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15 Valuable Secrets to Sporting Success

I'm typing this from LAX airport, my legs feel heavy, my shoulders tight and I'm exhausted. Emotionally I feel content, proud and relieved. You see yesterday I was announced the winner of the 2017 Mens RealFit competition held in Austin Texas.

I went back to back, successfully defending my 2016 title. For those wondering what this event is, have a read of THIS article. In a nutshell it's a 9 event competition that test for speed, strength, agility and power.

As I was leaving Austin, a friend and fellow competitor asked 'what's your secret?'.

I didn't really have an answer. So on the 3 hour flight from Dallas to Los Angeles I did some thinking. What was my secret to sporting success?

15 Secrets to Sporting Success

I have achieved some good wins in sport throughout the years. I mean I'm no Olympian nor have I ever been a pro athlete, but I have made a small mark in numerous sports.

These include a 7th place at the World Indoor Rowing champs, breaking various New Zealand indoor rowing records, winning an Australian national bodybuilding title, placing in the top 3 at national powerlifting meets and breaking Australian powerlifting records. 

And now I can say I have won the RealFit competition 2 years in a row. After thinking back to all these events, including my most recent victory, I came up with the below list. My secrets that have lead me to sporting success.

1. Have A Plan

You all know the saying: Failing to plan is planning to fail. All my past sporting achievements, bar one, I had a solid plan in place. These plans went beyond a simple training program (though that is very important), it included diet, recovery, travel and even game plans for competition days.

The training program is generally the most applicable 'plan' for this tip. But all the other components are important. For instance, at the recent RealFit event, as soon as I heard what the 9 events were I devised a strategy of which events to do first and which to leave last.

A micro plan within my bigger 3 month training program (which you can see in full detail here). 

Once you know what you want to compete in, work backwards and devise a strategy on how you are going to get there and achieve the result you desire. Outsource all or parts of this planning process if need be (i.e a coach for diet and training).

2. Accept that Plans Change

Having a plan is crucial. But adhering 100% to that plan is not as important.

Why? Because things change. Your body may not respond well to the diet you had planned.

The training may be too much (as was the case with my plan this year).

You may get injured. Or need to go away for work.

Life happens. Your perfect plan is probably not perfect and even if it was it will no doubt need changing.

Accept this fact. Do not beat yourself up if you can't adhere to your program all of the time. 

If you don't accept that your plan may change, then you will suffer during your training. You will beat yourself up over a missed workout. You will try and play catchup and cause an injury. You will train when you are sick. You will stick to the diet despite it not suiting your goals.

The beauty of having a plan at the beginning is to give you a direction. Let's say you were planning a 10 day cross mountain hike. You build the perfect plan using the latest maps and GPS readings.

Yet 5 days in, you have serious blisters on your foot, a storm has rolled in, and the path you are meant to take is steeper than it appeared on the maps. You have an option to go another way but it's longer. Or you could stay put and let the blisters heel while the storm rolls over. Or of course you stick to the plan despite all the changes. 

The point here is simple - plans change. Embrace the change. Just ensure the end goal is the same!

3. It Will Be a Roller Coaster Ride

There will be times when everything is going amazing. Your numbers are improving in the gym. Your body feels great. Your sleep is perfect and your motivation is sky high. You wish the competition was tomorrow!

Then boom, the complete opposite will happen. You struggle to hit your numbers, you're tired and sore and you are simply over it. You want to throw in the towel.

After 10 years of training, I now accept the ups' and down's involved with competitive sport and hard training. When things are going well, embrace it, push a little harder. But understand that what goes up must come down.

There will be a period when you feel flat. You hate training and may even stop caring about the competition all together. Embrace this phase as well. Take a few days (or longer) off. Go on a holiday. Eat some junk food. Forget about the event.

If you are passionate enough about the event, then your motivation will come back. And if it doesn't (after a 3 week break for example) then that passion isn't there and you should pull out all together.

But don't fight these lulls. I used to. I would force myself to train. Or feel guilty if I had some dark thoughts about the event. I would think that I was a failure, and failures needed to push through these tough periods.

