Who’s the Competition? You vs You

By: Barbell Logic Team

There is certainly nothing wrong with competition. It is and has been a main driving force of personal success, societal success, and survival and the furthering of our species. But when it comes to training, your competitive drive needs to be focused in the right direction.

The person you are competing with is you.

A few weeks ago, the Barbell Logic Podcast featured Gillian Ward—amazing athlete, smart and experienced multi-sport coach, and one of the kindest people to possess all of those qualities. While her physical achievements are astounding—having set multiple world records and competed at the top levels of powerlifting, CrossFit, and physique competitions—the highlights of her story are in the details she shared about her mental approach to training and her in-the-moment focus, showing that her superhero-like feats are much more than physical efforts. These are details all athletes should want to study and absorb—not just athletes who compete at the pinnacle of their sports, like Gillian, but everyone: weekend warriors, gym rats, and lone garage-based lifters included.

One of the best points Gillian made was about setting her own expectations and comparison with what she sees other people doing:

“A point with striving with greatest in anything is that it’s never, for me, about comparison. I will see what other people are doing, but I won’t compare, because why compare to somebody else? Because there’s something even beyond that. . . . I don’t care what other people are doing because that’s another limit. I don’t even want to think about that. What’s possible? Forget what somebody else is doing.”

gillian wardBeing limitless means ignoring what other people have done and controlling the things that are within your direct control. Your own training, your own preparation and performance, and, as Gillian has shown, your own thoughts are the things you can control.

When you really start getting into lifting, you may naturally start to view other lifters through a kind of competitive lens. Competition with other lifters can be a great motivating factor, and can help you set long-term goals. While strength is an objective measure of force production, “being strong” tends to be much more personal. From success at sports, to aging gracefully, to beating cancer, everyone defines the state of being strong by their own life experience. Competition can help focus your training, but without context it can drive you crazy. And that context is you, where you started today and where you will be tomorrow.

Competition is a natural part of human interaction. If you consider historical or biological competition within a species or people group, it revolves around a scarcity of resources, survival, and reproduction. These three factors tend to lead to three forms of competition: Direct, exploitative or indirect, and apparent competition.

Direct Competition

In direct competition, groups or individuals are opposed adversarily for the same resources, such that one’s success requires harming or preventing the other from achieving its goal. This is a competition that is the basis of most sports. One’s victory means the other’s loss through direct action. A fighter must harm the other fighter to win; a team must beat the opponent’s defense to score. This isn’t true of every sport, but the majority are built on direct competition.

Exploitative Competition

Exploitative competition is the indirect competition for scarce resources. If there is only a certain amount of food in an ecosystem, then every time one person or group consumes the resource there is one less for the other. Though the two entities might not directly prevent each other from getting the resource, the act of consumption is such that one’s success is to the other’s implicit detriment.

Apparent Competition

Finally, apparent competition is the competition of prey, best illustrated by an old joke about two people who run into a bear, reinvigorated somewhat by Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2014 movie The Imitation Game:

“There are two people in a wood, and they run into a bear. The first person gets down on his knees to pray; the second person starts lacing up his boots. The first person asks the second person, ‘My dear friend, what are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear.’ To which the second person responds, ‘I don’t have to. I only have to outrun you.’”

Perhaps part of our competitive drive comes from this innate, atavistic compulsion for survival; but with the taming influence of modern society, and lacking a bear breathing down our necks, we have social media instead and become distracted by what everyone else is doing.

stephanie hellandCompetition has influenced people’s decisions to lift for a very long time. There’s a famous comic strip ad from the 1950s, advertising a free Charles Atlas book called Everlasting Health and Strength. In the comic, a “97-pound weakling” is bullied on the beach for being scrawny. The bully roughs him up and steals his girlfriend. The weakling then orders Charles Atlas’ book, gets ripped, and goes back to the beach to mete out justice and win back the girl. This ad was immensely popular. Atlas used it and similar ads to build a business that still exists today and still markets to the “97-pound weakling.” Its success suggests this kind of ingrained intraspecies competition for resources, survival, or a mate and places that drive squarely on physical development.

There is certainly nothing wrong with competition. It is and has been a main driving force of personal success, societal success, and survival and the furthering of our species. But when it comes to training, your competitive drive needs to be focused in the right direction.

There are so many factors not within your control that expectations set by what others have done are mostly useless. Your background, environment, and genetics will all influence your progress. Your mental approach may be different if you have a background doing hard things or if this is the first iteration of voluntary hardship you’ve ever encountered. Beyond that, when it comes to actually setting PRs, there are factors of performance to consider—your skill at executing the lift, your focus and determination, what you ate for breakfast that morning. So, outside of a meet—one in which you are reasonably expected to win—what is the role of competition in lifting?

The goal of lifting is change—as opposed to achieving and maintaining some static state. You may think that if you could just deadlift 500 pounds, that would be a state that you’d like to maintain and you’d be perfectly happy. You won’t. Training is about change. And 505 is even better than 500. Moreover, your body is in a constant state of change. If you are over 35 years old, you may never experience a state-of-being that just allows you to get stronger by existing; that’s what children do as they grow up. If given the chance, your body will fall to the level of your apathy for all things physical. It’s up to you to counter that constant attrition with constant positive change.

The person you are competing with is you. The old you: the one from twenty seconds ago that approached the bar with trepidation, fear, and anxiety, the one that understands what SSC Paul Horn meant when he wrote “It’s supposed to feel heavy. You’re supposed to be scared. If you’re not, you’re not living.” Or it’s the you from two weeks ago: the one that didn’t have visible muscles or struggled walking up and down stairs, that thought the weights you are using for warmups today were tough back then, that had only just begun to consider that maybe this strength thing really was important. Or it’s the you from last year: the one who set out to make a change, to be stronger, and did it, who is stronger now than you ever were before. We talk about lifting as having refining power, not just because it changes you physically, but because it changes you. Period. It is not the only thing that refines you, but it is a great place to start. It’s you versus you, every day. The only question is how will you be different at the end of it.

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