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Training like a Sarawak Sukma Weightlifter

Training like a Sarawak Sukma Weightlifter

I spent 10 weeks under the eyes of head coach Edmund Yeo, Malaysia’s unbeaten 94kg national record holder, and coach Johnathan Patrick, three times Asian Junior Champion, whilst training alongside Sarawak’s Sukma Weightlifting team; Black, Bambam, Meimei, Katak, Cham, Ahboy & other juniors. I also had the privilege of competing as a guest lifter at Sarawak’s National Open.

My ignorance and inability to let people in did not only cap my social life, but it also prevented me from reaching a higher potential. I am proud to have overcome such fear with these extraordinary people and could not be more thankful for their support over the past few months. Not only did they help me discover a deeper level of love for the sport, but they also helped fend off the demons in my mind which whisper negative things to me when the weight gets heavy.

After four months off lifting due to an injury and a further three months of travelling around Asia, I found myself in Kuching for the foreseeable short-term future therefore, decided it was a good time to start lifting again. At this point, I had only exchanged a few hellos with the team and felt inferior to them; I was prepared for my numbers to drop but not for my loss of mental confidence. I was training alone struggling to stand a 45kg front squat when across the room I see my fellow 59kg lifter whack on 55kg as her first warm up set. My ego could not take it, I packed all my plates away and went upstairs, into the corner, where no one could see me. Coming back downstairs, to collect my stuff, coach asks me if I want to join the team and there began a very special memory.

I knew all those bowls of laksa and kolo mee would come back to haunt me, as I brutally found out a week into programming. Double daily heavy sessions caused my entire central nervous system to feel like carnage. Legit for the first five days my daily routine looked like this: wake up, stretch, eat, train, stretch, eat, nap, eat, train, stretch, eat, sleep. I didn’t have the physical or mental energy to do anything else (later I would discover that I would still have the odd days like this, athlete life huh). Of course, my body broadly adapted to the volume, and I actually matched lifetime PRs and hit new PBs on the sixth day. Whilst programming largely accounts for the return of my strength, I believe the team spirit also played a significant part.

A special bond

When I first started to train with the team, I did not realise they were Sukma (a biannual national multi-sport event involving young athletes from Malaysian 13 member states and the Federal territory). I thought they were around my age or even older, to then discover that I was jiejie/kaka (older sister), as they were all under the age of 20, says a lot about their skill, attitude and mentality! Occasionally I saw their youth but that is reassuring, to see them be immature and mess around like they should for their age, but be very grown up when it mattered.

To be honest, the way they pumped each other up before a lift initially scared me. The team would call each other’s names and beckon ‘lauju’ and ‘ayo’ meaning ‘speed’ and ‘come on’ in Malay retrospectively. They would also slap each other’s backs and grunt to fire themselves up. However, in turn I came to realise having people believe in me, teammates and coaches, creates the right pressure and confidence in myself to give maximum effort. Furthermore, not only did the team provide pre-lift support but they also gave each other constructive criticism post-lift. For example, Cham wouldn’t hesitate to let me know when I was pulling slowly. General etiquette was to not lift when someone else was lifting. This allowed that person to fully focus and, everyone else to watch their technique, so that they could provide feedback, plus learn from that lifter themselves. In the end the team gave me a daily pump I will forever miss and could not recreate on my own even if I tried.

I quickly noticed everything the team did screamed teamwork and consistency. A typical session started with a group warm up; a mixture of static and dynamic stretching. Everyone stood in a circle and going around, each person would take it in turn to count per a stretch. We would then spread ourselves across the floor and begin the programme. Every session ended with a group cool down in the same format as the warm up but with more emphasis on static stretching. I also learned not only do they workout together, but they also live together with coach, cook, eat, clean and rest together. They do everything together and you can see their family-like closeness from a mile away. I massively admire their trust with each other.

