Don't Romanticize Self-Destruction

TAGS: mental trap, champion mentality, sport sacrifice, self-improvement, ronnie coleman, iron legacy, iron game, Alexander Cortes, bodybuilding, Sports Training, strength, training

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Across the fitness world, the news of eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman being crippled and confined to a wheelchair and having to relearn how to walk has been impactful to say the least.

For the readers of elitefts™, it's most likely unnecessary to detail Coleman’s history. In his day, Coleman was untouchable. With outsized proportions, he was the largest Mr. Olympia ever, and his training has been immortalized. He trained five to six days a week, often training his entire body twice, and his workouts consisted of heavy compound movements all done to failure. His strength rivaled that of most raw, super heavyweight powerlifters. In fact, he got his start in powerlifting before he pursued bodybuilding. Coleman trained hard, and he continuously took his body to the bleeding edge of its abilities.

Was it necessary for him to repeatedly break himself in training? Truly, I would say no. This might be a heretical statement, but Coleman had the inborn genetics and adaptive potential to be massive. Past a certain point, his punishing workouts didn't make him “grow” any more. He enjoyed training the way that he did, so he trained that way. Perhaps it was in his nature to try and destroy himself in training. Lucky for him, he had the drive, passion and potential for that self-destructive training streak to be to his benefit for a time.


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I might be criticized as passing judgment on Coleman, but that isn't my intent. Coleman reached the highest levels of bodybuilding and he did it his way. I have no desire to be the spectator criticizing the man in the arena. However, I use his story as an example because it perfectly represents the “idealization of self-destruction," that romantic notion that with great success must also come life crushing consequences and that one should pursue this and take pride in it. This is a false form of pride and delusion.

Sacrifice, Sacrifice, Sacrifice More

There is a paradigm of thought that accompanies “champion” mindset. The foundational principle is that to be a champion, you must sacrifice and suffer, both metaphorically and physically.

Is this true? I would say yes. To ascend the pinnacle of something requires dedication and effort beyond what most will ever attempt. But—and here is the caveat—the necessity of this effort isn't an automatic assumption of “you will destroy your body and your life for this.”

bodybuilder Jeffrey Sygo

There have been many champions in many sports who retained their health and vitality beyond their years competing. In fact, this isn't so “exceptional.” Every sport has examples of competitors who were “champions” and are still in relatively good health.

Are some sports more demanding than others? Without question. But it is delusional to assume that the rest of your life must be spent in ruin and that this is required.

Your Fall, Your Pride, Your Ego

This delusion forms that self-destruction paradigm: “To succeed, I must be ruined in the process. But it will all be worth it for that one moment when I am champion.”

This is ironic in and of itself. If one believes a “champion” to be a person dedicated to his continual improvement, it doesn't follow that breaking yourself down will help that process. If anything, it would, in fact, make you worse, not better. Regardless, people fall into this mental trap at every level.

Even youth sports have fallen prey to it. Young athletes are pushed into year-round practice with multiple sport coaches, and the rise in youth injuries has been astounding. Kids who are barely into their teens are undergoing surgeries and incurring injuries that were previously only seen in adult athletes. Is this the cost of “champion?”

No, it’s the price of stupidity. And it's ego driven. People have no respect for time, neither their own nor for the process (or their kids' for that matter), so they assume that toil and pain are exemplary of “improvement” and convince themselves that the breakdown takes them to the mountaintop.


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In Ronnie Coleman's case, it actually did. But he is the outlier, the exception, not the rule. And he is now paying for it.

The self-destruction paradigm gives people a mandate to be stupid and irresponsible and it ruins more athletes than it creates. I know some very good coaches (Swede Burns is an example). They don't preach to their athletes that “success comes at the cost of ruining the rest of your life.” Rather, their teaching is built on the principle of gradual improvement, understanding when to drive and when to cruise, and respecting that success on the platform takes time.

Without question, high performance in competition demands effort, blood, sweat and tears. But ruining the rest of your life for a single moment when you didn't need to, when it could've been done a better way that would've left you with time to enjoy your life after your accomplishments, isn't anything to aspire to. It's only the lesson to not do things that way.

People immortalize their pain, mistakes and injuries and they take pride in them to convince themselves that it was all worth it. Maybe it was in year one post-retirement. Maybe it won't be in year 20. Maybe when it takes you from your relationships, your children, your grandchildren, your friends, maybe you question it then.

Maybe you question it when your efforts for that one moment leave you with nothing but pain every day of your life. Maybe that takes away from it for you. Maybe you question it when it leaves you with nothing. Or maybe it doesn’t. Only time will tell.

Image courtesy of Jeffrey Sygo at www.symiphotography.com

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