This is not the case. I now accept that I will have moments when things are amazing, moments when things are 'normal' and moments when things suck. 

Understanding that these cycles happen, and that all athletes go through them will help keep you on track for the big goal.

4. Be Held Accountable 

This ties in with point 3 above. When times are tough, it is nice to have some support in place to get you past any demons. Having external motivational factors in place help pick you up when you are down, and gently bring you down when you let the ego get to bed.

Think of external accountability as a way to 'smooth the ride'. You will still have highs and lows, but the swings won't be as bad.

So what are some practical examples? Being in a team or club. Hiring a coach. Sharing your journey on social media or in a blog (I updated my training log every week during my 2017 Realfit prep. If you read through it you will see how some weeks I was quite flat, others I was really buzzing. Knowing that people were reading these updates held me accountable). 

 

5. Focus on Building Strength

I know this is a controversial point and may not apply to all sporting events. But the more I train, the more I learn about the body, the more I compete and the more clients I work with, the more I see that strength is a great factor for determining how successful you are in your sporting event.

An example. This year I wanted to do a lot more fitness work (Aerobic training, plus interval training). I only did 2-3 of these sessions before they slipped out of my training all together (the strength work remained). I arrive at the RealFit event and learn there is an obstacle course event and a 1000m row. Both of these events take around 2-4 minutes to complete.

Not endurance events by any stretch of the imagination, but for a guy who was only training for strength I was quite nervous.

3 days later I clocked up the fastest obstacle course time (1:48. Second place was 1:54. A competing top level obstacle athlete had a time of 2:04).  And my rowing time at 3:03 for 1000m was one of the best (which was also a personal best for me).

What got me through these events with such good times? Simple - my strength.

My strength gains were all up from last years event (tested on the ARX machine). Both leg strength and chest strength. But I know my competitors were doing a lot more intervals and aerobic training. 

Being stronger gave me a bigger engine. I could move the heavy weights in the obstacle course so much faster than the fitter and weaker competitors. I could put out so much more power on the rowing machine despite not having an aerobic base to call upon.

Looking back at my sporting events, I have seen my strength being a common denominator in my success. Even as a super fit rower, I had some solid leg strength compared to my peers.

Sure, if you're training for an ultra endurance marathon then you need that fitness base. But adding some strength to this base may provide far more benefit to you as an athlete than trying to improve your fitness.

And the beauty of strength training is that you only need to do a few minutes a week. Last year I won the RealFit competition on 15minutes of strength training a week. 

One strength session a fortnight for a marathon runner may mean the difference between 1st and 3rd. 

Ensure you are doing some strength training in your program, no matter the event.

6. You Have to Want to Win

This is rather straight forward. If you don't want to win then you're not going to win. The want comes first. The want pushes you that extra 5% in training.

The desire to win is a true secret weapon for my sporting success. I am competitive. Whatever I do I want to win. If we're playing cards over drinks I want to win. If we're running up a hill I want to win.

This competitive urge is probably the most powerful tip out of all these tips. Without the desire to win you are at a massive disadvantage to someone who does want to win.

You have given them the tail wind while you suffer in a head wind. 

 

7. Less Really Is More

After my 2016 Realfit win I wrote an article titled - Less is More: How Slowing Down Improve Health and Produced a Realfit Champ. 

This was in 2016. Here I am in 2017 and nothing has changed. In fact, my view on less being more is stronger than ever.

If you look at my training log you will see how I experimented with a new training program this time round. But as the weeks went on, I ended up cutting more and more out of my program.

Everything I did had to be for a reason. If it wasn't helping my cause, then I cut it. If the body wasn't improving over my last session, then I stopped the workout. If the rep felt messy I stopped. If I slept badly I wouldn't train etc etc.

If you have a hard time getting your head around the 'less is more' approach to training, have a read of THIS article. 