Coaches respect

One day they invited me round for cheesy fried banana (don’t knock it until you try it, actually very delicious). Here I learned a lot about what drives their motivation. Sometimes I find it difficult to prioritise weightlifting therefore, I am always interested in how people push through the days they wake up and aren’t feeling it, or go to a session and don’t want to do it. Bambam advised me that the team are sponsored by the state and coach individually selected them therefore, she thinks “I’m here for a reason” and she thinks about how much she wants to make coach proud. Their relationship with their coaches is what makes them so consistently good.

Coach advises how many hours to sleep, to do basic fitness and stretching in the morning amongst other stuff. Such independence proves who has self-discipline and who doesn’t. It shows in performance and if you don’t perform well, you get kicked off the team. People come and go. Your attitude decides whether you stay on the team; respect your seniors, listen to coach and put the hard work in. This approach is perhaps a little too brutal but it does mould athletes with exceptional mentalities.

Everyone has an abundance of respect for the coaches. They stop whatever they are doing and actively walk over to fist pump the coaches when they arrive at the gym. I carefully observed how coach trained members. He uses a pole to remind lifters to brace and engage parts of their body, actively pushes their back/leg/arm etc. into the right position and stands exceptionally close when they are performing a lift. Again, fear ran through my blood when I saw how close coach stood next to me, breathing down my neck. What happens if I do something stupid and send the bar swinging into coach? Well Katt, don’t do anything stupid. Coach believes in you to be standing so close, so you best believe in yourself too.

We all followed a precedent programme but coach tailored it when required. Those with injuries were prescribed different exercises to achieve the same goal as the others and those who could not join two sessions a day were given more volume in their single session. I’m a curious cat and I often questioned their choice of exercises because I wanted to understand why they made such decisions and the answer was always “it depends on the programme.” I love that the programming is so personalised to the circumstances. Occasionally, coach randomly muscled our weights and it always put a smile on my face to see them in action, even if they were messing around. I’ll always wonder whether they did this because they missed lifting or put us in our place and remind us of their ability. Either way, it put things into perspective.

Tough times

First, a small account of what I observed from the team having difficult moments and second, a wider account of my tough times. I can only record minimal details on the team because seldom did they show it. They are the toughest cookies I know. Coach’s programming is very brutal on the body, he pushed us past our limits and whilst it proved great results, it also produced injuries at times. Bambam was lifting through a calf injury which caused spiking pain when executing explosive movements. I was blown away that she was still hitting her numbers and making zero complaints. When I questioned her, she advised it was too close to the competition to be resting. “Only if you absolutely cannot lift do you rest, otherwise you have to find it in your heart to power through”.

Unfortunately, this was the case for Black when he blew his lower back and had to take a week out. I am still overwhelmed by the way he handled such hurdle. Not once did he moan or sulk. During this week he assisted coach with teaching the juniors and provided extra support to the rest of the team. Furthermore, the coaches and Bambam helped him stretch his lower back and provided massages/physio regularly. I feel the coaches adopt traditional Chinese methods which I may not entirely agree with but what I can confirm is that everyone really cares about each other. There simply is no space for negativity for these guys.

Which brings me to my own issues, all arising out of a lack of self-confidence and other negative mind games. For the first month I regularly sulked because I was having real difficulty with my snatch but Black always had the right words for me. For example, when I got dishearten that I was missing 45kg, a previous warm up weight, Black said a phrase in local Kuching language which meant “Don’t worry, don’t stress, you got it”. Another time he asked me “Why is your face like that?” and when I said I wanted to quit he replied “You aren’t going quit. I know that isn’t your attitude. Tomorrow is a new day. Change your face”.

I had one particular very bad week. Everyday I was on the verge of crying, it was as though my brain and body had completely forgot how to snatch, the pressure of the competition lured over me and the more aggravated I got, the worse it became. The weather was hot, I was dehydrated, I hadn’t eaten properly, my focus was off – whatever excuse you want to place here. But whilst I was busy feeling sorry for myself, little was I aware my team were also having a rough time; as mentioned above, a few were injured, and the others were struggling to hit their maxes. So, I stopped being a whinny cow, pulled my self together and fought back. At the end of this week I hit a +5kg PB in my clean and jerk. A PB I have been chasing for 11 months.

