Lou Ferrigno: Sports Psychology Interview

Professional Bodybuilder / Actor

Lou Ferrigno Guest Posing

Lou Ferrigno is perhaps best known as the actor who played the "Incredible Hulk" during the early and mid-80's. Yet, others have known him as the giant competitive bodybuilder during the Schwartzenegger era. At 42 years of age, after 17 years from competitive retirement, Ferrigno has made his move back up into the light, placing in the top ten in the Mr. Olympia lineup. Lou is quick to point out that there's more to come... In the mean time, Mr. Ferrigno is continuing his acting career in "Cage" and promises his new autobiography about his life's struggles to hit the shelves soon.

Manhattan, Kansas, USA many had the opportunity to witness this true success story at a posing exhibition at the 1994 NPC Big 8 Regional Bodybuilding Championships at Kansas State University. After a standing ovation of over 1200 screaming fans and four eye boggling encores later, I was able to interview Lou during a limousine ride back to the Kansas City International Airport.

James: Apart from being a famous bodybuilder and an actor, what is it like to be large, just huge. What are peoples' reactions and what is your response to this?

Lou: Well apart from being large, you know, being a large person myself, I mean I get attention no matter where I walk, regardless of being an actor or celebrity, because as big as I am people always look at me. This is something I have always wanted and it makes me feel good about myself. And, ah, of course, you kind of got a little different behind the clothes, but it's the fact that I spent so many years sculpturing my body; it's something I'm very proud of, that people are very proud of or I'm amazed of today. When I first began weight training I tried to put on muscle. People were negative towards it, but when bodybuilding became very popular over the years, then the attitude changed. It's a good thing of the fact that I felt good about myself doing it, and I love getting attention from people. Because when they see me walk, they going to say, "god, that's like a real man, this is what a man is built like. I wish I could be like him, and look like him."

James: Hum ha. Do you ever get mixed feelings, or negative feelings, ah, from this? Is it all positive or is it some negative at all?

Lou: Man tends to get negative when people saying that, ah - It's funny how some times how the public some people think I was born like this. That I maybe I sleep and I do big muscle, but it's a lot of work to look like this and to be in this kind of condition. And most people can be jealous, negative people, because they will try to find ways to put you down, saying you are muscle bound, which I exploded the myth on the super size, saying that your all body and brawn, and on and on said it. And also the main thing of all is the fact that they want to feel that I've done a compliment they can't when it's acute, because it's a lot of hard work and dedication.

James: So how do you react to the negative aspects, how do you react to the negative reactions?

Lou: I just ah, I just maybe answer back in a very funny way. And that if you're really going to lose it, you're not going to fight with a loser, saying that I was negative, I say fine that was your opinion, I just shrug It off. Because it's a compliment to pay. If you don't get any kind of attention, then you don't have anything that any time people pay attention that's positive or negative. It's still a reaction. And to me it's a compliment no matter what.

James: Yeah, very good, very good. Ok, ah, so whose, ah, comment on your, ah, on behaviors or psychological techniques to use to, ah, affect another competitors state of mind.

Lou: I don't believe in, ah, this psyching out, which is things, ah, that really come down to is how you feel about yourself, what kind of shape you are. Because you're like an Olympic athlete, if you competing in a competition and your one-hundred percent at your best, it's the best you can do. And the best effect I have on the other competitors, is the fact that I have a good time. And sometimes you're in a competitive sport like bodybuilding, people are also competitive, they will say negative things. The knowing that you gave one-hundred percent and your feeling good about yourself. I don't give a shit about what anyone else says, except I'm having a real positive effect on the competitors, because if you feel you going to win the contest and you have a chance to win, you going to win them out of why? Me psyching out? No game playing method will effect you.

James: Huh em, So, expounding on this question, how do you react, what's your thinking processes, when someone tries to point out a, ah, fault in a competition situation. What is your thinking in managing this thought; this negative thought that they've tried to place in your head? How do you try to manage it?

Lou: Before the competition?

James: Yeah, or any time they're trying to get an extra advantage. How do you manage this negative thought?

Lou: When you say negative thought, you mean that a competitor with another competitor?

James: That's right, and they're attempting to maybe use this psychological technique on you, and how...

