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Reality Check

Warm up

It’s 2002, the football season is well underway and my boys, Collingwood are coming off a momentous three-point victory to the previous year’s premier, Brisbane. A Brisbane resident at the time, I scoured The Courier Mail during the week following with gusto as my team appeared to have finally turned the corner and announced themselves as contenders for real. Full of confidence and hope about our next match against ladder leaders and eventual minor premier Port Adelaide, I was a bit miffed and slightly stroppy about that newspaper’s ‘expert tips’ for the next weekend which concluded, “Collingwood: Upset win against Brisbane last week. Playing Port away this week. Reality check time for the Pies.”

I mean fair enough, it was only Round 8 (of 22) and externally the Pies were perceived as gutsy but never had the cattle to progress when the season came to the crunch. Was I kidding myself? We hadn’t graced the September turf of finals’ football since a fabled 1994 trip to West Coast, where a dropped chest mark on the final hooter ended our season and club legend Tony Shaw’s career. (But you’ll hear more about the West Coast in 1994 later.)

We did have an important win against Brisbane last start but how often can you ‘fluke’ two-in-a-row at AFL level? Admittedly, if ever there’s a club whose supporters have a tendency to get fired up after a few insignificant wins, it’s Collingwood. And I’m first in line. So maybe it was time for the ‘reality check’ the newspaper foreshadowed.

Collingwood patriotism aside, I’ve always remembered the concept of the ‘reality check’ that I read about in the newspaper that day. It was a flashbulb moment that recurs in my memory whenever I witness someone getting, or giving a lesson on the sporting stage. I remember the intent of that comment, to put us Pies fans back in our place, or was it bait to see if our boys could answer the call and give us something to crow about come September.

Since it’s a newish year, I wrote recently about Starting Again, highlighting goals and strategies I’ve seen used around ‘fitness city’ over the last couple of decades to get ourselves going after a break. I suppose it’s natural that following the relaxed time of holidays, a good old-fashioned reality check can’t be too far around the corner.

Relaxxx. Despite physical pain and mental anguish, the Reality Check is good because it will realign your current fitness level in relation to your goals for the future. Reality checks are actually really productive. They improve your fitness, show you the value of fortitude and they teach you not take your failings too seriously. Trust me, I had days where I couldn’t get a kick in a stampede and you will too, but it’s important to learn  from those days and respond to the demand in due course.

You should come back better for the experience so don’t take it to heart when you get sand kicked in your face when the level around you rises and you start to flounder. It’s all part of the process. Famous American football coach Ron Meyer had a saying, “Don’t tell me about the labour, just show me the baby.” In essence, we’re hoping to use the pain of the process to show off the prize at the end but one doesn’t appear without the other. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.

To make the prospect of our respective reality checks slightly more tolerable, I’ve added some of my own and some of the ones I’ve seen from my years of following sports and fitness. Reality checks include but aren’t exclusive to the following four categories where I hope you’ll begin to understand the necessity and hilarity of a good Reality Check.

Ruffling Feathers: Rookie Magpie Chris Tarrant goals against Port Adelaide in 2002.
Ruffling Feathers: Rookie Magpie Chris Tarrant goals against Port Adelaide in 2002.

First Quarter – The Painful

A few years ago now I joined a running squad in Sydney that was let’s say, high level. Just how high I was soon to discover. So I was kind of fit, tooling around on runs a couple of times a week and thinking I was pretty special after a few half marathon finishes. When I finally came to joining this squad the coach sent me the program where I noticed a Tuesday track session that looked like this…

Tuesday: TRACK 9 x 1km (4:00)

Now I got the gist of it. We were to run 9 efforts of 1 kilometre but what did “(4:00)” mean? I had a hunch this really meant the efforts were to be run on a “4:00 cycle!” Meaning you had to run your effort of 1000m and recover for the next, all in the space of four minutes. It made sense on paper.

But I mean, four minutes?

I was flat out running a 1 kilometre in 3:10! How on Earth could I complete the workout on such short rest. “Ignorance is bliss” as they say, so I kidded myself until I’d convinced myself that the program must have a mistake on it and “4:00” isn’t the cycle time it has to be something else. It just had to be. Four minutes, times nine, caaarm on!

How wrong I was. Well I was right about the program being correctly printed which means I was horribly wrong about forecasting a not-so-difficult Tuesday at the track. We did indeed need to run 1000m and recover for the next effort in just 4 minutes. That was the painful lesson albeit only part of the deal.