Otherwise, here are a few practical tips:

  • Once you have built your perfect training program, cut it in half. If you are really ballsy, cut it in half again. This means less reps, less sets and less workouts.
  • Focus on quality over quantity. One solid set of squats is better than 5 average sets of squats
  • Focus on one amazing session over 3 sluggish sessions
  • If you don't feel like training, don't train that day (See point 2 above)
  • If you start training and your numbers are off, or you can't find your 'mojo' stop the workout.
  • Ensure you have twice as many rest days as you do training days. Ie. 2 rest days for every 1 training day. This is just as a starter (I like going 4:1 or even higher)

8. Taper Prior to the Event

I used to struggle with this as a rower and a powerlifter. I would train right up to the day of the competition. Eventually I started cutting the intensity down, but I would still be in the gym.

Over the years after following the 'less is more' protocol, I have seen my numbers improve big time with more rest. Deciding to test this concept, I frequently take 2-3 weeks off all training. When I come back to training I find I'm stronger, fitter and faster.

Knowing this, I now work in at least a week of 'nothing' prior to an event. Again, you can see my exact protocol in my 2017 RealFit Training Log.

9. Stick to the Basics

Unless you are extremely advanced in your sport, OR you have a coach who is extremely advanced, then skip all the fancy stuff.

Stick to the basics. Lift heavy. Eat good food. Sleep more. Ensure your numbers are improving Rest and recover. 

Do these things and you will get closer towards your goal.

Short cut the journey by using some radical program or some fad diet and you run the risk of royally screwing up and going backwards.

Save the fancy stuff for the off season, or after a few years of doing the basics.

Some of my best powerlifting progress came by following basic 5x5 strength programs. After a few years I transitioned to Wendlers 5/3/1 program. This is still considered a 'basic' program in the powerlifting world. But it was good enough for me to break two national records and qualify for the worlds.

Likewise with bodybuilding. Do the big lifts. Get a pump. Eat more. Sleep more. Do these things for a few seasons before you work in fancy programs that the pro's use.

Saying all this, I am known for my radical approaches to training and diet. Last years training was one big experiment and so was this years in a less extreme way. So am I a hypocrite? Maybe, but if you look at my programming and health strategies, you will see that they are built around basic diet and training fundamentals.

Also, I have a good ten years of training under my belt, so it would be fair to say I am at the more advanced stage. Finally, I like experimenting, it helps me help you (and my clients). If winning isn't your main objective, then you can be a bit more creative with your programming.

10. Train the Skill

Any sport requires a skill. Even bodybuilding requires the athlete to know how to pose properly. I have learnt over the years that having all the strength or fitness in the world is useless if you don't possess the basic skill levels required for your sport.

And often, a small improvement in these skills can have a significant improvement in your sporting success. 

A few examples:

  • A bodybuilder spending a few hours practicing his poses so that his weak points don't look 'weak'. Rather than spending months training a body part to bring it up to size.
  • A superfit cross-fitter practicing some gymnastic skills or rowing skills so that they are more efficient in the events.
  • Me spending a few sessions practicing various events that are likely to be in the RealFit competition (i.e sprint starts and agility turns).

The way I view skill training is like this - I find the minimum effective dose needed to give me a big improvement. I stop there. For example. I had no experience with 40 yard sprints or 20 yard agility shuttles. 

 

Working on my sprints 🏃🏼 Nice cold river swim afterwards as well ❄️ 🌊 💪🏽

A post shared by Alex Fergus (@alexfergus_coach) on

So I spent a few minutes watching basic youtube videos and then practiced these starts and turns a few times in the build up to my event. And that was it.

Those 2-3 hours over 4 weeks helped me shave 0.4 seconds off my 20 yard time (a 4-5 second event). Sure, I could have signed up at an athletic track, paid for a coach and practiced daily. But those 2-3 hours would have turned into 20-30 hours. And my improvement may have only been 0.5 seconds. 

Practice the basics of the skill to get the best 'bang for your buck'. But remember. Less is often more!

A bonus tip that ties well into this section is learning from fellow competitors. Watch what they do, learn from their mistakes etc. You can save yourself hours of work by watching a competitor. 

11. Prioritise Health

Ignore this tip and you will only ever be a one hit wonder. I am 29 now and still achieving great things in the sporting world. However it nearly didn't work out this way.

