It’s Not the Specifics, It’s the Career
In Tommy Kono’s remarkable second book, “Championship Weightlifting: Beyond Muscle Power,” it is hard to find a page that some great training gem doesn’t leap off the page to interested athlete. Tommy’s career is unparalleled. As an Olympic lifter, his gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships, World Records and extraordinary career as a coach and author place him at the top of the game. Many forget, however, that he was also Mr. Universe.
In the very last chapter of his book, Kono writes about the “Right Place at the Right Time.” Tommy reviews his life story from his childhood sicknesses to his discovering weightlifting at a WWII Internment Camp. (For the record, after one reads both of his books, it becomes easier to stop feeling sorry for yourself). Struggling from ailments, Tommy struggled to learn how to lift those weights even out of the box.
As he progressed, he makes an interesting, almost “throw away,” comment as the book ends:
“I would train for a weightlifting contest but as soon as the contest was over, I would immediately start “pumping” up.”
He goes on to discuss that after a few weeks of bodybuilding movements, he would feel himself becoming interesting in heavy movements again.
This is a simple idea. Many would pass over it. Yet, Tommy recommends lifting in as many Olympic lifting meets that you can during a year. So, the athlete would probably have several intensive six week periods preparing for an Olympic lifting meet followed by maybe three to four weeks of “pumping.” Don’t worry about the specifics, worry about the career.
There is a genius insight here. First, how long can an athlete just do the sport alone? With basketball, it seems that a small percentage can play year round for decades and achieve the highest level. They are rewarded with multi-million dollar contracts. Some nations have massive state funded sports programs that take literally tens of thousands of young athletes and end up with a handful of champions…or survivors.
So, we see the two extremes that “work” with pure specificity: a model that “those who thrive” are rewarded with money (pure capitalism, comrade) and those who survive a system.
Other than those two extremes, I would strongly suggest Tommy Kono’s approach. Train hard, focus on a competition, then move into something that is complementary. Many throwers, for example, find that entering Highland Games competitions to be the perfect tonic to a long track season. Same, but different.
The Chinese Olympic lifting coaches seem to agree with Tommy. Recently, Shelton Stevens highlighted the training of their teams and two points stood out to me:
- Coaches work on finding weaknesses the athletes need to work on. Absolute strength is more important than speed strength. They don’t care how fast the athlete’s squat or pull is. One must be fast regardless of how they train.
- They perform a lot of “bodybuilding” accessory work post lift. This may include 1-arm DB presses, Dips, Handstand Push-ups, Lat Pull Downs, Back Extensions, and tons of core work. All these usually performed in the 10–15 rep range. “Bigger muscles mean more strength”
Tommy’s great insight seems to hold true decades after his lifting career ended. It is still valuable today.
It is true that hyper-specificity works with the right genetics, the right support system and the right rewards at the end of the day. For most, however, there is a need to have the “same, but different” approach.
Unlike “peaking” programs, alternating naturally between specific and true “general” work, seems to lead to a longer, healthier approach to elite sports.
It gets us back to the issue of Problems versus Mysteries: losing a few pounds is a problem. If I am not a shill, I can show you the classic basics that worked and will continue to work. It’s what you learned the first days of school, the first years in you home and the basics and fundamentals of life, lifting and everything.
But, we all crave mystery. What’s the secret pill, sauce or potion and lotion? Maybe it is “this,” but honestly, you generally know the answer to the questions.
Cut back calories.
Make a difference?
Get out in the world and lend a hand.
I’m known for being good at the basics and keeping things simple.
Simple ain’t easy.
I always joke that the coach who trains himself has an idiot for a client. I was self-coached for years. So, if you studied math or logic, I fully admit I am an idiot. The problem with self-coaching is that it is so hard to study the person in the mirror and see the whole picture. Sure, you can look over your shoulder, but the reflection is going to be twisted.
Friends can help. John Price used to remind me daily that “you are only as strong as your weakest link” and we would search and seek them out. Every preseason, I would chart out my weak points and note them. Then, I would ignore them.
Hiring Buddy Walker as my trainer gave me the great insight: I simply don’t have enough energy or free will to work on my weak points in favor of not only what I like to do, but what I am good at doing.
