5 Fitness Lessons I Learned Playing Final Fantasy Tactics
I downloaded Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions on my smartphone over the weekend. One might argue that this was a bad move; I have spent way too many hours on this game over the years than I care to admit, and now being an adult and full-time graduate student with a job it might not be the best idea to expose myself to a game that I have already finished like seven times but for some reason keep playing. It's like giving Frank the Tank alcohol. But nobody tells me what to do. My characters are in level 50 now, and I’m sleep deprived.
So what did I learn from all this (besides the fact that I am an idiot and that my life lacks so much meaning that I latch on to an 18 year-old game to satisfy my brain’s dopamine requirements)? Well I’m a fitness professional, and some of the concepts I apply in training, I learned from the game.
1. "Grease The Groove"
GTG is a concept I believe was coined by Pavel Tsatsouline. The way I understand it, you pretty much get “stronger” through practice, and practice is most effective in a non-fatigued state. Simply practicing the movement will make one stronger at that movement. Training doesn’t have to be hard or heavy; you just do your easy reps as frequently as you can without straining so much. It almost feels like cheating because you technically didn’t “earn” your strength, at least not in the conventionally accepted way (of lifting so much weight that you fry your CNS for a week)
Was that one-time 400-pound Deadlift worth almost an entire week off? Only because I got a picture.
Up to around level 20 I spent all my time going back and forth from Igros/Eagrose Castle to Gariland Magic CIty, picking countless fights in the Mandalia Plains and slaying the same Goblins, Red Panthers, and Chocobos. Yes, at first they gave me trouble, with all of my characters being low-level Squires or Chemists with no abilities beyond Throw Stone and maybe a Counter Tackle. But I keep at it and I upgrade to Knights and eventually Monks and so on, and I’m now usually just slaying these fools who have nothing beyond Claw, Venom Fang, Tackle, Eye Gouge, Beak, and Choco Cure while I’m teleporting and summoning Shiva on them. I’m still gaining experience and job points, but it’s way too easy. All these gains without training to failure or straining too much, none of my characters in any real danger, it almost feels like cheating.
2. Progressive Overload
The enemies in the story battles remain at a set level. The ones in the random encounters, however, match your characters’ levels, allowing one to gain the appropriate amount of experience points in order to level-up. This illustrates the concept of progressive overload and how eventually as you get stronger you will have to add more weight to the bar in order to advance. I believe the most famous illustration of this concept was the story of the Greek wrestler Milo of Croton, who carried a calf on his back every day. Over the years that calf gradually grew in size and Milo’s strength levels adapted accordingly, until eventually he was carrying a fully-grown bull on his back (which is probably BS, because those things weigh like 2’400 pounds). So level 1 Ramza slays that Chocobo day-in and day-out, until eventually he’s slaying a level 30 Chocobo whose Beak attack would probably kill a level 1 character immediately.
It also teaches you never to be complacent. You could know the terrain and the enemies well, but if you get too cocky and decide to do something stupid like walk around with a party of five Time Mages with no one to take or deal damage, you’re probably losing a few of your characters. In the same way even if you’ve been squatting for a decade, if you walk into the rack and decide to not respect your 3RM weight you will probably get flattened.
3. “Train Hard, Fight Easy”
I initially didn’t like Final Fantasy Tactics. There seemed to be way too many factors involved in winning, it became frustrating. I don’t really remember why I started playing again, I think it was when I found out what the zodiac symbols meant and I decided to create my character, but I went through it with my usual strategy in life -- just show up better-trained and a lot stronger than the competition; just like Dragon Ball Z taught me. So I showed up with a group of maxed-out Monks equipped with Hamedo/First Strike to Gaffgarion’s (who is supposed to be some scary bad-assed dude like 5 levels above you) boss battle at Lionel Castle where he ambushes Ramza before he can open the castle gate, forcing him to either run to open the gate or engange in one-on-one combat. I had spent so much time picking random fights that I had something like 10 levels on him. I punched him twice and he was dead in two turns. Easy fight. Home for dinner. If you’ve ever showed up to an event and completely outclassed the competition, you would know the feeling. This is also sometimes called “sandbagging” in Jiu-jitsu. Don’t do it; it’s a dick move.
