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Overplaying Your Opponent: Tactics in Olympic Weightlifting Competition
Sergey Bondarenko
January 11 2016

When you stand on the platform in front of the bar in the dead silence greedily breathing to fill your lungs with air full of shrinking tension and competition spirit, there is no place for thoughts and decisions. You have done all you can during the preparation to get your best form and now you have a chance to show it and either to gain the glory athletes are searching for or return to your gym vanquished and angry with yourself.
However, between the tons of workload in the gym and six attempts on the platform, there is one small moment that many athletes neglect and underestimate. That is your game plan. For most athletes, the choices are to either risk going for new personal records, or stay cautious and aim for 6/6. That is an obvious choice and no one doubts its existence and importance; it can be the only choice you need to make if you know that you’re only fighting against yourself and your own results and seeking nothing but to improve your own numbers.
But what if you want nothing but to win? What if a 10-kilo or 20-kilo PR will not make you happy if you know that someone lifted more than you? That comes to the philosophy of a winner, which you must train and learn as you do with exercises and programming if you want to be a champion.
That comes not only to learning how to cope with your fears, find your focus and mobilize all the resources you have in a single motion; it also means that you need a game plan. Because the winner shall know that if somebody wins, obviously someone losses. That means that if you force your rivals to go for high numbers that are too extreme for them to make and they lose, you will automatically be the winner.
These subtle matters may seem vague and obscured until you see the explanation of how to use it.
I will share with you my approach to competition tactics. It may be simple and safe, but in the long run I find it really efficient. However, if you are a novice lifter whose results usually grow very rapidly and new PRs may be set each month, such a cautious approach may not be appropriate for you.
Snatch attempts are no time for high stakes. You are going to try to get the maximum number of your attempts without thinking about setting new regional records or going for stronger opponents’ numbers, i.e. ignoring any risk. The idea is that if you screw up, it will drop you out of the running for the total number in subsequent clean & jerk attempts, which is no good at all.
If you are strong with the snatch, securing your best numbers is good because it may force less tactically experienced or more risk-prone opponents to reach for you and to get a bad lift if their real numbers are more modest than yours. I was always a snatch-lifter, so I have been in situations where I picked 197kg for my first snatch attempt in juniors and my rivals tried to get the same number, getting one or more bad lifts and leaving me with a solid handicap. Afterwards in the clean & jerk, where their numbers were higher than mine, the handicap was still not enough to compensate their snatch tactical loss.
So I would suggest sticking to the following plan:
Attempt 1: Pick the weight you are absolutely 100% sure you can snatch.
Attempt 2: Repeat your PR or if the 1 att. felt really heavy, take away few kilos.
Attempt 3: Take a chance to improve your PR or to repeat the second attempt if was bad lift (Important: do not increase if your second attempt was a bad lift; that is a common mistake of many lifters).
If you follow the plan, that will allow you to take your real kilos on snatch and to make sure you have a firm base to continue the game in the clean & jerk.
Clean & Jerk
As in the snatch, your first attempt will go to secure the weight that you are 100% confident in (my rule of thumb is to pick the weight that you have done in the gym for maybe 2-3 sets of 1 repetition without bad lifts).
Now the more complicated tactical patterns come into play.
If you have a good handicap from the snatch, work the same scheme as in the snatch: aim to get your best real numbers that will force your rivals to run for you. If you have a 20kg snatch handicap, jerking 180kg would force your opponents to go for 200kg if they want to win and that will make his job much harder.
If you lost the snatch, you have to make sure you go after your opponent. That means that you shall declare the weight that is 1kg more than his declared weight. Here comes a very important tactical moment. Your opponent will most likely re-order to let you use your attempt first, and with such re-orders for each other, you may both come to the weight you will never lift (that is one of the reasons I recommend using the first attempt to get a weight you’re sure you can make).
So it is important to understand the bluffing tactic, to have nerves of steel and an accurate perception of your capabilities. It may come to be that the opponent deliberately incites you to re-order so that both of you get to the big weights, get bad lifts, and he wins with his snatch handicap. However, if you find the right time to stop, you will be in a situation where your opponent has already gone to the weights not feasible for him, while you still can get a good lift. That would definitely be the best time to stop re-ordering and go the bar and get your kilos, forcing your opponent either to lift the weight he declared while bluffing or to lose.
If you share the first place in snatch with your opponent or have minimal handicap, unless you are really much stronger in clean & jerk than your opponent, that could be a good time to bluff yourself. I would recommend bluffing for your third attempt only. Also note that if in the second attempt you take the weight that you clean & jerk with huge difficulties, the opponent may notice it and understand that any kilo added to this weight will be nothing but a bluff.
So you need to bluff only when you have a handicap in the total sufficient to win after the second attempt. Then you would want to declare some big weight, forcing your opponent to declare an even heavier one to compensate for the snatch handicap. And with the series of such re-orders, either both of you will fail and you will win with snatch handicap, which is a good scenario, or your opponent calls your bluff and stops at the right time going first and getting a good lift. That is a bad scenario for you, because after winning a snatch in fact you would be able to clean & jerk a lower weight than your opponent to win and now you have forced yourself to clean & jerk a weight not less or even the same as your opponent, but a heavier one. That may have the two outcomes: you take 2nd place and “a game is a game”, or you take your chance for a “sports coup” as we would call this situation in Russia.
For those who are interested in historical examples, Zhabotynsky 217.5kg clean & jerk in his duel with Vlasov in Tokyo in 1964 will be an interesting case study of how a tactical game can let an underdog win.