Losing

I have mentioned before that I am a massive rugby fan, and I have also mentioned that I’m not that brilliant at it and have much experience of losing. I also support England, which has left me no choice other than to spend the past ten years alternating between moments of joy and long periods of frustration over what could have been, whilst continually living in the shadow of ‘that drop goal’ (apologies for non-rugby fans, for whom this will make little sense, but bear with me) and trying to come to terms with our latest loss (although… any New Zealanders reading this? 🙂 ). The team I support have spent the last few seasons living through a similar shadow of former success, and many losses have subsequently ensued. As such, I am very well acquainted with the practice of losing, and in particular the different kinds of loss that can occur (and the emotions inspired thereof). The following list will not be exhaustive, but I’ll aim to cover as many as I can.

The most obvious variety of loss has also perhaps the most potential to be depressing; the thrashing. An entirely one sided affair, where all concerned tried their best but simply weren’t good enough to even come close to standing up to the opposition, a thrashing can serve as a message saying “People might tell you to try your best, but your best isn’t good enough“. This is a terribly depressing thought, suggesting that all of one’s hard work, effort and training matter for nought in comparison to one’s opponents; or, the thrashing can be taken in a positive vein, a sense of “hey, they are just better than us, but we did well and there’s no shame in it”. Which way one goes really depends on the opposition concerned and one’s way of handling failure (refer to my back catalogue for more details) but a good example of the latter course occurred during the Rugby World Cup in 2007 when Portugal, never noted as a great rugby side, lost to the rugby powerhouse that is New Zealand by 108 points to 13. That was a definitive thrashing, but Portugal had nonetheless scored a try against the world’s best sides, hot favourites to win the overall competition (although they subsequently didn’t) and had played with pride and tenacity. The sight of their side, chests puffed out and eyes flush with emotion, singing the national anthem at the start of that game was a truly heartwarming one.

Subtly distinct from, but similar to, a thrashing is the collapse, the different being whose fault the scale of the loss is. A thrashing is very much won by the winners, but a collapse is caused by the losing party allowing everything that could go wrong to go wrong, performing terribly and letting the result tell the story. The victim of a collapse may be the underdog, may be expected to lose, but certainly should not have done so by quite so spectacular a margin as they do. This generally conjures up less depression than it does anger, frustration and even shame; you know you could and should have done better, but for whatever reason you haven’t. No excuses, no blaming the ref, you just failed- and you hate it.

Next in the order of frustration is the one-aspect loss, something generally confined to more multifaceted, and particularly team, occasions. These centre on one individual or aspect of the situation; one’s left back failing to mark his man on numerous occasions, for example, or a tennis player’s serve letting him down. Again the predominant feeling is one of frustration, this time of having done enough and still not won; in every other aspect of one’s performance you might have been good enough to win, but because of one tiny aspect you were let down and it was all for nought. The one-aspect loss is closely related to the ‘kitchen sink’ loss, such as Spain experienced at the hands of Switzerland at the football world cup two years ago. Spain were clearly the better side in that match, and but for one lucky goal from the Swiss they surely would have won it, but after that Switzerland holed up in their own penalty area and defended for their lives. Spain might have thrown everything they had and then some at the Swiss after that, might have struck shot after shot, but no matter what they did it just didn’t come up for them; luck and fate were just against them that day, and for all their effort they still managed to lose. A kitchen sink loss is also characterised by frustration, often made doubly annoying by the fact that the one aspect of one’s performance that has let you down has nothing to do with you, but can also summon depression by the seeming irrelevance of all the hard work you did put in. A match you should have won, could have won, often needed to have won, but no matter how much effort you put in fate just didn’t want you to win. Doesn’t life suck sometimes?

