In your pursuit to build the physique you desire, you will undoubtedly run into challenges along the way. It doesn’t matter if your aspiration is to become a national-level competitive bodybuilder or simply build a little muscle while cutting body fat; your commitment to continue working toward your goals will eventually be tested. Now, I know that sounds negative, but I’m simply stating reality. Obstacles, problems, or challenges, whether they are something physical, like an injury, or mental, like an unfair placing in a contest, can check the level of your inner strength, will, and desire. How you choose to deal with these obstacles will determine if you will become a mentally tougher and more committed individual—or join the ranks of far too many lifters who give up on their bodybuilding dreams in frustration. Let me make one point very clear: I believe the choice you make under these circumstances sits squarely upon your own shoulders. Your decision, whether it’s to persevere and look for ways to rise to the occasion, or to succumb to the emotional pain that you associate with the setback, will be determined by how you perceive your situation.
I have always said that bodybuilding is both fascinating and frustrating. It’s fascinating because there are so many different strategies in the areas of training, nutrition, supplementation, and motivation—and those strategies are constantly evolving and changing at a rapid pace. You can never be too certain that you have really figured them all out. Unfortunately, bodybuilding can also be very frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that we sometimes feel like quitting this silly lifestyle—and too many of us actually do. Why? For exactly the same reasons others find bodybuilding fascinating. There are so many different strategies in the areas of training, nutrition, supplementation, and motivation—and those strategies are constantly evolving and changing at a rapid pace. You can never be too certain that you have really figured them all out. You soon begin to realize that the difference between becoming totally fascinated and enthralled with the bodybuilding lifestyle and becoming absolutely frustrated and confused by it, can be very slight.
Which way do you choose to look at your training challenges? Remember, the choice is yours. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the difficult times you encounter should be easy to fight your way though. Let me ask you a question: Do you really want it to be easy? If bodybuilding were so easy, everyone would be able to excel. How rewarding or special would it be if everyone could do so? Not everyone has the ability to become a champion. I remember a quote IFBB professional bodybuilder Shawn Ray said on the 1990 Ironman Pro Invitational contest videotape: “True champions don’t make comebacks, they overcome setbacks.” I must have thought about those words about a hundred times since then. All of us—champions or just regular guys—are going to have setbacks. There’s no doubt about it. What will make you a champion is overcoming those unavoidable setbacks. Will you become frustrated and quit? Or, will you be prepared for their possible occurrence and deal with them like the champion you are determined to become? Will you become fascinated with the challenge of overcoming setbacks?
Believe me, I know firsthand how the downtimes can test your desire to continue. I felt that way at the 1997 NPC Team Universe the very instant they called my name for fifth place. I can still remember that horrible feeling as if it were yesterday. My stomach turned violently in disappointment and my face was hot and flushed out of sheer embarrassment. When I got back home to California, I went into a deep, dark emotional state. For the first time in my career, I had trouble even making it into the gym. When I was there, I trained with absolutely no intensity whatsoever and usually cut my workouts short. I thought that I was at the end of my bodybuilding career. I truly feared dropping farther down the ladder and ruining my reputation as a champion bodybuilder. I started telling myself that I didn’t have the genetic shape to compete at that high level of competition anymore. “The guys now are freaks!” I would tell myself. I started checking into those “little contests” with big, prestigious-sounding titles. Do you know the one I’m talking about? I contemplated entering shows like the “ABCQ Mr. Galaxy and Beyond,” which would only have about six competitors—three of which couldn’t win their local novice show. “Nobody will really know that this contest wasn’t very competitive,” I would reason. My setback had me thinking in a total fear mode. Fear was controlling me—and I certainly wasn’t thinking big.
Why in the world would a person let fear hold him back from experiencing success? Because the pain from failure is a feeling he wants to avoid at all costs—even if that means sacrificing the pleasure of succeeding. Nobody wants to be disappointed. Nobody wants to put heart and soul into achieving a dream only to fail. Nobody wants to commit to accomplishing a goal then come up short. We do what we think we have to do to avoid looking bad in front of our family, friends, and peers. Nobody wants to be perceived as a loser. This fear prevents us from setting goals and working towards them with every ounce of our God-given abilities and talents. “Yeah, I failed—but so what? I really didn’t even try!” is the explanation we offer ourselves. In our hearts, however, we know what the truth really is. Focusing on your fears will ensure ultimate failure. You must focus on what you want and not on what you do not want. Too many natural bodybuilders are complaining about how big they are not—without even giving 100 percent of their effort.
For a couple of months after that show, I was spiraled downward. How could I possibly become the best I could be, really go for my dreams, and enjoy the process of bodybuilding with such debilitating fears? I had to admit to myself I could not. Deep in my heart, I always knew what the truth was. I had to bounce back from this setback and raise the standards of what I expected out of myself. Would I learn from my setback? Would I bounce back from disappointment smarter and be willing to try again and again until I reached my dreams? Or would I cower back into a mode of security and safety? Would I retreat to a safe place so I wouldn’t have to experience pain and disappointment again—all the while trying to convince myself that this was the “prudent approach to take?
