Are your friends the biggest obstacle to you achieving your goals?

This question has come to mind based on my personal and professional experiences. Those as an athletic individual who has endeavoured to live a vigorous life for the last 15 years, and then as a Strength and Conditioning (S&C) coach training health and fitness enthusiasts and amateur to professional athletes over the last six years. Every one of these individuals, myself included, had their own specific training goals that they have invested time and money into the pursuit of. But how many actually achieve them?

In the professional realm, you can imagine that the success rate is most likely greater than at the sub-elite or recreational level. Although true, in my experience it’s still far lower than it should be – but perhaps that comes from a mind too bound by the philosophy of attaining one’s best version? As an S&C coach all you can do is implement the training interventions and modalities as best you can, providing as much technical and moral support as is necessary. However once you go beyond the scope of your time together with your client, your sphere of influence wanes and the client becomes vulnerable to a host of potentially negative extrinsic and intrinsic factors. And this is where I have noticed the most common similarities between what hinders these clients of all levels and professions from achieving their goals- the social aspects of their lives.

This brings us back to the question; are your friends the biggest obstacle to you achieving your goals? Well, firstly it’s important I just make it clear that there are obviously many other obstacles such as genetic and injury related ones, but in this piece I’m focusing on the social because, as mentioned above, its prevalence throughout all levels of physical training, its influence and the reduced control the S&C coach has over it sets it apart and puts it in place for special consideration. What are the types of social problems facing any individual that is attempting to train regularly in the pursuit of their goals? To begin with let’s examine the types of goals we’re referring to. These training goals range from the aesthetic – reduce body fat, increase muscle mass of intrinsically or extrinsically desirable body parts (pectorals, biceps, glutes, etc) and the performance based – improve strength, power, speed & endurance, etc. Then you have to ask what are the most important factors in achieving said goals? If we inspect those outside the S&C coach’s direct control, one would say, genetic limitations, nutrition, sleep, motivation and a support system are the most important. Looking at that list it should be intuitively obvious that a persons social environment can and will have significant effects on all bar one – the genetic limitations.

How specifically can it affect them? Well If I consolidate all my personal and professional experience with the anecdotal accounts of my fellow professionals with their clients’/athletes’ these are the pictures that get painted about the specific role of ones ‘friends’ in the hindering of their physical goals.

Let’s start with the big one – Nutrition. This, more often that not, is the biggest stumbling block with the recreational athlete or client, but can still prove challenging for professionals because, even though they maybe at a psychological level of determination, drive and habitualness that surpasses that of the non-professional, they were not always professional and as such would most likely not have been able to escape the types of social conditioning from birth to adulthood that creates unhealthy relationships with ‘junk food’ or counterproductive dietary habits. Its importance with the non-professional is often amplified by the fact that they;

  1. Generally possess goals that are skewed towards the aesthetic (e.g. gaining a ‘flat stomach’).
  2. Start their training regimes further away from their aesthetic target (e.g. I’ve put of lots of weight over the holiday period).
  3. Give themselves shorter time frames within which to achieve their goals (e.g. I have a holiday in 4 weeks).

Those three factors, though not an exhaustive list, give you an idea – and in each of those situations proper nutrition is just as, if not more, important than any training intervention one could wish to undertake. Now for the role of the ‘friend’ – which I define in this discussion as anyone who you exchange frequent interactions with and whose opinion can affect your decision-making. So for example, feeling the need to go on daily lunch or after work drinks with friends, feeling the need to go out to a bar/club for a heavily alcohol-focused night out every weekend, or when out for dinner – ordering meals you know you shouldn’t for fear of social mockery or alienation from the group. This effect of peer pressure is a well documented one, and one that extends to other unhealthy habits like smoking. However, complete discussion of those aspects is beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice to say, peer pressure is very detrimental to the kind of decision-making processes that lead to good nutrition and an increased potential to achieve aesthetic goals. The same goes for the professionals and their performance goals… Just look at the most recent example of professional footballer Gabriel Agbonlahor’s physical decline due to poor lifestyle choice – choices that (based on his explanations for his behaviour) were no doubt influenced in some way by his friendship group.

