I love it when I read things that get me thinking, because that’s when I get ideas for stuff to write.
One of the recent posts on this blog was from my friend Aimee Anaya Everett Fergie Madonna Spears, and one of the big questions in it was whether or not she wants to continue competing in weightlifting. Powerful writing with tons of heartfelt honesty, as is always the case with her. However, I was also really interested in all the comments that followed her blog. Lots and lots of people said that Aimee’s dilemma about competition was something they could personally relate to. Apparently, there are others who have just as much confusion and hesitation about whether or not they should train to be serious competitors or just train to…train. Some people even took her words in a different direction and applied them to their professional careers, the concept of responsibility and “honoring your gifts” as an athlete, the issue of having an identity outside of your sports life, etc. These are big what-is-the-meaning-of-life questions, and I love them.
This blog isn’t going to be specifically about Aimee’s situation. We’ve e-mailed about it privately and she knows where I stand. Instead, this will be about the questions many of you raised in your comments. And there’s a pretty good chance that I might start rambling, so be prepared.
Competing: Competing at the national level is extremely stressful, probably more than a lot of people realize. It’s a little easier when you’re working your way up the ladder and nobody really knows who you are or has any expectations of you. But when you’ve established yourself as one of the people who’s supposed to win medals at every big meet, then there’s pressure to deal with. Some athletes have actually said that the competitions aren’t much fun when you get to this level. There’s so much mental strain bearing down on you at contests, all you want to do is just nail your lifts and then be done with it. I was lifting in the national championship several years ago and I was chatting with a gal who was the number one nationally-ranked lifter in her weight class, and we both agreed that there was a little bit of “I can’t wait until this is over” feeling at the big meets. And this gets even tougher when you start to get older and you know that you might be getting near the end of your run at the top. You start to feel like a kid who’s about to graduate high school. It’s kind of a, “Oh crap, what am I gonna do when this is over?” feeling.
Here’s how the progression works. First, you go through all of this stuff and it gets really scary towards the end, when you can see that you’re almost finished with your prime. Second, you take a break. During the break, you don’t exactly know what to do with yourself and you probably go back and forth between a few other activities that you think you might want to use as replacements for weightlifting, like mountain biking or swimming or whatever. Third, you get a life. You settle into a routine of something new and you start to learn how to exist without serious training and competing. And the cool part about this phase is that you find something new that brings you a lot of joy and enthusiasm. It becomes clear that you can have a fun life without being a national champion, which you didn’t think was possible at one point. Fourth, you might decide you want to come back and compete again, but just for fun this time. You can accept the idea of lifting much smaller weights than you used to and competing on a lower level because you just really like to train and compete, even if it’s not as high-intensity as it used to be (these people are called masters). NOTE: Some people have no interest in doing this phase, which is totally fine too. To each his own. But I’m in this fourth stage right now, and I’m probably enjoying weightlifting more now than I ever have. It’s a lot of fun to lift weights without worrying about anything.
If you don’t reach this last phase, then you just keep living your life like a regular human being and you never compete again. Most lifters hate the idea of being a regular human being. It seems really boring and average. But I can tell you from experience that it’s pretty cool stuff.
Responsibility: When you’re a talented athlete, you’re a role model for other athletes whether you like it or not. But you can make up your own mind how much you want to let that affect your decisions. I’ve always believed that a person should make choices based on what’s best for them personally, while also trying as hard as possible to serve the best interests of others. I don’t like the “Screw everybody, I don’t care what they think” mentality. I think it’s important to care what others think, especially if you’re in any kind of position of leadership or authority. But since it’s impossible to please yourself and others with complete commitment, there has to be a middle ground. If you make a decision about your career that’s best for you and also lets others down a little, then they’ll just have to live with it. You can’t make everybody happy all the time. At the end of the day, your biggest responsibilities are to yourself, your family, and the people who pay your bills.
I knew a talented young lifter many years ago who decided that he didn’t want to compete anymore, and he had a sit-down with his coach to tell him that. The coach told him he was going to burn in hell someday for wasting his talent. Seriously… I guess some people just get carried away with the idea of how important this stuff is sometimes.
To wrap this up, I guess the main idea here is that you’ve got to follow your own instincts in your career. I think there are always times when it becomes obvious what you’re supposed to do. During those times when your lifting is red hot, you need to blast away and go for the biggest results you can get. Make hay while the sun shines. When you’re young and still on the way up, the idea of taking a break shouldn’t even enter your mind. If you’re really serious about doing this, you need to overcome every little plateau and burnout feeling that comes your way. Fight through that crap.
If you want to walk away, then walk away. But make sure you understand that if you walk away before you’ve maximized your potential, you’re going to spend a lot of time in your life wondering what might have been. There’s no law written in any bible that says you have to be a competitor, but your own conscience is what you’ll have to live with. I’ve met a lot of retired lifters in my life who feel like they gave it up too early, and they went on to regret it for years.
Then again, there are plenty of people who walk away from lifting feeling like it’s exactly the right time…and it is. There’s a sense of completion about the journey, and they can sleep at night because they know they made the right choice. How do we know the difference between quitting too early and quitting at the right time? Well, do you remember when you were a little kid and you asked an adult how you know when you’re in love? Their answer was, “You just know.” Same thing applies here, I guess.
End of ramble.