I don’t think I really started to develop as a competitive athlete until I removed myself from the stimulation of a competitive environment.
I took myself out of a community that was constantly pushing to “try again, try just one more rep,” or with people who were yelling at my face to finish the round and keep picking up the bar, or with people who always wanted to repeat workouts all the time just to get slightly better scores just so they could prove that they were better than the score they received. Yes, I used to do that.
But looking back, the only thing I really gained from that type of environment was learning how to tolerate pain better “in the moment”.
Not all competitive environments are like this though – rough, tough, in your face, pushing until failure each day, trying to get a better score than the guy next to you every day. Some environments really have a huge respect for the science behind developing athletic performance – the perfect blend of intensity, volume, accessory work, recovery, stress management combined with encouragement and effort to develop a person from amateur, to intermediate, to advanced, to expert, and to elite or master. But it can be hard to really focus on these things unless you mentally remove yourself away from the overwhelming emotional desire and impatience to be “the best” and from people who are always pushing you to *beast it*.
I took a risk and left a competitive environment a couple years ago – I left a gym whose major goal seemed to be training athletes to get to Crossfit Regionals…I left a community of athletes I used to train side-by-side with who were also striving and pushing towards that goal…to coach and train at a place focused more on emphasizing and developing longterm, sustainable health (competitive is not sustainable) – and surprisingly, what awaited me here was a new environment that allowed me to gain more respect for form, for overall health and wellness, for recovery, and for not necessarily pushing the body to its limits all the time. It wasn’t until I learned and gained this respect that I become much stronger, and a more well-rounded athlete.
To become a better athlete, I needed to respect the movements, and respect my body for what it is capable of and what it needs.
I think we have this mindset that to be a top-tier athlete, we need to be constantly in the gym for hours because we see some of the professional athletes doing multiple workouts a day like it’s their full time job.
Um…well that’s because that basically IS their full time job – they have the hours and scheduling of the day to be able to move their bodies around all the time. Oh, what a fantasy life that is – to be paid for your performance. How stressful is that? I mean, didn’t most of us get into the sports we are in because we wanted an outlet away from the rest of life, and because we wanted to become “fit and healthy” for the long term?
Reality check. Many of us who are trying to be competitive don’t have this luxury (if it is a luxury?) of being paid to be a full time professional athlete. We have full time jobs, schooling and classes to take, families, kids, loans to pay off, mortgages to pay off, and other obligations that prevent us from putting in 24/7 effort into training to be paid based on performance. In fact, many of us partake in athletics because it takes us away from our other obligations – because it’s a hobby and because we have passion for it and because we want to live for many decades and to see our grandchildren grow and possibly great grand children.
So in our situation, where time is money, stress is around the corner, and restrictive schedules surround us…to be competitive, you have to train SMART, train strategically, and train with just the right amount needed (scratch that…the minimum amount needed) to get the maximum amount of gains so we don’t over stress ourselves and burn out.
Training to get to an expert or an elite level becomes more about the quality of the training, and not necessarily about the quantity of the training. There is a point in a day’s training program where you’ve reached the peak amount of time and stimulation needed to get the maximum benefits of those movements and intensity – and any minute spent or pound lifted thereafter will only give you diminishing returns on your performance…or worse, prevent you from recovering quicker because you’re just physically stressing your body more than it needs to be.
You have to focus on the quality of the movements themselves – the form, the mechanics, the right marriage of intensity and duration, and gain a respect for the movements and for what your body is capable of performing that day to truly get the most of your workouts.
This are the things that I have just now come to discover as a developing athlete who only started a few years ago – and still have a long journey to go…and I just want to share some of my thoughts and experiences with you who are also just starting out, who have the fire in your eyes to be competitive, and want to really grasp more out of your training to become a better athlete.
So, how do you truly become a better athlete and learn respect for the movements and for your body?
EDUCATE YOURSELF ON THE MECHANICS OF MOVEMENT
Understand that the basic movement patterns and foundational strength need to be built before diving into details and complex movements.
Know what the ideal should be. Know what efficiency and effectiveness truly looks like – but also, know what kind of core strength is necessary or what might be missing when addressing the things you are struggling at.
The answer to becoming better at a movement is not necessarily just “doing more reps” and getting more practice and more muscle memory, but understand what type of movement and feeling is necessary to obtain and repeat (you certainly don’t want to be repeating form that will only work against you when you get to the refined level).
Sometimes, you have to break a complex movement down into pieces, or components (such as focusing just on the starting position and pulling up to the knees, or focusing on the top of a snatch pull where you “flex the triceps”, or developing enough thoracic mobility to be upright in a snatch, or feeling out how to transition from below rings to above the rings on a muscle-up) before you can put the whole back together again. You probably aren’t struggling with the WHOLE movement, but just a piece of it, and you need to identify that piece.