I realized I was acting the way I preach not to be. I was making convenient excuses for myself so I wouldn’t have to experience more disappointment and pain. It just wasn’t the impression I had of myself. I had to get honest with myself. Maybe the reason I came in fifth place at the Team Universe was that I wasn’t focused enough and was putting too much effort into other things in my life. Maybe the reason I placed fifth was that I employed the bad strategy of coming in too big and not ripped enough. Yeah, maybe I just ate too many starchy carbohydrates those last few weeks. Maybe I didn’t monitor my progress with photos and videos as I have done in the past when I have been more successful.
How did I get myself back on the right track? I realized what was really going on. I admitted to myself that my fear was causing me to not go after what I really wanted. I raised my standards and I stepped up to the challenge. But things got worse before they got better. As a spectator, I went to the 1997 Mr. Olympia a couple months after the show. “What’s next for you, Skip?” I was asked by several people, who sincerely wished me the best. They just looked at me with surprise and said, “Oh,” when I said I was returning to the Team Universe next year. Twinlab, my supplement-company sponsor at the time, decided not to renew my contract when it ended. A promoter broke a verbal contract for a guest posing appearance, opting for a bodybuilder who hadn’t competed in probably five to ten years. I caught word that some of the top-level drug-free bodybuilders were saying I was finished.
But the emotion of pain can be a great motivator if you use it to your advantage by thinking big. I dieted very strictly for the next year’s Team Universe for nine and a half months. I did at least an hour of cardio work, often split into two sessions a day, for five months. Every single day, I would write down my goals, how I wanted to look the day of the show, and what I had to do to achieve that look. I scheduled guest posing appearances all year long to force me to stay in shape. That period leading up to the contest was filled with self-imposed pressure, commitment, intensity, and focus. I have never worked so hard for anything in my life. I’m proud to say that I won the heavyweight and overall titles at the 1998 NPC Team Universe, shedding almost 20 pounds of contest weight to come in ultra-shredded condition—just as I had envisioned. But what I’m most proud of, and will remember for the rest of my life, is how I bounced back from disappointment. This will be a lesson that I can apply to every area of my life when times get tough.
So you pulled yourself together, worked your tail off for an entire year, and overcame your setbacks to convincingly win the national championship. Everyone now loves you and respects you, right? Not exactly! At least, not in natural bodybuilding. To some people, there is no such thing as an outstanding drug-free bodybuilder—only a cheater on drugs pretending to be natural. A certain “friend’ of mine vehemently went around telling people, “There is no way that La Cour is drug free! No one could make that degree of improvement in one year!” When I finally talked to this gentleman about his comments, he had the entire scenario all figured out—or so he thought. “This is the story, La Cour. You had to put it all on the line. You got dusted the last two years. You lost your Twinlab contract—and I don’t know what kind of arrangement you have with AST Sports Science, but you probably have to do well to keep it. You know you don’t have the type of genetics to beat those other guys! So you had nothing to lose. That’s why you took drugs in order to win that show! No heavyweight natural bodybuilder can get that ripped without drugs!” This friend took all the factors that drove me to become my best—and downgraded them to reasons why I would resort to cheating. He never considered (or he chose not to consider) that the same sources of pain and frustration that can make a person quit, or even worse, cheat, can be the same foundation that propels a person to a higher level of achievement. The pain associated with failure can make a person dig deep within himself and show what he’s really made of to the world. The choice is yours.
As I walked out of the pump-up room after being presented the overall trophy, I noticed someone in the corner all by himself. It was an obviously dejected Team Universe competitor. Although I had friends waiting for me in the lobby, I went over to him to offer whatever comfort I could. With tears in his eyes, he told me how he’d never do well in the Team Universe and he wouldn’t ever be back again. This was the third year in a row that this bodybuilder had faced this kind of disappointment. I told him that I had empathy for the way he was feeling. But I also told him that I would not be having the pleasure of experiencing winning this show tonight if I hadn’t felt the same pain he was feeling last year. I told him that my pain drove me to work harder and smarter than I ever had before in my life. I’m not sure if my words made a difference, but that bodybuilder won the overall title in one show and placed second in a non tested contest within the next two months. I also heard that he made some amazing improvements. Ironically, that bodybuilder is a good buddy of my friend who accused me of using drugs. My friend was so impressed with his improvement that he began predicting that his buddy would win the next year’s Team Universe! He came in a amazing third place the next year—with one judge even placing him higher than me! I thought about giving my friend a good ribbing by telling him, “No one can make that kind of improvement in only one year!”
In closing, let me ask you another question. How will you choose to view your next inevitable setback? I have faith that you have the power within you to turn what may seem like your worst day into your best day—no matter how difficult it may seem at the time. The next time you are faced with a problem that threatens your passion for bodybuilding, stop, pull yourself together, and say, “Ahhhh . . . so this is what Skip was writing about! This is one of the setbacks Shawn Ray told me I’d need to overcome to become a champion! Well, I’m ready to do whatever it takes to rise to this fascinating challenge!”