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Arnolds Art of War

Bill Dobbins

Arnold's Multi-Faceted Mastery

Schwarzenegger was a master of gamesmanship as well as a bodybuilder with a great physique. Anyone who competed against Arnold during his bodybuilding career knew that as impressive as The Austrian Oak was in physical terms, he was also a major threat when it comes to psychology, tactics, and competition strategy. Back when he was winning titles, Arnold was already showing the ability to defi ne a goal and figure out practical ways of achieving that goal that would later make him the number one movie star in the world and governor of California.

Mind Games and Psychological Warfare

Arnold's prowess in psychological warfare extended far beyond the physical realm of bodybuilding. His ability to strategically manipulate opponents' mindsets was a cornerstone of his success. For one thing, Arnold loved to play with your mind. For example, he was backstage at a contest and one of the competitors approached him and asked, “Well, Arnold, how do I look?” “You look fantastic,” Arnold replied. “Keep making progress like this and you might win this contest in a couple of years.” Of course, this was a dig rather than a compliment. The bodybuilder was hoping to win the event that year, and Arnold’s comment was totally deflating. It’s like the scene in Pumping Iron when Arnold has breakfast with Lou Ferrigno. Lou has missed his timing, says Arnold. “A month from now will be perfect for you.” He goes on, “Can you imagine the feeling I have, six times Mr. Olympia? It blows my mind when I think of it. I called my mother yesterday already and I said I won.”

He also told Ferrigno not to worry about never being able to win the Olympia since he had two Mr. Universe titles. It was clear Arnold was totally in control and Louie was discouraged and intimidated. Some people would call Arnold’s approach gamesmanship— which is the opposite of sportsmanship. It’s all about success by any means that aren’t actually illegal or against the rules.

Here is a definition from the Free Dictionary: games·man·ship (gmzmn-shp) n.

1. The art or practice of using tactical maneuvers to further one’s aims or better one’s position: “a sometimes wry, sometimes savage look at the players, political games-manship, turf battles and outright chaos that permeated Washington” (David M. Alpern).

2. The use in a sport or game of aggressive, often dubious tactics, such as psychological intimidation or disruption of concentration, to gain an advantage over one’s opponent.

Self-Confidence and Self-Critique

Arnold was also extremely good at remaining self-confident while being self-critical at the same time. He knew his own weaknesses. For example, Arnold was a hugely impressive bodybuilder in his day, with a massive chest, wide and powerful lats, striated delts, and bulging biceps. But he was far from perfect. He had to pump up his triceps intensely in the months before a competition to balance out his upper arms. His waist was comparatively thick, and his thighs didn’t flare enough from the front, so he worked on poses done with a twist that brought in his waistline and showed his legs more from the side, where they appeared immense. He never had a ripped six-pack, so he developed the ability to do a very impressive vacuum. The point is that Arnold knew what his weaknesses were and adjusted for them. Back when Tom Platz had the most incredible quadriceps development on the planet, some competitor in a pose down rushed across the stage and started flexing his thighs next to Tom’s. What kind of delusional thinking did that involve? That’s like trying to outpunch Mike Tyson at his best. Arnold, on the other hand, would never make such a mistake. He was expert at what is called situational awareness. When other bodybuilders were pumping up before a show with their minds mostly focused on themselves, their own feelings, their own concerns, Arnold would be taking in the whole scene, aware of everyone else and what they were doing, and therefore able to react to the changing situation in a way that furthered his own best interests.

The classic case of Arnold’s thinking along these lines took place at a Mr. Olympia in which he was competing against the amazing Sergio Oliva. Arnold and Sergio were posing down together. They finished and walked offstage. Sergio was in the lead, but Arnold hung back and let The Myth go on ahead of him. He then turned around, came back onstage, and continued posing, getting a roar of approval from the audience. At some point, Sergio realized Arnold was no longer behind him and heard the cheers from the audience. He turned around and rushed back onto the stage. At that point, Arnold waved to the audience and intercepted Sergio as he returned. “It’s all over,” Arnold told him, and guided him back into the wings. It takes a certain kind of personality and considerable experience to be able to think clearly under the stress of competition—in any sport. Bodybuilders have been known to come out into the lineup still wearing flip-flops or having forgotten to take off their glasses. They are told to do a quarter turn to the right, and they turn left. The judge calls for a certain, compulsory pose and they do the wrong one. There are all sorts of ways bodybuilders can self-sabotage: Going off somewhere after prejudging and not being able to get back in time for the finals.

Falling asleep back at the hotel after prejudging and sleeping through the finals. One pro at the Mr. Olympia decided to take a nap backstage before the finals, finding a place to stretch out behind some equipment and didn’t wake up until the competitors were actually onstage—and was disqualified. Arnold would not have been likely to make any of these kinds of mistakes. He was too aware of his surroundings and what he needed to do. Of course, he wasn’t the only bodybuilder with this ability.

Tactical Maneuvers and Competition Strategies

Arnold wasn’t the only one to approach competition focused on mere physical ability. Frank Zane also showcased a masterful display of strategic maneuvering. At one Mr. Olympia contest in Columbus, as the group rode into town on a bus, they passed a motel that said in big letters on its marquee, “Welcome Frank Zane, Mr. Olympia.” A nice piece of gamesmanship. It turned out that instead of using one of the dressing rooms, Frank had a rented RV just outside in the parking lot where he could prepare in privacy. In those days, the Mr. Olympia had weight classes, which required the competitors to strip down and weigh in. Most delayed, reluctant to show off their conditioning to their competitors. But just as the weigh-in began, Frank took off his sweats, stepped on the scale, and was gone before anyone was much aware of what was going on. So, like Arnold, Zane was very situationally aware and able to turn circumstances to his best advantage. The same was true once onstage. While Arnold was known for very powerful, energetic posing, Frank had a different approach. He had totally mastered a relatively few poses and when posing or in a pose down, would unhurriedly go from one to the other.

