Tapering, and The Burden of Proof

It’s Thursday night and I’ve finished my final training sessions for the Synergy Pro BJJ comp this weekend. I’ve had a near-perfect lead-up, with no personal stress, minimal injury and little disruption to my training routine.

The final week before any fight or competition is, for me, always a relatively light one. I halve the duration of my training sessions, and switch from full rolling to doing drills which are specific to my game-plan. My priority is being mentally and physically fresh, fully recovered, on weight, focused and happy. So far, I consider this week successful, because I am all of these things. The soreness of the last and hardest weeks of full training is gone; the minor injuries I that accrued have almost completely healed.

Tapering is not a new or revolutionary concept. Any strength and conditioning coach or experienced athlete is familiar with the concept. However, as I have discovered over many years of training in different disciplines with different coaches, not all martial artists do what is physiologically best.

Part of the reason for this is that martial arts and combat sports involve so many intangible psychological factors, that sometimes it is worth sacrificing a physical advantage to gain a mental one. So, for example, some people will roll hard all the way up to a couple of days before competition, despite the dilemma that this may pose in terms of impaired recovery or risk of injury, but the mental edge that they personally gain from this makes it worth it for them.

Without a grounding in sports psychology, exercise science, or coaching protocol, many people use their own personal preferences as benchmarks by which to judge others’ methods. However, just because something works for one person, does not mean that it’s the right method for another.

I am keenly aware that not everyone agrees with the need to taper before competition, and that is ok with me. If I perform well, it validates my method to some extent, but I don’t really care about that. If I fail to perform well, I – and my method – can be blamed. I am also ok with this.

For many years, I shouldered what I call the Burden of Proof. I did stupid things – over-trained, pushed through injuries and made them chronic, over-committed to the detriment of my education, finances, personal relationships and overall happiness – because I needed to prove myself to the people around me at the time in order to be taken seriously.

Let’s be clear – all rookies need to go through some kind of process of proving themselves, in any context, be it on the mats, at work, or in a social circle. These processes may not be as apparent as they are in combat sports, but they are there.

However, I always felt that I was responsible for an added burden – I was not only proving my commitment and worth as an individual, but proving some inherently misogynistic people wrong about everything that they believed about women.

Back when I first started out in combat sports – in South Australia, in any case – there was no concept that this could be any different for me. Combat sports were still male-dominated, both within local gyms and on a global scale. Women were not allowed to box in New South Wales. Women’s fights were never telecast. There were very few high-profile female fighters, and certainly no all-female fight teams.

I simply accepted that as a female athlete in combat sports I would always have to work twice as hard for half the respect.

In some cases, shouldering the burden of working against this stigma may have been a good thing – for a long time, I was the first one at training and the last one to leave; I would train on my birthday, on New Years’ Day, on Chirstmas Day. But the sense that to show any weakness would be to have those around me condemn me as “just a girl” – with all of the weak, passive connotations held by the people around me at the time – drove me to train to the point where it was no longer beneficial, where I created chronic injuries, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and where I was not truly focused on becoming a better athlete but on simply being heroic for its own sake.

Jesse Conaway wrote a great article about this on his blog, The Real World Wrestler.

There is security in doing what people view as “right”. If you shred your knee ligaments while doing wind sprints because you lifted your hardest that morning, you were dehydrated from cutting out water weight that day, you wrestled all practice on a strained MCL, and still ran your hardest with sloppy form on your sprints while hurt, exhausted, and trying to do jump-push offs on the wall, then you’re a hero. You worked so hard that nobody could ever criticize what you did out of valiant zealotry for your sport.

 

When you take rests as needed, while still working 100% on what you can, even if it’s film review and looking up wrestling techniques on Youtube, you have no injury excuse for losing. It’s all on you, and that’s scary.

When you get your body fat levels down to 3% so that you can maintain energy levels for competition, then you have no excuse of cutting too much weight when you lose. It all comes back to your performance, and that is scary.

One of the things that I love about getting older is that I care much less about what other people think of me now. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome showed me very clearly that those same people who required me to work so hard to “prove myself” to them didn’t give a damn about me when I was too sick to leave the house to buy food, or when the ligaments and cartilage in my wrist were too shredded for me to even hold a pen.

I’m happy to say that I learned from my experiences. I’ve chosen to surround myself with people who are liberated enough to be able to see me as an athlete and an individual. If I need to take time off to let an injury heal, it’s because my injury needs to heal, not because “all women are weak.”

Today, I do what I believe is right and, win or lose, the responsibility is mine.

I’m ok with that.

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4 thoughts on “Tapering, and The Burden of Proof

  1. I wrote mainly from the personal viewpoint, about how we would sometimes rather have a good excuse for losing rather than taking a chance on winning and letting the blame lie solely on ourselves. You bring up great points about doing it for the approval of others. And I think it is true that the people who would have you run yourself into the ground won’t stand by you when you are broken down. My wrestling coaches abandoned me when I was too injured to wrestle, but I came back later and performed magnificently, and they wanted to act like my best friends.
    Maybe somebody should write a blog about what it means to really be loyal.
    Good luck at your competition.

    1. Thank you!

      I do agree that the concept of loyalty in combat sports is often a very one-sided matter.

      I certainly didn’t start out wanting approval from others, but I was very young at the time and saw it as a way to be taken seriously enough to get the opportunities that I wanted.

      For example, when I started Muay Thai in 2001, I had to “prove” that I could hang in the (all-male) fighters’ class in order to get opportunities to spar and be considered for fights, rather than stagnate in the “women’s class” (which was really just a fitness class, with no sparring a pathways to fight.)

      At one point some of the fighters threatened to go on a kind of strike because they resented me being there. So I definitely felt that showing anything that could be construed as weakness was not an option.

      Fast-forward many years, and with a completely different team and training environment I am amazed at how much more I can progress and perform well when I don’t have to constantly “prove” myself, but can truly focus on improving myself instead.

    1. Some of the senior guys I train with also stop training a week before comps. For me, I feel that tapering provides a happy medium, although there are some comps where I haven’t trained in the week leading up to it and I still performed well!

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