I have been meaning to write this blog for a while, but life intervened as it usually does. This will almost surely not be as good on page as it was in my head but oh well, we’ll all muddle through and survive.
Outside of “Do five reps and then stop,” I would say “don’t train with your ego” is probably the most readily misunderstood sentence in here. You hear that on its own or without much context, and it’s easy to infer that we want you to divorce yourself wholly from the result. That’s true on occasion; much more often, it’s not. But rather than getting into a here-and-there on what ego in the gym actually is (and this is, itself, usually understood pretty sloppily because philosophical constructs don’t overlay all that neatly in athletics), I want to talk about ego in the colloquial and simply figure out what is useful and what ought to be discarded. I think as we get along down the road here you’ll see the utility…
So, ego in the colloquial: The guy who thinks he’s better than everyone else and then, boiled down, the guy who wants to beat everyone else, and then, boiled down, the guy who wants everyone else to watch him work. When we think about this idea of ego in the gym, most of us probably think of one or two points along that spectrum. So what’s useful? What’s not? What’s going to make us better the more we do it, and what should we shitcan?
1. Wanting to beat someone you train with. Wanting to put someone underfoot is a pretty primal kernel of accomplishment. We’re being less than honest if we don’t admit that to ourselves. I think this is probably, maayybe, posssssibbbly…even more of a driver than the simple fact of winning, until you get into places where they give you medals for being the best you can be. If you come into class and you’re doing something for the leaderboard with folks you train beside, or you’re lifting with someone who is your relative peer, hell yeah you should want to beat them. This is the beauty of training in a group setting: I want to lift more than my training partners, and then I want them to lift more than me, and then I want to lift more than that, and on and on; end result…we are all getting better. (The codicil to all of this, of course: don’t be a dick; act like you’ve been there before.)
2. Pride. Honestly, most of us are so busy that from a purely logistical standpoint, the opportunites to sit back and say “shit, I did a good job” are few and far between. But that is important, and that feeling is so good and constructive–we ought to train and think pridefully! What makes you feel good about yourself? So long as it doesn’t imperil your classmate or make a nuisance, do more of that. Train more like that. Sit in that moment more often. Accomplishment breeds more accomplishment, but pride breeds happiness and that is deeper stuff. There are a ton of athletes who never let themselves be happy with what they’ve done. That’s great and all to a point, especially if it drives them to further success, but the way I see it none of us are being paid for what we do under the bar or out on the mat, so we better grab that happy feeling as often as we can. (The codicil to all of this, again: don’t be a dick; act like you’ve been there before.)
1. Seeing yourself as a center of attention. This is not to decry a good, healthy self-esteem–far from it. That’s your race, you run it. You need that in the gym, in fact. But the training mind that sees itself at the vortex of another lifter’s consideration–whether on a warmup set or in competition–is treading some dangerous waters. I was talking with one of our O-lifters earlier today about his first competition and he shared that he hadn’t been prepared for that feeling out there on the platform: you, the bar, under the spotlight. This is a necessary first step; the appropriate step thereafter is to understand fully that the only people out there in the crowd who give one tin shit about your lifts are your trainer, your teammates, and your family (and, you know, it’s a long day…). This is an incredibly liberating feeling and frees you from the hell of moldering around your own misdirection…once you realize no one really gives a crap, you are free not to give a crap, and then you are free to care more deeply about your success than you could ever imagine caring about anything else in that moment. It’s sort of a complex series of emotional algorithms but competition divines this weird non-spotlight spotlight, and then you live in it without seeing yourself there. And in the gym, the same holds. You won’t be laughed at, or even really thought of, for picking the dumbbell that’s five lbs less than everyone else in your small class is using; overthinking attention in competition is relatively benign even as it hampers performance, but doing that in the gym and then selecting your weight or next set based on the wisp of imagined disapproval can get real malignant real quick. Run your race. (The codicil here: don’t throw all the social cues out with the bathwater–be a little speedier with the bar if your classmates are standing around looking at you while you take your time loading to describe how urgently the 10,000 Maniacs moved you as an undergrad.)
1. Trying to beat someone you don’t know, aren’t as (experienced/strong/fast) as, etc, someone who has different goals than you do…right now. This item can include, most pointedly, the person you used to be ten years ago *and* the person you think you’ll be tomorrow. It takes time to get this one right but it’s worth figuring out: the Boston College Eagles are almost always the first team the Red Sox play every spring down in Florida. This works–the Sox field a lot of low-level prospects, the Eagles get their big day with the big club, and everyone leaves feeling good. It’s an appropriate contest. If the Eagles played the Sox in May at Fenway, now we’re getting ourselves into a bad situation. You won’t outbench the guy with the same squat max as yours because his chest is three times as big as yours and he’s been benching every Monday for ten years so…don’t assign yourself a starring role in that conflict today. Maybe you narrow the gap a little bit, or maybe you just bench what you can bench today and be proud of that. Look at the bigger picture, figure out the things you can change, and get a lot of gone between you and the shit you aren’t going to be able to dent (or shouldn’t even try to dent) right now.
This is not comprehensive and skips the usual “don’t try to lift seventeen million pounds today because it’ll go better if you train that process organically” but certainly it’s a start.