Next is sleep – this is an aspect of training that’s importance in homeostasis, fat loss, physiological adaptations and recovery is often understated or poorly recognized. There is a plethora of literature explaining said importance, but if we just look at it anecdotally, how many people have experienced disturbed sleeping patterns due to excessive alcohol intake, poor diet, late meals, and poor lifestyle choices? I predict a vast majority. And how many of the aforementioned were partaken in some part due to the influence of friends? Again I predict a vast majority.

Motivation – This can be more intrinsic or extrinsic depending on the individual’s personality type and experiences, and it would be hard to say which is greater in any given person. However, knowing that the external influences play a role, it’s safe to assume that negative or counterproductive extrinsic factors, will reduce the individual’s motivation to follow the training regime with the dedication and precision required to achieve their goals. These counterproductive external influences in the combined S&C experience of my peers and myself come in the form of friends, family, spouses and even fellow sportsmen and women. For example, a friend, family member, spouse, or peer suggesting that you come out for drinks, shisha, ill advised meals on the eve of your competition or training session because it’s their birthday. From their perspective this might make sense, but should their priorities be the same as yours? Should you feel bad for choosing your goals over theirs? Do you know their true motivations for asking this of you while knowing how important your training or competition is? Not a straightforward question to answer… The key is context and, more often than not, I have found the answer to all is a firm no. Simply because human nature is such that generally the only way to maintain one’s discipline and professionalism is by not allowing even the smallest backwards step or deviation outside of the prescribed planned ones (i.e. rest days, cheat days, off season periods, etc). We are habitual creatures and if your training regime becomes so regimented that its partaking becomes second nature, there is a greater chance of you seeing continual motivation-enhancing improvements and getting to the end goal successfully. Plus, although you may be able to trust the intensions of family or a spouse, can you trust those of your peers? Especially in non-team based sports? A question perhaps best answered in another piece, but food for thought nonetheless. Furthermore, you might be thinking a little drink or fast food here and there will not have a direct detrimental effect on your training and indirect effect on your motivation, and that in fact that little guilty pleasure might give you even more motivation via an improved mood or a guilt driven desire to train harder. Stop and think about this. The bad habits and psychological attachments and addiction we as a species have developed over the years with food, social interactions and smoking to name but a few, are never likely to be eradicated. Therefore, is dabbling in these behaviours in an unstructured way going to help you repress/control them or just increase the likelihood of a full relapse? This in turn breeds a turbulent guilt, shame, and self loathing cycle that destroys motivation – ultimately preventing you from achieving your training goals.

Finally, the support system, which is basically defining a particular type of close knit social group designed to give you emotional and practical help in your moments of need. In the professional realm, this can be the most important factor as the life of a modern day professional can become very lonely. In the early stages of their career they can find themselves becoming distanced from their former ‘real’ friends and having to make new ones whose motivations are harder to ascertain due to their increased financial wealth. The problem within this aspect of achieving ones goal’s is that a significant number of professionals and non-professionals do not have one to begin with- the professionals for the potential disingenuousness of those around them and the non-pros because those around them, family and spouse included, may not be living the same lifestyle as them. After all, for those of us who are regularly active, health and fitness may be the centre of our world, but we are still in the minority. And most people do not live lives anywhere close to conducive to an above average level of mental, physical and spiritual health, all of which regular exercise and good nutrition have been proved to have a positive affect on. This all means that when life or training is not going well and you are in need of support, they may not be the best people to provide it due to lack of experience or understanding of your plight – no matter the pureness of their intentions. Therefore, it could be a good idea when venturing on the road to an aesthetic or performance goal, to seek additional friendship from those following a similar path.

To conclude, the nature of human connection and interaction in the context of ones lifestyle choices, and pursuit of individual goals is a complicated one. However it’s clear that the people you see on a day-to-day basis – friend, foe, family or spouse will have a significant role to play in the attaining of said goals. So be very very mindful of who you allow to be close, and how much influence you permit their words to have on the decisions made about the body that has to carry you 365 days a year from beginning to end.

By Alpha Maurice Cidade Cauwenbergh


© Alpha Maurice Cidade Cauwenbergh – Alphaleveltraining.com 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Alpha Maurice Cidade Cauwenbergh –Alphaleveltraining.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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