You ever listened to the Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler? The chorus reads:
“If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away”1
Lately, I’ve been thinking we should play more music like this in our gyms, rather than blasting a constant loop of pop and hip-hop songs with messages of overconfidence.
Ten years ago, I trained with some powerful humans. Every day would be a competition where we’d poke fun at each other and push one another in a mostly good-spirited way. Typical of a healthy young, aggressive man in my early twenties, I imagined the gods, themselves, whispered of my power.
I lifted with some guys my age and some a good deal older. But, shared by us all was the sense of pride to push ourselves to the bitter end, denying ourselves comfort while ignoring injuries. The pushing for its own sake was all that mattered. The pain was considered a prize of distinction without any thought to the short or long-term limitations it could be causing.
There’s a good that comes from a romantic view of what lifting weights can make you. Yes, we are creating artificial work and a self-imposed struggle when we are lifting weights, but effort creates the hero. Even though we choose our battle in this modern world, the practice itself is still something we can use to test ourselves and strip away the unnecessary.
I’ve never believed that lifting weights is just a tool for physical health. I think of it as human expression. But I’ve separated the idea that the growth of this always struggling hero’s story should take precedence over everything else in our minds.
Exercise should heal the mind and the body. If the body is harmed and we continue to punish it, it’s a reflection that the poison in your brain hasn’t been removed during your training, whether you realize it or not.
It’s not about backing off when things get tough. Sometimes it’s pivoting and going a different way. It’s making an extra stop to recover what you need to push further and gain the insight to shift the direction necessary to improve not one, but several areas that make you whole.
In My Narrative
Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been training to improve, however slightly, in not only Olympic weightlifting but also powerlifting, and Muay Thai. A few months ago, I didn’t give myself enough time to recover from a stressful squat session before going through a Muay Thai practice with a lot of kicking volume.
Because of this poor time management, I strained my adductor. I took some time to work through it, did some personal rehab, and gave it what I thought was the appropriate rest time from heavy lifting.
After it felt good-to-go, I began concentrating on the focused weightlifting phase of the year where I de-prioritized Muay Thai and powerlifting. I planned to intensify my weightlifting training for ten weeks to prepare for a competition. I thought I’d kept a level of weightlifting fitness high enough for this transition to accommodate this concentrated effort, but I missed the mark.
I couldn’t recover as quickly as I needed to from this increased volume and intensity, even after making the appropriate adjustments in my training program. I started feeling joint pain that I couldn’t ignore and eventually tweaked my adductor, again. I pulled out of the competition.
The Honest Look
After I pulled out of the competition, some encouraging people with the best intentions told me that I should still compete and do my best. Enjoy it, they told me. I appreciated their kindness and concern and thanked them all genuinely. I didn’t expect them to understand my outlook based on my experience and my past.
The sober truth was that competing then would have been squandering my time. I looked at my cards. I didn’t have the hand, and it was time to fold that round. It took me over a decade to not only have the wisdom to do this, but the maturity to be okay with it.
Some don’t play a hand that may have a fifty-percent chance of winning because of fear. They may have won if they’d played, but because it wasn’t a certainty, they folded. Maybe if they’d played the hand, they still wouldn’t have won, but their prize would be that they learned something priceless about the game. They should have played the hand if only for this lesson.
After you’ve sat at the table for years and played your hand, again and again, you gain discernment on when to sit it out. You also gain the poise to smile at those who are encouraging you to play.
I had only one reason to compete in that competition at that time of year and point in my life. I was trying to qualify for a national competition, and I planned to do it this year because I was within reach. The weight classes and the qualifying totals had recently changed.
Realistically, this might be the last time I can compete at that level as the qualifying totals are likely to increase again next year. Also, my desire to put in the effort and improve in the sport of weightlifting, especially with all my ailments, is waning.
I knew that in that condition, I wouldn’t have made the total because my fitness for weightlifting wasn’t where I needed it to be. My body wasn’t prepared for the stress of heavy specific weightlifting training. Not only did nagging injuries resurface, but my ligaments and tendons started hurting because they weren’t conditioned to start receiving frequent heavy loads.
So, I became stiffer rather than more pliable as you’d want when getting into shape for weightlifting, and no amount of grit or mental mind games on competition day would have pushed me to display a potential. It wasn’t there. So, I e-mailed the meet director, without regret, and told him I wouldn’t be competing.
Recognize, Settle It, And Be Kind
It wasn’t easy at first to settle this in my mind. I’ve learned my fair share, but I also have a proud ego, just like everyone else. But I’ve played this game and lived this life long enough to know when I don’t have it, and I didn’t have it.
I may have it again, maybe soon, but just not then. And if I would have walked in on competition day as if I did, lying to myself and everyone else, my bluff would have been called. The weights always call your bluff.
At that point, chasing the numbers wasn’t worth the possible injury. An injury was much more likely than success. It wasn’t worth the effort and the risk if the ability wasn’t there.
- At best, I would have wasted a week preparing or recovering for the competition when I could have spent my time making the body better suited for weightlifting training.
- At worst, I could have sustained another injury that would have made it impossible to reach this total this year.
When you begin competing, explore your potential, and work to find your limits. Push hard to find them. But, years down the road, after you’ve searched the edges of your abilities, learn to be kind to yourself. Learn what a good gamble is, and what a bad one is and give space for yourself to sit for a while before you play again.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.
1. Rogers, Kenny, “The Gambler Lyrics.” LyricsFreak, Pub Dec 4, 2006., Accessed July 15, 2019.