Dr. Andrew Chappell, BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, WNBF Pro
“You’ll find out a lot about yourself during the journey. It’s the classic hero’s journey”
At the time of writing, there is a war going on in mainland Europe for the first time in 70 years. Inflation is at a 40 year high causing a cost-of-living crisis with energy and food prices soaring. A recent government report suggested 30% of households could be facing fuel poverty. We’re coming off the back of 2 years of a global pandemic that’s cost the lives of millions. It’s also done untold damage to our economies, health, and national psyches. Unions are mobilising as nearly every sector seems to be on strike from barristers, to bin men. Moreover, the effects of climate change is causing record temperatures, droughts, crop failures and forest fires. Feels like the end of days! The current situation is causing real hardship for a lot of people in the UK and around the world. It’s times like this we need to remind ourselves how lucky we are that we get to go to compete and are able to pursue a sport like bodybuilding.
“…following through with the process can be a spiritual experience”
Don’t get me wrong, preparing for a competition is tough. It’s a real challenge, but it’s one of your own choosing. It’s also something that can be extremely fulfilling. I’d encourage anyone thinking about competing to check out the articles on “first timers experiences” (https://proprepcoaching.com/first-time-competitors/athlete-reflections-of-their-bodybuilding-season/) and “what they don’t tell you about prep” (https://proprepcoaching.com/science-of-bodybuilding/what-they-dont-tell-you-about-contest-prep-what-to-expect/) the physiological and psychological consequences of prep. There are some great reflections in those articles, and it helps to understand what’s happening to your body during prep so you can rationalise things. Emotional thinking is never helpful. A common thread when you read competitors experiences is: despite athletes noting the struggle, they all talk about how rewarding it was and how glad they are to have completed the journey. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to think of prep “the process/journey” as a pseudo religious experience. In the same way people might give something up for Lent, or fast during Ramadan. Enduring a calorie restriction and making a commitment to working out while tiered can be a spiritual experience. You’ll find out a lot about yourself during the journey. It’s the classic hero’s journey or mono myth. From the mundane to the call to adventure, travelling into the wilderness, the guide, descending into the underworld and then emerging triumphantly to slay the beast before return back to the community as the new and improved individual. The metaphors are clear.
“That goal needs to be at the forefront of your mind, or at the very least the 2nd or 3rd most important value”
Bodybuilding culture is full of cliches: “hard work beats talent”, “working in the trenches”,” suck it up buttercup”, “being prepared to hurt”, “nobody is forcing you to do it”, “going to that dark place”, “no pain, no gain”. There’s good reason for all these cliches about hard work. It reflects the challenges anyone must overcome during the journey. A prep really does come down to a strength of will of the individual. Obviously good training and nutritional advice help, but if the desire to complete the goal isn’t there, no strategy will make the difference. This is the part where the hero travels into the underworld and must overcome his own demons, the Minotaur in classic mythology. Simply put, unless you value the goal above all else, you’ll struggle. With that in mind, the athlete really needs to have a strong intrinsic drive to achieve their goal. That goal needs to be at the forefront of your mind, or at the very least the 2nd or 3rd most important value they currently hold. If prepping is your 9th or 10th most important value then it’s unlikely you’ll put in the hard yards. The work night out to socialise for drinks, that slice of cake, feeling of a full stomach, will be more important that sticking to the plan. You’ll make excuses, skip the cardio, not make time for posing and cheat on your diet. Intrinsic motivation is a far stronger, than any external motivation, or put another way, your goal must be for yourself rather than for external validation. However, if you can combine the two, you’ll really be onto a winner. Top athletes want to do it for themselves, but also want to be winners. Moreover, the athlete needs to be able to understand why achieving their goal positively affects their lives. They need to understand how achieving that goal opens up opportunities for them to positively change their live and they need to be able to visualise how they might look and feel once they’ve reached that goal. The athlete needs to put in work here, they really need to work out why they’re pursuing the goal and how it will really make a difference to their life. Again, if there’s no real intrinsic value associated with the goal, you’ll struggle to adhere to it when times are tough.
“Remember why we got into this in the first place, what we aim to get out of it, and how pursing this challenge has a positive effect on our lives.”
Framing is important. The athlete should always aim to work from a positive position rather than a negative. Things should be considered challenging with a potential reward (think about the vision) rather than as drudgery, hardship, and/or a struggle. If you think in terms of manifesting destiny, if all you think about is how much of a struggling or hardship something is, then you’re going to find it tough. This is one of the reasons I always caution against the martyr mentality and focus on the individual being goal orientated with a positive outlook. Moreover, context is everything, and it’s not to denigrated the athlete’s lived experience, but put into context preps not really that bad! The first prep is always the hardest, you’ve not quite built those coping mechanisms or the resilience yet, the unknown is always more frightening than the known. It’s still a lifestyle choice at the end of the day, one that you’ve hopefully thought long and hard about. A choice that the bodybuilding cliches perfectly highlight: “Nobodies forcing anyone to do it”, “it’s a privilege”, and you can “stop the bus at any point”. We are of course only human and we forget sometimes how good we have it sometimes. In my early days of prep, I’d often ask myself the question, how bad is it really? So, I’m a little bit hangry, but if we go full circle and compare it to others around the world, I was not living in poverty (most of the world lives on less than $1 per day). I wasn’t contending with illness or disability, I didn’t suffer with emotional and domestic violence, I wasn’t really going through any real hardships. It was also my decision as to how hard I really wanted to push myself, I could skip a workout, eat more food and reduce the intensity of my training at any point. My coach was just giving me advice, it was really up to me to follow through on it. Going full circle it almost felt obnoxious for me to complain about my own lifestyle choices, so I just didn’t. That being said, our emotions can get the better of us sometimes, and that’s also okay too. Framing and context though is everything, the next time you feel the urge to cheat on your diet, to whinge and bring everyone down, or throw the towel in because the challenge is too great, we must remind ourselves of our goals, and how incredible lucky we are to pursue these goals. Remember why we got into this crazy sport in the first place, what we aim to get out of it, and how pursing this challenge has a positive effect on our lives.
“Comparisonitis is the killer of many an individual’s goals,”
Finally, it’s important to develop strategies to help us achieve our goals. Planning is crucial and collecting data can help you identify patterns. If you know what the potential obstacles are and when they are likely to occur, this can help you manage them. Moreover, setting realistic expectations and not comparing yourself to others is also of crucial importance. Comparisonitis is the killer of many an individual’s goals, if you compare yourself to others, particularly those further down the line with their physique goals you can end up defeated before you even set out on the path to the goal. The most important thing as I’ve constantly pointed to though is understanding your goal, and why it matters to you. This is one of the main reasons we spend the time with our ProPrep clients working on this aspect and why we vet potential clients to ensure they’re clear on why they want to pursue a comp prep goal. People like the idea of comp prepping, but you’d be surprised how superficial some peoples actual desire to do it really is. As the old saying goes, dreams are for dreamers, goals are for achievers. Stay positive, set goals and be up for the challenge. Trust me, it will be one of the best things you ever do.
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