4 Essential Mental Tools for Passing the SFG Level I Cert

Ten years ago I signed-up for my first Ironman triathlon. At that time, I had never swum more than 500 yards, never ridden a road bike, and only run three miles once in my life—and hated every minute of it at that. As I found early and often during my training, successfully preparing for and finishing an Ironman triathlon is far more mental than it is physical.

My experience with triathlons was brief, just three years. I guess you could say I ran it out of my system. But while I left the swim-bike-run business behind, I took with me the mental strength I gained to use later in life.

When I signed up for my SFG Level I Certification, I had no prior training in the snatch. Yet on week one-day two of my preparation plan, I was scheduled to do my first volume snatch session. High on my horse from a successful on-the-minute swing session the day before, I tore the palm of my hand wide open after just ten minutes of snatching with the 16kg.

To say I was humbled would be an understatement. Worry and doubt crept in. With only eight weeks, how was I going to get to the point where I could snatch the 24kg 100 times in five minutes? That was the first of many lessons I would learn over the eight weeks to follow.

Today, I’m going to challenge you to go deep, beyond what you see and feel on the surface, and dive into what matters most—what’s within. Passing the snatch test is far less physical than you think. In my opinion, it’s the easiest part of your weekend.

To prove that, I’ll equip you with the mental tools you need to succeed, share why adversity is a good thing and should be welcomed, and explain why being relaxed is paramount to your success. If you’ve signed up for the SFG Level I Cert, or are considering it, then read this article, put the tools to work, and know you can and will pass your test.

SFG Level I Cert
Practicing swings at the SFG Level I Cert.

1. The Bell Will Always Win, So Don’t Make It a Competition

You’re at a disadvantage starting your journey in becoming StrongFirst—you haven’t yet learned the tension strategies and world-class drills to fine-tune your technique, but you shouldn’t worry. You’re going to fail in your training many, many times—and that’s a good thing, so long as you view it from the proper perspective. Failures are nothing more than temporary setbacks, and within every temporary setback is a lesson to be learned.

Don’t fight with the bell—it’ll always win. A loss might come in the form of a sore back, a torn callus, a bum shoulder, or a bruised wrist. Tearing my hand week one was a quick lesson in over-gripping the bell. Later once my hand healed, I realized I also wasn’t taming the arc enough, so the bell was getting away from me both on the way up and on the way down. Just the other day I learned I could pack my left shoulder a little more and tame the arc even more. It’s a never-ending journey.

Kettlebell training is an art form. When done properly there’s no fighting, forcing, or muscling through. The bell and the user are essentially one. If you view your training sessions as opportunities to get better—and not something that is to be won—you’re ahead of the game and your road to success will be much easier.

In this sense, the bell is and always will be your best instructor, so long as you agree to become its student. It all starts with the muscle between your ears.

2. Use Obstacles to Your Advantage

If you’re training for your SFG Level I Cert, your obstacle is undoubtedly the snatch test. It’s what everyone fears. Overcoming your obstacle will require persistence and resistance. As Ryan Holiday says (author of The Obstacle Is the Way):

  • Persist in your efforts
  • Resist giving into distractions

You might think that entering a snatch session with a recovering callus and battered body is a recipe for disaster—and it is if you have the wrong mindset. I’ve come to view these types of sessions as tremendous learning opportunities. I place no expectations on the session at hand and simply sort my way through it. I ask myself, “How can I make this feel easy?” After all, like I mentioned earlier, the bell isn’t changing, it’s up to you to adjust to the bell.

In order to do so, you’ll need to:

  • Control your mind
  • Control your breath
  • Remain focused

These are all abilities that will come in handy in a variety of real-life situations.

If you practice enough persistence in your training, control your mind, control your breath, and stay focused, you will without a doubt realize that there are no exterior obstacles—you are the one getting in the way of your success and, therefore, the power to influence your outcome lies within.

When you’re tired you’re going to want to stop. At some point, you’ll consider changing programs and trying something new in hopes of an answer. Resist distraction and instead, dig your heels in and not only face adversity, but welcome it with open arms. It will provide you with the tools you need to succeed come test day.

