Niel Puertollano hits me up 1 week before and says, “So Nate’s got the hotel room booked. I’m thinking about leaving on Saturday and coming back Monday.” I scratched my head wondering what the hell he was talking about until I finally remembered that I agreed a month ago to accompany him to the Arnold Sports Festival (ASF) and help him coach our strength athlete, Nathaniel “AWOO” Wolf. This was my third and Niel’s first national level powerlifting competition, but this was our first time attending the ASF.
If I had to make a real world comparison, I would compare the ASF to a music festival but for everything fitness. If you’re heavily involved in lifting weights against the forces of gravity, then this is your chance to rub elbows with some people you wouldn’t get a chance to meet at your local gym.
Similarly to a music festival, at the ASF there’s an Arnold Expo that is composed of numerous vendors, multiple stages hosting different sporting events, and thousands of people in attendance over the span of 4 days. Imagine – the Coachella of Fitness only smaller and at a convention center.
Imagine a few common genres of music with subgenres. Bodybuilding would be to Arnold what Pop is to Coachella. The ASF was mainly founded for a bodybuilding competition hosted by the International Federation of BodyBuilding (IFBB) and named after the iconic bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenneger. You could disagree with me, but I would venture to say EDM is a subgenre of pop. And that’s where powerlifting lands – a sport about strength with loud music, flashing lights, and high amounts of stimulation.
At the main stage of this festival you’ll find the Arnold Classic on a Saturday night. This is the official name of the Professional BodyBuilding competition. On other stages you’ll spot the Arnold Strongman Classic, USAPL and XPC Powerlifting, and a slapping contest. Yep. There’s a slapping contest.
It was spectacular to see groups of people with different lives congregating for their passions related to fitness and what it looks like to take that passion to the next level. The pessimistic side of me wanted to downplay a lot of these events but I learned one important thing – what’s important to one person may be considered incredibly stupid to another, but that doesn’t make one person better than the other.
That’s really what the ASF is all about. Take whatever it is that you love, become crazy obsessed about it for nobody other than yourself, and compare your skills to that of another elitist. The events at the ASF bring people with similar hobbies and passions together under a united roof. These people get really damn good at something and compete against others who share their passion.
That’s what brought us here – Nate was really damn good at Squatting, Benching, and Deadlifting in a competitive setting. We all traveled across the country to answer one question; “Who is the strongest?”
INSIDE THE ATHLETE'S MIND
From conversations with Nate and my personal experience, I can say that the idea of competing at a national platform can be overwhelming - for sporadic, brief moments. The experience of attending your first national powerlifting meet is so stimulating and awe-inspiring that you forget you’re competing until it’s gameday. Most of the time you’re enamored by the splendor of the event, overly eager while peeing next to Martin Liscis, 2019 World’s Strongest Man, and wandering around like a new-born baby who just learned to crawl.
If I had to make another real-life comparison from the perspective of the athlete, I’d say that local powerlifting meets are like playing high school sports while national level competitions are akin to competing in D1 college sports. Maybe not football, but perhaps a sport where you’re micro-famous if you break into the top 5.
Similar to wrestling, you’re spending the night before waking up your roommates with the fire alarm because you’re using the bathroom as a sauna. Unlike many combat sports, a lifter doesn’t have a 24 hour weigh-in, they weigh in 2 hours before start time. This can make the lifter anxious because they won’t know if they make weight until just before they’re supposed to compete.
And that was Nate. Nate was competing at the 110kg weight class, which translates to 242.5lbs in America. He was clicking his weight in at 241lbs at 10:55PM the night before which meant that he didn’t have to worry about weight.
Nate seemed to be handling everything well, laid out a plan of how he was going to approach the day of the meet, and was getting ready for bed by the time we arrived. We didn’t want to keep him up so we put our lifter to bed. We awoke the next morning, and accompanied him to weigh-ins. At this point, we pretty much left him until it was time to handle him. To quote Kendrick Lamar, “Let’s get this shit.”
BEING A COACH
As a coach, you must remove yourself from the event. You must remain objective and steady in your decision making. The state chairman of USAPL, John Dalessio, taught me that you must make the best decision available and confidently stick to that decision. Imagine a coach who doubts himself. What does an athlete do with that kind of indecision?
A marksman only sees the target through the sniper lens; the general sees the layout of the land. A coach is the general; the athlete is the marksman. Together they win the battle.
To each their own, but I don’t believe that the coach should be the lifter’s hype man. I leave that for the crowd. I suppress my personal feelings of anxiety and imposter syndrome that sets in when you’re new to coaching, but eventually you gain the experience necessary to make the right call.
The powerlifting meet is not about you and your feelings, it’s about the lifter. This would be a time to deflate your ego, and inflate theirs so they can confidently perform on the platform. I do not yell at them, but I speak words of empowerment as needed. The thing is, if you don’t calm a lifter down, eventually they crash and you wouldn’t want that happening on their 2nd attempt on Squats… Your lifter still has 7 more lifts to perform!
“Same shit, different toilets”, Jay-Z. This applies to the lifter and to the coach. As my powerlifting coach, Dr. Michael Soya, would say, “The hard work is already done.” Countless hours at the gym, for 9 attempts to score the highest Squat, Bench, and Deadlift.
Nate went on to complete 6 of his 9 attempts matching PRs and coming back from a failed 2nd attempt on Squats – something very hard to do. As Niel and I drove back from the meet, we talked about next steps. For Nate, the plan will be to move up to the 120kg weight class. We’ll see what the next meet has in store for him, but for now he did an excellent job staying in the pocket, maintaining a positive attitude, and, most importantly, having fun.