Lou: Their methods are going to say a negative thought. I know right away there's a person that's very insecure; that he's trying to outdo me. And, ah, like I was saying before, if you give one-hundred percent of your best, and you may have fault, but there is nothing you can do, because you gave one-hundred percent. All of us have fault; our physique. Like, for example, track and field. But you got to understand that there's two different concept in track and field. The first guy to the finish line wins, the way it is. Bodybuilding is a matter of opinion. That way different sports have different effects. But, ah, each athlete does have fault. But, if you spend enough time to work on that fault knowing that you can minimize those faults, then you find that ...everybody say things. Then you got to be in a position to say fine that's how you feel. Thank you very much and then just do your own thing. But if you start becoming this way and believe everybody; being mislead. You aren't going to perform as well as you think you're going to.

James: So, then maybe you just try to do the best you can at that particular time, and, ah, just try to believe in yourself, basically.

Lou: Well, ah, the attitude that you want to give one-hundred percent in training and do the best you can, so at the day of the competition, you knowing that when you walk the way you came fifth, if you came first, if you won, that you say to yourself, "If I had it to do all over again, I could have not done better." It comes down to being consistent if you have done your homework. If you don't prepare enough time, then you can blame yourself, you can't blame other people. The people say you have fault, then you'll be more subject to that kind of ridicule, criticism, because, knowing that you didn't do your homework.

James: Yeah, so, It sounds like this might take, ah, a little bit of experience to be able to, ah, manage correctly.

Lou: Oh sure, we're going to make mistakes. Like for example, I made my come back in bodybuilding two years ago, I make a lot of mistakes. I didn't work enough on the posing routine for the first Olympia. The mandatory poses, so when I walked out I ended coming in twelfth place because, I kind of like let my ego effect me. Then I got ... I said, "The following year, I want to take everybody to take to what's best for me." So, I when I competed last year, I placed much higher, but I said to myself, "I couldn't have done better." Then one morning when I woke up, I knew I won because, I won for me, no matter what happens. Because of a matter of opinion with the judges. That knowing that you gave one-hundred percent, it's all you can do, you can't do any more.

James: Yeah, it sounds like so it turned in more into competition towards yourself, more than others...

Lou: Exactly, the best thing to do is to compete with yourself. Everyone has their own genetic make up and you try to be like someone else, and you can't. So, if you compete with yourself. That's the best way to train, the best way to have fun, and the best way to succeed. Every day you do something to better yourself. It's all you can do. Some people become president, some people care, some people do different things. So, I admire other people, but the best you can do is to maximize what you got.

James: Good, very good. Ok, ah comment on your behaviors that have an impact on media, fans, or public.

Lou: The attitude is very important. Because, your behavior radiates how you feel. If you a very negative person, negative, people will feel that. If you perceive other things negative people will perceive how you feel. To be a champion you must act like one, act like a champion. You must feel good about yourself. You are going to have bad days and have good days. I mean, nobody was born perfect. But, knowing the fact that you're in the media, if you're out in the public, you want to give them the best attention you can. Because, don't forget, for you to get in that position, their your fans, they're looking up to you. So to give back to them, the best advise I can say, give them a time, a hand shake and say, "Hello, how are you doing'." I don't care how miserable your life is. And that behavior carries in the long run.

James: So, maybe some times, ah, you feel you maybe in, ah, not the ideal state of mind when your up in the public's eye and what do you do to try to change this state of mind...?

Lou: ...Well you have to separate it, like for example, you can be middle of a divorced, you can be bad business investment. I'll give you a perfect example. I mentioned two nights ago, that I drove to two hours to do a personal appearance. And I got into a major head-on collision. I finally panicked, there was a whole bunch of people waiting. There was like 800, 900 people outside, which was probably the most embarrassing thing in my life. Right after the accident a bunch of kids came running and jumped on the truck and started asking for autographs. I signed the autographs, I pulled to the side, "OK, I have a bad car accident" But, why should I take it out on these people, because it's not their fault. The car accident will be taken care of, got the insurance and everything. I when on and did the show, then I left. I felt better, because knowing that I was able to move on. If I had this situation where I just "Oh man, ah shit! I got a car accident. I can't do the fuckin' show. I can't function." And just leave. Then I would have felt like I was just inferior, because life has a lot of obstacles. Things happen and we all must go on, we must live.