As a young adult I pushed my body hard. Health wasn't a concern, only performance. Sure I won a few events, but then I was out of all competition (and training) for a good 2-3 years. It has taken me that long to get my health back into a state where I can train hard (and I need to be careful I don't over do it).

Now that I'm getting older, I know I made some silly mistakes on the health front when I was younger. And I do wonder what I could have achieved if I took a longer term view towards training.

If you are serious about performing at your top for more than a few years while in your youth, then prioritise your health. Even if it means putting it ahead of your training and competition.

Unless - Unless you are a pro/paid athlete (or trying to be) in which case you may have to sacrifice your health for your job.

For my resource page on how to improve your health, click here. 

12. Sleep as Much as Possible

Sleep is the single best thing you can do to improve your health and training. Bodybuilders have a saying:

'Eat like a horse, train like the possessed and sleep like the dead'.

Sleep is so important for growth and repair, learning and all round health that it should be at the top of your list when it comes to schedule planning.

The more sleep you get the better - especially as a hard working athlete.

If your sleep suffers, cut back on your training load.

For all my sleep tips, be sure to head to this page.

13. Feel the Win

Before my first bodybuilding event I used to go to bed at night thinking about my upcoming competition. In my mind I would walk through what would be happening, how I would feel,  my nerves, the warmth of the lights on my body, the cheer from the crowd, the sweat down my brow.

I would do this every night in the lead up to the event. Every night I would add another element to my 'movie'. Maybe I would stretch the story out a bit longer, or add another sensation or more detail. I would continue to paint my masterpiece.

Eventually I started visualizing the judges announcing the winner. Of course, I would be announced as number 1. I would visualise what would happen, the noise in the room, the handshakes from my competitors. But more importantly I would focus on what I would feel. The joy, the relief.

I would do this every night. Until it felt like it had happened. A memory. A past event. As I got close to the big show, these visualisations would become so powerful I would send shivers down my body. I recall a night 2 days out from my show where I was nervous but feeling good about my conditioning.

I ran through the visualisation up to being announced the winner and something happened - tears rolled out of my eyes. I was laying in bed and all this was happening in my head. But I had created a story in my mind that seemed so real that my body started responding physically as if it was real. 

2 days later I was announced the national champ of ANB bodybuilding. I heard the cheers from the crowd. I shook the competitors hands. And I felt the shivers down my back and the tears roll down my cheeks just as I had visualised all those nights prior.

The day I fulfilled my dream - ANB National Champ

Visualization is an extremely powerful tool and one that all athletes need to use if they wish to be successful.  You can use it for all aspects of sport. For example, I also used it as a powerlifting athlete. I would imagine me squatting a certain weight. I would imagine the smell, the cool bar in my hands, the weight on my feet.

The more detail you can work in the better!

14. Help Your Fellow Man

This may seem counter intuitive for an competitive athlete, but over the years I have found that the more I help other athletes (even direct competitors) the better I do.

The karma gods must really like me!
I tend to learn a lot about the sports I get involved in, and I like experimenting. So often I can share tips and insights with others. The coach in me is always looking to provide support, even if it may cost me a win. But I find that these tips always get repaid. 

The more I give, the more I get. Knowing this now, I'm happy sharing my technique tips, or providing some advice on a pacing strategy. Or even helping a competitor with their diet.

 

15. Have Fun!

My final 'secret to success' is simple. Have fun!

Unless you are a professional athlete getting paid to compete, ask yourself - why are you training for the sport?

I personally have many answers to that question (health improvements, blog topics, to learn more, to scratch my competitive itch etc) but 'fun' and enjoyment always make the list.

If something is not fun, then you will never be a huge success in it. There is too much work, too much pain and too much time involved to reach the top. You need to enjoy it. Otherwise it becomes a chore.

Without the enjoyment factor, forgot about the success! Don't take your training (or even the competition) too seriously. Enjoy the occasion, laugh at your mistakes, go to the pre event party, celebrate your win (or loses) and enjoy the moment.

Secrets to Sporting Success

There you have it. My 15 secrets to sporting success! It's more than a one line answer, but most secrets are!

If you have your own tips or secrets for sporting success please share them below, I'd love to hear them. 

 

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