6 February 2020
Choice Architecture in Contest Prep
This article is an excerpt from the Ultimate Guide To Contest Prep Ebook written By Jacob Schepis, the Director of JPS Health & Fitness. To purchase the ebook and enhance your knowledge and understanding of what it takes to excel in physique and bodybuilding, click the link HERE. ____________________________________________________________________________ … We apologise for the semantics,…
This article is an excerpt from the Ultimate Guide To Contest Prep Ebook written By Jacob Schepis, the Director of JPS Health & Fitness. To purchase the ebook and enhance your knowledge and understanding of what it takes to excel in physique and bodybuilding, click the link HERE.
… We apologise for the semantics, but we hope this exercise serves a powerful purpose – definitions matter. They help explain what we mean and improve the interpretation of the language we use. So we are going to define and elaborate on various definitions of things required in a contest prep, because we are all guilty of saying things like “yeah consistency matters”, without really considering what it actually truly means.
It should be blatantly apparent why consistency in the broad sense is a beneficial characteristic for physique competitors during a contest prep diet. Consistency, by definition is the steadfast adherence to the same principles, course or form and the compatibility, and uniformity, among the parts within a complex thing. Basically this translates to: things mostly stay the same, as well as share properties with other components of something larger that are congruent with an objective.
Consistency for physique athletes would constitute unwavering compliance to an established plan, that is directed towards a desirable end-product. Specifically, consistency would refer to those behaviours which influence or contribute to the development of the physical and mental qualities necessary to achieve success in this sport. For example, a consistent approach would be to eat according to prescribed macro/calorie targets, or performing cardio to meet a target step count. Quite simply, consistency is the eradication of choices that are not coherent with the end goal.
So, how can we ensure that the choices a coach or athlete make are consistent with the goal?
Choice & Decision Making
Every moment of every day we are faced with choices and must make a decision, opting for one alternative over another. The choices that competitors and coaches make during a contest prep will influence the prep itself and the resultant outcome come show day – thus choices, and being able to determine the correct option is central to success in bodybuilding. Especially in the digging phase.
The decision making process can be autonomous, delegated or a collaborative effort. Autonomous decisions are made by the competitor, free of intervention. On the other hand, delegated decisions are made by the coach who is hired to call the shots. Delegation can also be imparted by the coach to the athlete, whereby the coach hands over partial control of the decision making process to the athlete, such as providing macro targets. When given macro targets, athletes are then able to choose which foods they will eat to meet those macros. In this example, the coach makes a choice, provides the targets and constraints, and the athlete can then make a variety of choices within that framework. Collaborative decision making occurs when both the athlete and coach join forces to assess the situation equally and work together to decide upon which choice is best.
The decision to choose one thing over another can vary markedly in its complexity or significance. Some choices are simple (the correct option is easily discernible) and/or less significant in nature (low impact on important outcomes), and while all decision-making has an influence, we want to ensure we are choosing the correct option when given significant choices, regardless of complexity. An example of how difficult this can become though, is an athlete might suffer extensive confusion over whether to have chicken breast or steak for dinner, even though this is of minimal significance to their end outcome. Contest prep tends to make many athletes miss the forest for the trees.
Conversely, some choices we make are extremely significant, and often with increasing significance comes increasing complexity, which makes these important decisions all the more difficult to make. When a decision is influenced by a multitude of inextricable factors such as cognition, mood, past experience or cultural factors, decisions can result in larger implications and consequences for an individual and their life. Examples of a significant and complex choice during a contest prep would be something like determining how much to reduce calorie intake, and from which macronutrient, when a stall is encountered and show day looms large. Maybe it isn’t in fact a stall – maybe only a small adjustment is needed – or maybe a small change wouldn’t produce the required results and would just waste more time… It’s tough to know what is correct, and the wrong choice could be costly. This is the hallmark of a complex and significant decision. Complexity and significance are not just related to diet however, and often can be found in many of the choices we make during a prep, if we investigate things deeply enough. It’s not that we are looking to make decisions more complex than needed, it is simply that we do not wish to presume a decision is simple, and find out later that there were underlying factors we did not consider. This is not the way to produce optimal outcomes.
As you can see, choices and the decision making process are the genesis of the events that follow. Hence, as competitors near the stage, their choices become all the more crucial to how their contest prep plays out.
Is being spoiled for choice a good thing?
It is often believed that more choice options is a good thing. And initially, having more choices is satisfying and empowering. However, there are often occasions when having too many options may not be as nice, or advantageous, as it seems on the surface.