I also learned this day, that between efforts my new training partners didn’t just stand around like a stale bottle of piss waiting for the clock to strike 4:00. No, these nut jobs had to ‘hoof it’ from the finish line back to the 200m start line (across the oval) before the whistle went for the next rep.

There’s a story I remember from Laurie Lawrence’s autobiography, Lawrence of Australia where he recalls Duncan Armstrong’s first swimming session in his ‘elite’ squad in Brisbane. Dunc was a laid-back kid from the bush who was perplexed when he showed up on day 1 to find his contemporaries undertaking a pre-session warm-up stretch, in his hometown they just got in and swam for while. Needless to say, the workload of bush swimming was lesser than what he dived into here and by the halfway mark of his first city session Dunc was red-shouldered, red-faced and swallowing pool water like it was his job.

Similarly, I reckon about halfway through my own session reality began to set in. By then I was absolutely blowing a ‘fufu’ valve and began to drop further behind the pack rep-after-rep. Once the boys dropped me like a cold meat pie, the girls began to canter past like gazelles racing a rhino. The ‘big dog’ (me) got ‘chicked’ (when you get beaten by a girl) and it’s not a ripper look.

There was nowhere to hide. Nothing was said. I grabbed my shoes and tried to jog home. Despite my carnage, I learned that day what was required in the world of serious running. Fast forward to our next session and a seasoned runner from the squad who’d witnessed Tuesday in all its glory asked how I coped. He then mentioned that he’d never ever completed the full nine efforts. It was good to know that while I was in over my head that even some good runners hadn’t gone all the way. From this point forward, nothing could scare me.

Second Quarter – Funny

When I was a boy I took up the sport of boxing and had the fortune of of some early success. Gaining a few wins on the record first up against no losses seemed fairly impressive to me and most people that I told about it. However, it becomes problematic when a young man starts hearing the complimentary feedback, often from quarters who couldn’t be less qualified to provide such advice. But you don’t care about that at the time, you just love the praise.

My problem was not that I started to listen and therefore get slack at training or whatever. My situation was different. Because people kept on asking how many fights I’d had, then how many wins, then razzing me up because they perceived a level of success. I became accustomed to this sequence. Like Pavlov’s Dog, I was salivating on a verbal ‘gee up’ every time I talked about boxing. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but that’s what it was like.

Then came the reality check I needed and it wasn’t a loss in the ring or dust up in sparring. It was far from the boxing ring, the training gym or even a fight competition. During a road trip to a tournament, we must have stopped somewhere along the way, as you do on road trips, and I was foraging around the boot of the car trying to locate my wallet while the rest of our team were waiting for me. Waiting too were the fighters and trainer from another club also.

As this went on, the trainer from that club, the great Donny Tindall of Caboolture, asked “how many fights have you had?”

Thinking to myself, this is alright, this guy must have seen me in the ring and like how I go about it. I’m on for a wrap here! I was pretty chuffed and proudly replied, “Three…” Pavlov’s Dog in me was ready to be bathed in glory until the great orator Donny retorted, “That’s three fights too many, now hurry up you (expletive) (word for homosexual male).”

I was so shocked by his statement that I didn’t even have time to feel embarrassed, angry or shocked by its contents. I’m sure it wasn’t his intention to ground me, but my mind set at the time had set me up tor fail. In my ignorance I could only perceive his question as a springboard into a wrap coming my way. On a basic level, the guy just didn’t want to wait around for me any longer and here I was thinking way ahead all because I thought was ‘extra special’, evidently in my own mind only. And maybe he was right, three fights was too many. I lost my next contest. The perfect record vanished forever but the lesson from the carpark has lasted a lifetime.

Winning Is Easy: Me Thinking I'm Special
Winning Is Easy: Me Thinking I’m Special.

Third Quarter – Satisfying

Even though I’ve just mooted two harsh reality checks, there is a time when your reality check can be satisfying, and come as a pleasant surprise. The day you get a boost after realising you’re right on track or even ahead of schedule. Remember story about Collingwood who got ‘lucky’ against the Brisbane Lions but were bound for a ‘stitch-up’ against Port Adelaide?