Also, don’t just look to the people and coaches immediately surrounding you. Look to the professionals, the elites, the coaches who coach the elites, and for science and research for answers. Pick up books, read articles, take seminars, expose yourself to a variety of different voices so that you can start to view certain movements in as many different ways as possible – then you are more likely to figure out the parts you are weakest at and the parts you are strongest at.
I think a lot of athletes (and just people looking to get into shape) can benefit immensely from just simple education on functional movements, what comprises more complex movements, what muscles are meant to be stimulated with certain exercises, and HOW you will benefit from certain exercises.
Even moreso, try out different coaches. I actually had the opportunity to train a couple times with Vasily Polovnikov (my husband has been training under his coaching supervision for the past several weeks now) – and learn how to break down the weightlifting movements again from complete scratch and with 100% different cues and 100% different way of approaching things. I felt like I was relearning everything again – but in the end it gives me a better understanding of the movement, more respect for the movement, and a better understanding of what it takes to be a competitive athlete.
I think we get caught up in the same way of doing stuff all the time and close ourselves off to new voices and opportunities once we’ve found our little niche and comfort zone. But, in order to get better, you have to learn how to break complex movements down to their essentials, and be open to exposing yourself to new ways of looking at things – or new cues, or perspectives from other coaches and people who will see new things that you haven’t noticed yet, and break out of that comfort zone for a bit.
DON’T SETTLE FOR LESS THAN 100%
By 100% I don’t mean just effort. I mean FORM.
If you settle for 80-90% good form, or even 95% good form, then you’ll only become a 95% decent athlete.
But to be competitive, elite, and to show mastery at something, you need to be in that top 1%, or top .05%.
And to make world records, those athletes are at 100% because they just make it look so darn beautiful and easy (because when you do it 100% correct then it clicks!)
In just the two sessions of training I had with Vasily watching my form, I really began to understand how important CRITICISM is when learning things, and ACCEPTING CRITICISM because it will make you better. It sucks being told, “still not pulling hard enough….still not straight enough…etc” because I felt like I was trying to focus on improving every other part of the lift too and that wasn’t being acknowledged at all and I’m not getting anywhere!!!
But in the end, accepting anything less than 100% ideal form (regardless of if it’s a lighter “easy” warm-up weight or 95% of your max) will not make you a high level athlete – and even though you “made the lift” there are still improvements to be made. Even though in my mind I thought my lift felt and looked beautiful, or I had finally nailed down the “arch the back, chin up”, Vasily still told me “higher pull, more toes, straighter, still going too far back, blah blah blah.”
So discouraging, right?
Unless you are always striving to hit the ideal, you’re always just settling for less…which, if you are trying to be competitive, will not make you a master of anything. That’s because masters don’t settle for less than 100%. In the end, even though I still kept constantly being criticized for little things here an there, I ended up a better athlete at the end of the day because of how much more focused and stingy I was on perfecting form.
FOCUS AND “STUDY” A COUPLE KEY AREAS AT A TIME
As a metaphor – think about college…where you have to take classes to specialize or major in a certain subject. In order to become specialized and develop expertise in a certain area, you must take classes that are thorough and specific to that area – classes that are very concentrated, that dive into the intricacies, ins and outs of that particular subject. Then when you finish the class, you have a much greater understanding not just of that subject, but also of the type of work and focus it takes to exploit a topic to its fullest (that you can then take with you to learning other subjects!)
Training is the same – there are areas in which you will need to spend much more time honing in on…and the best way to do that is instead of taking a “variety of classes” (focusing on developing everything at once), you take a cluster of concentrated classes for a cycle or two (focusing on thoroughly developing just 1-2 of your weaknesses).
You place all of your time, thought, and energy into really extracting all the details of these focused subjects so you don’t get distracted by other things – and then once you have developed these areas up to match your other strengths or have learned a sufficient amount, then you can take a step back to reassess the other areas now that you need to improve or “take classes on.”
But before you can do that, it might help to identify what your weaknesses actually are, and what’s really setting you back. A good coach can help you to identify these things. An flexible mind will help you trust that this is the right thing to do.
For me, that was understanding that my weakness was my lifting and barbell strength (because I’m short and pint-sized, you know! That’s a huge disadvantage for me!). I focused on weightlifting full time with minimal “crossfit” – I even cut out all the long distance and short distance running I used to do because I didn’t want it to take away from my strength gains. Lo and behold, I am now much stronger (still not as strong as many other bigger women) and am much more efficient and powerful at workouts.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT PROGRAMMING…BUT IT HELPS.
First of all, I didn’t choose to switch away from the environment I was in ONLY because of its “programming.”