We used to say that coming back from a contest with a sleeve full of transparencies of Frank onstage, you could use any one of them. He hit and held each pose until “all the flashbulbs went off,” which gave the judges an excellent view as well. Posing down against Mike Mentzer in 1989, Mike hurriedly hit one pose after another, and would look over at Zane after each one. Frank just hit his normal shots and ignored Mike. Of course, when the audience looked at Mike, and then he looked at Zane, the audience would look at Zane. So, everyone ended up looking at Zane. Staying calm and deliberate while Mentzer appeared rushed and anxious, Frank reinforced the impression that he was a confident winner. That is a tactic Arnold would highly approve of. Arnold did a lot of poses and frequently changed from one to the other quickly. But he always paid attention to what his opponents were doing. Arnold would never make the mistake of flexing his quadriceps next to a Tom Platz.

Mastering the Art of Observation

During the era in which Arnold was competing, there was nobody with better genetics than Sergio. He had an immense chest and back, and huge arms. His waist was tiny, and his thighs were powerful with an incredible flare. Arnold made it a point to try to never hit the same pose as Sergio in a pose down. Sergio would hit a front double biceps, and Arnold would do a twisting back pose. If Sergio did a back pose, Arnold would do something like a side chest or forearm pose. Again, you don’t try to outpunch Mike Tyson. Because Arnold was the master of promotion and got so much publicity in the magazines, he created an image of superiority that influenced the fans, promoters, judges, and his fellow competitors. He was an intimidating figure, much the way Tiger Woods was a few years ago, when opponents felt discouraged simply by having to compete against him. But early on in his career, Arnold himself admits he was intimidated on some occasions himself.

For example, when he competed against Sergio the first time, the bodybuilders were filing out of the pump-up area on their way to the stage. Sergio was famous for wearing a white butcher’s coat backstage. Arnold recalls The Myth was walking ahead of him and started to take off the coat, flexing and revealing one incredible, bulging lat and then the other. He just seemed to swell and expand to amazing size. Arnold admits that he just about gave up at that point. Sergio seemed unbeatable. But if you ask Arnold what his strongest characteristics are, he would list near the top “being a learner.” Faced with a new situation or new information, Arnold adapts and learns. After that incident, he understood the power of intimidation and used this to his advantage over time, both in bodybuilding and afterwards as well. And he realized the necessity of sticking to the program and staying the course. At his first Mr. Universe appearance in London, naïve and inexperienced Arnold was backstage and was awed and impressed by being in the company of so many of his heroes. One of the competitors was drinking wine and smoking a cigar. So, Arnold decided it would be a good idea for him to drink some wine and smoke a cigar. But since he didn’t smoke at the time the cigar made him very sick so that he wasn’t feeling very well when it came time to go out onstage and pose.

Lessons from Arnold's Competition Experience

Arnold learned his lesson, and it is one other competitors should take to heart. As the date of a show comes close, some bodybuilders get so nervous that they can be talked into almost anything. One I know of felt so flat that he went out and ate a gallon of ice cream. Others change their diet at the last minute in other radical ways or double up on their diuretics. I remember one of the top pros wandering around in the hotel Friday night before the Saturday contest, and he was so wired you could have convinced him that the secret to getting ripped was M&M’s—taken in suppository form! Arnold made mistakes early on, but he learned quickly and became the most formidable competitor of his day. Summed up, here’s what we can learn from him:

• Develop situational awareness. At the contest, don’t be so self-centred that you don’t notice what other competitors are doing or feeling. Be prepared to take advantage of opportunities.

• Stay aware once you’re onstage, especially during a pose down. Who else is onstage, and what poses are they hitting? Which judges are you most interested in impressing? Where is the light? It’s no use rushing way downstage to an area that’s mostly in the dark. Stay looking strong and confident even when standing back in the lineup and staying comparatively uninvolved.

• Stay the course. Know exactly what you’re going to do prior to and at a contest and stick to the plan. Don’t let anyone talk you into last-minute experiments except in the most extreme of circumstances. Hang out in your room, watch TV, listen to music—stay calm, collected, and focused.

•Being in great shape is intimidating to your opponents all on its own. But so is being relaxed and confident, seeming to take your victory and success for granted. Have confidence—not arrogance. Be aware that doing things to make your competition angry can stiffen their resolve to beat you.

• Beware of being intimidated yourself. Nothing anyone does or says backstage is going to change the outcome of the contest. The competition takes place on the stage and is decided by the judges. Your task is simply to present yourself to the best advantage, to pose well and appear confident. That’s all that you should be concerned with, so don’t bring a lot of baggage with you when you go onstage to compete.

• Remember that publicity and politics don’t decide the outcome of a contest, but they count. Judges are people, and they are influenced by what they think about competitors going in, no matter how hard they try to be objective. So, use photos, video, social networking, websites, and magazine coverage to enhance your image. The better you get along with people, the better that image is going to be. Avoid confrontations—especially when you are in the right. Many will forgive you when you are wrong and never forget situations in which you were proved right.

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