T Nation

Self Critique

Write Yourself a letter

By Keith Wassung

If I had to make a list of things that were essential to success in weight training, that list would include written goal setting, maintaining a training journal, progress on the basic movements, adequate rest and recovery, positive mental attitude and ongoing self evaluation and critique.

Of all of those items listed, ongoing self evaluation and critique is perhaps the most overlook and neglected. Human nature is as such that we are not as honest with ourselves as we need to be. We look in the mirror and see what we want to see, rather than what we need to see. We can seek the opinion of others, such as a training partner, coach, mentor, etc. but I have found that until you are TRULY honest with yourself, the advice from others will fall by the wayside. I want to share a story and a technique for self evaluation and critique that I have found to be extremely beneficial.

In the mid 1980’s, I was in the Navy, serving aboard a nuclear missile submarine. A day on a submarine is divided into 4 watches each lasting six hours in duration. A normal rotation is to stand six hours on watch, then twelve hours off. Nearly everyone hated the dreaded midnight to 6am “midwatch” mostly because of boredom and the difficulty in staying awake. I loved the midwatch and always volunteered for it. It was quiet and all of the officers were asleep. As the Launcher Operations Supervisor, I had plenty of time to complete paperwork, equipment maintenance and qualification training of the junior crewman. It also gave us freedom to raid the mess decks for some extra meals. (Note: For any aspiring weight trainer who is either in the military or intends to serve-the first thing you always do at a new assignment/duty station is to make friends with the cooks)

Though personal reading material was strictly forbidden at the watch station, I would occasionally photocopy about a dozen pages from either Iron Man or Powerlifting USA before commencing the watch, and then would stick them in my technical manuals and read through the articles in the early morning hours. On one particularly boring watch, as I was reading my lifting articles for about the fifth time, I saw a small display ad which had some famous title winner who offered a mail order training service. For 125.00, you could write this guy a letter, tell him all about yourself, your training, your goals, problems, etc and he would write back with all the answers. I had no intention of sending 125.00 to this guy, but since I was bored and wanted to kill time, I decided it would fun to write such a letter, even though I had no intention of mailing it. I started the letter with some basic information, age, weight, best lifts, goals, etc. and then I started detailing my training program. Now if you had asked me then how effective my training program was, I would have confidently told you that I was doing all of the right things. But the more I wrote, the more I realized just how many stupid mistakes I was making. Most of the mistakes were not due to lack of knowledge, but due to pride, ego and downright laziness. It is interesting that when you take a thought that is in your head, and put it down on paper, it sort of takes on a life of its own and you are able to view it in a different light. I wrote a total of five pages that day-five pages filled with all of my training problems, shortcomings and mistakes. My nutrition was bad, cardiovascular and flexibility work was non-existent. I had a lousy attitude towards the deadlift because I was not very good at it and my training was often dictated by whoever else was present in the gym. These were just a few of the things that I identified that were holding back my progress.

It was downright embarrassing to even see the words in print and I regretted writing it in the first place. I had been training about 6 years up until that point in time and I had never felt worse about my training than I did when I finished writing the letter. I stuffed it in my pocket with the intention of shredding it after my watch had ended, but about twenty minutes later I pulled the letter back out and read over those pages of handwritten notes, then, I read it again with great enthusiasm. All of a sudden, instead of seeing 5 pages of problems, errors and mistakes, I saw 5 pages filled with challenges, opportunities and solutions.

I pulled out a fresh legal pad and begin rapidly making notes. I have found that when faced with a problem, the easy part is finding a solution-the HARD part is admitting and clearly identifying the problem to begin with. Less than an hour later, I had three more pages of notes and had gone from being depressed to enthusiastic. I realized that the more things that I was doing wrong meant the GREATER opportunity to make changes and improve. Change is one of the most difficult things for humans to do, but there is an old saying that the definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same things, yet expecting different results.

That day was a turning point in my lifting career and less than 15 months later; I won the All Navy powerlifting championships as a middle-heavyweight. I continued to write myself a letter about every six months and it did much to keep me focused. Later I began using this method in other areas of my life as well. At our clinic, we have our entire staff write a letter to themselves about twice a year. What follows is ALWAYS increased productivity, enthusiasm and growth, both personally and professionally.

I believe this method works because of two reasons (1) it forces you to be honest and (2) It brings into focus all of the applicable knowledge that you have acquired over the years. As lifters we are constantly acquiring knowledge from our own experience, from books, videos, journals and from other athletes. If the information is not pertinent to our training needs at the time we obtain it we mentally file it away in the back of our minds until it is needed. When you write a training letter, you will find that all of those tidbits of information that your mind has collected over the years comes to the surface. You might identify training problems to which you have no solution for, especially if you have limited experience in lifting. By identifying those problems you will be able to know where to go and who to ask for the advice to solve the problem.

“One who fears failure limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity to begin again-more intelligently”

Keith Wassung

Another great post Keith. Thanks.

Thanks for the article. I’ve realized the power of writing down goals, and the personal improvement that follows when I honestly assess myself. This obviously applies to all aspects of life, but I usually apply it to training, as it is my great passion. Once I write down goals and assess my training, I find myself motivated and set goals for school and life.