Programming alone will not make you a better athlete.
Understanding the MOVEMENTS and how to train the movements and recover properly from the movements MAKES YOU A BETTER ATHLETE.
Anyone can be given a program with X-movements and Y-reps but if you don’t practice and perform them properly, work on form and technique, nor understand how the programming truly contributes to your potential as an athlete, then you’re just doing mindless reps and sets.
Now, with that being said, programming that is appropriate for your skills WILL initiate you to focus on developing an understanding for the movement (beginner programming focuses on developing the basics, and more advanced programming will assume you already understand the basics and now need more refinement of skill). As an amateur or intermediate athlete, you probably will see a lot of initial gain and improvement simply because you’re starting from scratch, building up new muscle and developing your central nervous system to respond to new physical stimulation.
But for you athletes who are seasoned, who have some training age behind you, have proficient coordination and muscle memory and who are beyond the intermediate level – simply adding in more reps and higher weights, more volume and more intensity will not get you anywhere.
And definitely, putting yourself in a “competitive” environment where the people around you are pushing you, constantly yelling in your face to “do one more rep,” encouraging extra work afterwards will not make you a better athlete. Again, it just teaches you how to tolerate pain more.
Programming has to be specifically tailored to meet your own individual and personal needs – it addresses your weaknesses and helps you to focus on the things that you need most to help you become a better athlete. For example, I realized that I had a proportionally strong squat, but my “pulling” strength was lacking in terms of being able to power a weight high enough to catch in a snatch or a clean. Also, my overhead strength and core wasn’t as stable when it came to controlling a weight overhead once I caught it. So for awhile, my programming focused on pulling mechanics, incorporating a lot of lower back and hamstring strengthening accessory lifts and a lot of core stabilization exercises such as double overhead kettle-bell carries, single sided rows, front rack lunges, Romanian deadlifts and good mornings. Actually, it was a lot of emphasis on accessory work and supplemental work and not always “lifting big” and “big lifts” all the time.
UNDERSTAND THAT YOUR BODY WORKS AS A SYMPHONY.
To become better at “crossfit” and constantly varied movements, you need to realize that every movement builds upon other movements, and that no movement sits on its own island by itself.
- The mechanics of a squat take a role in a lot of movements (wall balls, pistols, leg positioning when rowing, box jumps, ball slams, olympic lifts)
- The engagement of core muscles and their stabilization role basically gets used in almost 100% of movements (too many to list here)
- The understanding of power generated from legs, hips, and full body extension (and all the other parts of the body that work too) carries over to many movements we do.
- Pulling movements carry to other pulling movements
- Pushing movements carry over to other pushing movements
- Lacking mobility in one small area can affect and entire lift because it will throw your entire body out of alignment because you are limited in one area.
Your body has so many muscles, nerves, bones, and parts that work together as a symphony to move you in certain positions, to generate power, to stabilize, to mobilize, to hold up things, to push things, to pull things, to create speed and to create accuracy. To become better at one little thing, you also must address how your body works as a whole from core to extremity to focus on that movement.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP, WHEN YOU NEED TO RECOVER.
Watch your ego and stop being so damn impatient and wanting to get better NOW!!
The two times I got injured were when I pushed myself beyond what the programming asked for – and specifically on days that were at the peak before tapering. I wasn’t satisfied with the reps I did and I really wanted to hit a certain weight for a 5RM back squat, or for a double hang-clean – and when I didn’t make the lifts I tried again, and strained my hip from over-squatting, and sprained an ankle from not having enough power left (from trying too many times) to properly catch a clean and having the bar crash on me.
I injured myself because I was stubborn and impatient – and the consequence was losing a lot of strength from having to hold back training and spend even more time trying to regain it all back.
There’s something neat about not always wanting to push to see what your max truly is for that day – or pushing because you “know you can do it,” or pushing until failure when you don’t have to (even when it’s in the program to work up to a max) because you’re always leaving a little bit more for later.
It’s like saving yourself those last extra couple bites of cake or brownie for later. Instead of eating them now (when you’ve already gained the stimulation and satisfaction from the previous bites of cake), you’re saving some pleasure and some anticipation for the future.
It’s easy to think “oh, that won’t happen to me” because it seems like everything is hunky dory until it does happen and you do get injured…and then you kick yourself in the butt asking “why didn’t I stop there?”
Strength comes in not just being physically capable of doing something, but being mentally capable of knowing your limits.
I could probably go on and on about this topic forever, because it’s something that I’m going through and experiencing now…and has taken me a couple years to finally understand the outer edges of. Even still, I have a long ways to go as an athlete, and the more I train and educate myself, the more I realize how much of an amateur I still really am to all of this.
Train smart. Train strategically. Respect the movements. Respect your body.