When trying to find the absolute best mindset to compete in most powerlifters will tend to lean towards sheer rage - regardless of whether this is best for them or not. Some will go to a solemn place, others will get themselves amused beforehand. Regardless of which way they choose to go their destination should be one where they have little to no intrusive thought, no over thinking and no reliance on sheer brute strength. They should get to a position where that mindset is based upon pure instinct. Or based upon...ultra instinct.
Now I won’t go into a full diatribe about Dragon Ball, or its sequels Z,Super and GT (yes, it counts) but I will link you to my previous Dragon Ball-meets-sports-science article where I compared a Zenkai boost to peaking and, more importantly here, I explain what Dragon Ball is. *
However, what is important to know is that in Super, canonically the furthest into the story, Goku gets to a tournament where his team includes none other than his first proper teacher - Master Roshi. Throughout this tournament Goku gets absolutely destroyed by a foe he can’t get anywhere near called Jiren.
In the manga there is a great scene where Goku is trying to rely on just being stronger or transforming (again) to try to overcome Jiren. Until Roshi basically just tells him to fight better and rely on his techniques. Roshi, who at this point is nowhere near the level of Goku, then manage to show a small understanding of ‘Ultra Instinct’ and manages to go toe-to-toe with Jiren for a short time and, thus, inspires Goku.*1
Following this Goku realises that if he focuses less on being stronger or going harder and just hones in on his technique then he will move better, fight better and, perform better technically which results in him achieving the use of ‘Ultra Instinct.’
The idea of switching off and just doing the movement has its base in sports psychology, martial arts and philosophies from various parts of the world, such as Japan where it would be ‘Mushin,’ or China where it would be something akin to ‘Daoism.’
What is the real life Ultra Instinct?
It’s not so much a thing as it is a state of mind. In Dragon Ball, the aim is to switch off their brain from over complicating things and letting their highly trained, highly skilled bodies react by themselves. They know how to fight, so just fight - don’t think about it first, just fight. This sounds really simple but after years of deliberate practice it can be hard to just trust yourself, it can be hard to just turn your brain off.
In the Western world, the most common name for this state would be the ‘flow state,’ whereas in the Eastern areas of philosophy, namely Japan, it would be ‘Mushin,’ which means ‘empty mind,’ or ‘mind without mind.’ I like the idea of ‘empty mind,’ best as this succinctly describes the state you want to be in in order to allow yourself to just do what you need to do.
As ever, a bridge between the Eastern and Western philosophies, particularly when it comes to fighting, is Bruce Lee. He suggested that one should -
Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Be water, my friend."
So, what is Mushin and what does it mean to you, the powerlifter? It is the idea of freeing the mind of fear, of ego, of anger and, of random thoughts. This basically means removing all distractions other than the technique you need - which, as we’ll get on to later, comes through practice, practice and more practice.
The practice of this state of Mushin must be practiced alongside the technique - however, for beginners the technique must take precedence. *2
‘Flow State’ is the scientific name to the philosophical ‘Mushin.’ You could also refer to it as being ‘in the zone.’ You may find that when you are in this zone that time flies due to your lack of distraction to other events which you would usually use to measure time.
Now this state of mind isn’t recommended for the beginner - not because it is inherently extreme but rather - because for it to work best you need to be at a relatively high skill level in your chosen sport. Here I will focus on powerlifting as that's my main area of expertise.
If you’re at your competition and about to hit your first squat you want to be able to just get under the bar and do your thing. You don’t want to be distracting yourself with concerns about whether or not your left foot is in line with your right foot or whether you’ve left the stove on at home. You want to routinely set yourself up in an efficient, practiced manner and just do.
But how do we get to this stage you might ask?
The answer won’t surprise you; it’s practice. Deliberate practice is the main thing you need in order to become an expert. Dr Ericsson claimed in 1990 that for you to become an expert in your chosen field you will need to clock up 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.*3
There are a few things to consider about that previous paragraph. Firstly, it has to be deliberate practice and not just going through the motions (eg, practicing to be an F1 driver compared to driving around town every day). Secondly, it doesn’t always apply to sport - some people have an innate talent - however, most people will still improve with consistent, deliberate practice. Thirdly, it’s an organic pursuit. You don’t necessarily get to a point and become an expert and unlock all of these skills, you will get better as you go and can apply various principles (including ‘ultra instinct’ to your performances).