The even loss also records significant frustration levels, particularly due to the nature of the games it often occurs in. An even loss occurs between two closely matched teams or individuals in a close contest, and where portents at the start say it could go either way. Sadly, in most sports a draw is rare, whilst in many it is impossible, and in any case such a situation satisfies nobody; there must be a winner and, unfortunately, a loser. Such a loss is always hard to take, as one knows they are good enough to win (and usually have done so in the past; such occasions are often repeat fixtures against local rivals, meaning the prospect of a year’s gloating must also be considered) but that, on the day, it went the other way. On other occasions, a sense of anticlimax may be present; sometimes losses just happen, and do not inspire any great emotion (although the near-neutral loss is a category unto itself), and after a tight game in which you played alright but were fair beaten there’s sometimes not too much to get emotional about.

And then, we come to perhaps the strangest form of losing- the happy loss. It’s often hard to be comfortable about being happy with a loss, particularly in a tight game decided only by the narrowest of margins and that one could have won. There are some people who will never feel happy about a loss, no matter how good the game or the opposition, constantly striving for the concrete success a victory can show; but for others, there is still comfort to be found in losing. There lies no shame in losing a match against a good, deserving opponent, no shame in losing when you could not possibly have given more, and no shame in doing far, far better than you were expected to. I have talked before on this blog on the value of learning to fail with grace; just as important, in life as in sport and such, is learning how to lose.

The Science of Iron

I have mentioned before that I am something of a casual gymgoer- it’s only a relatively recent hobby, and only in the last couple of months have I given any serious thought and research to my regime (in which time I have also come to realise that some my advice in previous posts was either lacking in detail or partially wrong- sorry, it’s still basically useful). However, whilst the internet is, as could be reasonably expected, inundated with advice about training programs, tips on technique & exercises to work different muscle groups (often wildly disagreeing with one another), there is very little available information concerning the basic science behind building muscle- it’s just not something the average gymgoer knows. Since I am fond of a little research now and then, I thought I might attempt an explanation of some of the basic biology involved.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a biologist, and am getting this information via the internet and a bit of ad libbing, so don’t take this as anything more than a basic guideline

Everything in your body is made up of tiny, individual cells, each a small sac consisting of a complex (and surprisingly ‘intelligent’) membrane, a nucleus to act as its ‘brain’ (although no-one is entirely sure exactly how they work) and a lot of watery, chemical-y stuff called cytoplasm squelching about and reacting with things. It follows from this that to increase the size of an organ or tissue requires these cells to do one of two things; increase in number (hyperplasia) or in size (hypertrophy). The former case is mainly associated with growths such as neoplasia (tumours), and has only been shown to have an impact on muscles in response to the injection of growth hormones, so when we’re talking about strength, fitness and muscle building we’re really interested in going for hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy itself is still a fairly broad term biologically, and only two aspects of it are interesting from an exercise point of view; muscular and ventricular hypertrophy. As the respective names suggest, the former case relates to the size of cells in skeletal muscle increasing, whilst the latter is concerned with the increase in size & strength of the muscles making up the walls of the heart (the largest chambers of which are called the ventricles). Both are part of the body’s long-term response to exercise, and for both the basic principle is the same- but before I get onto that, a quick overview of exactly how muscles work may be in order.

A muscle cell (or muscle fibre) is on of the largest in the body, vaguely tubular in shape and consisting in part of many smaller structures known as myofibrils (or muscle fibrils). Muscle cells are also unusual in that they contain multiple cell nuclei, as a response to their size & complex function, and instead of cytoplasm contain another liquid called sarcoplasm (more densely packed with glycogen fuel and proteins to bind oxygen, and thus enabling the muscles to respire more quickly & efficiently in response to sudden & severe demand). These myofibrils consist of multiple sections called myofilaments, (themselves made of a family of proteins called myosins) joined end-to-end as repeating units known as sarcomeres. This structure is only present in skeletal, rather than smooth muscle cells (giving the latter a more regular, smoothly connected structure when viewed under the microscope, hence the name) and are responsible for the increased strength available to skeletal muscles. When a muscle fibril receives an electrical impulse from the brain or spinal cord, certain areas or ‘bands’ making up the sarcomeres shrink in size, causing the muscle as a whole to contract. When the impulse is removed, the muscle relaxes; but it cannot extend itself, so another muscle working with it in what is known as an antagonistic pair will have to pull back on it to return it to its original position.

