Strength Performance Psychology Versus Physiology: It's All Mental

Posted on 08 Jun 2010 14:02

By Eric Troy

I've complained and I've complained about silly quantitative notions concerning the factors that determine success. It's 20% percent training, 80% nutrition and stuff like that. Complete and utter nonsense. Says nothing. Contributes nothing.

Then you have psychology. I talk about that aspect of performance more on this blog than I talk about training or nutrition. I must think it's fairly important. Some months back the Science of Sport boys had some posts on this which sparked some debate and in a follow-up post the inevitable question came up: how much of performance is physiology and how much is psychology?

You know the type of questions I mean. Is it 20% physiology and 80% psychology?

Pie charts are great for economists and such but I've never found them very useful for strength training. Maybe you're different, though. Maybe you'd like to stare at the one below for a bit instead of reading on.


image by Robert Vollmert via


image by Robert Vollmert via

My gut tells me asking how much of performance is psychological and how much is physiological is asking the wrong question. It's like asking is a tree 20% leaves and 80% lumber waiting to happen. So I've made a very bold statement several times in the past. IT'S ALL MENTAL.

Why would I say that? That just doesn't make sense. It can't be ALL mental. Physiology plays a role. Yeah, exactly. It's all physiology as well. It's not this or that. Some of this thing and a bit of the other. It is not something versus something else and try as we might to study and analyze we will never truly be able to separate the two components of performance.

No matter how on the ball you are mentally it's still physiology that turns the wheels. So let us suppose that you can't make a car go without a computer of some kind. That's not true of course but let's just suppose that there must at least be a chip or two to make an engine work and to have that engine make the wheels go round. It's still ultimately the engine that drives the wheels. You can't have a faulty engine and expect a better computer to make up for it. Likewise, you install the wrong chip, the wrong circuitry, even the best engine cannot do its job. Nowadays we DO have computer components in our cars and yes, you can have your car stop working because of a computer problem so my analogy is not too far out as far as it goes.

Of course comparing the psychology of performance to a car can't take us very far but I think it does illustrate the point. Do people rise above their physical limitations because of mental toughness? Well let's see. Can you do a max back squat with a pulled ligament in your knee if you're just tough enough? Can you run your car with a broken fan belt if you really really want to?

Let's say you don't let that devastating knee injury keep you down. Maybe you have an operation and even overcome that to come back and not only do that max squat but smash it. That takes mental toughness. You don't overcome that without your head being in the right place. But ultimately that tissue must perform and you can't give it tensile strength through attitude alone! You have to rehabilitate it properly. You have to train right. And you'll never be able to quantify "how much" of any component is most important in that scenario.

There is no point in worrying about whether genetics or brain power plays a role in such and such elite athlete's success. Because it won't do you a darn bit of good. Each individual must determine, as well as possible, what components can be improved. If it's the computer chip then effort must be made to improve that chip.

I think perhaps strength sports can offer a perspective that many other sports cannot. It is quite possible, for instance, to fail because of "psychology" and even be injured under a bar because of this mental failure. The failure then, that results in injury is still very much a physical failure, is it not? That's why people say things like "the Iron doesn't lie". It doesn't. You can't play mental games and ask pointless questions when it comes to lifting the heaviest thing possible. There are no illusions that you can separate the mind from the body. Indeed the very act leads to failure.

Success is all in your head. But the head drives the body. So success is all psychology and all physiology. One cannot come without the other so they cannot be separated.

This page created 08 Jun 2010 14:02
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 16:12

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