Navigating the post-competition period, part two: Psychological factors

Everybody worries about how they’ll get to the finish line, but we rarely consider what we’ll do beyond the finish line. For bodybuilding and physique athletes, contest prep and the post-competition period bring some pretty crazy changes, both physiologically and psychologically. To effectively navigate the weeks (and months) immediately following competition, knowing what to expect can help you plan for a successful transition. In part one, I discussed the physiological changes observed following competition. In this article I will discuss the psychology side, as this is often the most drastic and difficult aspect to deal with.

For many sports, you plan your training to allow for “peak” performance at the most critical time of year. For example, swimmers train themselves into the ground, taper before the biggest meet of the year, and then achieve their best times when it matters the most (when all goes according to plan). Physique sports are no exception, and the whole purpose of contest prep is to tailor training and nutrition practices to achieve your best possible physique on show day. With this general concept in mind, I want to share some of my thoughts on how to best handle some of the psychological aspects of the post-competition period.

 

First, it’s important to acknowledge the following points:

1) The psychological “lows” experienced after competition are often referred to as the post-competition blues. Don’t beat yourself up or get down on yourself for feeling this way- if they made up a widely-recognized term to describe it, that usually means it’s really, really common.

2) By definition, you will look worse after the show, just like you did before the show. That’s how “peaking” is supposed to work; it’s the entire point. If you do it right, you’ll look the very best you’ve ever looked on show day. That means that virtually every other day of your life, you didn’t look that good, and you probably won’t maintain it for long. You’ve got to get comfortable with that.

3) There is no other sport in the history of the universe where people evaluate their success based on their ability to perform 4 weeks after the championship. Yet, we have countless physique athletes who lose their contest shape a few weeks or months after the show, and feel like they’re “failing.” It’s natural, but it’s illogical.

4) Your competition-day body is the equivalent of taking a vacation. It’s awesome, but it’s not realistically sustainable. You save up all year for vacation, then spend a week in a great location, living above your means, and spending 100% of your time on leisure activities. If you compare your everyday life to your “vacation life,” you’ll undoubtedly conclude that your regularly life SUCKS, no matter how good you’ve got it. We shouldn’t be making “apples to apples” comparisons in that context, and we shouldn’t compare our offseason body to our contest day body.

 

When you look in the mirror, particularly within the first few weeks after competition, your mind is guaranteed to play tricks on you. I’ve found a couple of strategies to be particularly helpful in fighting off some of these mind games:

1) Remember where you came from

Look at your progress pictures, start to finish (credit to Chris Barakat for this one- he made a Facebook pots about it recently). Over the course of my prep, my body fat percentage dropped from around 15% to around 5%. As the fat was coming off, I felt fantastic about how I looked at 10% body fat. But as we shift from 5% up toward 10%, it’s common to feel terrible about how we look. Use your progress pictures to remind yourself that you used to feel pretty darn good about being 10 lbs over stage weight, and that fact that one day (believe it or not) this precipitous weight gain will plateau, and you’ll reach a steady, sustainable body fat level that you’ll feel comfortable with.

2) Remember where you’re going

Let’s illustrate this numerically. Hypothetically, you start prep at 185 lbs, 16% body fat. That’s 29.6 lbs of fat on your normal, offseason body. From the research available, it appears clear that competitors will tend to revert toward their pre-diet weight and body fat level, and that fat will be regained preferentially toward the beginning of recovery. So when you gain about 6 lbs of fat in the first couple months, it can be helpful to remember that you (most likely) still have way less total fat than when you started, and it’ll take a minute for your lean mass to catch up and for your eyes to readjust to seeing a body in the mirror that isn’t absolutely shredded. Take a deep breath, chill, and give your body a few weeks to re-stabilize itself. After putting your body through hell during contest prep, it’s the least you can do for it.

Similarly, consider the positive aspects of the road you’re on. After a show, you’re probably experiencing some negative prep-related side effects, eager to gain some muscle to improve your future placements, or both. In either case, a caloric surplus and some corresponding fat gain is going to be part of that process. That doesn’t mean you should be force-feeding yourself in the name of making gains, but you certainly shouldn’t be stressed about the fairly necessary restoration of a reasonable amount of “fluff.”

This is one of the reasons I love bouncing between bodybuilding and powerlifting. It totally re-frames the post-competition period. As you lose your bodybuilding conditioning, any underlying disappointment is totally overshadowed by the fact that your strength performance is skyrocketing at the same time. One of the primary contributors to the “post-competition blues,” in my opinion, is the inability to shift your perspective from focusing on the negatives of this process to focusing on the positives.

3) Put on your old pants

I did a competition about a month or two ago, and the other day I felt absolutely HUGE (I was cool with it, but felt huge nonetheless). I had to try on some pants for a wedding, so I grabbed the khakis that fit pretty well before I started contest prep. I was pretty concerned that they might be too tight by that point. Then I tried them on, and realized they were still several sizes too big (so big, in fact, that I would’ve looked silly wearing them at the wedding). Your eyes will tell you that you’re losing a battle with morbid obesity, but the scale and your old clothes can be helpful, more objective indicators of what’s really going on.

 

Conclusion

I’m no psychologist, so an in-depth discussion of psychology is well beyond my academic reach. However, competitors have to deal with this stuff, and I have developed a profound respect for how powerful some of these psychological factors are. I hope some of these points and perspectives help physique athletes re-frame their mindset in a more positive direction as they navigate the post-competition period. However, the most important point has yet to be made:

If you derive a great deal of your self-worth from your physique or physical appearance, you’re setting yourself up for a very, very tough time in the world of physique sports.

If this is you, I’d encourage you to spend some time wrestling with why that’s the case, and possibly seek help from a qualified professional in the field of psychology, before embarking on any type of physique-related goal. Don’t let any stupid stigmas about mental health services hold you back- achieving resolution and clarity regarding body image issues will simply set you up with a solid foundation for a happier, more successful path in the world of physique sports.

Anyway, back to the conclusions. Bottom line: Don’t compare yourself to your stage-ready physique; you looked worse before the show, and you’ll look worse after. That’s the whole point of contest prep. And don’t beat yourself up for your inability to sustain an inherently unsustainable physique.

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