Within four quarters they’d become, “courageous Collingwood” a true “premiership contender”. We didn’t win that night in Adelaide but came as close as it gets, just missing a shot on-goal after the final hooter. My old man always says, “You’ve gotta show your cards eventually.” We’d announced our arrival with hard evidence and people had to take notice. One of the joys of coaching is when athletes report back that their training is right on schedule or surprisingly ahead of it, just like my Pies that night.

In 2011, I worked with the great Adam Franklin in the lead up to his second marathon event. In his initial foray, his training was covering enough distance but it just needed refining in terms of ‘speed endurance’. The ‘hard running’ that Sebastian Coe oft’ talks about. I took Adam to the track a few times and we undertook hard-running, interval sessions, in racing shoes. Making him believe in his speed was just a matter of doing the right workouts. I want to say our training worked like a charm, and it might have helped marginally physically, but it did more mentally to show him that he had the mettle to run faster – he just needed to practice it to believe it.

Last year, I wrote a marathon program for the great John Corry who was hell-bent on breaking four hours for the marathon. Now this guy is the world’s busiest man. Which in coaching terms, for such a labour and time intensive event can be diabolical. So I wrote the program and let him go for a while, but wondered what would happen. Within a few weeks I began to receive text messages (with screenshot attached) of Johnny’s long running escapades as he hoofed around ol’ Brisbane town like Lasse Viren hopped up on freshly-squeezed Reindeer milk.

See what I didn’t originally anticipate was that while Johnny was the world’s busiest man, his ability to handle so many commitments speaks to the determination of the man. He was like a junk-yard-dog in training, committed to the cause beyond anything I’d seen in a long time. Deeper into the preparation, his reality checks sparked a reconsideration of expectation for race day, just like Collingwood did after that heroic night in Adelaide. When Johnny called to announce, “I’m starting to think the 4:00 goal is a little too slow.” I retorted with, “I’m already refining the race plan, Schun.” Needless to say, the man romped in well below four hours and rode off into the sunset with the finisher’s medal around his neck.

Speed Endurance: Adam Franklin
Speed Endurance: Adam Franklin.

Fourth Quarter – Welcome to the club

“You’ve gotta lose a grand final to win one.”

This statement is  not true but figuratively it makes sense that a loss in the ‘big dance’ can provide the lesson you need take it further in the future. Sports fans the world over have seen this scenario played out time and time again. As far as I’m concerned, whether it’s a grand final or not, the ‘welcome to the club’ is absolutely necessary in the evolution of any athlete or team. 

I remember Mike Tyson saying the good thing about boxing is, “Every fighter’s had his ass kicked.” Any champion on top of the world, like he was once, has endured countless bloodbaths en route to a title. Then following his or her time at the top, will encounter a few more on the way back down the ladder, like he did once. 

Chis Judd’s autobiography Inside lauds the West Coast Eagles legendary premiership teams of 1992 and 1994. Judd fails to mention that in 1991 the Eagles finished the regular season three wins clear on top of the ladder before succumbing to the ‘old stagers’ Hawthorn on Grand Final day. Like the ‘fighter’ Tyson alluded to, they got their ass kicked, learnt their lesson and were better for it. Call it ‘tough love’ but the reality of reality checks is you’ve gotta go through it. Survive it. Even Chris Judd’s premiership team of 2006, endured the pain of Grand Final defeat in 2005.

Post Match

“Nothing lasts forever.” 

Wherever you are on the fitness spectrum and whenever your reality check might arise,  if it hasn’t already, the great thing is, it wont last. Whether you’re copping it or dishing it out, time outlasts any man. So don’t be scared if you can see one (or two) heavy days on the horizon. Conversely, don’t get too ‘high and mighty’ when you’re pushing rookies around and talking about “back in your day.”  It’s like an early morning run past some legends that are still going from the night before and pontificating about your current position when in reality, we’ve all been there.

If you’re  seemingly always on the end of it, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees but in retrospect you’ll realise these days go by so fast and you’ll remember fondly the times that you took a licking. If you’ve read this far, I hope you enjoyed some of the highs and lows from yesteryear on my sporting sojourn, but I’d really like to hear yours. Tell me about the painful, the funny, the satisfying and the welcome to the club days from your fitness and sporting life. I promise not to publish them but it would be good to hear if you’ve been jammed as many times as I have.

In the Desert Content Factory, I’m Sean Bowes.

If any of your friends need a good old-fashioned Reality Check, please forward this email to them today or  Click here to Tweet this article.

P.S. Don’t forget to email me back with your Reality Check story. It’s good for the sport.

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