When we first began to play as children, it was simply play.
As young kids, we loved just to kick the ball around the yard, hit a ball with a bat or toss it into a hoop. Harken back to the days of the Sandlot, when Scott Smalls stumbles across a group of unruly, charismatic young boys just out playing ball in the yard.
The narrator in the movie, Scott Small's future self, mentions how "they never kept score, they never chose sides…they really never stopped playing the game".
It isn't until later in life that we learn to score our games and choose sides. Scoring denotes a clear winner and loser, creates competition, and frames our reality into a hierarchy allowing us to make sense of things. Comparatively, when we grow older, numbers, statistics and placement begin to mean more to each of us.
Nobody would disagree that healthy competition drives each one of us to a higher state of performance, but to measure performance solely based on how much, how fast or how high can really detract from your lifelong journey as an athlete.
Don’t Measure By Focusing on Beginner Numbers
If I laid out my athletic journey on a simple line graph to show my "numbers," my chart is by no means straight or necessarily pointed upward.
For many of us, training is circular. I'm not talking about macro and micro cycles here; I'm referring to the point at which we reach the extent lifting skill and must revert to a lighter weight to fix our technique. Many lifters experience those beginner gains where more and more weight get stacked on, and PRs get recorded on the "1., 2. Or 3." slot on the gyms record board. We ceremoniously conclude our feat by posting videos on social media to remove all doubt of accomplishment.
If anyone reading this is like me, your beginner gains plateaued relatively quickly, and you soon outran the headlights of your skill as a lifter. Perhaps you've injured yourself by thinking you could get away with "muscling through it" — or even worse, you made a lift with atrocious form giving you just a little more confidence telling yourself you could TOTALLY do more next time.
Periods like this are where numbers fail us. We've convinced ourselves that higher or heavier is better even though we might have just narrowly escaped or suffered a career-ending injury for the sake of "progress."
For those who love the game, we need only apply a little patience during our plateaus to focus simply moving better and more efficiently with a lighter, more manageable load.
Measure Your Training To Be Effortless at the Basics
In sport our perceived level of optimal performance or goal caps our training pyramid: for example: doing a triathlon, competing in a tournament, going to regionals, etc.
If this is you, then performance in your area is what you should measure and value.
Samuel Spiegelman, a coach and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner at Applied Strength and Conditioning in Chicago, breaks it down simply for his BJJ athletes: "strength will help you in your sport but strength ISN'T your sport." Anyone who practices MMA or BJJ will certainly agree that "being strong is important" but as many of the greats, including Sam have noted, "being effortless is a real sign of mastery." Effortlessness in this regard is a concentrated focus on skill development.
For most of us in the normal world, effortlessness reflects on our ability to do the basics really really well and as such is frankly hard to quantify with a number or a statistic — but hot damn if you don't know it when you feel it! Hence why we often find ourselves saying, "gosh, they make it look so easy!"
Coincidently, when you or I screw something up in the gym or throw a round at the range more often than not, we failed at something basic.
Measure Performance Correctly
As coaches and athletes, points of performance while lifting becomes exponentially more important the further we climb towards the top of our pyramid. Levels of effortlessness and mastery become reflective in proper timing, or keeping the bar fractions of an inch closer to our bodies during a snatch or clean.
These significant milestones in development should not be overlooked and ought to be recognized as enthusiastically as a PR despite their lack of "sex-appeal." Athletes and coaches need to become mindful of movement and understand subtleties that indicate not IF a person could lift more weight but when they are ready to.
Numbers and statistics play a significant role in the psychology of training and sport as well. Like many of us serious gym nuts, we use numbers; benchmarks and scores compare ourselves to one another. Competition, like alcohol, is an excellent mistress but a poor master. No two roads to human optimization are exactly alike, and each person needs to be mindful that their road is exactly that, their road.
In 1998 quarterback Ryan Leaf was the number two pick in the first-round NFL Draft. After a promising college career at Washington State, Ryan was one of the most hyped players coming into the NFL. After a stellar 3-year career, peppered with injuries, poor work ethic and bad play Ryan Leaf left the NFL and later sentenced to seven years in prison for burglary, felony, and drug-related charges.
Two years after Ryan Leaf was drafted in 1998, another young quarterback was drafted into the NFL. He occupied the prestigious 199th slot in the 6th Round of the NFL Draft (there are seven rounds total).
His name was Tom Brady.
As tactical athletes, it is imperative that we measure performance correctly and not over or understate the importance of certain aspects of our training. For those of us who are guilty of allowing our "numbers" in the gym to impact our attitudes towards everything else in our daily lives, take a minute and remember when you started down this path and never forget what it felt like to just play for no other reason than simply loving the game.