Archive for February, 2014

The Seasons of the Ninja Year

Friday, February 21st, 2014

I often think of the American Ninja Warrior year breaking down into major seasons roughly equivalent to the five major seasons that professional football players go through. The first phase is the off-season, when the next season is far off and you’re maybe not in full madman training mode, perhaps recovering emotionally and physically from the most recent season’s competition.  This phase is long and usually covers from late summer when the season finishes airing on TV until past the winter holidays, and can sometimes be a lonely phase with erratic swings ranging from intense motivation for the next season to self-loathing over having not performed better the previous season.  Many serious competitors really rachet up their preparation during this phase and change up their training regimen, including possibly building a number of replica obstacles themselves, usually including the one they failed the previous season.  This is a phase that really separates the serious competitors with serious aspirations from the “hobbyists”.  This past off-season more than any other I saw the quality and quantity of preparation from ninjas go through the roof.  I think the increased exposure in mainstream media of the show combined with watching Brian Arnold almost grab the title of the “First American Ninja Warrior” this past season really inspired many top ninjas to try a mad competitive dash to the top of Mt Midoriyama for American Ninja Warrior 6.

Right after the winter holidays and at the start of the new calendar year there is the “combine” part of the season when competitors start their “auditions” to get accepted to compete in the next season, and everybody works hard on completing a compelling submission video.  Getting accepted to compete in the upcoming season really swings on these submission videos in which applicants have to demonstrate both charisma and a compelling back-story as well as some serious athletic and obstacle course chops.  This is akin to the NFL combine as we audition for our dreams.  Most applicants and ninja regulars post our videos publicly for each other, which is sort of a tradition, and no doubt there is competitive pressure to improve your own video based on the escalating excellence of the submission videos of others.  Below is my own submission video for American Ninja Warrior 6 which I just entered a couple of weeks ago.  During this phase the ninja community comes alive as we start the busy chatter guessing where and when the regional rounds will be, and share our excitement and hopes about getting to compete in the upcoming season.


Once the “combine” period is over, basically when they close the submission window, we enter the most agonizing part of the year, the “pre-season” where we’ve effectively done everything we can to make the team, we’re just waiting to hear whether we’ve made it.  This is the phase where I, and my ninja brothers and sisters, currently stand at the moment.  The submission window just closed, and we’re waiting a painfully long indeterminate amount of time to hear (1) where this year’s regions will be, (2) when this year’s regionals will be, and (3) whether they’re actually inviting us to compete or not, which usually happens just a week before our designated regional round occurs.  This pre-season chapter is a painful stage full of hope, agony, and often overly intense physical training.  For me this is the phase when I punish myself with a diet that probably ultimately doesn’t make that big of a difference (I usually drop 10 pounds down to about 213), and I push myself to improve my burst cardio.  I also try to get as much training on actual obstacles as possible, which has historically proven challenging based on where I’ve lived.  The next two months are tough tough waiting, and I usually (somewhat) successfully Jedi Mind Trick myself into believing that I already have an invite to compete to avoid the distraction of uncertainty and to focus my attentions 100% on preparation.  Still, this time of waiting is tough, and my wife knows that this is a stage of increasing distraction and ninja obsession for me.

Finally, after having gotten a call confirming our invitation to compete usually around 10 days before the actual competition, we have our favorite stage of the American Ninja Warrior year – actually competing!  Let me say this with no equivocation, the experience competing in American Ninja Warrior is awesome!  From the camaraderie with fellow competitors, to the delicious anticipation right before stepping onto the course after dreaming of it all year long, to the actual attempt on the course, it is an amazing and positive life-altering experience.  I wrote about the experience at length after last season.  For most of us, the “season” lasts just one intense weekend.  For all but the top 75-100 people who advance to the National Finals a month or two later in Las Vegas, the “season” is brutally short given the lengths of training and waiting that preceeded it.  Even those that advance to the regional finals round only get to prolong their season by a few days, if that (regional finals rounds are usually within a day or two of the regional round).  But brevity of competition is the nature of this beast, and what we signed up for.  Mostly the “season” ends for us with mixed emotions – gratitude for getting to have such an intense experience, and disappointment for not having progressed as far as we wanted.  By the very nature of an obstacle course competition that nobody has completed in five seasons, most ninjas feel disappointed that they didn’t advance farther regardless of whether they failed on the first obstacle (the Quad Steps) of the opening round or the final obstacle of Stage 3 in the National Finals.  You are destined for disappointment of some level.

The final stage of the American Ninja Warrior season is the “post-season” when the actual competition is often long done, and the show finally airs over a couple of months during its TV season.  As competitors we’re bound by silence to not talk about how we did until the show airs to maintain secrecy, so when the season finally unfolds on TV in front of millions of fans, friends, and family, it is an exciting time for the competitors to share how we did.  It’s also when our respective friends and family get to see the madness that inspires us on glossy network-produced TV, which is pretty cool, and we ourselves get to see how many of our ninja friends fared in regions and rounds other than our own.  Watching other ninjas compete motivates us, stokes the fire within, and reminds us that we began our journeys simply as fans of the show ourselves (usually Ninja Warrior Japan originally).  Often this is a fun stage for the competitors, we get to share our passion with people around us, and the competitors actively chat in our respective online communities offering support, encouragement, and commiseration to each other.  It’s the final stage of the American Ninja Warrior year, one that is often bittersweet as it concludes and you’re left wondering if you’ll ever get a chance to step onto the course again to redeem yourself.  You have fears that maybe the show doesn’t renew for another season, and maybe if it does they won’t ever let you back.  It is a lonely sad moment, until you convince yourself that next year will be different and you’ll train like never before to make that happen.  And that’s when the ninja off-season begins again…

Rinse and repeat.