4. Periodization and Focus
As Alwyn Cosgrove pointed out, it’s virtually impossible to multi-task. Focusing on way too many things is focusing on nothing, and the people who become extraordinary at something usually took the time to focus on that thing they are now great at. A lot of us want to do everything at the same time. The job system in Final Fantasy Tactics makes it abundantly clear that no, you cannot do that. You want to master being a Ninja? You have to pay your dues. You need to put your time in as an Archer first (level 4). Then a Thief (level 5). Then Geomancer (level 2). Only then can you even begin to start Ninja-ing, equipping two weapons and throwing stuff. You want to Snatch your bodyweight, but you can’t even touch your toes? As Gray Cook put it, you have to earn your right to exercise. Pay your dues.
Western or Block Periodization is a method of planning training utilized for many seasonal athletes. It divides training into cycles or “blocks” which focus on a particular quality to improve at a time, either work capacity, hypertrophy, strength, power, etc. These qualities build upon one another so the athlete can maximize gains and will be at peak performance when it matters. In the same way you can’t just jump into power training without establishing a base of strength and expect the same results. These things are planned, just like your plan to become a Ninja. Sure, you can just do whatever, “throwing a bunch of shit at the wall and hoping something sticks” and maybe you’ll get there; or you can go about it with a plan and ensure that you do. Have a plan.
5. Enjoy the Process / Park Bench Training
I guess the main point why I kept playing Final Fantasy Tactics for years is because I find it generally fun. It’s fun levelling-up your characters, learning new jobs and skills, and just slaying monsters, dragons, and demons. But it’s not all fun and exciting battles. Sometimes you waste encounters on like two Chocobos and a Skeleton, and it can get frustrating, especially if you’re really trying hard to encounter that one Samurai who has that katana Kiku-ichimonji that doesn't seem to be for sale at any Outfitter at the moment. Yes, it's stupid, it's a waste of time, but that’s just the way it is. You just have to power through and get the work done without necessarily advancing the story or anything. Enjoy the process. Eventually all those small encounters will add up, leading to a level increase or job points for another skill, but that’s beside the point. The point is just play the damn game.
Dan John illustrated a concept of Park Bench vs. Bus Bench training. Occasionally your training is goal-oriented: you're prepping for a fight, you're entering a physique competition, you're training for the combine, beach season is coming up, etc. Bus Bench. You're on a schedule to arrive at a destination in a specific route. You train with a singular purpose, and you allot your resources towards achieving that purpose. We would like to think that we should always train like this, but we would probably be wrong. You can't go pedal-to-the-metal all the time; that's a recipe for burnout, gains aren't linear (which can be cause for frustration), and the reality is that not every day is a good day. A lot of people seem to believe that every training session should be approached like they're storming Normandy. They post a lot of memes about "murdering" their workouts and celebrating not being able to walk after "leg day", and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. But with expectations like that it becomes way too easy to skip training and buy your own excuses if the stars don't happen to perfectly align and it's just a generally crappy day. Mark Reifkind said "Don't tell me how much weight you lifted in your last training session; tell me how many workouts you've missed in the last six months." Training is long-term. Training is, first and foremost, about showing up. Consistency trumps intensity.
Yes, every now and then have goals and strive to achieve those goals. But for the rest of the year the more important challenge is getting your ass to training and just getting the work done. Not setting a PR. Not "owning those weights". (Although it doesn't hurt.) Showing up. Getting it done. Becoming comfortable with the fact that it's just another thing you have to do today. Just like brushing your teeth; you don't need to enjoy it, you just have to get it done. Explore your workouts. Have fun. Hang out at a certain rep range without feeling the need to increase the weight tomorrow. No pressure. Park Bench.