Great athletes make the hardest feats look easy. They achieve results seemingly impossible to conceptualize for the majority of us who have ever tried to run fast, lift heavy, hit further or jump higher. They succeed under an enormous range of pressures; yet often look so at ease, so focussed. I had a chance recently in Rome to meet, and be coached by, one of the greatest kettlebell lifters ever, Ivan Denisov. Current holder of absolute world records in all three competition lifts (jerk, snatch, longcycle), Denisov was in Rome with another legendary lifter, Valery Federenko, founding head of the World Kettlebell Club (WKC).
I’ve had the privilege over the years of watching incredible athletes up close compete at the top of their game. I’ll never forget Miguel Indurain, legendary Tour de France champion or Gianfranco Zola, Chelsea’s greatest player. I’ve seen Nick Faldo make the game of golf look simple and the great Sachin Tendulkar, cricket’s all time record scorer. These, and other legendary athletes share a common denomenator: The ability to find an inner calm and dominate their surrounds with such ease. There is no rush, no huffing and puffing and no look of impending collapse. Ivan Denisov shares these qualities.
As a great champion, Denisov is perhaps on his way out of top competition and moving more into his role as a full-time coach, although he was coy about this when I asked him, and he still posts world class numbers. With limited, yet improving grasp of the English language, Federenko adopted the role of Denisov’s translator, and had a more sidelined role during the training camp. He took us through the small details of the GS competition lifts with continual emphasis on efficiency and easy of movement. While I was struggling to refine my technique with the 20kg bell, Denisov was snatching and jerking the 32 as if it were a toy. Try pressing or snatching a 32 and you’ll see it is certainly not a toy!.
During the breaks, I was interested to observe Denisov and was struck but his calmness and focus. He’d politely answer my questions about his training methods, his diet, his secrets to achieving such amazing numbers. There was certainly a presence about him, he was after all 190cm and almost 110kg, yet not in the imposing way I would imagine a heavyweight boxer or an American football linebacker. On day 2, Federenko informed me that Denisov would be demonstrating a snatch set after lunch. Stripping off into his competition suit and lifting shoes, Denisov made his way to a side room to the gym we were training in and began a breathing sequence, no doubt Russian “systema” technique. He found his solace, and prepared in the most relaxed way for a 5 minute set with the 32 using only his right hand. The set was almost perfectly timed at 20rpm, for a total of 102 reps. No fuss, no stress. The breathing and technique were even throughout, and there was no visible fatique afterwards. A simple 3264kg of lifting with one arm in 5 minutes.
Denisov later completed the WKC strength and conditioning test (5 sets of 6mins) with a maximum score using the 32. Strangely there were no heavier bells, as he had previously negotiated the 48 to set the highest ever score recorded in the test. Again, no stress, no panic. Time and time again during my attempts to nail the technical aspects of the snatch, Denisov commented that I need to relax more, breath and “let the bells fly”. I realized quickly that masters of their respective games are able to find a zone whereby their efficiency equates to power output at a level few others come close to achieving. I often wondered during my rugby career, and even as a footballer, why coaches seem to think that whipping players up into a frenzy of blood boiling tension is suppost to help performance. I never went along with that theory, even whilst I was in the changing room squeezed up against these sweating guys who seemed to have expended much of their energy before the match had begun!.
I’ve noticed professional athletes off the field too, are skilled at relaxation. They talk of sleep, of unwinding with movies, PlayStation, swims or walking. Maybe this is the way the best performers save their energy for the times it really counts. I have a sneaking suspicion the majority of amateur competitors, regardless of their sport, fail to see this connection. Performance is as much about the ability to turn up on the day and win the match, dominate your set or your opponent, as it is the ability to stay calm and relax. Too often I see the strain of tension intervening with correct and safe form during training or competition. Few people seem to think about the importance of breathing, or of mental focus and visualization.
This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of training with Steve Maxwell, Steve Cotter, Ivan Denisov and Valery Fedorenko. Different guys with different backgrounds. Each great coaches and champions in their own right. The commonality though is an important one, and one that I hope to install in my game as a coach and amateur competitor:
Performance comes through being able to master your body/mind connection. Most of us will never be world class athletes, but all of us have amazing potential to become so much better. Performance is not something we save for our thrice weekly visit to the gym. It is not something we turn off as we open the fridge and take out a packet of junk. It is not something apart from our daily life, Performance is our whole way of living, and the interconnectedness is lost on the majority. We must seize the opportunities that are in front of us on an everyday basis to improve our game, and not compartmentalize physical condition. Denisov told me of his love for family time, for games of basketball with friends and for reading. The ability to relax takes many forms, and is inextricably bound up in the ability to harness strength, mobility and power in athletic performance. I had this reinforced to me this summer by guys that know. Take your time, chill out, feel your performances grow.