I’m not alone.
What more important than your goal?
I have been beating this joke to death lately about the Fitness Industry:
This is treadmill.
This is how you walk on it.
Pay me money.
With the “Big Box,” 24/7 gym operations dominating the fitness landscape since the 1980s, many of us still think that the standard of training is cardio and bodybuilding. Andrew Read notes that most gyms are based on the Noah’s Ark model: two of everything. So, you go to the front desk and some girl named “Paris,” a certified professional trainer, offers you a deal that you can train for a lifetime at $49.95 a month. They will tap your bank account until you change banks, by the way, as we discovered.
Then, the price dropped. Hard. Thomas Plummer told me that one place offered $1.99 a year, this is no misprint, to bring in people. Listen: if all you are doing as a gym is renting treadmills, the buyer will always go to the cheapest treadmill. If your goal is so vague and loose that 30 minutes of treadmilling three times a week is going to get you there, pay the man two bucks a year. In some cities, fitness boxes have become the second home of many street people as the economics of a warm place with all the comforts of a spa for a few bucks a month is worth it.
I want you to rethink something before we move on. I think the “how” of fitness is really important. You need to learn to do things right and to do things in a proper manner.
But, what’s your “why?” Why do you want to be fit or leaner or perform better?
The answer to how is very important. Karen Armstrong notes in “The Battle for God:”
“Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the mundane world. …Logos is practical”
Logos is the how of training and fitness. Logos means that we will teach you how to mow a lawn, chop veggies or clean the mats. Logos is the answer to “How do you do a fill in the blank?” In fitness, doing a Goblet Squat or Farmer Walk will do more for you than hours of other nonsense. Good. Why?
Armstrong notes this about the why side of the equation:
“Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in this world, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair.”
That’s why your “why” is so important.
Years ago, we started an interesting family tradition of bowling on the weekends.
Originally, we just bowled on three-day weekends, but when we got better we started to go more often. Yet as I watched my kids learn to bowl, something important was missing. And I would have missed it save for a wonderful group of women who helped raised me.
Being the youngest of six kids, I had one great advantage that my older brothers and sister didn’t have: I got to go bowling with mom and her friends while my siblings went to school. My mom was in an afternoon league with a bunch of women who reflected the times they grew up. These were tough ladies who survived the depression, worked as ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ and sent husbands, brothers, and sons off to several different wars. As I would wander around the Brentwood Lanes with my little bag of Cheerios, the women would roll.
I wasn’t allowed to share their soft drinks because they always added a little ‘medicine’ to each glass. Honestly, it wasn’t until I started thinking about this recently did I realize what the actual ingredients of the ‘medicine.’ As the afternoon wore on, some of the ladies would let me finish off their games, as either poor play, or the medicine, made the games not worth saving.
To keep the ball between the gutters as a four year old and roll it all the way down the lane was an accomplishment. Knocking down any pin was a feat worthy of a small jump and a squeal. It was frustrating when the ball would slide into the gutter, but with time and effort, I could get my fair share in to knock a few pins down.
And my children nearly lost this opportunity to learn. To get kids to enjoy bowling, modern alleys have added ‘bumpers’ to keep the balls from ever going into the gutters as well as little ramps that the kids can point and shoot their ball. One afternoon my children and their friends were all scoring over one hundred in their first games.
And the kids were bored to death. It was at that moment that a great revelation of education came to me: by making it easy, we ruined the game. By removing the challenge, we bored the kids to death. Yes, I used to ‘fail’ when I first bowled my mom’s ball into the gutter. But, I kept coming back.
If you read my work, you know that I live by the mantra of former discus world record holder John Powell: “I said it was simple, not easy.” The story goes that he walked a group through the basics movements reminding them over and over the basic technique of discus throwing. When they moved on to a faster pace, a boy hit the ground. He looked up and said: “You said this was easy.” “I said it was simple, not easy.”
I have always believed that greatness comes from, and I paraphrase Dick Notmeyer, from daring to sweat, to strain, to pain. The path is always simple, the issue is finding the courage to handle the pain, the frustration and the failures.