James: Good. Are there any, ah, things you have to, maybe, em, say to yourself inside or anything you did to regain your composure? There must have been thoughts and you tried to...

Lou: You're saying to yourself, "OK, I'm in front of the building. I'm in front of these fans. They are here to see me. They don't understand what a car accident is like, or feel like to go. You know they're kids and I must separate these bad feelings, negative from the good." And just focus on that and do it. It comes with practice.

James: Yeah, experience. That's good. OK, ah. What psychological techniques do you incorporate during training, before competition, and during competition. So, we can start out with just "training" now. What psychological techniques do you engage in to improve your training?

Lou: I have short-term goals and short-term goals. Meaning, for example, in the sport of bodybuilding, the long term goal is to plan to come in shape by the way I look. And when do a calculate all my training, I really trust myself. If you're best of friends with yourself and trust yourself, you can't go wrong, because there won't be any confusion, so basically, all you have is yourself. Like I said before, "So be focused on yourself." Perfect yourself on the day of the show when you step out on stage to compete, in any event, you're ready.

James: So, ah, would there, ah, maybe any difference of psychological techniques used for training and maybe for competition. Is it kind of different for preparing yourself psychologically for maybe competition?

Lou: Well knowing you're always going to be nervous. Every time I get close, I'm nervous, but it's a healthy nervous attitude in which everyone's nervous. As long as you know what you are feeling. And it's wonderful to admit these feelings. The important thing is that the psychological technique that I use the fact that I won't let one negative thought come to my mind. I never think about losing. I never pay attention to what's going on around me as far as like the event. I just focus on Me. If you start looking at other competitors and say, "Wow, that guy did an eighteen-foot jump. I don't know if I can do it." You're lost. They do their thing, you say, "fine." You do your whole thing. After the event is over, then you can look back and get paid or talk to people about the critique. But the whole time preparing for an event, it's only you and yourself. If it's a team sport, fine, but still you have yourself to work with.

James: Do you ever do any, ah, relaxation exercises at all or do you not find those maybe not effective?

Lou: Yeah, I do a lot of meditating, meaning I would lie down, I would focus on wait it's like to win, what it would be like on stage, the feeling the people, the cheering, the crowd, the good feelings of the event. But, the main thing of all, saying to myself, "Hey, I'm one of the few people doing this. I have an opportunity to do this and this unbelievable because not ever one can do this and I'm very fortunate to be doing this."

James: Try to put things into perspective maybe a little bit more.

Lou: Yeah, you kind of like, you put a picture in your mind, and then that's the direction you will take.

James: Very good, ok, great. Ah, is there a difference between, ah, these strategies, ah, these psychological strategies, ah, maybe during the competition itself verses, you know, before competition? Is there a change? Is there something you tried to do during competition?

Lou: Meaning that when you train, when you do all your homework, that is the competition.

James: Ok

Lou: You give one-hundred ten percent. When you go to the actual event you're on vacation because there's nothing more you can do, you can't train anymore, so you might as just enjoy yourself knowing that you can do the best you can. The real competition is the time you go to the gym, the time you put into training for an event. That's the competition. The day of the show is vacation, my friend. It's fun. It's performance. But, the day of the show you can't train, you can't improve your performance, even a week before. It's what you do year-round.

James: Yeah. So, what sort of thoughts, ah, and things are going through your mind as you're, ah, going out on stage and performing.

Lou: Knowing that everything will calculate and knowing that when I go out on stage and perform that to make sure that everything that I have done to prepare for it, doing my homework, that I give one-hundred percent. And, ah, always learning new things because, no matter what the outcome is that I always will feel like a champion.

James: Ok, good... What negative thoughts have you had to overcome and what did you do to overcome them?

Lou: Um, people would say that in the sport of bodybuilding that I don't have the genetics. At least some of these guys. Especially after making a comeback after seventeen years. Fine, I understand that. Um, If I took over a negative thought and believed it, I either won't compete or embarrass myself. But, instead, I maximized what I had, I gave one-hundred percent and I went on stage and I stole the show.

