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“In championship Olympic weightlifting, 50% is mental, 30% technique and 20% power. Most everyone has this in the reverse order of importance and spend too many hours in hard physical training but hardly any in grooming his or her mind.” Tommy Kono, eight times world champion, twice Olympic champion, and coach in three Olympic Games

The Mind of Tommy Kono

I’ve always believed that mental attitude is what set Tommy Kono apart from other lifters. After reading his new book, I’m sure of it.

His first book, Weightlifting, Olympic Style, published in 2001, was a textbook on lifting technique and training: http://www.cbass.com/Kono.htm

His new book, Championship Weightlifting (HKC, 2010) covers the mental and psychological side of lifting, expounding on how to overcome the barriers that hold us back from progressing in the gym, in competition—and in life.

Kono’s mind made him a champion. He believed he could win, and he did. He came through when it counted, time after time.

“I know I always lifted more on foreign soil because the stakes were higher,” he writes in the new book, which is subtitled Beyond Muscle Power, The Mental Side of Lifting. “Wearing…Red, White and Blue carried certain responsibility beyond that of a personal nature. And, unless this kind of feeling is felt from within, you cannot extend yourself as much on the international platform.”

Kono made national records on home ground, but exceeded 21 world records in foreign countries—none in the continental USA. (The other 5 were made in Honolulu, Hawaii.)

Seeds of Success

Mental power isn’t about doing the impossible. It’s about doing the best you can with what you have. It means not letting negative thinking hold you back. Tommy Kono began maximizing his abilities early on.

Kono and his family (along with other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast) were interned in a relocation camp for 3˝ years during World War II. He could have come out of the camp bitter and full of negative thoughts about America and his future. To the contrary, he came out stronger and more confident. What happened is truly a story better than fiction. It shows that making the best with what you have pays off in amazing ways.

A neighbor in the camp introduced Tommy to barbell and dumbbell training. Before returning to his hometown of Sacramento, CA, he had a year of lifting under his belt—and the added strength and muscle to show for it. His skinny body had filled out, along with his confidence.  

“From the senior year in high school when I entered my first weightlifting contest, I improved so rapidly that within 26 months, at the Pacific Coast Championships, I had made the highest total (780 lb.) in the world of anyone in my bodyweight class,” Tommy tells readers. 

More adversity hit at that time, but Tommy again rolled with the punches, make the best of the situation, and emerged at the pinnacle of the weightlifting world.

He missed making the 1950 U.S. World Championship team. His mother passed away 3 days before the team try-out, and he flew home. The following year he was called to military service during the Korean Conflict. Basic training left him no time to train, so he was again prevented from showing what he could do on the national and world stage.  

He continued to lift when he could and hoped that things would work out in his favor. Fortunately, his lifting prowess had not gone unnoticed.

“I reported to Camp Stoneman where the troops gathered to be sent overseas but, in reporting for duty, I was informed that I was taken off the list because I was ‘a candidate for the Olympic Team,’” Tommy relates.  

The powers that be knew what they were doing. He made the team and won the gold medal at the Helsinki Olympics.

After that, however, he assumed full military duties with no special privileges. He again made the best of his circumstances. While stationed in West Germany, he  trained in his off duty time. Moreover, he accepted invitations to perform as a "guest lifter" at German “league competitions” almost every weekend. “I learned much from taking part in these weekly lifting sessions and it helped me understand and refine the training process for improving continuously.” 

He learned well, because he equaled or exceeded the Olympic record total in every weekend performance. He returned to civilian life “with more confidence in myself than when I left for...the Olympics 10 months before.”

He went on to win a second Olympic gold medal, one silver, and eight world championships, setting 26 world records in four bodyweight classes.

“My basic personality did not change because of the added experiences and exposure, but I did learn one thing; we should all strive to keep improving ourselves no matter what happens and that adversities and objects are there to challenge our mettle and to make us better, stronger persons. It is in accepting that challenge that makes us persevere for the bigger goals in life.”

That’s Kono’s basic rule for building mental power. It boils down to a simple but powerful approach.

Purposeful Training

Train with a realistic purpose and plan each workout to get you one step closer to your goal.

In a nutshell, that’s the basic principle for success in training—and in life.

Kono spotlights Pete George, a world and Olympic champion lifter and a successful dentist, as the quintessential example. Arnold is another example, but Pete’s story is closer to reality for most people. He is a sterling example of the power of continued, focused effort.

Pete George was a boy wonder (National champion at 16, World champion at 18) who pursed his education—high school, college, and dental school—throughout his competitive years without interruption. All together he won 5 World Championships and one Olympic Championship. He also placed second in two World Championships and two Olympic Games. 

