Chances are you’ve played a sport at some point during life–likely it’s been multiple sports.
If you were lucky enough to have good coaches, each practice had a framework. This framework was built using a skills progression that eventually lead to combining the collective skills into unified play. Your coaches didn’t expect you to have the skills on day one that you would after a season full of practices and games, but they expected you to get better.
Anyone that’s been within earshot of a coach or gym teacher has heard the expression “practice makes perfect.” I’m not sure how true that is–in fact I’m inclined to disagree. Practice–done well–isn’t about perfection; it’s about building the internal and external frameworks that allow for accomplishment through chaos. If you view that as perfection, well, then it’s just a matter of perspective.
Apply the framework of an MMA bout to our conceptualization of practice as it leads us to game day. Mixed Martial Artists spend hundreds of hours on the mat honing skills and developing a plan that counters the opponents skills in preparation for a fifteen minute fight. They glue their eyes to serotonin draining computer and television screens as they examine their opponents last fights looking for weaknesses.
Our Mixed Martial Artist in fable has honed his skills, watched tape and trained in the weight room for a collectively hundreds of hours in a few month period. He and his team of coaches decide that his opponent’s ground game is strong so they want to keep the fight on its feet. The first round starts and the other guy blasts him in the face and takes him down. Game plan over–now what does he do?
Transfer this thought process to a powerlifting competition. A lifter spends fourteen to sixteen weeks getting stronger and building skill in the hopes that he produces big numbers on the platform. Each set is done meticulously and each progression is mapped out with care. Competition comes waltzing in and he doesn’t feel on top of his game. He misses depth during his first two squat attempts even though he felt like he sat his ass in a hole in the earth. The third attempt is pivotal–if he misses he is out of the meet. What does he do?
Each of these athletes has practiced well leading up to their competition–it’s our story so we can do what we want.
Our MMA gladiator knows that things don’t always go as planned–so he spent hours working on his ground game in the case that the fight fell to his opponent’s strong suit. While there are rarely perfect reps in combat, he worked each rep in training with precision because he knows precision in practice prepares for competition chaos.
Our powerlifter works to make each squat, each bench and each deadlift identical in training. He follows the same steps during his set up and carries each rep through with great joint alignment and muscular tension. He trains with precision because he knows that adrenaline and testosterone aren’t enough to account the platform’s imprecise nature. Things change quickly when an absolute max weight is in the hands or on the back.
Even if you participate in a precision sport such as Olympic lifting or Powerlifting, competition is, by nature, chaotic. The weights are heavy and there are other intangible variables that aren’t accounted for in practice. But that’s what makes practice so important.
As Malcom Gladwell discusses in his book Blink, we have to be able to make changes and split decisions quickly. It’s how we function through most of our life. Now intensify that function with the stress of someone trying to beat your face off of your face or holding 500 pounds in your hands. Precise practice–doing things optimally while training–allows for deviations in competition.
Creating optimal tension while training your deadlift saves your ass when you can’t get perfectly tight on the platform.
Keeping your neck neutral while training keeps a loss of upper-back and cervical stability from destroying your effort during a squat.
Breaking the bar on every bench rep prepares you to handle the bar changing balance in your hands when the weight jumps from 300 to 400 pounds.
Training optimally builds a framework for spontaneity. Because we’ve done 1,000 reps perfectly we don’t miss the 1 rep that doesn’t go exactly as planned.
So when you see a rounded back deadlift, or a squat with the chin headed toward the ceiling, don’t think, “that must be how to get shit done.” Instead, think that the 1,000 reps before that were done perfectly so the body wasn’t overwhelmed when shit went awry.