Even before Harry Hapless hit his first pose, the judges had him scored down in the cellar-after all, wasn't Harry the guy who always came in 15 pounds too heavy and had thighs barely bigger than his arms? Too bad for Harry that
this time he was ripped to the bone and after months of intense specialization his legs were set for some serious walking-as in over the competition. Too bad the judges couldn't see it though.
Willie Wunderkind, on the other hand, could enter a contest on a whim, coming in way off his best and a good bit off the top two or three in the contest. But no matter, because seeing Willie's name on the entry list made it a foregone conclusion who would win the contest. After all, Wunderkind didn't get his name for nothing.
The same thing goes in lifting too: Steve Shallow probably would get red-lighted for lack of depth on his squats, even if his rear end brushed the platform, so bad was his reputation for always trying to squeak by with his shallow dunks. And yet another lifter might pause, buck and never quite finish his pull but still see three solid whites for his attempted deadlift and get a gold for the contest. What less does a contest promoter and self-proclaimed champion deserve when he lifts?
What we've got here isn't the usual case, where seeing is believing. Instead, what we have is a case of believing is seeing. Stick around if you want to see and believe how this works-for you and against you.
What we're dealing with is how expectations shape perceptions, or a case of what you think is what you see. And don't assume that this doesn't happen, because even if the process is purely psychological, it's about as real as a three-foot slab of concrete. We all "see" things that don't exist, just because we expected them to be there, and the phenomenon isn't limited to bodybuilding and lifting contests either.
Cognitive psychologists, who use computer analogies to study human thought processes, are the leading experts on how and when people make errors like this, and they have clearly demonstrated that humans are imperfect information processors: What goes in isn't necessarily what comes out. In fact, what research has repeatedly underlined is that our wishes, expectations and fears make us particularly alert to information supporting our impressions-and more or less oblivious to all else.
If we need it, our memories also help out by filling in a few blanks with the type of information we need to keep our belief systems comfortably intact. That's why after months of debating your purchase, when you finally buy a Porsche 944, you suddenly notice 944s all over the place, filled with the type of people you'd like to associate with, and so forth. Funny thing, though, is that when your repair bills exceed your rent, that never really registers. Since you decided against a Corvette, you never notice them much at all-except when you pass bowling alleys or hear about how much they rattle-and surely not at all when they blow you away at stoplights. We all tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs, values and actions and ignore or discredit everything else.
"But all that's very abstract," you say, "and judging a physique contest or the depth of a squat, for example, is such a simple, visual act. How could people make gross judgmental errors based on what they see? After all, eyes don't lie." Or do they?
A very potent demonstration of how even something as straightforward as your visual perception can be manipulated involves psychological research with a drawing that can either be seen as a beautiful young woman or an ugly old woman-the choice depends on slight changes in orientation. What has been repeatedly proven in psychology laboratories is that by first showing subjects a picture of a young woman, they become much more likely to "see" a beautiful young woman when looking at the test drawing. So what you see is what you were prepared to see, and one person's ugly old woman is another's young beauty.
Psychologists call this phenomenon psychological set, and it's similar to the way you start a race: "ready, set, go." Think of "getting set" as putting yourself in a position ready to react in a predictable way, trying to anticipate the final command without registering a false start.
Psychologists often show how much one's set influences perceptions and, in turn, how easily one's set can be influenced by doing experiments with nonsense words. The nonsense words are flashed on a screen, and the people in the experiment are asked to identify them. The power of one's psychological set is tested by giving the subjects different directions about what kinds of words to expect; for example, one group of people might be told to expect words related to animals, and another group might be told to expect words about travel. Flash the letters "pasrort," and the first group will say they saw "parrot," while the second will say they saw "passport."
The moral here is that you had better try to use other people's expectations to your advantage, and the way to do that is to cultivate the type of image you want to have. In a word, condition your judges, your competitors and your audience to see you as you would like to be seen.
For example, walk into your contest-or your gym, for that matter-as if you're on top of your game, and that's probably how you'll be perceived. Slouch in, slink around the corners, and you'll probably be categorized as only being on the edge of things rather than as a central player. Come into the Olympic trials looking and acting like someone Ahmad Rashad should be interviewing, and you won't hurt your chances of making the team.
Try to use advance publicity to reinforce the image you want, and before the judges and audience even lay eyes on you for the first time, they will be preconditioned to see just what you want. Have you ever talked to someone on the phone about a car they were selling and had them do such a convincing job of pushing it that you were ready to sign your check the moment you laid your eyes on it? It's the same thing in terms of managing your public image.
And don't forget to pack the audience with your friends so that when you first step on stage, they can yell things like, "They should have just mailed you the trophy, Ed, and saved us the plane fare." At lifting contests, when your buddy is getting ready to come out for his opening squat with 240 kilos, work your way up close to the judges and say to the person next to you, "I saw this guy double 320 last week without even pulling up his straps." Make those judges think they're the oddballs if they don't realize your buddy is the winner or is taking a weight that should go like a warmup.
Don't forget to help yourself in the final moments either. If you are a weightlifter, for example, who has genetically poor arm lock, don't forget to show the judges how your arms clearly don't hyperextend before they mistakenly turn you down for incomplete extension. Make sure their frame of reference on your lifts is you, not some ideal you don't fit.
This brings up a point about candor, because it's not always the wisest thing to openly discuss your weaknesses with the people who will be evaluating you-whether it's the public you want to please or the judges you want to woo. In a perfect world you are better off emphasizing your strong points rather than giving everyone a running start at cutting you down. There's no point lying about being in great shape when you're not, but there's also no mileage in it for you to emphasize your weak points. Just concentrate on your strong points instead.
Always set the stage for the impression you want to make, because believing is seeing, and it's what's in the brain-not what hits the eye- that counts. Where the mind goes, the eyes will surely follow.