Firstly, the duration of timerequired to gain adequate information about all of the options available impedes the decision making process, as to make the right decision, it helps to be informed.
Secondly, research has found that having more choices can escalate expectations of outcomes. When there are more options to choose from, the standard for what is an acceptable outcome rises, and thus it becomes easier to be displeased with the result.
Third, with so many options available, blame for an unacceptable outcome becomes the onus of the chooser. When presented with more choices, the chooser has a greater degree of control over the outcome, and thus if they didn’t select the choice with the most optimal outcome, then they must shoulder a greater amount of the blame. Conversely, if only one choice is available, and it turns out to be an average one, you are not responsible in any major way, as you had no other option.
Choosing consistency more and variety less
We have now discussed what it means to be consistent, and highlighted some important aspects of choice. It is now time to piece it all together and understand why constructing a model for decision making can enhance consistency, and is a wise idea if we desire excellence in bodybuilding.
The more consistent an athlete is in complying to their plan, the better able the coach is to monitor and assess their response to the protocol, and thus make informed decisions. Alternatively, inconsistency and low compliance exponentially increase the difficulty of the coaches job – especially for a coach without a high degree of experience and education. Similarly, if a coach is not consistent themselves and employs a methodology that is highly varied, decision making becomes nothing more than a best guess at that point.
Let’s zoom in for a moment and look to the isolated event of an athlete preparing and tracking their food for a meal. They weigh and measure all foods to the gram on digital food scales. The meal consists of foods that are very satiating (high protein, high fiber, minimally processed, voluminous and bland) and the meal itself is on plan and helps them reach their daily calorie and macronutrient targets for the day.
A reasonable conclusion to reach would be that this meal was indeed a wise choice and is consistent with the athletes goals. But an isolated event such as one meal, does not automatically equate to consistency. Consistency requires that on average, over time, choices are in alignment with the goal more times than not. Basically, choices that are consistent with the athlete’s goals, have been made consistently. However, athletes are not machines, and important factors must be considered to both generate and preserve consistency.
Hypothetically speaking, what if after months and months of consistent choices such as the example above, out of the blue a competitor selects an inconsistent choice, such as exceeding their calorie targets or not tracking at all, despite knowing full well it contradicts their progress and goals.
Sound familiar? It does to us at least…
It is not uncommon after months of hard dieting for a competitor to ‘snap’ and go off plan. Perhaps that choice (whether consciously made or not) was the consequence of consistency. This example demonstrates why selecting consistent choices comes at a cost and how limited choices, selected repeatedly for long periods may diminish a competitor’s choice making ability.
Let’s review some of the choices that competitors are likely to make during a contest prep, as influenced by a variety of internal and external factors:
- Increased rigidity in dietary restraint;
- Increased restriction of calories/macronutrients
- Increased reliance on quantitative data;
- Increased time preparing and cooking food
- Increased activity levels (aerobic + resistance training)
- Increased frequency of assessments
- Increased frequency and duration of time alone
- Decreased flexibility in dietary restraint (hitting macros within 10grams)
- Decreased variety in foods consumed
- Decreased ‘spare time’
- Decreased frequency of social interactions
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that for the average competitor, the above are consistent choices. This is simply a result of what is required to survive, and thrive, in a contest prep.
As with all generalisations though, they are general and almost certainly do not apply to all individuals – outliers exist. All competitors will likely follow a similar theme, but some competitors may not make the same magnitude or frequency of a particular choice (some may withdraw more socially, but not become obsessive about body-checking).
Greater consistency in environment and routine can narrow the bandwidth of choices, helping to determine more predictable, and thus controllable outcomes, which is of major importance for not only maximising success, but helping to ameliorate the negative effects of contest prep. For these reasons, consistency in a competitor’s life, routine, diet and training protocol is essential. But you’ve heard us say this a thousand times by now.
However, the need for little variation and more repetition in an athlete’s life warrants further attention. Although consistency should be a by-product of a daily/weekly routine and an increased reliance on habits, after months of hard training and dieting, monotony, boredom and the itch for variation and change gradually creep into an athlete’s psyche. Pertinent to this discussion is the phenomena of food-eating, an example of where even if we don’t change something, a change still occurs nonetheless. The longer we eat in a calorie deficit and consume the same old foods (often avoiding highly palatable foods) the more pleasurable the mere act of food-eating becomes. Fundamentally, we begin deriving more pleasure from the act of eating, rather than actually the food consumed (as little pleasure is to be gained in little amounts of bland food). This is an example of how many moving parts there are in a contest prep, even consistency can produce change.
