When To Leave The One You're With

by Cameron Conaway

It is a tale of love and loyalty. A love that causes blindness; a loyalty that causes stagnation. When should you leave your gym? When should you leave your coach or trainer? Is leaving the right move? 

Most athletes think about this at some point in their career. MMA fighters who leave their team to train elsewhere, even if for a short period of time, often make headlines. Like anything in life, the choice to leave and the way it’s viewed by outsiders can be positive or negative or both. 

Georges St. Pierre is lauded when he temporarily leaves Greg Jackson in New Mexico to train with John Danaher and Renzo Gracie in New York. 

BJ Penn is criticized for rarely leaving his camp in Hilo, Hawaii. When he loses, many pundits bring up the fact that his training camps are often with his friends. 

Shane Mosley made ESPN breaking news when he fired Jack Mosley, his trainer and father. A few months later, Mosley crushed heavily favored welterweight titleholder Antonio Margarito. 

The issue of leaving, however, is much more complex than what we see. Athletes in all sports should always leave the one they are with, even if just for a single workout or a few days. 

Here are five primary reasons why leaving can be a good thing: 

  • Discomfort
  • Athletic Expansion
  • Reducing Burnout
  • Relationships Matter
  • Cross-Training


An uncomfortable athlete can be a good thing and a bad thing. First, the bad. Too much discomfort, that is, training in an environment or with partners the athlete is unaccustomed to can take a serious mental tool. “Functional fixedness” is a term used to describe the way our brain conserves its energy and makes our lives easier through memory and repetition. For example, we no longer have to think about how to brush our teeth. Our brain has formed functional patterns so that this process can be done without thought. The positive result? We can multitask and brush our teeth while pondering if Lululemon Athletica is the stock to buy. The negative result? All patterns aren’t perfect, and dentists often find that the same patients miss the same areas of their teeth when they come in for a cleaning every six months. So, an athlete who is two weeks out from a competition and needing to peak at just the right moment should not switch camps and stay elsewhere. However, an athlete fresh off a fight or competition should absolutely take some time and travel, say, to Brazil to learn of a new culture while sharpening their BJJ. 

From a muscular/neurological standpoint, comfort can be the body adapting. The powerlifter, like any athlete, can and must benefit from adaptations. Their lower back no longer gets sore from the deadlift the way it did when they were a novice. If their form is solid, they no longer have to think of all the details necessary to perform the lift. This means they can enter the gym, load up the bar with plates and bands and attack it with 100% of their mental and physical energy. For the multi-movement performance athlete, this adaptation principle can be manipulated. A boxer, for example, can stick with bread and butter moves like hitting the mitts, but may occasionally throw in a session of yoga just to teach their body new movement patterns that may make them more athletic come fight night. After all, sheer athletic attributes can often trump sheer technique. See Bob Sapp vs. Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira or a prime Roy Jones Jr. vs.…anybody. 

The choice isn’t if to leave your gym or training partners, it’s when.

Athletic Expansion. 

Different athletes at different training locations move differently – be it because they train different techniques or because they train the same techniques in different ways. Like any other animal, we humans mimic the successful movements of others. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we often dress with the style of those who are financially wealthy even if we are not. The same can often go for training. When GSP heads east to Manhattan, he brings his grappling flaws (it may seem unreal, but he does have them) to John Danaher who, like a blacksmith shaping cast iron, refines GSP’s techniques. In this sense, GSP is improving his technique and becoming a more efficient athlete. 

BJ Penn, although he often stays at the same camp, did bring in Marv Marinovich, a strength and conditioning coach who has worked with many elite athletes including Pittsburgh Steelers star safety Troy Polamalu. Marv revamped BJ’s training routine by incorporating different explosive movement patterns than what BJ was used to using. The result? BJ’s body was able to retain the benefits of training movements he became comfortable with because he’d been using them for years – rolling in the gi, for example – but he was also able to develop a more dynamic lower-body capable of moving explosively in new ways and new directions thanks to Marv’s unique training regimen. Obviously, BJ is the top dog at his gym, and when you’re the top dog at your gym it’s essential that you either leave from time to time or bring in people who can push you in ways you’re unaccustomed. 

The mental game is an oft-neglected aspect in every athlete’s program. Shane Mosley, by firing his trainer/father, cleared himself of a certain stressor and was able to develop a new professional relationship, and learn a new, perhaps more efficient way of performing the same fundamental movements of boxing. He now had a trainer without the baggage of also being an empathetic father. He now had a trainer, Nazim Richardson, who didn’t know how Shane was used to training, who wouldn’t do a workout routine just because Shane had been doing it for years. This, in my opinion, helped Shane to avoid becoming stagnant as a fighter. He responded brilliantly with an upset 9th round knockout victory over Margarito. 