To me, this is the “real” side of goals, goal setting and even life. The challenge of trying to get that ball to roll all the way down that wooden lane kept me coming back time and again. It’s funny to think, literally decades later, how fun the struggle was all those years ago. And, if there is a secret to success, I’m giving it to you right now.
As Viktor Frankl noted in “Man’s Search for Meaning” as he quoted Nietzsche (Frankl’s book is one of the best books of all-time):
“If you have a WHY to live, you can bare with any HOW.”
His survival from a Nazi Concentration Camp walks us through the most horrific moments of human history and gives us an insight into making the world a better place.
It was Frankl’s insight about how you find your why that made me sit up and change my life. One learns the why in three ways:
Suffering (sadly, the easiest)
The word, “Passion,” which gets thrown around in sports all the time, comes from the root, “Pati,” which means to suffer. It’s about love, sure, but it is really about suffering for love.
Like all of us, I have suffered and given up a lot for things I love. My discus career is basically the story of training four to seven hours a day and realizing that I had to give up so much of life to do it. Was it worth it? Today, I can look back and smile and say “absolutely,” although I should have quoted Mr. Big in the first episode of “Sex in the City.”
I bounce two thoughts around my head frequently:
“The last human freedom is the ability to control our own thoughts.”
“The highest stage of moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”
~ Charles Darwin
My children have caused me to learn more about my why than anyone or anything in my life. The long nights with illness, the fear in water accidents (God only knows why Lindsay is alive) and the challenge, the need to work extra jobs and tasks for their educations has all been worth it. I have suffered many injuries because of sport and would willingly suffer through it all again. We all know this. Use this information to empower you through all your goals!
There is no question in my mind that true fitness, in body, mind and soul, comes from realizing that our own thoughts, our own wills, dominate our decision making process. This is the “why” of things.
My favorite part of teaching has always been when we would enter into epics. I was once asked to explain an epic, versus a story perhaps, by a student:
“Epics are big!”
Epics take on big stories and big topics. Generally, epics take on the big issues like love, it’s great friend, lust, death, and God. Most of my favorite works are epics from Gilgamesh and the Arthurian legends to Dune and The Godfather. Gilgamesh, which includes the story of the Flood, has it’s hero achieve immortality by the great walls that he builds, yet he truly achieves immortality by the clay tablets that his story was written down upon.
Others find value in Woody Allen’s great insight:
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.”
Gilgamesh wanted, like Beowulf by the way, his name to be remembered forever. He achieved his goal. But, he didn’t achieve it by swallowing the thistle of immortality of by his building of the great walls, he is remembered by those meager little clay tablets.
That’s what I want you to think about: what is “behind” your goals? That is something bigger. That is what I call your mission.
You might not get your goal. Sorry. If it is a championship, others want it, too. If it is a fitness goal, life including past, present and future might conspire against you. I want you to focus on something bigger than a goal: your mission.
And, let me warn you, the key to Life, the Universe and Everything is this:
The Mission is to Keep the Mission the Mission
Your mission helps you do one big thing: Decide. Decide comes from the same root as homicide, suicide and patricide, it means to cut or to kill. But, your mission also keeps your focus “timeless and constant.”
Here is a fun test and you have done this: You want to go to a movie. Let’s say it is “Gone with the Wind.” So, you tell everyone, “Let’s go to a movie.” Everyone discusses what movie they may want to see. Edna hates Rhett, so she won’t go to GWTW, but Larry wants to see a comedy and Bill a horror movie. A hour later, you find yourself sitting in a movie theater watching a French film about a clown who lost his button.
Welcome to the wrong way to decide things! Decide means to cut! “I’m going to Gone with the Wind” and who wishes to join me?! I have a long boring story about how I ended up sitting at a Cardinals-Giants game when we wanted to see the 49ers-Broncos game. Failure to decide leads to all kinds of plan changes and compromises.
How do you find your mission? Find your story. At one of my workshops, a woman there discovered kettlebells and lost 100 pounds in a year. She told me: “I want to change lives now.”
Yep, I would hire her.
There is a simple way I teach people to discover their story. It is pretty simple. Like in geometry, you first must discover your givens.