Kettlebell Rack Carry
Practicing the rack carry at my SFG Level I Cert weekend.

3. Get Out of Your Own Way—Relax and Win

If you’re not relaxed, then you’re not really in control, and when you’re not in control, you stand little chance in passing your snatch test. The voice inside your head likes to make quick, rash, and sometimes costly decisions that have profound effects on your training.

Being relaxed in your training allows you to:

  • Control the moment
  • Be present
  • Adjust to the circumstances
  • Crush your training session/lift/test

I first heard the phrase “relax and win” from Dan John, but the meaning of it didn’t sink in until I finished reading the book Untethered Soul, a book about spiritual enlightenment. The author says that to relax and release is the way to enhance the “here and now” —to let go of stress, worry, the past and the future, to focus on what’s currently happening, and “win,” as I then later applied.

4. Expect the Unexpected and Roll with It

Over the course of your training, you’ll fall into a routine. The shape of one bell over the other, the temperature you prefer for training, the training surface you stand on—these all play a part in your performance and your environment becomes your domain.

My suggestion? Challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone. When you aren’t able to use the bells you like or aren’t able to train in the comfort of your “natural” training environment, you will learn something new.

The first thing I thought when I walked into venue of my SFG Level I Cert was, “Damn, it’s humid in here.” Then I picked up a 24kg and noticed the handle felt thicker than what I had trained with. On top of that, we were training and testing on turf, whereas I prefer to do swings, cleans, and snatches on a hard surface.

But I had no control over this environment. I either needed to figure out a way to get around my new obstacles or risk failing my test.

I babied and prepped my hands all weekend. During training I wore sock sleeves (highly recommended). Toward the end of day two, I took off the sleeves to play around with chalk, the feel of the bell, etc. The morning of the snatch test I was about to lose a callus—go figure—and there was nothing to do but roll with it. I elected to forgo chalk in hopes of the callus not catching and tearing off midway through the test.

I ended up crushing the test. At the four-minute mark I was at ninety snatches. I took a rest, shook it off, and hammered out my last ten nice and easy.

SFG Level I Cert
Don’t forget to celebrate! After we passed our SFG Level I Cert, my crew and I attempted to pig out on Fogo De Chao only to realize they were closed—burgers and beer were had elsewhere!

Are You Ready for the SFG Level I Cert?

If you’re thinking of signing up for any event, my recommendation is this—just do it!  Whether it’s the SFG Level I Cert, another StrongFirst Course or Cert, or something entirely different, just get after it. And once you’re committed:

  • Hire a coach
  • Be humble in your approach
  • Know you’re going to fail at times in your training, but don’t think of it as a failure—think of it as a temporary defeat, a lesson to be learned
  • Persist in your efforts
  • Resist distractions
  • Get out of your own way
  • Relax and win

You might think that upon successfully passing the snatch test that you’ve reached the pinnacle of kettlebell training. However, I’ve realized it’s really the beginning and more a rite of passage than a mountaintop. My dad constantly reminds me to “enjoy the ride,” referring to life itself. Perception is reality. Challenge yourself and remember that adversity is not a bad thing, but rather the fuel you need to go further—embrace it.

When you’re frustrated, panicking, or worrying about the future, stop yourself. Take a few deep breaths, channel the present moment, and let your training take over—after all, they call it “training” for a reason. If you can win the battle between your ears, the physical battle will already be won.

22 thoughts on “4 Essential Mental Tools for Passing the SFG Level I Cert

  • Steve,
    That’s another point of contention I have with this community. You guys take a blanket statement, read into it and mold it to see how it best suites your needs; and then try to combat me on how it’s “right”. It’s like StrongFirst CAN’T be wrong. It’s an elitist attitude.

    AGAIN, that statement says “Don’t train to Failure” .. that’s all. It doesn’t differentiate between muscular or otherwise. So when you FAIL to meet the requirements, you are in essence training to failure. Whether it be technique failure, time failure, rep failure, etc.