Now, when that process is repeated a lot in a small time frame, or when a large load is placed on the muscle fibre, the fibrils can become damaged. If they are actually torn then a pulled muscle results, but if the damage is (relatively) minor then the body can repair it by shipping in more amino acids (the building blocks of the proteins that make up our bodies) and fuel (glycogen and, most importantly, oxygen). However, to try and safeguard against any future such event causing damage the body does its bit to overcompensate on its repairs, rebuilding the protein structures a little more strongly and overcompensating for the lost fuel in the sarcoplasm. This is the basic principle of muscular hypertrophy; the body’s repair systems overcompensating for minor damage.

There are yet more subdivisions to consider, for there are two main types of muscular hypertrophy. The first is myofibrillated hypertrophy, concerning the rebuilding of the myofibrils with more proteins so they are stronger and able to pull against larger loads. This enables the muscle to lift larger weights & makes one stronger, and is the prominent result of doing few repetitions of a high load, since this causes the most damage to the myofibrils themselves. The other type is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, concerning the packing of more sarcoplasm into the muscle cell to better supply the muscle with fuel & oxygen. This helps the muscle deal better with exercise and builds a greater degree of muscular endurance, and also increases the size of the muscle, as the increased liquid in it causes it to swell in volume. It is best achieved by doing more repetitions on a lower load, since this longer-term exercise puts more strain on the ability of the sarcoplasm to supply oxygen. It is also advisable to do fewer sets (but do them properly) of this type of training since it is more tiring; muscles get tired and hurt due to the buildup of lactic acid in them caused by an insufficient supply of oxygen requiring them to respire anaerobically. This is why more training on a lower weight feels like harder work, but is actually going to be less beneficial if you are aiming to build muscular strength.

Ventricular (or cardiac) hypertrophy combines both of these effects in a response to the increased load placed on the muscles in the heart from regular exercise. It causes the walls of the ventricles to thicken as a result of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and also makes them stronger so that the heart has to beat less often (but more powerfully) to supply blood to the body. In elite athletes, this has another effect; in response to exercise the heart’s response is not so much to beat more frequently, but to do so more strongly, swelling more in size as it pumps to send more blood around the body with each beat. Athletic heart syndrome, where the slowing of the pulse and swelling of heart size are especially magnified, can even be mistaken for severe heart disease by an ill-informed doctor.

So… yeah, that’s how muscle builds (I apologise, by the way, for my heinous overuse of the word ‘since’ in the above explanation). I should point out quickly that this is not a fast process; each successive rebuilding of the muscle only increases the strength of that muscle by a small amount, even for serious weight training, and the body’s natural tendency to let a muscle degrade over time if it is not well-used means that hard work must constantly be put in to maintain the effect of increased muscular size, strength and endurance. But then again, I suppose that’s partly what we like about the gym; the knowledge that we have earned our strength, and that our willingness to put in the hard work is what is setting us apart from those sitting on the sofa watching TV. If that doesn’t sound too massively arrogant.

So… why did I publish those posts?

So, here I (finally come)- the conclusion of my current theme of sport and fitness. Today I will, once again, return to the world of the gym, but the idea is actually almost as applicable to sport and fitness exercises generally.

Every year, towards the end of December, after the Christmas rush has subsided a little and the chocolates are running low, the western world embarks on the year’s final bizarre annual ritual- New Year’s Resolutions. These vary depending on geography (in Mexico, for example, they list not their new goals for the year ahead, but rather a list of things they hope will happen, generating a similar spirit of soon-to-be-crushed optimism), but there are a few cliched responses. Cut down on food x or y, get to know so and so better, finally sort out whatever you promise to deal with every year, perhaps even write a novel (for the more cocky and adventurous). However, perhaps the biggest cliched New Year’s Resolution is the vague “to exercise more”, or its (often accompanied) counterpart “to start going to the gym”.

