This article could be considered part II of the previous Psycho Factor article, because it does have a considerable amount in commmon with that topic. For a quick review, the psycho factor explains how our body can ramp up force production in response to different types of stressors due to the impact of rate coding. It explains why we're stronger and more powerful under conditions of stress. This article deals with the impact that your training environment has on this quality, particularly with regards to "explosive" speed-strength activities.
By speed-strength I'm referring to activities that involve a decent degree of speed coupled with force - things like vertical jump, sprints, throws, spikes, and kicks. If you want a technical definition, speed-strength would loosely involve any activity where the resistance you're overcoming is 30% or less of your maximum. If the activity involves your bodyweight it most assuredly could be considered a speed strength activity, unless you're talking about something like the rings in gymnastics which involve strength to a greater degree.
The Ever Changing State of Readiness
I'm usually not one to harp much on motivational stuff, but it is paramount how important the mind, and more importantly, adrenaline, is for tasks involving speed strength. Technically our mindset and the physiology associated with it as known as our state of readiness. Our state of readiness can (and typically does) vary considerably and it's not really something that can be measured on paper. It's always there and always everchanging but you don't really see it. This helps explain why displays of and gains in explosive activities can, and typically are, extremely finicky. You go days, weeks, and months without any gains then all the sudden BAM!! - overnite you see a nice 5% gain. It's no coincidence that these gains normally coincide with being in a state of heightened arousal - a game, a super competitive training situation, or a 6-pack of red bull in combination with one of those.
Environment - The Missing Link
So often we talk about the composition of the training - the exercises the sets, the reps, the periodization schemes. But few people ever talk about the training environment, which in my opinion is often the missing link. If your bored with your training and your training environment is boring there's a good chance your not going anywhere. This is true to a good extent for general strength training as well. If you train with a group of competitive athletes day in and day out you WILL make much better strength gains than training by yourself.This is particularly true for lower body strength training - when you have other people around you lifting big scary weights the bar suddenly doesn't "feel" as heavy. Upper body lifts like the bench press aren't quite as prone to mental stimulation as whole body lifts like the squat and deadlift. Strength acquisition does tend to come easier in a competitive environment but it is possible and fairly common to make strength gains training all alone in isolation. Getting mentally fired up is arguably even less important for pure size training and even less important for gains in endurance, flexibility, and other facets of fitness, yet speed-strength tasks tend to be quite mentally dependent.
Why People Can Sometimes Get Great Results From Subpar Training?
A bad routine performed with focus in a superior environment can produce better results than a good routine performed in a bad environment. I could spend weeks writing up one of the most elaborate 40 yd dash and vertical jump routine ever for Joe average athlete who trains all by himself on a ranch in Wyoming. He'd probably get decent results off it, but send that same athlete to any given combine prep center or speed school, where you're sure the trainers are absolutely terrible, and as long as he's surrounded and training with other high level motivated athletes in a competitive environment doing some form of jump and speed training chances are good his 40 yd dash and VJ numbers will be better in the short term in the group environment, despite the less than optimal training. That also explains why the first couple of weeks of any new training scheme you start tend to be the most productive. You're fired up and mentally into your training and that can and often does make a substantial difference.
This isn't to say you need to be 100% mentally jacked each and every training session or that the composition of your training isn't important, but you should be aware that your best "displays" in something like a vertical jump or sprint will come when you're mentally and physiologically stimulated on a fairly regular basis and the existence of or lack of THAT in your training can have substantial effects. Ideally you want good training AND a good environment.
Age and Adrenaline
Perhaps nowhere is environment quite as important as in the older. Moreso than most other activities, endeavors involving the combination of speed and power are finicky at best and EXTREMELY short lived from a longevity perspective. Think about sprinters and olympic lifters. By the age of 30 they're ancient. Injuries obviously have something to do with this but I believe the psycho factor also plays a considerable role. As humans age they tend to get more relaxed mentally...less temperamental...less intense...less stimulated - and those things impact speed-strength considerably (and also things like body-fat levels & nutrient partitioning). Testosterone declines a bit, the density of adrenoreceptors in the muscles & CNS declines a bit, and the end result is older guys are no longer as prone to embrace their inner Mike Tyson as they once were. One thing you can do for the natural age relted decline is to maximally engage your mind and body in training, which can be done by training or competing in an environment that gets you JACKED UP regularly. A common maxim among aging athletes is if you train around young people you stay young. If you stop competing you fall off the cliff in a hurry.
What To Do
If you have to choose one aspect of your training that best responds to arousal levels it would be the speed-strength training itself: plyometrics, sprints, and such. In my observations many athletes that make significant and rapid improvements in their vertical jumps do quite a bit of actual jumps on public courts or facilities where people see them and they have reason to get motivated. They may do their strength training alone but when it's time to show what they can do there are often people around to motivate them.
Having said that, there is a fine line between getting enough stimulation and too much, too often. Too much stimulation and you run yourself into the ground and burn yourself out. It should also be noted that the effects of a competitive mentally stimulating environment will be somewhat individual - some people will notice nothing from adrenaline while others will notice a TON. If you're the type that easily tends to burn yourself out you're probably also the type that ramps up force production very well in a competitive, emotionally charged environment - you could be called overtly adrenaline responsive.** You probably have a very large difference between your "normal" efforts (whether in terms of strength or explosive measurables) and your mentally stimulated efforts. If you're this type of guy you might intentionally need to hold yourself back - maybe restrict your mentally aroused efforts to once per week, which is still plenty to reap the benefits.
If you're exactly the opposite, meaning you don't really notice a difference in your performance no matter how fired up you get or how lazy you feel, you could be called adrenaline unresponsive** and probably don't need to worry much about burnout. You're like an Everlast battery. You can probably take a fistful of stimulants, drink 2 pots of coffee, and sleep 4 hours per night for a week straight and still be close to 100%.
What if you're not sure what type you are? well if you had to think more than 2 seconds when I described the overtly adrenaline responsive type you're not one. Those types will recognize themselves immediately.
Points To Take Home:
1. Don't neglect the importance of training environment and it's ability to influence gains. A bad routine in a superior environment can produce better results than a good routine in a bad environment.
2. If it is possible for you to train in a competitive group do so, particularly when peaking.
3. If you're bored with your training find ways to make it more exciting. Join a league of some sort, Find a training partner, or change your routine.
4. Don't be afraid to put pressure on yourself - Do your jumps & sprints in an environment that induces some degree of motivation.
5. Don't go overboard - If your training is ALWAYS maximal and competitive it is just as bad as not being competitive enough. The more intensive (mentally stimulating) your training is, the more often you need to take deload weeks. Some people may need to reduce the volume by 50% as frequently as every 3rd week.
6. Use smart timing - The same thing I talked about in "The Psycho Factor" with regards to the use of stimulation methods applies here. You don't NEED to train competitively ALL the time. If in doubt save it for when you want to peak.
Good luck with it!
** These are just terms I pulled out of my butt and made up on the spot. I felt they did an adequate job conveying what I wanted to say, but don't expect to find them in any scientific texts.