean, damn, 237 was easy. Now I was on high alert — this meet had the potential to go very differently than I’d originally anticipated. Jenn had dedicated more time benching and squatting than I had for this meet, and I’d fully expected her to be substantially outpacing me by this point, but we were in the same neighborhood.
Not neighbors, exactly, but in the same neighborhood. She’d squatted 248 pounds for her second attempt, and if I could catch up to her on my third attempt, I might be able to close the gap during the deadlift that I knew she was about to open up during the bench. This became the new plan.
Judging by my expression, the moment I realized I might be able to pull off a W. Cardigan Mark concurs.
Photo credit: Melissa Floyd
So, of the two options I’d given myself — 112.5 kg (248 pounds) or 115 kg (253.5) — I chose the latter. If I made it, it would also be a new Minnesota state record.
Turns out Jenn picked the same weight. We both made the lift at 253.5 pounds, but since I lifted it first, the record book will only record my name. (Sorry, dude!) This was a lifetime PR for me, but to be honest, I’m already excited to leave it in the dust in the near future.
This squat attempt is one of my “shoulda coulda woulda’s” — it was so easy that I regret not going for more. Next time, the information about the feel of the first two attempts will better inform my decision about the third in my next meet. It would have been the difference between winning and what happened next, and it might be again.
253 is good for the MN state record.
Photo credit: Melissa Floyd
Jenn Halvorson’s 253 is ALSO good.
Photo credit: Melissa Floyd
Attempt 1: Ugh, the bench press. Wait, I take it back: I actually like the bench press, on the rare occasions I do it, and I really enjoyed bro-ing out during during this program. I’d even gotten the chance to ask some rando at a Long Beach gym for a spot. I never get to do that.
Anyway, I’d benched up to 160 pounds in training — but with no pause at the chest, which you have to be prepared for with the judges — and I missed 165 during my last heavy training session, so weight selection was gonna be a sketchier proposition here. I have an even less attuned feel for what kind of jumps to make on bench attempts than I do on squat.
Before we began the bench, I was second-guessing my opener of 62.5 kg (137.8 pounds) because of the pause, so Jenn spotted me on a few warm-up reps up to 135 (see? We are the friendliest competitors ever), and they weren’t a problem at all, so I stuck with the number I’d turned in during weigh-ins. (Recall that you have up to three minutes before your flight begins to make a change.)
Jenn, on the other hand, made 82.5 kg, or 181.8 pounds. She is a bench monster. Always has been — the existing state record going into this meet was her own, and she broke it with her opening lift this meet.
She was originally slated to open with 187.4 pounds, but she lowered it just before we began our flight. Good thing (for her, anyway).
Attempt 2: The options I’d given myself were 65 kg (143.3 pounds) or 67.5 kg (148.8 pounds). The squat situation had made me suspect I was stronger than usual, so even considering there would be a pause at the chest, I opted for the 11-pound jump and went with the heavier of the two.
Easy make again.
Jenn missed 85 kg, or 187.4 pounds. This gave me a fighting chance to get within striking range for the deadlift.
Attempt 3: F*** it. At this point, I decided to play it a bit fast and loose. If I could make up a few pounds here, this thing could happen. I bounced the idea off of David. “Go for it,” he said. “You have to.”
Of the three options I’d written in my notebook — 70 kg (154.3 pounds), 72.5 kg (159.8) and 75 kg (165.3 pounds) — I opted for the last.
Made it. Not easily, exactly, but not ugly.
What do you bench, brah?
Photo credit: Monica Erickson
For her third attempt, Jenn scratched 187.4 again. This meant I was now 16.5 pounds behind her total. The deadlift had the potential to get interesting.
At this point, I wrote down four numbers new deadlift options in my notebook, all of them heavier than what I’d originally planned, just in case it went as well as the squat had: 162.5 kg (358.2 pounds), 165 kg (363.8 pounds), 167 kg (369.3 pounds) and 170 kg (374.8 pounds).
Attempt 1: Going into the meet, Jenn and I shared a training PR of 335. I’d pulled it a couple weeks prior clean, smooth, fast, and I had 350 pounds in the back of my mind as a nice place to finish in competition. I took a few warm-up reps ranging from 275 to 305. Hmm. Not as easy as squats had felt, but the practice bar was thick and chalk-less, so maybe that was the problem.
Still, I kept my opener where it was, at 142.5 kg (314.2 pounds). It went up fast. It didn’t look or feel quite right, I knew I had plenty more. This lift I’d been training regularly, even before this program, and I trusted my intuition about it.
Jenn opened with and made 147.5 kg (325.2 pounds).
Attempt 2: F*** it, part 2. I was sure I could set a PR during this rep, and if I was gonna make a move on that 16.5-pound gap, it had to be now. Of the options I’d given myself — 150 kg (330.7 pounds), 152.5 kg (336.2 pounds) or 155 kg (341.7 pounds), I opted for the last.
David caught my eye from across the room and shook his head, smiling. He was onto me.
This was the first point in the competition that Jenn and I swapped places in the lifting lineup. This time, mine was the heaviest attempt — she’d put in 336.2 — so this time, she lifted first. And her bar remained glued to the floor. Miss.
Meanwhile, 341.7 was probably the cleanest rep of the day for me — no problem.
The lift that tied us, a 6-pound lifetime PR for me of 342 pounds.
Photo credit: Monica Erickson
With this rep, I closed the 16.5-pound gap exactly. Jenn and I were now locked in a tie for first.
