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Bob and Strongman: The Contest Part 1

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As I mentioned initially, when Bob first came to me for coaching, at least one primary goal was to get physically healthier and try to deal with his various injuries, the DISH, etc. all to prevent himself from ending up in a wheelchair in a few years. But, as I also noted, he wanted to compete in strongman.

That meant picking a competition.

Now, a lot of people have trouble committing to a competition. Being willing to compete means being willing to fail and that’s hard for a lot of people. You’ll hear from folks all the time about how they want to compete but want to get their bench up a bit, or get a little faster, or a little bit bigger, or a little bit more conditioned. These are the folks who will never actually get around to competing because they are never ready or willing to put their ego on the line.

At the same time, people who have competed will almost always say that competition is the singular best way to truly focus your training and make really exceptional progress; they are 100% right.

When your goal is just to ‘get in shape’, or something vague like that, it can be tough to stay focused. There’s always more time, there’s never a rush, you can always goof off a bit and lose your focus. When you know that you have a competition coming up in 6 weeks, you will focus harder on your goal and this is likely the reason for the success of the “Best shape of your life in 12 weeks” types of events.

In any case, an athlete’s first competition isn’t generally about winning anyhow; it’s meant to be more of a learning experience. You can identify weaknesses in preparation, find out how the athlete handles competition in general; winning is always nice but it shouldn’t be expected or aimed for in my opinion. Competitions are also often a hell of a lot of fun.

At the same time, competition can be stressful for a lot of people. In training, it’s can be easy to fall into the psychological trap of loafing a bit because you always get another chance. In training, if you miss a weight one week, you’ve always got the next workout to take another shot at it again. In competition, you usually only get the once chance and anxiety over that can cause people to tighten up. They get so worried about missing that they end up trying too hard, causing them to fuck up.

In any case, a good starter meet came up in Allegheny, PA that was close to where Bob lives so we decided that it was time for him to make the commitment and sign up. The weights were reasonable and the events list were things that he was good enough at that I felt he’d have a solid first competition experience.

Bob had the added complication of being in his 40’s and never having competed in anything athletic in his life. Entering a contest where he just got absolutely crushed would have been a huge mistake (from a psychological standpoint) which made the Allegheny meet a good one to start with.

Even there, this was something that he’d been working towards for 2 solid years, and he had no idea how to deal with it mentally. It’s one thing to think sort of ‘theoretically’ about entering a contest and another to actually be signed up and realize that you’re going to have to go through with it. I tried to reassure him that anxiety about it was perfectly normal.

My main concern going into the contest was therefore two fold:

1. To not screw up his taper so that he’d be at his best physically to compete

2. To handle the invariable psychological issues that would come up.

Athletes often go a little bit crazy right before a competition. They start questioning themselves and their training (and their coaches). Did they train enough, are they ready, should they have done more, could they have done more? It’s all too common to hear of athletes losing it in the final two weeks before a big competition. They’ll try to cram a bunch of training in and end up doing far more harm than good.

You’ll hear of powerlifters or Olympic lifters taking their openers the day before the meet (or in the warmup room) or athletes doing race pace work two days out. And then they compete like dogs because they blew their wad before it was necessary.

A quote from Dave Tate (or was it Jim Wendler) in PLUSA comes to mind here:

“There’s nothing a lifter can do to get stronger in the last three weeks before a contest; but there are a lot of things that they can do to get weaker.”

Wise words indeed.

The point being that, that close to a contest, all of the preparation has been done and the athlete is either ready or they aren’t. If they aren’t, you can’t change it except to fix their training the next go around and learn from your mistakes. All you can do is taper them down to try to ensure that they perform at their best on the competition day.

As far as I was concerned, Bob was as prepared as he could be for his first event, his strength was very good, he was getting comfortable with the implements technically and I felt his conditioning would be sufficient. We had finished with some conditioning stuff in his last block, timed sets of deadlifts and such to get him used to that style of training and there wasn’t anything else we could have done at that point to get him more ready.

Luckily, outside of some pre-meet anxiety about two weeks out (part of which was caused by being so rested he had energy to burn), Bob didn’t really go through any of the pre-meet insanity. We had one phone call about that time where I helped him put some things in perspective and that was that.

Physically, he put himself completely in my hands for the last few weeks.

Which was good in that I didn’t have to worry about him doing anything crazy.

And it was bad in that it also put the entire success or failure of the taper on my shoulders: if it went wrong, I would be fully to blame.

It didn’t go wrong.

I planned a fairly long taper and decided to err on the side of too long than too little. Given that he’s older, has a massive number of connective tissue issues and goes pretty heavy most of the year. I figured that even if I tapered him a bit too early, he had strength to spare, even if he lost a few percentage points, he’d still be fine.

I actually started his taper three weeks out with his final heavy lower body workout on a Saturday. A final heavy upper body workout came about 5 days later and then it was just a gradual reduction of volume and intensity as we went. 80% two weeks out, 70% the final week. I was trying to find a balance between keeping him loose and mobile and ensuring he was fully recovered.

To be concluded in Bob and Strongman: The Contest Part 2.

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