People talk about training hard, or training smart, but to think of it in these ways is, I think, limited. It’s not about hardness. It might well be about dedication and commitment, and that includes effort, but this is different from working blindly and grinding yourself into the ground.
Athletic performance may be achieved by improving strength and fitness, pursuits which are generally associated with pushing oneself, but athletic performance can also be improved by improving mobility and efficiency. Typically, improvements in these areas are achieved without needing to violently strain, dominate or exert yourself.
If you’re training for mobility or more efficient movement patterns, in reality the opposite is often true. If you work too hard beyond the point of fatigue, movement quality will start to break down, your fatigued muscles will stop moving smoothly, other muscles might try to take over, you’ll start to cheat the movement to achieve a result – in the end you’re only practicing poor movement patterns.
And that won’t help. It will not set you up for success.
Functional mobility is about smooth, uninhibited movement. The harder you train, the less smooth you are likely to become. If you do not invest in mobility, over time you are likely to become less mobile, and this will limit the amount of power you can apply to your movements. Think of any swinging or throwing movement. They require mobile and strong joints and tissues; power is derived not only from strength, but also from momentum.
And so, athletic success is born of smooth, relaxed movements that capitalise on efficient leverage in relation to the demands of your sport, gravity, and the ground.
Think of an athlete. There’s always a relaxed quality to their actions – their effort is applied to a thing in an efficient way. Nothing is wasted. It is not work for the sake of work, but work for the sake of achieving a thing.
When you apply strength and power to these efficient movements, you maximise your chance for athletic or competitive success. But if all you have is strength and power – you can only muscle your way through to a point. If your movements are inefficient, your power will cause you to get in your own way.
But there is a difference between training and competition: in competition, take as many risks as you like. Apply as much effort as you need. Muscle through in the last moment to achieve your aim. But in training, train well.
For these reasons, people sometimes separate their strength and conditioning training from their skills based training, though in reality there is often a significant overlap.
All else being equal, the fitter athlete will win. So conditioning is important.
But it is also true: all else being equal, the more skilled athlete will win. So skills are important.
Play to your strengths. Resolve your weaknesses as you can, as you discover them. You will never be the same athlete as anyone else. Learn about your strengths and weaknesses, so that you can exploit the weaknesses of your competition, yet defend your own weaknesses from exploitation. Do not pretend they don’t exist. Know them, be at peace, apply yourself, and discover how to compensate and succeed.
I am more naturally predisposed towards strength-based rather than endurance-based activities. Consequently, I am not an endurance athlete. My chance for success is limited, because of my natural predisposition. But I know that I need to work on it, appropriately to the demands of my sport.
In the martial arts competitions I used to enter, you were rarely required to work for longer than 90 seconds without ample opportunity to rest. So jogging for 30 minutes was not useful – it was not that sort of endurance I required. To train that way would have been wasteful.
I was better at jumping and springing than I was at slow demonstrations of flexibility. Where possible, I played to my strengths, much as I wanted to be good at the things I was not so good at. But I was too scattered in my training, I did not understand my strengths and weaknesses clearly. I tried to be good at things that I was never going to succeed at, and so I neglected my true talents and nature. But still, I enjoyed myself, so in truth there was no waste. All experiences are valid. There is no substitute for knowing yourself.