Dan John—After the Peak is the Cliff

An excerpt from Dan’s new book, 40 Years with a Whistle.

Dan John 40 Years with a Whistle

This is one of life’s lessons that’s just hard to swallow. Every so often, a movie or television show will grasp this truth, but it is just not something people want to talk about too often. I sat through enough bad high school valedictorian speeches to know that “commencement” means “to begin,” but the zoned-out students and parents worrying about the party rarely heed the implied warning.

All too often, brides focus on the wedding and miss the marriage.

If you ever hit a physical peak, be sure, as Delaine Ross told me, to take as many pictures as you can because you might not ever get there again. The next step after the Greater Mister Midvale Bodybuilding Championships is pizza and doughnuts.

The next step after a peak…is a cliff.

I walked home from the library in 1970 with a book on training. I got home, pulled out our old Ted Williams Sears barbell set and started training. I got strong. Then I got stronger.

I played football for Southwood Junior High and South City High. I wrestled. I played soccer and basketball. I was MVP in track and field at South City, Skyline College and Utah State University. I had thrown the discus very, very far. For basically nine years, I just got better.

I wasn’t ready for what was next.

I had my college degree. This degree, my father argued, would open the doors to the gold brick-lined path to success. Now, he was right…it just took longer than I imagined at the time.

Life caught up with me. It was time to start a career or something. I was 21 when I graduated and that’s, in hindsight, a bit young to make a lot of the decisions I had to make. I could have used a year of travel. Instead, I decided to keep pushing ahead.

And, after working at a cheese factory from 10:00 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., then taking courses in my masters, then coaching and training…I crashed. Skipping sleep for days can do that to a person. It took me years to learn that you just can’t keep going after it. You can’t keep striving for the top. You can’t keep rubbing your nose on the grindstone.

Something has to give.

Oh, I was rewarded well and l loved it. Championships, records, travel and free education are all wonderful. But, I missed a key truth and it took me years to understand it.

Mark Reifkind, with 42 years in the trenches as a coach, always reminds us, “The next step after a peak is always down; you can either step back or fall off.”

I think all of us have felt it in some way. It’s a life truism, like “buy low, sell high,” that we all know…but sometimes we forget we know it.

My book Now What? essentially answers the question “what do you do after the peak?” I’ve seen champion athletes return to practice the following Monday; they know the season has ended, but, well, now what?

We see Now What? in all areas of life. It could be the day after the baby comes home. It might be when you finally publish that book, story or poem.

My daughters used to joke about “fifth-year seniors” at their high school who would be at the games, dances and events a few months after graduating and, on paper, moving along. It’s a tough truth in life and I am convinced that Peggy Lee stated it best:

Is that all there is

Is that all there is

If that’s all there is, my friends

Then let’s keep dancing

Let’s break out the booze and have a ball

If that’s all there is

I’ve won championships and wondered why I went through the hassle. I know people who loved the wedding, but hate the marriage. Retirement often leads to isolation and loneliness.

It’s not just in success either.

One of the toughest lessons I learned as a coach is the early edge. Years ago, I read that you should always join fledgling sports BEFORE they become popular so you can dominate the early wave. There is a great advantage to driving your child around, taking them to elite coaches, elite tournaments and elite training camps.

Your kid gets the edge.

Your child might end up the best 10-year-old discus thrower or tennis player in your region. Early specialization works. Your little darling might compete against kids who just found out last night that there was a competition. Perhaps this morning, someone showed them how to hold the discus or racket.

Eddie will crush them. Be sure to take a picture with this trophy because early specialization, like peaking, has a cliff.

The cliff is the reality that the other kids will start practicing, maturing, growing and taking this seriously too. Those early advantages quickly run away like the tide in Galway Bay.

I’ve seen it happen in high school sports: The young lads with the club experience do very well their first year. Then, overnight it seems, everybody catches up. It’s a tough experience to watch as a coach and teammate. The superstar 13-year-old is soon relegated to the scout team.