The type of change and variety we are suggesting to minimise, would be anything that is novel and that the athlete is not accustomed to. This may include things such as new foods, higher than normal calorie intakes, changes in meal frequency, new training split etc. Essentially, variation includes anything that is significantly altering their plan/routine and has the potential to harm the athletes adherence, focus or progress.
We need to be wary of the above, as the effects of such a regimented life, combined with the unpleasurable nature of eating fewer calories and consuming the same, bland foods over and over can in many cases leads to a more pronounced and persistent desire to ‘mix things up’. This may not be the case for all athletes, but it can be especially true for individuals whose personality traits score lower in neuroticismand conscientiousnessand higher in openness.Athlete’s who are higher in trait openness are more predisposed (but not necessarily predetermined) to seek novelty, variety and just generally new experiences. This can make sticking to a rigid, repetitive and overly structured diet protocol or training regime a difficult and mundane endeavour – as it is for everyone, but particularly those of the aforementioned personality types.
Because of this, it is often a wise idea to include some deliberate and planned variation in diet/routine for most athletes, especially those who crave ‘change’. Balance here must be found however. It would be detrimental for the athlete if the planned variation is such a significant change from what they are used to that it opens up the potential for non-compliance in the future, derails focus, creates unwanted behaviours or exacerbates psychological tension,
Finding the sweet spot between consistency and slight deviations from consistent choices in the digging phase is indeed challenging. Too much consistency and it may cause an athlete to snap. Too little consistency in choices and progress will be hindered. Neither extreme is ideal.
The role of the coach is to recognise and understand the interplay between restraint (constraining choices to a narrow range of options that are consistent with the goal) and flexibility (broadening the range of options to include more choices that are consistent with the goal to varying degrees). Both have merits. More restraint is desirable as it affords more consistency and thus progress, while flexibility can offer mental and physical reprieve, as well as enhance autonomy. Both aspects must be considered, specifically because we are working with humans and their innate limits. Will-power is not endless.
However, it is worth considering that although higher amounts of flexibility provide more options, which is a good thing on average, it is not necessarily ideal in this specific context, for reasons already outlined. So while some variety of choice should be preserved, it is knowing which choice types should have more flexibility and which should be constrained that is the more difficult question to answer. Keep in mind though, irrespective of an individual’s natural tendency to prefer variety over routine, in this phase athletes are highly susceptible to deviating from their plan, even without the instruction of a coach. If you give an athlete an inch, they will likely take a mile – so forget optimality and recognise we are all human. Then work on what will produce the best outcome based on that premise.
A high degree of forethought and consideration must be given to when and how much variety and flexibility in diet, training or routine can be introduced. Be sure to critically evaluate the current context, know the athlete like the back of your hand and use your wisdom to ensure that any decisions made related to making decisions has a high probability of leading to favourable outcomes. For the most part, more consistency and less flexibility in this phase will be needed and is the foundation for pushing the body to its limits.
When making decisions to enhance progress or keep an athlete progressing as they are, it is critical to think along a time continuum as per the conceptual model above. First, consider the historical information as well as the data obtained through objective and subjective athlete assessments. This will help form your foundation for better understanding the current context. When assessing the situation at hand, be sure to think about the projected outcomes that are desirable (positive outcomes) and those which are not (negative outcomes) as well as what factors could influence the probability of those outcomes occurring. This is called making a projection and will lead to a number of possible choices for you to make.
For example, if you are deep into the digging phase and an athletes weight loss and visuals have stalled for 2 weeks or more, the options you have available to you when making an adjustment are:
- Decrease calories
- Increase activity levels
- Decrease calories + increase activity levels
- Keep calories constant
- Increase calories (diet break or refeed)
This is a very basic decision – if the only factor were energy balance. Thinking could go along the lines of; simply create a calorie deficit and progress shall continue. However, this example does not provide you with other critical information such as hunger levels, current calorie intakes, when the last adjustment was made, stress levels, sleep and so on. These additional factors will influence both the immediate and delayed outcomes and must be accounted for when making decisions. So while we cannot give you the correct answer to the choices presented above, we can at least try to highlight the complexity of these decisions. In order to select the correct option and thus produce the most desirable outcome, you must gather information from many sources, recognise which factors of the contest prep are closer to the breaking point than others, and ensure that whatever choice you make is one that moves you in a better direction and not one that brings the prep close to a point of no-return.