One of the hardest parts of the process can be deciding to actually sign up and enter your first meet. In the old days (pre-Internet), you usually got involved because you trained with people that competed and got drawn in by their enthusiasm and goal-oriented training. If you trained by yourself or weren't exposed to competitive lifters at your gym, it is entirely likely that you would have never even known how to get involved in powerlifting unless you happened to see a lonely copy of Powerlifting USA among the stacks of Muscle and Fitness, Ironman, Muscular Development or Muscle Mag magazines on the local newsstand.
Nowadays, thanks to the internet, it is extremely unlikely that anyone currently lifting weights would be completely ignorant of competition in the powerlifts. As before, the vast majority of people that enter their first meet do so because they have been encouraged by fellow lifters or their coach or trainer. A smaller but growing number of new competitors are now starting to enter competitions through peer support from participation in an online strength and fitness community. And as before, there are a number of passionate lifters that remain on the sideline waiting for that day when they feel they are worthy.
Back in the pre-internet days, we never really knew how pervasive such a detrimental attitude was but now that everyone has a voice on the internet, it's a bit shocking how common one hears the refrain (or variations thereof):
"I want to compete but not until my lifts are worthy"*
*The worst competitive powerlifting strategy of all-time.
When I read this on the internet, if I believe the person is truly being genuine, I think two things. One, the lifter is obviously passionate because they want their lifts to improve. Two, they aren't training and interacting with the right people.
With the exception of state/provincial or National/International meets, there are no qualifying totals required for local meets--the grass roots meets that form the base of the sport. If a prospective competitor were training with competitive powerlifters, two things would be guaranteed to happen. One, they would know that if they lift, they are already worthy and two, the competitive environment fostered by goal-driven competitors would push their lifts to places they could never get to on their own. So, enough of that, if I never hear the worst possible powerlifting competition strategy ever again, it'll still be too soon.
For those that going to take the plunge and send in their entry form and fees, congratulations and I have some advice.
Read the Rules
Every legitimate powerlifting Federation has a rule book that describes the technical performance of the lifts, the equipment requirements, and the order of competition. With the influx of new, self-coached competitors, I have seen many lifts lost because the lifter appeared to have never read the rule book. Examples I have seen: wearing the wrong equipment or failing to wear required equipment (ie: lifters showing up without a singlet), lifters unaware that a Federation requires the head to remain on the bench and feet flat on the floor when bench pressing, lifters unaware their pre-workout drink contained stimulants prohibited by a Federation's Anti-Doping policy.
One goal at a time at your first meet.
Lifter sometimes enter their first meet and have a laundry list of goals: cut weight, set PR's, set Federation records, qualify for a bigger meet, etc. Oftentimes, this folly is part and parcel of the "I'll enter when my lifts are worthy" strategy. If it is your first meet, keep it simple. Using your first meet as your "coming out party" when you're going to show the world you're worthy is a strategy that works well in movies but much less so in real life. Trying to accomplish a number of things you have never done before under the pressure and scrutiny of competition is a recipe for failure. Your first priority at your first meet should always be staying in the meet. It is very easy to miss lifts due to technical errors and until you're on the platform, under the gun, with people watching, there's no way to tell if you're going to black out and forget to wait for a command. At the last meet I attended, new lifters missed many lifts due to failing to wait for "start", "press", or "rack" commands.
There are very good reasons why experienced competitors have a coach handling them at meets. The less the lifter has to do, the more they can concentrate on just lifting. If you have to do more than remember your name, then you are being distracted and it could cost you a missed lift. It is certainly possible to have a great meet without a coach but only after a lifter has become sufficiently comfortable with the competitive environment that the usual stresses do not distract from the effort.
Unless you've experienced a weight cut and its effect on your lifts, you should never combine an weight cutting strategy with your first competition. This goes hand in hand with the advice to not set expectations or goals of setting PR's or records. I've seen many lifters so focused on setting a PR or Federation record that they forget the cardinal rule: stay in the meet. Cutting weight affects everyone differently. The combination of cutting weight and being too focused on goal weights has led to many a bomb-out. The opening attempt has to be something you can complete on your worst day if you woke up with a cold under the strictest judging possible. What I often see instead is a lifter picking a weight they can complete on a good day, when fully fed and hydrated, under questionable judging, and at their preferred time of day to lift simply because they are too focused on their planned third attempt PR's. You can't think about thirds before you've gotten your first on the board. The plan has to be flexible so it can be modified on meet day. If that means dropping your opener 20-30 lbs, do it and stay in the meet.
Use each meet as an opportunity to learn and to slowly add to your experience tool box. Don't try to play the whole symphony before you've even tried your first instrument.
Practice your competitive lifts using the competition commands--Preferably with someone that knows the rules.
The adage, "perfect practice makes perfect" holds true when it comes time to test yourself on the platform. No matter how sincere your intentions, if you never practice your squats or bench presses with the competition commands, there is a good chance you will miss at least one attempt because of it. This is how it almost always happens:
New lifter thinks he or she knows all the commands and has posted youtube form check videos to confirm. New lifter gets to the meet and is intimidated by strong people in the warm-up room. It's time to lift and after trying some ammonia for the first time, can barely see straight and now has the most fearsome adrenalin-powered psyche he or she has ever felt. "Bar's loaded!" By now the lifter can barely feel their feet as they walk to the platform for their opening squat attempt. Stress-induced tunnel vision has reduced their field of view to the bar and the head judge sitting right in front of them. The lifter unracks the bar and it feels as light as a feather. "I got this!!" the lifter thinks. The lifter (sometimes) waits for the "Start" command and starts the squat. "Down, down, is this low enough, down, and UP! EASY! YEAH! " and the lifter takes a step to rack the weight in triumph. And that's when it usually hits them. Three red lights because the lifter didn't wait for the "Rack" command.
Because who practices waiting for a rack command in the gym? You grind out that last rep and immediately slam the bar back into the rack. Well, don't do that. Practice like you need to play so it's instinctive under the stress of what feels like at the time, life or death competition.
You will be over-stimulated
Your first meet is going to be a cornucopia of sensations. There will be tremendous energy on the platform and in the warm-up room. You might forget to eat or you might eat or drink too much. You might find yourself wired like a meth addict from the beginning of the meet until you suddenly feel exhausted right around the time the deadlift flights start. This is all normal and it's something you will learn to control. If you know who the veteran competitors are, try to watch them. They will usually be the ones that look virtually asleep until time to warm-up for each discipline. They've learned how to control their stress levels so they're no longer the hyper-aware, wide-eyed, newbie soaking in way too much information. They are also the ones that can turn the controlled fury on and off like a light switch.
They are not the ones doing sets of 10 in the warm up room or deciding to hop in on a weight just to see how it feels. Their warm-up routine is planned in advance and they stick to it. They don't need to do their opener in the warm up room so someone can check their depth. There is nothing better than being able to pull a third attempt deadlift for the win or to move up a placing. In order to do that, it is very important that one still has mojo in the tank at the end of a long day. It's likely you will not but that is normal for your first meet.
After the meet, good or bad, is the time to reflect on what went well, what didn't, what was as you expected, and what was a complete surprise. No matter how you performed, you now have a whole suite of experiences and hopefully, fellow lifting contacts, that will benefit your future lifting endeavors. And as for referencing Sarah McLachlan in the opening paragraph, anyone can get psyched up listening to Hatebreed, Lamb of God, or Lair of the Minotaur, learn to get psyched up by listening to estrogenic angst and any obstacle at a meet will become child's play.