A great athlete can be his own worst enemy, constantly perfecting strengths while neglecting weaknesses. Though there are many ways for athletes to defeat themselves, there are also many ways to undo fatal flaws. The answer may be as simple as taking some time off and letting the body and mind renew. Or it can be a complicated process of rooting out weaknesses before they worsen.
In any case, we as athletes need to take note of what is holding us back and take steps to reinvent ourselves. More hangs on these subtle weaknesses than we often give credit to. But it’s essential to acknowledge them and make sure they don’t get the best of us.
Here are some surefire ways to avoid sports setbacks.
Photo Credit: Franco Folini – flickr.com
Take Time Off
For professional athletes in traditional sports, there is an off-season: a period of a few months or more during which bodies and minds can rest and rejuvenate. The off-season is a time for injuries and inflammation to heal and subside. Many extreme athletes, however — especially those who are very good or elite — get no such luxury. If you’re a climber who lives in a place with year-round climbing, such as California or Spain, you may never stop. The same goes for professional or highly dedicated athletes who fly around the world chasing snow or surf. Somewhere the conditions are perfect, so the season never ends.
While the endless summer can be a dream come true, practicing and performing year-round can also have its drawbacks. The constant performance can lead to muscle soreness, nagging injuries and fatigue, with your nervous system not fully recovered so your heart and lungs don’t function as well as they should.
It probably isn’t necessary to take off months from your sport. But resting for a few weeks a couple times per year can boost your enthusiasm and deeply repair your body.
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View Most Days as a Workout, Not a Competition
This is a bit counter-intuitive, particularly with sports measured in numbers, instead of wins and losses (think rock climbing or Olympic weight lifting). But you have to realize that more often than not, the goal should be trying your hardest and pushing against your physical boundaries rather than reaching a set, measurable standard.
Take climbing as an example. To climb one’s hardest, you have to rest for long periods and make sure not to burn all your strength while trying your target problem. For instance, on the day a top climber gives his project a go, he may only attempt it four or five times. This is a good strategy for setting personal records, but a bad one for becoming a stronger, more studied athlete.
A lot of climbers act like each day should be their best day ever on the rock. In fact, most days should be spent preparing for that day. The norm should be a workout. And workouts should be used as a way to find your limit and test it. That means failure: dropping the weights, wiping out, or falling onto the crash pads — repeatedly.
This is difficult to stomach, especially because many athletes got to where they are by always applying themselves to the utmost. But the nice thing about this philosophy is that it takes off all the pressure to perform. You might not be able to set a personal record each day. But you can certainly fail.
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Switch Up Your Routine
Probably any amateur athlete — one without coaches looking over their shoulder and planning their workouts and meals — makes the mistake of doing the same workout again and again each time they enter the gym or get on the field, court or mountain. This pattern is easy to fall into, especially when in lieu of having a structured workout, you just do your sport, thinking that, at a minimum, your time will be well spent because you’re maintaining your strength and ability.
But there are two big problems with this. One is that unless you train harder each time you do the same workout, you may not be maintaining your level. In fact, you might be taking a step backward, by doing something called detraining. The other problem is that you are losing a chance to get better at some other aspect of your sport. Or to hone muscles that require weights or specific motions you don’t do in the course of a typical day. In other words, it’s a lost opportunity to strengthen opposing muscle groups and joints (which staves off injury) or to practice specific skills that ought to be sharpened.
So, switch up your routine. This is basically the fundamental idea behind cross-training—something most athletes could benefit from, even though short term benefits are rarely tangible. You can take this idea even farther by dedicating hours or days to neglected muscles or skill sets. At a minimum, spend a little time learning a new sport, or doing a different form of your own.
Bust Through Plateaus
Plateaus, or long periods of stagnation where improvement should prevail, are the enemies of progress. In the career of almost any athlete, plateaus will lurk in the road like sinkholes that swallow your wheel before you know it. When an athlete enters one, it can be a vicious cycle. The sport gets a little less fun in the absence of improvement, and you won’t be as motivated to try hard or reinvent yourself because it seems pointless. If you’re not getting better, why try harder?
Doing all five things in this list will help defeat a plateau. But, additionally, you have to be honest with yourself about when you’re in one (are you having a bad day, or have you stopped getting better?).
When you are in a plateau, first you must abandon your current routine. Then, try a number of different things until you find something that works. For one, make a distinction between training skills and training muscles. After all, these two things are very different. When you want to train skills, go hard. Catch the biggest, surliest waves, and try to ride it in a way that’s uncomfortable. Ride terrain that you don’t excel at. On the other hand, when you want to train muscles, make sure to find exercises that pinpoint the muscles you want to be stronger.
This can be tricky, so you’ll want to read up on different exercises, talk to more experienced athletes, and look for solutions in unconventional places (old school workout books, training regimes for unrelated sports). Due diligence will pay dividends here. Remember donuts on the bat in little league? That’s the idea. Make your workouts and training sessions harder than the real thing. That way, the next couloir, boulder, or wave will seem easy.
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Go to Great Lengths to Prevent Injury
Of all the things in this list, this one requires the most sustained vigilance. It often requires you to bench yourself — something athletes hate doing — but its importance is self-evident. You will be the best, or only, judge of when you’re risking injury, so you owe it to yourself to pay attention and make good decisions. Just remember: If you’re injured, you are not getting better or stronger, or having fun. You’re sitting on the couch, wishing you were out there.
Oncoming injuries can be subtle. So listen carefully, and at the earliest sign of pain, discomfort or inflammation, learn to back down. If your knee is acting up while snowboarding, hit the lodge. If your shoulders hurt while paddling toward a break, turn back. If a hold on a climb is tweaking your finger, find a new route. The solution can be as simple as changing your objective, or as complicated as deeming how your technique is hurting you.
Think about runners and cyclists, who perform the same motions millions of times over their career. If their body position or stride is askew, it can lead to pernicious problems that require professional help to diagnose and correct. You can’t be expected to do that on your own, but you can listen to your body and seek the help of coaches and trainers to rectify your problem.
Cover Photo Credit: Fathzer / Flickr.com