Thursday, June 19, 2014

Preparing Seniors for Elite Competition

If you're a regular visitor to this blog, you know that I generally recommend entering a tournament now and then AND just having fun.  Competing in a tournament is a wonderful way to sharpen your focus while making new friends who share your enthusiasm for Taekwondo.
   But at some point you may find yourself preparing for elite-level competition -- the upcoming USA Taekwondo Nationals, for instance -- and asking yourself how a major national or international event will affect your training routine.  That's what today's post is all about.
   Before putting pen to paper, I decided to do a bit of online research.  I used a major search engine to see what I could find about "age-appropriate training for seniors."  The result was rather shocking: I got roughly 28 million hits, virtually all of them about age-appropriate athletic training for children.  I didn't bother looking at all 28 million references, naturally, but a quick scan of the most frequently visited pages told me that seniors really don't show up on the radar when it comes to athletic training.  Furthermore, the few senior-related references I did find were of the "gentle activities that can help you live longer" variety.
   Now here's a fact: some seniors martial artists routinely compete at an elite level in both national and international tournaments.  If you attend July's USAT Nationals in San Jose, California, for instance, you'll see quite a few of them -- both men and women -- in action.  And trust me when I say that to get there and to compete respectably these athletes take "senior training" to a whole new level.  Evening strolls around the block won't get the job done, and neither will some stretching, sit-ups, and push-ups.
   Unfortunately, if you're 50, 60, 70, or older, most of your friends and physicians will have trouble accepting the fact that age-appropriate elite training for seniors looks very much like age-appropriate elite training for someone who's 28 or 30.  And you'll have a hard time finding books, DVDs, or even qualified coaches devoted to the training of senior athletes.  So you'll need to become your own elite-level coach and develop a training program that will allow you to compete against the best of the best in your age group.  Now keep in mind that what works for me at 68 may not be optimal for you at 58 or 78.  But the general training outline that follows should help keep you on track for peak performance.
   1.  Annual physical.  Half a century ago I had to get an annual physical before I could train with my college track team, and an annual physical makes as much sense today as it did then.  If you're going to train seriously, make sure your body is ready for what's coming.
   2.  Commitment.  In his wonderful book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell mentions the rule of 10,000 hours.  In short form, the rule says that you don't get really good at something -- playing a piano, solving complex equations, painting watercolors, etc. -- until you've invested about 10,000 hours in practice.  So let's say you begin studying Taekwondo and train for 5 hours every week, or 260 hours per year.  At this pace it will take you roughly 38.5 years to reach a level of high proficiency.
   But let's say you're a black belt in training for a major national tournament.  Assuming you've already reached a level of high proficiency, how many hours each week will you need to train in order to compete at an elite level?  For me the answer is about 10 hours per week.  I say "about" because I commit to more than 10 hours a week well ahead of the tournament, then back off gradually as the tournament date approaches.  The right number for you is the one that is highly demanding without pushing you into "overtraining" territory, where injuries and burnout rule.
   3.  Full-body training.  Taekwondo is mostly about kicking, striking, and blocking.  But your training program can't be limited to, say, practicing your forms, or poomsae.  The key building blocks of an effective training program are strength training, cardio fitness, and flexibility.  If you're a senior athlete, you absolutely must make use it or lose it your motto.  Unless you push your muscles with resistance training, you'll lose muscle mass and replace it with fat.  Unless you push your heart by running, biking, or working out on a stair-stepper or elliptical trainer, your endurance will falter.  And unless you keep all muscle groups -- from head to toe -- adequately flexible, you'll end up sitting on the sidelines on the day of the tournament.
   4. Visualizing success.  I'm a huge believer in the mind/body connection.  My mind plays a key role in my body's health; and my body's health can absolutely strengthen my mind.  So when I train, I train with an attitude.  I do so silently, but I do it.  My attitude is "I'm capable of achieving any goal."  This doesn't mean I achieve every goal.  It means that with sufficient commitment and effort I am capable of achieving success.  If I fall short, it's because I didn't work as hard as the guy who beat me.
   Let's end on a truly important note: training hard enough to win is a good thing, but only if you can graciously accept defeat.  Respect for your fellow martial artists is paramount.  Do your best.  Strive to win.  But be the first to congratulate someone who has outworked you.
   Then get back to the dojang and train harder.