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While you may want to scream ‘what the heck?’, it is the harsh reality of any competitive sport that there will be winners and those who didn’t win. You’d be excused for thinking that this is pretty obvious, right? But stories of backstage tantrums, bikini sabotage and conspiracy theories are almost legendary. Here is the thing: there is no finish line to cross first, no runs on the board or goals to kick in physique competition. Winning or losing comes down to the opinion of others, their interpretation of the judging criteria and changing fashions. There are a LOT of variables.

Anyone would think that there was a big, fat cheque and a Rolex watch up for grabs instead of a faux-gold trophy and a food voucher for the all-you-can-eat buffet. Now I don’t want to be a killjoy, competing takes a lot of guts and determination and we should all strive for excellence, but not everyone will be graced with the title or the trophy. In fact, some people never will. In our overly politically correct world of participation medals and ‘reaching for the stars’, many competitors are emotionally unprepared for failure.

It can be frustrating for newcomers to hear that this business of developing an elite level physique takes time and significant effort. It can be even more disheartening to hear that you just don’t have the genetics to ever be competitive at the national or pro ranks. Should that deter you from throwing your hat into the ring? Not necessarily. In my very humble opinion, keeping a level head and competing for the personal challenge, rather than the glory, is the most rewarding aspect of competing.

Dream big, but start small. Many competitors want to arrive at the destination without having first embarked on ‘the journey’ of refining their physique and perfecting their stage presence. Contrary to popular belief, regional competitions are not a waste of time. Unless you have years of muscle maturity or a background in performance, invest time into learning your craft and developing your physique on the small stage before progressing to the larger, more prestigious competitions. There is no substitute for hard work or a good work ethic, so be patient and earn your stripes before you decide to take on the world.

It’s NOT you, it’s them. Having the ‘X factor’ or perfect physique really can be a matter of timing. You only have to look at the evolving physiques of the former and current figure Ms Olympias Erin Stern and Nicole Wilkins to realise that just like fashion, ideals change. While Erin Stern is an amazing athlete, the fact remains that she isn’t what the judges are looking for right now. If you’re unsure whether you fit the criteria, study the winning competitor’s physiques in your chosen federation. What look are they rewarding? Do you have it? Once you’ve found your niche then compete often and ride the wave of success while the going is good. In the back of your mind, acknowledge that sooner or later you may be yesterday’s girl. Mentally prepare for that. It doesn’t make you a bad competitor; it just means that it’s someone else’s turn to shine.

Acknowledge when it IS you. In other sports, we take for granted that your physicality will largely dictate your success. For example, if you are ‘vertically challenged’ then it’s unlikely you’ll ever play professional basketball. For some reason, girls seem to think that the ‘womb lottery’ doesn’t apply to being a successful physique competitor. Great genetics are a blessing if you have them and a curse if you don’t. To be brutally honest, you can’t out-train many structural flaws, although you can learn to present your physique in a way that plays to your strengths. In fact, the purpose of the symmetry round is to expose your shortcomings. Know what is and isn’t within your control and set realistic expectations about your long-term potential given your genetic gifts or limitations.

Own it. Not all that long ago, only the very elite-level athletes would invest in a prep coach. For the rest of us ‘amateurs’, the onus of getting into shape, learning from our mistakes and being disciplined enough to follow through with our plan rested solely with ourselves. Perhaps it’s the rise of the self-professed guru or the introduction of new model divisions, but it seems as though everyone is now ‘prepping’ for a show without having first mastered the fundamentals of training and diet. Compliance, what’s that? Discomfort, no thank you!

Hungry, I think I’m going to die! Delayed gratification, you don’t understand, I need chocolate NOW! Hey, why aren’t I in shape? I paid you money… and so it goes. Let’s get serious. Paying a coach buys you the guidance of someone who (hopefully) has some first hand experience at what it takes to be a great competitor. But, competing is NOT a team sport – you are a team of one and while your coach should be the leader of your cheer squad, they can’t do the work for you. Ultimately, you must take responsibility for the outcome. If you cheated on your diet, own it. If you skipped workouts, own it. If you put in less than 100 per cent, then own that too.

Redefine success. So, perhaps you didn’t come away with the trophy. Perhaps you didn’t even get a call out. But what DID you accomplish? What did you learn about yourself? What goals can you set for the future? What kind of person were you under pressure? I believe that everyone who gets up on stage has a responsibility to be an ambassador for our sport. Dieting is not an excuse for bad behaviour and losing does not excuse poor sportsmanship.

There are valuable life lessons and opportunities for growth in failing despite our very best efforts. When you are intrinsically motivated to be YOUR best rather than extrinsically motivated to be THE best then you’ll realise that defining success isn’t as clear cut as winning and losing.

Belinda holds a Bachelor of Education and Masters in Adult Education and is a cert IV-qualified personal trainer, Level 1 Precision Nutrition coach and ITN Transformational Nutrition coach. She coaches bikini and figure competitors and has won numerous state and national titles in the ANB, NABBA and IFBB.

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