One of the biggest mistakes I see athletes make is their lack of long term planning for their development. They outsource their training to a coach, go in the competitions that they want to (which could be too many, or too few), and regardless of their results, continue on in the same manner of training. They’ll do this for years at a time, obviously improving, but in no way reaching their potential. You see the same thing in the business world — the typical guy/gal who works hard day in and day out, but just can’t seem to get ahead.
The best in either field? They’re planners. They know that to get to the next level, you can’t just keep doing what you’re doing. I’ve seen this myself in a number of sports, especially at the national level. The athletes that have been training since they were kids are naturally better than everyone else and win or podium at nationals with ease, but when they compete internationally, they get crushed. It happens at all levels, but it’s most apparent at the top. It’s because they’ve coasted by on the fact that they’re the big fish in a small pond, and they’re that big fish by virtue of the fact that they’ve just been there longer than anyone else.
If you want to wring every last drop of performance out of yourself and reach the highest level possible, you have to start planning for that. No one in their right mind thinks that you’re going to become a CEO just by going to work every day and doing the same thing, and the same is true of being an athlete winning at national and international levels of competition.
In reality, if you have ambitions to be at the top of your sport (or even to just be the very best you can), you shouldn’t have anything less than a 4 year plan. That’s obviously typical of Olympic athletes, but it works for any individual combat or strength sport. You don’t need to know in minute detail every part of the entire four years when you first make your plan; the first couple of years are going to be very sharply focused on what competitions you want to enter and what performance markers you want to reach. The latter 2 years will be less clear, but will come into focus as you get closer and adjust those plans based on your previous performance.
Part of planning is having realistic goals that aren’t based around outcomes. Saying “I want to win nationals” is not a good goal, because you don’t know who is going to be competing at nationals or what their abilities are. Your goals should be based around where you want your numbers or abilities to be, because if you hit those markers then regardless of whether you win a competition or not, you know that you’re making solid improvements. The bigger wins will come automatically when you’ve spent enough time hitting the performance benchmarks that you set for yourself. The sort of goals you should be looking at are:
- Fitness levels
- Strength levels
- Weight class (if applicable)
- Skill development
- Match performance
- Overall competition results
These are just some examples of what you can and should track. The first five you should be keeping a constant eye on, reviewing every quarter (3 months). The latter two you’ll review after each competition. In addition, after each competition you want to conduct a thorough review and be asking yourself questions such as:
- What went well
- What didn’t go well
- Why didn’t it go well
- Did you perform as expected
From there, you want to adjust your program and plan appropriately. It could be a small matter of you being susceptible to a certain technique if you’re a fighter, or a certain event bringing you undone in a crossfit or strongman competition. It could be something like being so nervous in the beginning of a competition that you blow the first two events. In that case, it could be a matter of getting more match practice, simulating competition conditions in the lead up, or even seeing a sports psychologist. Just saying you’ll do better next time is wishful thinking. If you’re going to go to the trouble of planning, you need to actually find solutions to the problems that arise.
Everyone wants quick results, but if you want to be the best, you need patience. When we’re talking long term planning, what you’re aiming for is 3 solid years of training and development, so in that 4th year everything is so ingrained, so natural that you are operating at your peak in competition. If you think I’m nuts for suggesting it takes 4 years to do this, let’s take a look at all the factors you have to optimise to be hitting your best (which I’ll be covering in future posts):
- Weight cutting
- Skill development
- Competition mindset
- Competition scheduling
- Day to day routine
You don’t just optimise those things over the course of a month, or a year, and nor should you. Does that mean you can’t win competitions, even at national or international level, in the meantime? Of course not. If you’re better than everyone else, that’s great. If you want to be the best you can be and reach the highest level you can, however, there’s more work to do. Look at how long it took Hapfor Bjornssen to win the Arnold Classic and World’s Strongest Man — he was a podium finisher in both for many years, and it was only when he well and truly got every single factor dialled in, that he broke through on both of those.
I’ve followed Hapfor for the last couple of years, and looking over his training videos, you can see the long term planning that has gone into his recent results. You can tell that he spent a lot of time on some of his weaknesses, to the point that they became strengths. You can see the mindset change, wherein he stopped making stupid mistakes in competition. And you can see the difference his recent change in nutrition made as well. This is a guy who has the most genetic advantages and could have realistically won 3 years ago, but it took getting all of those things right to get the result he wanted. This will be no different for you, so take it seriously.
This is one that a lot of people struggle with. Whether you’re competing in strength or combat sports, competing too often, or too little, has consequences. Competing too often — especially if you’re cutting significant weight every time, will wear you down to the point that you have to take a long layoff due to sickness, injury or just plain burnout. Bearing in mind the time and cost of travelling, not to mention recovery, each extra competition that you do can actually become a liability for you rather than helping. Here are the factors you should consider when planning how many competitions you do in any year:
- Which competitions you want to qualify for
- Which competitions you need to do to qualify for them
- Which competitions you want to do for experience
- How long you need to spend on event training before each competition
- How much weight you need to cut
- Travel to the event (and accommodation if applicable)
- Money spent on travel and the events
- How much recovery time you’ll need after each competition
The applies more to strength sports than combat sports, because regular training differs from event training. Regular training is where you’re building your base strength and general levels of sport specific fitness, which helps you become strong and stay healthy long term. Event training in the 8–12 weeks leading up to a competition is pushing your body to its limits and building event specific strength and power. So if you pack 4 major competitions into a year, you’re essentially just training and recovering non stop, without giving yourself time to improve.
You could also go the wrong way, and compete too little. The concept of “ring rust” — whether it comes to fighting or other sports, is definitely a thing. The newer you are to a sport, the more competition you generally need to do to become acclimatised to the environment and get things like weight cutting, refuelling, mental state etc dialled in. “Practice makes perfect” applies to both competition and training.
This is why it’s so important to look long term. You may decide to compete 4–6 times in your first year, then take an entire year off of competition to build and improve. If you’re a veteran and trying to win a title, maybe you only do a qualifier and then a major event, with 6+ months between each. There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, but you need to take a step back and plan things out over the space of 4 years, and adjust as necessary after each year.
Finally, keep in mind that the above assumes you’re only competing in your own country. If you want/need to train or compete overseas, you need to factor that in well ahead of time. It’s not something you can or should leave to the last minute, because obviously money doesn’t grow on trees and the last thing you need is the stress of trying to raise money in a short amount of time. If you want to do that, you should be planning that a couple of years in advance, so you have time to make the right contacts and save the necessary funds for the trip.
This is an excerpt from my book, Building the Elite Athlete.