What are your givens? Well, I always joke that to find them simply get married and have kids. Do you open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Do you celebrate Christmas? Do you rinse the glasses before you put them in the dishwasher? My brother, Phil, had a girlfriend think our house was crazy because we left bathroom doors closed. Her reason: in her house, the bathroom was occupied if the door was closed. In our house, we locked the doors!
Which is right? It doesn’t matter but you might think someone is weird because they cut their meat with the fork in the right hand.
Those crazy things we consider life’s rules are usually just your givens. One of my old bosses, who didn’t have kids, never understood parents when kids pushed their buttons. He said to me: “I don’t get it. Bobby says a phrase and mom and dad go to the third floor. He pushes my buttons and I have no idea what he is doing. So, I tell him exactly what to do and he does it.” These are your personal givens. If I say: “that dress looks nice on you” and you respond “Why, do the others make me look fat?” and my given is to leave this relationship as fast as I can.
What Are Your Givens?
There are some fun ways to discover your givens; or, at least, give you some insights into your givens. The fun part of this is to look at someone else’s list! Very simply:
What are your top ten favorite movies?
What are your top ten favorite books?
What have been the top ten best things in your life and the top ten “challenges?”
My movie list is this:
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Lawrence of Arabia
Field of Dreams
The Three Musketeers (with Michael York and the whole amazing cast)
Robin Hood (Errol Flynn)
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
It wasn’t until I did this many times that I realized that most of these stories have an element of David and Goliath or the underdog theme in them. My athletic career follows these movies.
My friend, Sean Greeley, added a new one for me:
What are the Ten Best Meals you ever had?
It fits perfectly with something I asked my daughters years ago: you go out to dinner and two of the three things are awful, but one is perfect. Choose!
Both daughters got it right, they chose the Company. When Sean shared this insight, I realized, as I did my list, that great dining experiences are all about the people not the food.
I do this yearly and I keep the lists. In 1989, I wrote these, among others:
Top Ten 1989
Tiff hired by Eastern Airlines
Updates on home on 1700 South
Net Worth on January 18, 1989: $4,145 with $63,500 in liabilities
Just for reference,
Kelly is now a first grade teacher and wife and mother
Eastern shut down right after I wrote this.
We moved from the “Blue Bungalow” the next year.
“Slightly more” and Debt Free for years.
It helps to do this so you can see if you are making progress in all areas of your life, sure, but you also get a hint about what you think is bigger than simple goal setting.
Two generations of my students have done this assignment. My daughters went to school with kids whose parents did this project. One mom told me: “I was smarter at 16 than I am now!” The assignment is called: “My Life is My Message.” Having parent and child look at a list of books or movies together is one of life’s golden moments.
When you unpack this information, you get an insight into your “why” of life. Many think my mission statement is “Never Let Go,” from T. H. White’s The Sword in The Stone.
Actually, though, it is:
Make a Difference.
Will This Make A Difference?
For every decision I make, I ask myself: will this make a difference? If it broadens this happy blue orb a little bit; I’m inclined to say “yes.” I have often heard that on my tombstone there will be two numbers and a dash in between: the year of your birth, the year of your death and that little dash. The dash is all the time we have to make a difference.
Take some time to figure out your story. What brings you to this goal? Does it fit into a larger picture about your life’s journey? Taking the time to do that is like being given a vein of pure gold to mine. What are your givens about life?
The fun thing about sharing top ten lists is that you can peek inside your own head and see what is important to you. And, remember, if you meet someone who has never read ten full books and you read that many a week, this might be an issue down the line. Think about who sits at table with you during your ten best meal experiences: you might consider dining with them more often, if you can. You may want to share what you know.
“There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules. Only, in the long years which bring women to the middle of life, a sense of balance develops…when she is beginning to hate her used body, she suddenly finds that she can do it. She can go on living…” ~ T.H. White, The Once and Future King
Your mission may last long after that second number on your tombstone.
You might not get your goal, but you might make a difference in the process.
Note: I thought I was saving this as a draft and I must have hit publish. Usually, I take some time to edit and reread things, but this got out early…which is fine.
Dan John has spent his life with one foot in the world of lifting and throwing, and the other foot in academia. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has also competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.