James: Was there, ah, maybe, ah, maybe earlier in your career as you were beginning, ah, maybe buried negative thoughts in your mind?

Lou: Ah sure, because I have a very, ah, abusive father, you know, I was born with 85% hearing loss. I couldn't speak, so the thoughts were, I was told as a kid, "You can't do it, you can't do it, you're never going to make anything. But, I was very driven and I keep, I learned quickly, knowing that believe and trust in yourself, you can't go wrong. If you have other people influence you, you will become what they want you to become.

James: I guess one other one, just to kind of integrate everything. Can you comment on, first of all maybe, a percentage of importance of psychological verses physical training. What percentage would you say would be the importance of physical training and what's the importance of the psychological state of mind? In your opinion...

Lou: Psychological is 85%. Training is 15. The mind is everything. The mind is the most powerful tool you have and it's everything. And you have belief in your mind, you can do anything.


Lou Ferrigno has not only sacrificed and overcome many obstacles as many elite athletes do, but he also copes with the handicap of partial deafness on a daily basis that most of us can never fully comprehend. In addition, Ferrigno's celebrity status brings great demands, pressures, and expectations from the media, public, and his fans.

Understandably, Ferrigno has developed and implemented strategies to deal with both positive and negative stresses in his career. Many of these same strategies have been incorporated by other athletes throughout history and appear in today's sports psychology literature.

For example, when Ferrigno explains his thinking in dealing with negative reactions, he explains the importance of positive thinking through self-talk. Bandura (1977) claims self-efficacy is influenced by verbal persuasion from others and from self in the form of self-talk. Furthermore, Carver, Blaney, & Scheier (1979a, 1979b) suggest that self-regulation can be disrupted if one's expectations become negative. Self-talk has been advocated to improve self-efficacy expectations of athletes (Mahoney, 1979)

Ferrigno also stressed the importance of focusing on yourself during an event; away from his surroundings, past, or winning expectations. Investigators have documented this same focus set in successful, elite athletes during competition (Gould, Elund, & Jackson, 1992; Mahoney, Gabriel, & Perkins, 1987; Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick).

Lou Ferrigno reported adopting a few psychological techniques such as setting goals and visualization of peak experience. Goal setting on task performance is believed to be very effective (Locke, et al, 1981). Unfortunately, we did not speak more in depth concerning any of his task performance goals. Visualization of peak experiences to aid performance has been described by Cautela and Samdperil (1989).

Lou also spoke of other concerns of an elite athlete such as: keeping a perspective of where you came from, obligations and techniques in dealing with the public. Other factors such as scheduling ample time for training and recuperation, and dealing with obnoxious admirers were also evident beyond our interview. Many of these concerns and lifestyle adjustments have been documented in Olympic athletes (Kreiner-Phillips & Orlick).


Bandura A (1977). Self efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavior change. Psychological review, 8, 191-215.

Carver CS, Blaney PH, & Scheier MF (1979a). Focus of attention, chronic expectancy, and responses to a feared stimulus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychological, 37, 1186-1195.

Carver CS, Blaney, PH, & Scheier MF (1979a). Reassertion and giving up: The interactive role of self-directed attention and outcome expectancy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychological, 37, 1159-1871.

Cautela JR & Samdperil L (1989). Imagaletics: The application of covert conditioning to athletics. JASP, 1, 82-97.

Gould D, Eklund RC, & Jackson SA (1992). 1988 U.S. Olympic wrestling excellence: I. Mental preparation, Precompetitive cognition, and affect. TSP, 6, 358-382.

Gould D, Eklund RC, & Jackson SA (1992). 1988 U.S. Olympic wrestling excellence: II. Thoughts and affect occurring during competition. TSP, 6, 383-402.

Kriener-Phillips K & Orlick T (1993). Winning after winning: The psychology of ongoing excellence. TSP, 7, 31-48.

Locke EA, Shaw KN, Saari LM, & Latham GP (1981). Goal setting and task performance. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 125-152.

Mahoney MJ, Gabriel TJ, & Perkins TS (1987). Psychological skills and exceptional athletic performance, TSP, 1, 181-199.

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