As with every other first and second attempt in the competition, afterward I went over to the scoring table to put in my number for my third attempt (you have 60 seconds after you finish your attempt to announce your next one).
The state record was 347.2 pounds. I wanted it, badly. So, I put in my attempt at the higher of my two original options, 160 kg (352.7 pounds).
“You know, if Jennifer Halvorson makes this next lift, the number you just put in won’t be enough to win. That lift would bring it back to a tie, and because she reached the total first, she would get the win. But, if she misses this lift again, you just have to increase your last attempt by 2.5 kilos and you win,” said USA Powerlifting secretary Angela Simons. “Don’t forget you have two chances to change your final attempt.” (Note to self: I gotta learn these rules.)
“When would I need to put my change in?” I asked.
“As she’s lifting, basically,” she said.
“So, if she makes this lift, I have to bump my attempt up from what it’s in as now in order to win?” I asked.
“Yep,” she answered.
“I think I’m just going to stay by you, then,” I said.
This is another of my “shoulda woulda coulda’s.” Jenn spotted me lurking around the scoring table and, as she tells the story, she decided she would not leave the platform until she was successful at her third attempt, again at 336.2. What I should have done was walk my ass back over to my seat so I didn’t raise suspicions, and then make a run for the scoring table during her rep, if need be.
Because if she made her third lift, she would again take over the lead by 11 pounds.
Yeah, she made it. In one long, excruciating, hard-earned pull, she got 336.2. Three white lights.
This left me faced with a choice: 1) Stay with my choice of 352.7 pounds, see if I could snag the state record and end up in a tie with Jenn. A tie that would officially be recorded as a win for her, however, because since we weighed in exactly the same, it would be the person who reached the winning total first who would be declared the victor, rather than the lighter lifter.
So, it would be a tie-loss, really.
2) Or, I could beat that little kid with a lift that would turn the lead back over to me, and this time permanently.
It meant, however, that I would have to pull 162 kg, or 358.2 pounds, a 23-pound PR prior to that day, and a 16.5-pound jump from what I’d just lifted.
There was never a question. If I am going to lose, I am going to do so playing to win.
It’s important to reiterate that I have developed enough of a feel for the deadlift to ballpark what kind of jumps I could make. I was absolutely positive I had 352.7 in me, so it was feasible (if a bit far-fetched) that I had 358.2.
And dammit, I almost did have it.
The bar got it to the tops of my thighs before it started losing momentum. I couldn’t quite push my hips all the way through, but the bar was still creeping upward, albeit millimeters per second.
I had a lot of time to think during this rep, and so I tried to solve the puzzle of how to stand all the way up with the thing. I thought back to a conversation I recall David being a part of, about which was more prohibitive to lockout, upper-back strength or hip-extension strength.
There is an entire passage in David’s ebook on deadlifting, Off the Floor, about it:
What is the biggest limiting factor in the deadlift? By now, you should know that the answer is always “it depends.”
If you said hip-extension strength, you’ve given the most popular answer, but I think it may be overstated
During a deadlift, your shoulders, hips, and knees form a triangle. The length between hips and knees is completely fixed. The length between hips and shoulders can vary based on the degree of curvature of the spine. Certainly, in a comically light deadlift with perfect form, the spine is perfectly neutral and remains a fixed length. However, in a heavy deadlift the spine is very often in a semi-flexed (or rounded) position, at the very least in the upper back. In fact, some of the best deadlifters (Konstantinovs is a notable example) will start out in a rounded upper-back position.
This curvature of the spine and shortening of the length between hips and shoulders creates a problem. The length between knees and shoulders is always going to be the same at lockout. If the spine is flexed and shortened, the hips cannot close the gap to the bar without forcing more curvature into the spine — assuming the upper back is the weak link. The geometry of this triangle must remain constant. This is why you see deadlifters fail just above the knee, when it seems like all they have left to do is slam their hips into the bar. The harder they try to extend their hips, the more they are literally fighting against their own spinal extension strength.
I also thought about how I never do rack pulls. WHY DO I NEVER DO RACK PULLS??! Because I’ve never gotten stuck here before, that’s why. I should really start doing rack pulls so I can finish off a lift like this.
I thought about a comment a powerlifting champ had left on a video of me pulling 335: “Very strong but remember not to lock the knees too early and 350 will be there.” So I kept my knees unlocked.
Then I thought about my strongman champion friend Maya Camille Winters, who always tells me you have to “pull till you poop” during the deadlift, and to never let go of the bar, even if I do poop. I have told her repeatedly that I have never had the urge to poop during a deadlift, but that if I did, I would rather let go of the bar than poo. She always shakes her head and questions my dedication.
I wondered, for the first time, if I might poop, and I thought I might not let go of the bar, after all.
I thought about all these things.
And then my left hand gave out, just at the very moment the judge gave me the “down” command.
For a moment, I thought his telling me to put it down meant I’d had it enough of the way up to pass muster with the judges, so I whirled around to see and…three red lights.
I’d lost to a good lifter and good friend on a good day in a good way.
I do not prefer that outcome, of course, but at least I lost in a way that honors the competitive spirit, that leaves me hungry for more and that will lead me toward better next time.
“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” -Dylan Thomas
The medalists for the 148s and under. From left to right: Jala Beer, Jen Sinkler, Jenn Halvorson, Becca Hendlin and Misha Harstad.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my interview with rugby coaching great Jack Clark called “How to Win.”