Clearly, the world would be a very different place if we all stuck to our resolutions- there’d be a lot more mediocre books out there for starters. But perhaps the gym example is the most amusing, and obvious, example of our collective failure to stick to our own commitments. Every January, without fail, every gym in the land will be offering discounted taster sessions and membership deals, eager to entice their fresh crop of the budding gymgoer. All are quickly swamped with a fresh wave of enthusiasm and flab ready to burn, but by February many will lie practically empty, perhaps 90% of those new recruits having decided to bow out gracefully against the prospect of a lifetime’s slavery to the dumbbell.

So, back to my favourite question- why? What is it about the gym that can so quickly put people off- in essence, why don’t more people use the gym?

One important point to consider is practicality- to use the gym requires a quite significant commitment, and while 2-3 hours (ish) a week of actual exercise might not sound like much, given travelling time, getting changed, kit sorted and trying to fit it around a schedule such a commitment can quickly begin to take over one’s life. The gym atmosphere can also be very off-putting, as I know from personal experience. I am not a superlatively good rugby player, but I have my club membership and am entitled to use their gym for free. The reason I don’t is because trying to concentrate on my own (rather modest) personal aims and achievements can become both difficult and embarrassing when faced with first-teamers who use the gym religiously to bench press 150-odd kilos. All of them are resolutely nice guys, but it’s still an issue of personal embarrassment. It’s even worse if you have the dreaded ‘one-upmanship’ gym atmosphere, with everyone’s condescending smirks keeping the newbies firmly away. Then of course, there’s the long-term commitment to gym work. Some (admittedly naively) will first attend a gym expecting to see recognisable improvement immediately- but improvement takes a long time to notice, especially for the uninitiated and the young, who are likely to not have quite the same level of commitment and technique as the more experienced. The length of time it takes to see any improvement can be frustrating for many who feel like they’re wasting their time, and that can be as good an incentive as any to quit, disillusioned by the experienced.

However, by far the biggest (and ultimately overriding) cause is simply down to laziness- in fact most of the reasons or excuses given by someone dropping their gym routine (including perhaps that last one mentioned) can be traced back to a root cause of simply not wanting to put in the effort. It’s kinda easy to see why- gym work is (and should be) incredibly hard work, and busting a gut to lift a mediocre weight is perhaps not the most satisfying feeling for many, especially if they’re already feeling in a poor mood and/or they’re training alone (that’s a training tip- always train with a friend and encourage one another, but stick to rigid time constraints to ensure you don’t spend all the time nattering). But, this comes despite the fact that everyone (rationally) knows that going to the gym is good for you, and that if we weren’t lazy then we could probably achieve more and do more with ourselves. So, this in and of itself raises another question- why are humans lazy?

Actually, this question is a little bit of a misnomer, simply because of the ‘humans’ part- almost anyone who has a pet knows of their frequent struggles for the ‘most time spent lazing around in bed doing nothing all day’ award (to which I will nominate my own terrier). A similar competition is also often seen, to the disappointment of many a small child, in zoos across the land. It’s a trend seen throughout nature that, give an animal what he needs in a convenient space, he will quite happily enjoy such a bounty without any desire to get up & do more than necessary to get them- which is why zoo keepers often have problems with keeping their charges fit. This is, again, odd, since it seems like an evolutionary disadvantage to not want to do stuff.

However, despite being naturally lazy, this does not mean that people (and animals) don’t want to do stuff. In fact, laziness actually acts as a vital incentive in the progression of the human race. For an answer, ask yourself- why did we invent the wheel? Answer- because it was a lot easier than having to carry stuff around everywhere, and meant stuff took less work, allowing the inventor (and subsequently the human race) to become more and more lazy. The same pattern is replicated in just about every single thing the human race has ever invented (especially anything made by Apple)- laziness acts as a catalyst for innovation and discovery.

Basically, if more people went to the gym, then Thomas Edison wouldn’t have invented the lightbulb. Maybe.