Going back to the powerlifting example, if you do get to a competition then it is highly likely that you have trained towards it. Practicing the skills and increasing your strength and having gone through some kind of competition strategy. In this time you will have learned how to do the lifts to the technical standards, but also applied some time to learning how it works best for you.
It is very easy to get to a good standard and then stay there. This idea is called the ‘ok plateau,’ and I won’t go too much into it here but I’ll leave a note below.
In my experience, I try to get my lifters to set up in a similar manner each time so that they don’t need to overthink it, they don’t need to worry if this minute thing is right or not - it just is. Specific, deliberate practice on this mindset is very important, and the constant practicing of the squat, bench press and deadlift set up will encourage you to find what works.
Personally, I can not get ready in an angry or overly hyped way as it distracts me more than the extra bit of aggression is worth. I like to be in a happy, almost humorous state of mind to just switch off when I need to. Other people might need aggression, but as stated above, it can lead to more distractions.
Ultra Instinct vs Getting Hyped.
Ultra Instinct, the flow state (or Mushin), should be focused upon the set up for the lift through to the lift itself as this is the time where the technique is most important.
Personally, I think too many people go straight for the “get angry,” approach and as a result of this they don’t try other styles to get into this zone. If you use the wrong style of psyching up you will likely find that you’re leaving kilos on the platform and not performing as well as you potentially could.
A potential problem with preparations that require a lot of emotional energy, whether that be anger, rage or sadness,etc is that the more you get used to it the less effective it can be. Which means that if you get yourself angry and hyped up for near enough every lift, or every workout, when you get to a competition it won’t work anywhere near as well due to the law of diminishing returns. This constant drawing on emotions will burn you out mentally, emotionally and physically very quickly too - this is one reason why I tend to lean more towards a controlled, calm approach.
To apply this to your powerlifting, or any performance based event you will need to deliberately practice it. If you’ve practiced to a point where you are technically proficient in the squat, for example, then you can now practice getting into this mindset.
You might find that you need to tap into some anger, maybe some laughter, maybe even some serenity. Find what works and get really good at channeling it.
Also, make mistakes and don’t be afraid to do so. Making mistakes is how we get better at things, you should make a mistake and then think “well, I won’t do that again.” Try various ways and if they don’t work “take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and then examine...the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can.” After you have made loads of mistakes you will then be left with a few ways of doing things well, eventually you’ll whittle these down to something that works particularly well. *4
It is easy for me to write that you should just keep trying until you find what works but a lot of people will not be able to quieten their distracting thoughts that are spinning around their head while trying to prepare for a lift. This is where a good degree of mindfulness and meditation can come in handy. This will teach you to shut off some of these more anxious thoughts and let you just be, without having to think about it.
For me, it wasn’t until my 3rd full competition that I started to realise what type of motivation worked best for me, so from then on the idea of relaxing and enjoying the moment is what I started focusing on for getting my head into it from then on.
Some people might find that singing to themselves turns off that part of the brain that second guesses you. Others might find certain music, along with mindful meditation, gets them into that Ultra Instinct state.
You can see an example of the singing application via one of my favourite tv shows here.
Alcohol also helps to shut that function of the brain off - hence people making so many bad decisions under the influence - however, it is only at the initial stages of intoxication that this happens and I definitely would not suggest either training under the influence or matching the amount you drink to the amount you train.
Your hair and eyes won’t turn an interesting silver colour but you will exude calmness while performing perfect technique (or as perfect as your technique work has gotten you to) when lifting on the platform.
Getting to this point takes a lot of deliberate practice, practice in the technical aspects of lifting and practice in controlling your mind, your anxieties and your ego. Keep practicing, keep trying different ways and make mistakes but learn from them.
All the Dragon Ball mangas, obviously.
Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.
Bounce by Matthew Syed.
Intuition Pumps by Daniel C Dennett.
* http://dannyleeonline.co.uk/blog/ascend-your-level-with-a-real-life-zenkai - nerd out here.
*1 - In the anime, it takes Goku to be hit with his own deflected spirit bomb to discover ultra instinct.
*2 - https://shotokantimes.com/2019/09/03/what-is-mushin-and-how-to-achieve-it/
*3 - I have written a little more extensively on becoming an expert, and a little on Mushin, in the past - you can find it here - https://propanefitness.com/how-to-become-an-expert-guest-post-by-danny-lee/
*4 - Daniel C. Dennett - Intuition Pumps - And Other Tools For Thinking. While on this topic, also check out Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.