Peter got his start at the American College of Modern Weightlifting (ACMWL), which was nothing more than a two car garage with dirt floor in the back of a house in Akron, Ohio. (The magic was in the coaching.) He began as a shy and introverted 12-year-old who wanted to put on some muscle and get stronger. Guided by ACMWL founder Larry Barnholth, Pete became more dedicated and confident as his lifting improved.

Looking back, Pete told Tommy that during his first 12 years of training he never once missed his three-times-a-week workouts. No matter what was going on (weather, holidays, vacation, exams), he didn't miss a workout from 1941 to 1952! Only when he attended Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, was the string broken.

While regular training was important, the key factor in making Pete a great lifter was always having a goal in mind. “His coach Larry Barnholth always fed him positive thoughts and made everything seem possible if you put your mind to it,” Tommy explained.

“You need to be goal oriented so there is a purpose for training,” Tommy continued. “Pete wanted to clean and jerk 300 pounds, so he trained with this in his mind. He accomplished this at 15 years of age and it was more than double his bodyweight. With this goal met he reached out for a greater one.”

As we’ve already noted, Pete continued his climb to the top of World weightlifting, and then success in dental school (1956), orthodontic school (1962), and dental practice in Hawaii, where he now resides. He married twice and has two sons.

Purposeful effort made Pete George a champion on the lifting platform and in life. Tommy believes it's the road to success in any endeavor.

You must also focus on the nuts and bolts of training. Kono has well reasoned ideas on this as well. (Prepare to be surprised.)

Along Came the Bulgarians

Kono believes that American lifting has taken a wrong turn.

“During the past decade lifters and coaches in the U.S. were told to train like the Bulgarians if they want to improve,” Kono writes. “Training 5-6 days a week became a common practice and even training as often as twice or even three times a day! The every-other-day practice or three times a week became history and considered archaic in practice.”

Kono believes this was a mistake. He makes the case that the training system that catapulted Pete George—and Kono—to the top would do the same for the American lifters of today. Kono believes it would also improve their frame of mind.

“The best training method is an uncomplicated training program that taxes the muscles occasionally and gives ample time for recovery,” writes Kono.

“Too much training is detrimental and can actually retard progress,” he adds, quite logically. “Believe it or not, a little bit of correct training goes a long way in keeping your enthusiasm alive and making good progress possible. The moment training becomes drudgery for the lifter…, it is time to back down or even stop training for a short while.”

You’ll find many more details on proper training sprinkled throughout the book. Many of them also apply to bodybuilders and fitness trainers.

Lifting aficionados agree that Tommy Kono had—and still has—the mindset of a champion. He also has powerful views on the subject.

Mind of a Champion

“The brain is the key to peak performance,” Kono states. “You need muscles, power and good lifting technique but all this needs to be fully and efficiently utilized by—your brain.” When asked the secret of weightlifting by an international weightlifting coach, Kono pointed to his head.

Sport psychologists agree, says Kono. Shane Murphy, former director of sport science for the U.S. Olympic team put it succinctly: “At the level of the Olympics nowadays, there’s not a whole lot of difference among the athletes in terms of physical talent and training. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to what’s between their ears.” 

You must believe in yourself and focus on the task at hand—and put everything else out of your mind. Kono describes the mental focus required to achieve a personal record as akin to “using a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s ray to a pinpoint to start paper or wood burning.”

In everyday terms, he says, “The focus is only on things you can control.” For example, don’t waste time and energy thinking about your opponent or the referees. Don’t let outside factors influence your performance.

 As noted earlier, Kono came through when it counted. He put everything he had into making the big lifts.

“I prepared myself to sacrifice everything to make the lift,” Kono reveals. “Often I thought to myself, Even if my back breaks I am going to put everything into this attempt. With this kind of thought in mind I had nothing to hold me back.”

That IS the mindset of a champion.

Kono’s new book is filled with wonderful stories and observations that made Tommy Kono, well, Tommy Kono. Alive with wisdom and common sense, they will help you focus like a laser beam on becoming the best you can be.

*  * *

My only complaint about Tommy’s first book was that he didn’t included enough photos of himself. I have no such complaints this time. The book is filled with stirring photos of Tommy and many others—world record high jumper Valeri Brummel kicking a basketball rim is the most dynamic—including a marvelous series showing the physique that earned Tommy one Mr. World and three Mr. Universe titles.

Visit Tommy’s website for ordering information http://www.tommykono.com/

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