I'll jump in here. I know I've probably told the story over the years, but I'll rehash a bit
I always trained because I loved it, nothing more. Yes I probably did much more research than the average gym rat, but at the end of the day, that's just how I am. Everything I've ever decided to dedicate time to, I went above and beyond to learn as much as I could about it.
So at a seminar on training and nutrition in Jersey, I met Steve Downs (former editor of Natural Bodybuilding & Fitness magazine), and Jim Cordova (multi-Universe Winner along with countless Pro titles over the years). After the presentation, I struck up conversations with both gentlemen that went beyond the usual "thanks, I learned a lot" comments.
Neither could believe that I had never competed before, which was odd to me, because despite having trained for well over a decade by this point, I hadn't ever really weighed my own development against the guys in the mags because they just seemed so far ahead of anything I saw in the gym.
Well, Jim is not only a champion on stage, but a first class gentleman. We ended up emailing, and he was more supportive than I ever would have thought. Steve Downs emailed me as well, asking for a little feedback on his presentation, and told me point blank that he felt I could do "serious damage" if I ever decided to get onstage (he also put me in the magazine even though I hadn't even competed!)
So I kicked the subject around with my training partner at the time, and decided that despite already being "the guy" in the gym that people seemed to always come to for advice, this really would be the acid test to whether I was just blowing smoke out my ass repeating what I had read, or heard other people say, or if I truly understood how the pieces of the puzzle all fit together.
I found a couple of shows that were drive-able, and weren't too soon, giving myself what seemed to be enough time based on what I'd read. In hindsight, I was very lucky that even though I always played myself down a bit, I did have a serious handle on a lot more info than many first time competitors do. Add to that the fact that I could e-mail Jim and it was a great situation. During this time, I also reached out to another Pro I looked up to, Brian Whitacre.
Just like Jim, Brian was first class all the way. Neither guy ever tried to get me as a client, or guilt me into offering payment or anything. They weren't training me, or even making suggestions, it was more of them really just verifying what I was doing, which certainly gave me much more confidence than I might have had otherwise.
The day of that actual first contest, watching other competitors strip down to weigh in, I had some serious second thoughts. These guys looked like bodybuilders. They had muscles, cuts, everything just flowed together, not just in an imposing manner, but in an artistic way that conveyed much more intention than just an "I'm gunna get hyooge" approach to their training.
Luckily, my boy Corey wouldn't let me wiggle out of it. I had done too much work, suffered too much, and however the chips fell, I should be proud of what I had done.
Now, to skip over stretching this out too much, yeah, I did well, very well. Well enough to have judges approach me afterwards asking what my next show was to be, how long I had been training, and even did my first interview with an online magazine. BUT, even then, I had a very skewed perception of what I looked like.
When I stepped out for that first class (I entered 3), and I was left all the way on the left of the stage, it wasn't because I was so bad, it was because I was easily ahead of the rest of the class! I just couldn't see it! So when people ask, how did you know you were ready,... well, I guess I didn't. I competed because I felt deep down that it would be a good experience for me, not because I had any serious thoughts of winning, or even doing well.
That's why when someone comes to me with the "should I compete" question, I ask them what they want out of it. Too many people who have never gotten onstage are too quick to tell other people that it's a bad idea, or that they're not ready. To me, that's just projecting your own issues on someone else's goals.
I was coaching a 70 year old competitor the other day. He's getting onstage in about a month and all of his kids and grand kids are coming to watch. Does he have plans to walk off with all the top hardware? No. He just wants to make himself and his clan proud of how hard he's worked, and what he's accomplished. To me, that's a victory.