The 4 Stages of Mental Mastery
This is an excellent article by Chris Shugart, over at the T-Nation site.
For the record, I think T-Nation has a wealth of articles and forums that are immensely valuable. Resources on performance training, bodybuilding, diet and nutrition, among others, can all be found on this site.
Keep in mind, though, that it's a site that caters to a diverse group of people with goals that do not necessarily converge. The hardcore CrossFitter may be turned off by the articles that advocate isolation movements for bodybuilding purposes - likewise, most people may find it hard to be convinced that they can "get shredded" by following the advice in articles like the one written about the Anabolic Diet (which pretty much goes against the grain of typical diet trends as it is a diet primarily composed of fat, with ratios as high as 60-65 per cent of daily intake for several days each week).
Training and nutrition are extremely individualized and what works like a dream for somebody may work nowhere near as well for another person. T-Nation provides a good starting point to source articles on such topics, however, and with some trial and error I daresay it can function as a useful tool in planning a personalized program. Oh, and it's not always WFS (work-family safe) either, given the editors' penchant for strategically interspersing photos of a highly exciting nature throughout their articles and the website (perhaps to stimulate - ha ha - readers' interest? Take it for what you will).
Back to the article at hand. My training buddies can tell you that I've been pretty enamored with Shugart's latest piece ever since I first read it several days ago. He lays out the four stages of mental mastery, which are as follows:
1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence
I daresay most people who have taken steps towards researching how to lead a healthy lifestyle have already left Stage 1 behind. Then again, I could be wrong - there's a miasma of misguided information on the Web and just about everywhere, which is why you see bench presses and bicep curls forming the meat-and-potatoes of many a gym rat's workout. As Shugart says in the article, the way to get out of this rut is to become educated (i.e., to know why you train the way you do, to lay out specific goals and to do the necessary things to attain them), and also to periodically switch up your training program so that you won't do the same workout day in, day out.
Stage 2 is probably the most problematic stage for most people. I'm not ashamed to admit that I struggle with being in Stage 2 at times. The forbidden fruit always tastes sweetest - and too often it's all too easy to fall into the cycle of rationalization, as Shugart terms it. One concession gives way to more and it gets more difficult to pull yourself out when the hole you're in keeps becoming deeper. It's easy to say that it's all in the mind (and as a matter of fact, it really is), but extremely challenging to put into practice.
How much do you really want to achieve the goals you've set for yourself? Do you want them bad enough to sacrifice instant gratification (e.g. skipping dessert in favor of a protein shake and ripped abs)? One of the hardest things about this is that you have to make a choice between the present, which is readily apparent and immediately tangible, and the future, which may be hazy, or even apparent in your mind's eye, but most definitely still intangible. Try putting a mouthwatering slice of chocolate ganache cake in front of anyone and chances are even the most dedicated person will waver in the face of such temptation.
Without sugar-coating his terms, Shugart says to man up and recognize the pitfalls of rationalization. With respect to that, I agree - but I also think positive visualization is key here. There's no other way around it. You need to set goals and think of yourself getting nearer towards that satisfactory end point with every decision that you make. In my opinion, that's the only way you can remain staunch in the face of that lovely chocolate slice. No bones about it, it's hugely difficult - but it definitely helps to have a mental image of, say, your dream physique, in your mind to help you make the right choice. Without conceptualizing such goals, resisting temptation simply becomes a matter of denying yourself pleasure. And to me, that's really not the point at all. Life is not meant to be lived in such a way.
Stage 2 and 3 are closely linked. In Stage 3, you conquer temptation, but boy, is it hard. It's a challenge every day when you know you could be sleeping in instead of hitting the gym at 6:00 am to get your workout in. And dang it, I'll be blasted if that luscious chocolate ganache cake isn't still coyly beckoning from the kitchen counter. It takes a lot of effort to remain in Stage 3 and prevent the backslide into Stage 2. It's all too easy to fall off the bandwagon, especially when it comes to making tiny concessions which often snowball into enormous ones. Shugart states that it's best to go "cold turkey" in the outset - without the possibility of concessions, it's easier to stay strict. I definitely agree with this point. Like the Alcoholics Anonymous line, "you're only one drink away from the next drunk".
Shugart also mentions how rewards become more and more apparent with time and effort. Not necessarily rewards in terms of cake or other delectable (but bad for you) edibles, but rewards in terms of, say, compliments, or perhaps the realization that you need to get a new wardrobe since the pants that you used to struggle to zip up are about four sizes too big. These are all healthy cues that only serve to remind you of why you do what you do in times of flagging motivation or times when it seems like such a chore to subscribe to such asceticism. Be encouraged by them, and keep on keeping on!
Stage 4. Wow. What can I say - it's a happy place! In some aspects of my life I can say that I may have attained something approximating Stage 4 enlightenment, but unfortunately I'm still far away in many other parts. For instance, I never eat in fast-food places (McDonald's, Burger King, KFC...). Avoiding such places is a non-issue for me. I weaned myself off the three-piece meal with upsized cheese fries and a side of whipped potatoes (all of which I used to love) at KFC about five years ago, and it was crazy difficult then - but consistently steering clear of fast food has made it practically impossible for me to imagine that I would ever even consider eating such junk again. In terms of training and getting workouts done consistently, I believe I'm in Stage 4 as well. In my opinion, there's nothing worse than not being able to work out!
That being said, I am still floundering in Stage 3 (and perhaps even Stage 2) in other parts of my training and nutrition program. There's nothing else to do but to keep persevering. The rewards I mentioned in Stage 3 are probably going to be the most useful tools in pushing anyone over the edge into Stage 4. The tangible results that come from a consistently good nutrition and training protocol only serve as fuel for the fire, and I daresay that is the best motivation in itself. Of course, the hardest thing is getting started. Stage 4 is all about creating healthy habits, practices that make it impossible to accept anything less than the very best for yourself.
So, here are my takeaways from the article:
1. Get Educated (with regards to training, nutrition - try a variety of things that work for you, and see what works best. It's all an experimental process but you'll reap the benefits of experience).
2. Set Goals and Visualize them on a Consistent Basis (these are the things that will keep you on task during times of temptation).
3. Update and Evaluate Goals (so that you know where you stand with regards to the objectives you've set out for yourself. If you're on target, you'll see the benefits - if not, tweak something in the program, but don't fall down the slippery slope of rationalization or making concessions for yourself).