    Another example, could be your beloved TSC challenege. You are testing your 1RM in the Deadlift. Isn’t testing a 1RM teetering on the brink of training to failure? (the preperation for TSC…)

    • Performing in competition is different than in training. The post refers only to training.

      Matt, yet again you demonstrate a refusal to consider nuance or context, and simply want to be argumentative. If you sincerely wish to see more explanation on the “training to failure” photo graphic, just visit that post and read the comments. One is pasted below. They say the same thing we have always said—in articles, books and elsewhere—about this neurological training principle. And, again, failing a lift is not the same as failing to meet testing requirements. Anyone who has attended our Instructor Certification (and most who have not) is quite able to understand the distinction.

      Among the explanations in the post, and to directly respond to your criticism of not specifying the “type of failure”: “[O]ne could also make the case that it CAN be an absolute—that no matter the reason, the nervous system learns the same. Whether it was lack of focus, or fatigue, or lousy technique, or you just decided mid-lift to stop… the lift was not completed properly and those neural pathways were not reinforced (or “greased”) in the manner you wanted them to be. Do not approach the lift with doubt, or you are far more likely to miss it…and your nervous system learned that this is a lift that you miss. We also teach about concepts such as dominanta, in addition—to help the lifter remain focused to an appropriate degree on the appropriate elements, in order to limit yet another reason a lift may fail (you were focused too much on closing the gripper than on pressing the bell on the other side…the hyperirradiative/assistive element must not exceed the challenge of the primary lift). Etc. etc.”

      If you would like to challenge other instances of perceived inconsistency, Matt, please take them to the forum instead of on Chris’s thoughtful and generous article.

      • I have no issue with Chris’s post. I’m a fan of his.

        All I’m doing is pointing out a minor fallacy in the StrongFirst community. Some of you in this community have an elitist mindset and think StrongFirst is the ONLY way, when in fact, it’s not.
        Testing a 1RM in training, and failing a lift, in my opinion is a must.
        If I were training for a TSC, and I hadn’t tested my 1RM deadlift, how could I walk to the platform with any sort of confidence at a weight that I’ve never approached in practice. I’m not saying every session needs to be a bull-buster, but EVERY NOW AND AGAIN, I think it’s important for mental toughness, self confidence, gauging progress, as well as for the fun of it. At the end of the day, training is supposed to be fun!! If training isn’t fun, and it just feels like a chore, it’s not going to last long.
        Fitness is a lifelong journey, if it isn’t fun / enjoyable, it’s not going to be a lifelong quest.

        Anyways, even in Training, training to failure isn’t a death sentence. I hate terms like NEVER, or ALWAYS… Again, if I go for a 1RM Deadlift, or attempt a max set of pull-ups, in training, it’s not like I’m going to die,

        I think the Mental Toughness part of training is a necessity for growth and testing the limits is one of the best ways to achieve this. So again, every now and again, Go For Broke and see what you’re made of.
        For those of us who don’t compete, and will never be on the competitive stage, training is all we have.

        And I fully realize the difference in training vs competition.
        All I’m pointing out is a fallacy in the All-Mighty StrongFirst community, and that I 100% agree with Chris’s original post.

  • Chris,
    I have ZERO issue with your article. In all honestly, I loved it. I’m a huge fan of your blog. I’m subscribed to your news letter on your own site, etc.

    I was just pointing out a contradiction / fallacy that that Strongfirst has. I think the community (not everyone, but a select few) have too much of an Elitist attitude and think One Way is the Only Way, but then they contradict themselves with saying one thing and training the opposite.

    Again, no issues with your article. Very well said, and the take away goes beyond just passing an SFG cert.

  • Loved it! I will share with my brothers and sisters of StrongFirst here in Korea!

  • https://www.facebook.com/bestrongfirst/photos/a.508087085877850.119145.491523924200833/1146966251989927/?type=3&theater

    . “You’re going to fail in your training many, many times”
    “Know you’re going to fail at times in your training”
    I thought I wasn’t supposed to fail? Training to failure is training my nervous system to fail?