After this session, Meimei asked me how do I overcome self-confidence issues. I was surprised Meimei was asking me how to overcome self-confidence issues because she was my source of power. My confidence came from watching her perform, seeing her technique and aggression and actively visualising myself executing the same. She replied saying she watches me and tries to imitate me too. At this point I realised this is what good teams do; they communicate and share ideas with each other. They boost each other up when they are down and they use each other to be better regardless of their ability; it isn’t a one-sided exchange.

I also shared two other tips with Meimei. Firstly, I told her that I think about the rewards before I have done the process. I visualise coach’s happy face and the team cheering for my good lift, I also think about how disappointed coach’s face will be if I fail and that motivates me to do well. Secondly, I constantly repeat to myself “I trust my technique”. I even say it out loud and I tell myself it so many times that it tricks my brain into believing it. Both of which ideas cultivated from this team’s atmosphere.

The competition itself

In the final few weeks building up to the competition, I sensed a difference in the training atmosphere. The pressure was on, stress levels were up and performance was wobbly at best. Now more than ever we needed to support each other and keep morals high. A week before tapering, programming volume was ramped up and everyone was now not only feeling nervous about the big day, but also quite physically broken.

I set up stretch club. On What’s App I created a group chat for just the lifters, no coaches, so that we could motivate each other and keep everyone on track without coaches’ pressure. Do not get me wrong, the coaches were being supportive and ready to assist with any issues but I could tell the team needed a space to openly voice their concerns with those who were actually in the same boat. I encouraged everyone to check in with each other every morning; writing in the group what stretches and fitness they did upon waking up. It turned out to be a space which we could have general chit chat and send each other pictures of our food. It was perfect for accountability and, twofold, socially brought us closer together. Amongst the intensity of the competition, we still met up and talked about family and life aspirations. We all made an effort to physically and mentally recover our bodies and minds.

What an exceptional four days! 13 Malaysian teams arrived to represent their states and it was incredibly successful for everyone involved. I will leak no secrets as to Sarawak’s backstage competition methods but I will say I have never felt so fired up for a lift, so much so that I could not sleep until 3am that night. The pump was unreal. It was also enticing to see how the other coaches prepared their athletes and, apparently the team spirit is not unique to Sarawak, the team support atmosphere on these days would have made the most independent person jealous beyond belief. The competition was compromised of over 90% juniors and very young seniors, making me one of the oldest lifters there! Safe to say I was blown away by the strength of these young athletes and I see a promising future for many of them.

Every competition I learn something new about myself and the sport itself. This competition is no exception. I learned that Malaysia awards medals for snatch and clean & jerk separately, therefore if you bomb on the snatch you still have the ability to take part in the clean & jerk section of the competition. Whereas in England, podium spots occur based on a total so if you miss all three snatches, unfortunately it is game over for you. I also learned that you cannot push the bar with your shins, as that counts as an attempt, and even if the buzzer goes off and the judges have given the white light but you drop the bar behind you, it becomes a no lift.

Now specifically the Sarawak team. They did not disappoint; it was a grand show from them all and I am so proud of their efforts. Cham and Black were suffering from injuries, and it broke my heart to see how hard they had trained behind closed doors to then not able to perform in their prime, but their determination and passion carried them through and Black even set a new junior national record for snatch! I have never seen Meimei look so jacked up and Bambam lit up the room with her roar. The team took home 14 medals.

Finally, I was invited to the private Welcoming Dinner and personally introduced to Sarawak’s Minister for Weightlifting and Sarawak’s Assistant Minister for Youth and Sports amongst other important personnel. It was delightful to converse with them at the meal and other lifters at the venue. Furthermore, I was embraced kindly by other team coaches and enjoyed getting to know more about them, their team and backgrounds. Oral plans were made about training in their clubs so stay peeled; there are many more exciting weightlifting adventures ahead.

Thank you Sarawak Weightlifting for welcoming me into your loving family; I wish the team all the best with the future.