Reducing Burnout. 

Seeing the same gym signs, rolling on the same mat, squatting in the same rack, chatting with the same people – it can all lead to a loss of love for the activity. From the beginning of time, functional fixedness has been what’s kept us alive. Our ancestors didn’t have to wonder if a certain berry was poisonous – they’d been eating it every day for twenty years. They didn’t have to wonder if the meat of a deer was edible. However, functional fixedness isn’t what kept humans evolving. It provided a base that allowed for creativity and the learning process. 

Athletes need to hear different sounds, see different people at the gym’s front desk, compare themselves to new athletes and wonder how or if they stack up. Traveling to various gyms across the country is a new experience that can keep the flame for their chosen sport alive. A soccer player burnt out in the United States might find a renewed interest if he or she travels to Costa Rica and practices with their team. 

Burnout can inhibit an athlete from pushing themselves to their limits. It can change their sleep patterns, make them question how they’ve spent their life and even cause them to sink into a minor bout of depression. The best time to temporarily leave your gym is before any of these symptoms occur. Learning can’t stop. If it does, so will the fire and the love. 

Relationships Matter. 

As in Shane Mosley’s case, he needed a new relationship to progress his career. However, even relationships are under intense study right now by sociologists. Because of advances in technology and our increasing reliance on television as a form of companionship, studies are finding that people who are not members of groups in their community or who do not know the neighbors who live just a few feet away are more likely to suffer from depression and cognitive decline than those who are active in their community and engaging with their neighbors. 

The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World is a book by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler M.D. that explores this issue as a central theme. Relationships matter, not only practical relationships that help our business careers or advance us financially, but relationships for the sake of conversation, new perspective, friendship. Relationships matter because they develop trust and help develop deep inner-happiness. A happy athlete is more likely to respond to negativity and loss (inevitable in any profession) with confidence and courage than an athlete without a support system, without a sense of happiness that is achieved outside of their given sport. Kevin Rooney, Mike Tyson’s former trainer, told me that Tyson’s decline coincided with the decline of the relationships in his life. When Tyson’s trainer and father figure (Cus D’Amato) died, he began losing control of himself. When Tyson’s marriage to actress Robin Givens began to crumble, so too did his training and subsequent in-ring performances. 


We all know the benefits of cross-training, but sometimes even our idea of cross-training isn’t radical enough. Sometimes we swim or hit the mountain biking trails instead of heading to the gym – sometimes we’re too consistent in choosing these methods. The advice here is simple: expand your horizons. Bikram Yoga, a 90-minute intensive power yoga sequence performed inside a 105-degree room, will test any athlete’s endurance, balance and stabilizer muscles. It can and will test an athlete in a way their body is not ready for. The following morning, the minute muscles in an athlete’s feet may ache from balancing on one foot. Their hamstrings may be sore from the deep stretching that only a super-heated body can tap into. 

An athlete used to sprinting will feel sore in their traps and abs after incorporating box jumps. 

A world-class Olympic lifter will feel awkward in a Zumba class. 

An athlete used to performing low reps with heavy weight may absolutely shock their system when they bang out sets of twenty-five-rep squats. 

Anderson Silva received a lot of attention when he brought in Aikido-celebrity Steven Seagal to help train him for Chael Sonnen at UFC 117. But, it was new and fresh training. Anderson was constantly laughing and having fun while he was learning (even if what he was learning wasn’t the most practical stuff in the world). Here he was cross-training by learning another martial art’s core, and, by all accounts, he had a good training camp filled with a ton of humor.

Early in an athlete’s career, they may get by with pure hunger for success. That hunger may stem from past pain, as a result of financial instability or for many other reasons. But when an athlete reaches a certain level of personal success, their past hungers wear off and they often find themselves struggling to find the same fire they once had. Some athletes continue to be driven by money to support themselves and their family, some by their pure passion for the sport. But either way, the negative energy they once used as a fire may fade, and if it’s replaced by genuine happiness, an athlete may be able to stay on top for a long time. After all, sustainability is what we’re after. 

These are just a few reasons of many to leave the one you’re with. Moves can be temporary (a 90-minute Bikram class) or a permanent relocation. They can be forced on an athlete or consciously decided by the athlete. Regardless of sport, think about where you or your athletes are mentally, environmentally and bodily. Can advances be made in any of the five areas above as a result of exploration?

Cameron Conaway is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet. He's an NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, an MMA Conditioning Coach and a NESTA Sports Nutrition Specialist. He is the Poet-in-Residence at Mahidol University's Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok, Thailand. Visit him at CameronConaway.com. 



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