It also is a truth about drills. As we often remind the athlete, “The drill is not the skill,” it never seems to latch on in the brain. There is a value in doing the “whole-part, whole-part, whole-part-whole” method as a foundation of teaching and coaching. Show the whole movement or event, break it down into pieces, and return over and over to the whole movement.

All too often, the athlete assumes that the part—the drill—reflects the whole in kind of athletic logical proof: “If this improves, that must improve.”

Sadly, that isn’t always the truth. I have seen young throwers in all four of the disciplines (shot put, discus, hammer and javelin) fall in love with the standing throw—a drill—as they are dominate in this show of strength.

The standing throw is a drill. The standing throw is a nice way to warm up. And, that is it. I have worked with people who simply could not learn the full event and continued to just practice the drill. It’s the drill, not the skill.

As a freshman in high school, I went to a big track meet literally up the stairs from my home at South City High. As we got ready for this meet, a massive boy from another high school, began warming up with us.

I asked him, “Are you a freshman?”

He responded, “I’m a big mother.”

Yes. True. Literally. That’s what he said.

I threw with my elementary spin technique and achieved a mark of 72 feet. He did a standing throw of 113 to command the competition.

Let’s pop ahead to part two of this story, which I continue to love to tell all these years later.

As seniors, we went down to his school for a meet. By this time, puberty had kicked in…a bit…for me and I was better. That day, I threw well over 160 feet and he…

…did a standing throw of about 115 feet. I relished reminding him of his comments just a few years earlier in windy South City. Relished it.

Standing throws are a drill. We call this “transference.” Honestly, transference is the hardest thing to understand in many parts of life. Constantly, we hear the term “correlation, not causation,” but correlation is so pretty, so alluring, so confident.

Like Ulysses, we sometimes need to plug our ears with wax to block the Sirens and cover our eyes from the mermaids. Correlation, believing that this HAS to lead to that, is so seductive in coaching. It brings us to the whole issue of “looks like Tarzan” issue. “He HAS to be good…he looks the part.”

We do this in everything. Someone “looks” presidential. Moneyball had great insights into how some scouts think a player’s girlfriend indicates his level of confidence. If she is attractive, he must have confidence. I cringed at that scene in the movie. We often assume the vehicle a person drives indicates wealth, income or financial acumen. I’m not sure any of it is true.

Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s not.

In sports, people are always talking about peaking. I just don’t believe in it. If it worked, by rule, every athlete would have at least a seasonal best at the Olympic trials. Now, you can argue weather or pressure, I will agree, but how do you not know to prepare for the weather or pressure?

It’s because…it’s really hard to peak. I tip my hat to Marty Gallagher who uses linear progression to build the greatest powerlifters in the history of the sport. Yet, people miss the fact that Marty poured everything into two 12-week peaks a year and spent the rest of the year getting his athletes to eat better, rest better and fix issues. In the sport of powerlifting, he proved it could work.

But, as we once discussed over dinner, you need to take time off after a 12-week peak. The next step is a cliff!

In addition, we find the same issue with “enough is enough.”

I learned this the hard way so many times in my career. Once I was strong enough, I could never just let it go. Of course, “Never let go” is my signature line, mantra and life vision; letting it go is not going to work well.

I always strived for more volume, more load and more work. And, I always fell off the cliff.

I got an email from someone who listened to a podcast where the interviewer asked me about my injuries. I was completely candid, and later this podcast listener decided he should point out the obvious:

“Don’t all of your injuries and surgeries make you wonder if you did things wrong?”

Oddly, when someone says something stupid, we respond with, “No kidding, Einstein.” It’s sarcasm, from the root to “tear flesh.”

Yes. I did things wrong!

Don’t do all the wrong things I did.

Hmmm. That seems simple enough.

After graduating from college, I hit the cliff as an athlete. It wasn’t until years later, I realized that in every other area of my life things were blooming and blossoming. Of course, being so driven as an athlete makes a person blind.

I was safe around mermaids.

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