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Why Am I Getting Worse?

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[caption id="attachment_3052" align="aligncenter" width="350"]I have no idea what this means I have no idea what this means[/caption] In theory, every time you train, you should get better, but it doesn’t always work out that way does it? On Monday you might have a kick-ass workout, punching holes through walls and throwing weights into the ceiling, but by Wednesday you’re back to hitting the focus mitts with love taps, and someone turned up the gravity in the weight room. This phenomenon also happens over a longer time frame, where you have a great week and think, “Oh finally, I’m actually getting good at this,” but then the next week not only have you lost all that newfound power (or fitness, or skill) but you’re even WORSE than before, like you’ve somehow gone backwards. Well there are a few reasons why you go through this experience, and the one I’m going to address right now is called Regression Towards the Mean. RTM (not an official acronym as far as I know, but I’m not getting paid by the word over here) is a crucially important concept to understand for everyone, because if you’re trying to make progress in anything, you’ll be affected. Basically RTM is the tendency of things to move back towards an average. Exceptionally tall parents will probably have tall children, but usually the children are closer to average than the parents. And after an exceptional performance, the next one is likely to be worse, because it will be close to the average. For those of you that like your explanations less clear, “Regression towards the mean can be defined for any bivariate distribution with identical marginal distributions.” Thanks Wikipedia. RTM is particularly dear to me because I first heard about it in a teaching context. There was a study done in the Israeli Air Force on coaching styles, measuring positive reinforcement against negative. The study found that pilots who were praised actually did worse on subsequent drills than pilots who were berated. Initially the instructors assume that criticism was more effective for training, but fortunately they were being advised by a psychologist named Daniel Kahneman. He pointed out that pilots were praised when they did particularly well, which means naturally their next performance would be closer to the average, i.e. not as good. The pilots who did badly got yelled at and flew better the next time, but their next performance would naturally have edged upwards towards the average anyway. And that’s why no one in the military yells anymore. So how is this relevant to you? Let’s say on average you punch at a force of…10 punch units. We’ll call them Punchos, which might be a term from a video game so if it is, consider this my attribution. So you’re normally punching at 10 Punchos, but one day you come in and have a great class, and are hitting at 13, 14, or maybe even 15 punchos! There’s really no limit to these imaginary units. So you’ve had this great training session, you can’t wait to get back in the gym, but when you do you’re only hitting at 12 punchos. You might even be back to 11, or God forbid 10. After the high of performing so well it’s a hard come down, but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, you’re just a victim of RTM. The good news is that, over time, the average increases, so even as your performances fluctuate in the short-term, you’ll still improve long-term. Keep training and you’ll raise the average, but be aware that in your head it’s always a case of, “What have you done for me lately?” You’ll tend to focus on short-term changes, but day-to-day, and even week-to-week, there’s just too much variability. And understand that RTM works both ways. If you have a bad workout, the next one will probably be better just by default, so if you leave the gym feeling terrible about yourself, there’s a ray of hope. Once I understood RTM, I got a lot less stressed about my performance in individual training sessions. The important thing, as always, is that you show up to train. Because if you don’t show up, you’ll experience a completely different phenomenon called Regression Towards Sucking. And there’s no rationalizing that away.

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