    This is precisely the reason why I don’t like this community. You’re full of contradictions and your elitist view points don’t match up with your training programs.
    For example: You like to preach about “Easy Strength” and don’t over do it, etc. But yet, your cert is considered tough / brutal / high failure rate / etc.
    or –
    “Don’t train to failure, because you’re training to fail”, but yet you have 30% (+/-) fail rate for the SFG Cert, your blog posts talk about training to failure, etc.
    It’s contradictory, and you’re talking out of both ends of your mouth.

    • Matt, if you have decided you don’t appreciate our material, please disregard it and spend your time more productively elsewhere.

      I will first address your attempt to reveal a contradiction, however. The point is not complicated. If you want to get stronger in a lift, don’t train to exhaustion where you fail to complete your rep(s) in that lift. It has been explained in-depth.

      This is a different principle than in recognizing the reality that many people fail to perform every technical and teaching requirement to pass the SFG Certification during that weekend (even if all reps were completed).

      It is also different than recognizing the struggle inherent in training that has nothing to do with “missing a rep” due to exhaustion.

      The ability to differentiate and appropriately understand context, Matt, is an important part of life. It should not be so difficult for you. Please move on, and have a strong week.

      • For being such a “strong” community, maybe you should take criticism better and stop with the butthurt !!
        I certainly have the right to post if I disagree with something; you getting bent out of shape and asking me not to post my opinion’s shows a lack of strength on your pack. You should welcome opposing view points!

        Strength isn’t always about the number, if you can snatch the 24kg for 100 reps 5min but form is (for sake of argument – 80%), but you practice and practice, and now you can get 100x reps in 5 minutes, but your form is 98%. Isn’t that a form of Strength. But through that practice, you “failed” and getting 100x reps in 5 minutes with 98-100 percent perfect form?
        Secondly, the picture that you posted says NOTHING about the specifics of training. It states that you shouldn’t “train to failure”.. that’s all.

        Also, please note: I agree with the notion that Failure fosters Future success. Whether you train max rep push-ups, a 1rep max Deadlift, or 5min Snatch session. “Failing” isn’t a bad thing and it shouldn’t be avoided like the plague.

        • Matt, it would have been easier just to delete your comment. ;]
          Instead, your criticism and disagreement was considered, approved to appear here, and responded to. Take a breath, buddy.

        • Hey Matt,

          I think you missed the point I was trying to make. You’re right, at StrongFirst we do talk about not training to failure however, when you’re learning something new (such as a swing, a getup, snatch, etc.) is it not expected that you will fail in your first, second, or even 10th attempt? Nobody is perfect from the get go – few are “perfect” at all.

          This is the “failure” I was referring too – more of sorting through things and at the end coming out on top stronger MENTALLY and physically – the article was about mental toughness – not physical.

    • Matt,
      You are simply confusing training to failure with failing a test, yet these are two distinctly different scenarios.

      You stated:
      “You like to preach about ‘Easy Strength’ and don’t over do it, etc.
      But yet, your cert is considered tough / brutal / high failure rate / etc.
      or – “Don’t train to failure, because you’re training to fail”, but yet you have 30% (+/-) fail rate for the SFG Cert, your blog posts talk about training to failure, etc.
      It’s contradictory, and you’re talking out of both ends of your mouth. ”

      As I see it StrongFirst differentiates between training to failure and testing.
      There is training to muscular, technical or mechanical failure.
      Then there is “failing” a test.

      The Failure Rate at an SFG event is NOT a representation of how many lifts are missed during an event. From my experience at StrongFirst events, certs and workshops I feel secure estimating that 99%+ of all lifts are completed successfully with weights and reps well within each individual’s limitations.

      Passing the instructor tests at a SFG cert are another matter entirely, not to be confused with training to failure. The grad challenge is a unique situation where candidates may encounter muscular fatigue or failure, but even here training to muscular failure is discourage and candidates are expected to manage their fatigue levels safely.

      When you understand that it is entirely possible to fail a strength test, technique test or snatch test without ever approaching muscular failure or missing a single rep you will understand that we are not “talking out of both sides of our mouth”

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