Competition: when you know your best there is not really your best. The performance optimization curve and the athlete’s mind

In two weeks I will be going to Colombia to take part on the South American WPC powerlifting championship. About everything that could go wrong did go wrong: I had planned on going equipped, I had some experience with equipment, especially the bench shirt, but for some reason, I did not adjust. In 2011 I had good results in raw lifting and I was optimistic about this year. I had ambitious plans of competing both.

The year started bad as predicted (hot). Predictable difficulties are manageable. Unpredictable difficulties should still be manageable. Surreal, freakish difficulties cannot be manageable.

So March came along with a weird virus I caught at the Arnold’s festival, while babysitting a strongman athlete from Brazil. The stress of having to deal with my horror of crowds plus the bug resulted in three weeks of fever, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems. Probably one of the most severe infections I had in years.

That means reviewing periodization strategies from scratch. What should have been a productive GPP period to get me strong and ready for competitive preparation was zeroed with the viral infection. So I needed to build conditioning while starting specific preparation – not ideal, but still feasible.

As my strength started improving again, external (unavoidable) personal issues emerged. Those ugly resilient family ghosts taking factual form, and they have a way of doing so in the worst moments. Athletes are human. They react – emotionally. That means increased inflammation, decreased recovery, possible damage to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis balance and, potentially, metabolic disaster. As I said, all that could go wrong did go wrong, so we did end up with a metabolic catastrophe in our hands (myself and my physicians).

At the same time, I had to rationally face the fact that I hadn’t adjusted to the equipment. I would go raw. That decision was taken less than four weeks before the contest. Horrible timing. How couldn’t I be upset? Not because I don’t like raw: I do. But because I had to face failure, and failure is not a good thing right before you need to climb the platform and deliver. Failure doesn’t agree too well with self-confidence and optimism.

For the last days, I seriously considered giving up and returning my ticket.

After much thinking and discussing with my physicians, I changed my mind and decided to go. I am going, totally aware that I lost the periodization structure, that I should be tapering to peak at the contest and that that would not happen before another 6-8 weeks. Therefore, my best at the competitive platform will not be my best.

In terms of sports preparation, what I did was to cut short a curve at the beginning of its rise. The raw lifting curve is a new curve – new skills, new adjustments, new responses. My strength is starting to improve now.

There must be lessons to learn from this, or else I wouldn’t be sharing the experience. I think one of them, in which I have been insisting for the last weeks, is that more often than not, the result, in a sports preparation season, hardly resembles the periodized spreadsheet designed by the coach before it started.

Maybe we need an extreme, catastrophic situation to really realize this is so. Lesser unpredictable events should be a piece of cake after this.

Also, I (and I hope you, too) learned that the burnout syndrome is no joke. It is not overtraining, it cannot be prevented by the best and most cautious planning because an extra stressful external event can screw up all your brilliant design. And it does. Burnout is serious, it screws up performance, it screws up metabolic response to diet, it basically is a major, holistic, all encompassing screw up.

But tapering is tapering. Whether everything is screwed up, if you decide to stick to the plan and compete, then you should take special care of the last cycle, the tapering cycle. In powerlifting, it is longer than in other sports because it is the extreme case of loss due to peak performance. One mistake in intensity before the meet and the lift is lost. Screw up or no screw up.

Here I am, now, decreasing intensity and volume, resting, trying to fine tune little items of technique.

Most of all, though, it is coming to grips with the fact that I will be competing bellow my best, that I won’t be immersed in the reassuring atmosphere of a familiar environment and that I must find my bliss, my perfect moment, within me and nowhere else.

If I do so, no matter the weight, it will be my perfect lift.


Some interesting reading on the subject

Tapering: The real art and science of coaching

Optimizing  athletic  performance  by  influence  curves

A theoretical study of taper characteristics to optimize performance.



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