the spaz of fitness has arrived

Those Who Teach…

In General, Training on December 15, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Thank you all for bearing with my silence. As you can probably guess, I’ve had a demanding end-of-semester, though it’s beginning to wind down. I’m told that 3 seminar papers is an unusual workload, so I’m hoping this is the first and last time I’ll have to do that all at once. Really, I failed to strategize my course selection and managed to stack together three very high-stakes classes in which I could afford no performance slippage. The final papers, however, have been completed and sent off with a lot of prayers, so I hope that’s enough. This will be a bit of a meandering reflective post… so I beg your patience.

I’ve been thinking about my goals lately– in CrossFit and in life. Predictably, I struggle in finding balance. I want to do everything well. I want to give 110% of myself to everything… Because academia and CrossFit are both addictive and consuming in their very different ways, sometimes I feel divided and crazy when I try to do too much… when I feel guilty about committing myself too much to one thing and allowing the other to slip. But the thing is– I need both in my life. Maybe not academia the institution or CrossFit the specific sport… but I need mental and physical stimulus, constantly. I need a community of writers, I need critical engagement with language and texts, I need to feel in tune with my body, I need to move out of my desk and exert myself in ways that clear my head. I just need to find a way to reconcile the two.

Here’s what I know about myself, if I evaluate myself honestly: I’m an uncoordinated, often incompetent athlete with a decent deadlift and the masochism to make it through (and enjoy) long WODs. I’m a capable writer (most of the time). I’m a tentative scholar who is slowly discovering that she does have contributions to make to current conversations– at least I hope so. I’m an ardent teacher, and I would lose all my time to my students if my paycheck didn’t actually depend on the work I did outside my teaching (the strange contradictions of academia). That impulse to teach, to share what I’ve learned, to help where I can, is something that compels me both in the classroom and at the gym. I still believe it’s possible– I can be a writer/writing instructor/CrossFit coach. But I have to keep my individual objectives in mind.

I’ve been trying to maintain an active presence in the CrossFit interwebs because I like the community and how open it is, and also because I think I can learn a lot from the individuals out there. In the process, I read a lot of blogs and training logs by different athletes. With the games drawing near, I see everyone’s competitive spirits coming out. That’s good and bad. I admire the passion these athletes have– some of whom are genuinely Games-hopefuls, others of whom are garage warriors that are beating themselves up over WOD times that will never be competitive and I wonder… is it worth it? It’s easy for me to get swept up by the energy of it all– to want to kill it in every WOD and to feel crushed again and again when I know I just can’t hold up to the many athletes out there who are and always will be stronger, faster, more talented. But in these moments, I’m trying to remember– my end-game is different than theirs. I have no aspiration to stand atop a podium. I don’t want medals or championship titles. I want to be a coach because I love this community, I love what this sport can do for people– how it empowers them in body and mind. I live for those wonderful, small moments when someone gets her first pull-up, or hits a clean PR, or finishes her first-ever mile run. My favorite memories don’t involve finishing the WOD first, but rather, those times after I’ve finished, when I could drop back down and complete a last round of burpees alongside the “slowest” athlete, who looks about to throw in the towel.

So here’s the thing… I want to think about my training a little differently. I’m not trying to lift the most weight or run the fastest mile. I’ll never get there, and I wouldn’t particularly love it if I did. I just want to do it to the best of my ability, with the most integrity– because that’s what you should admire in a coach, right? Instead of doing the WOD fastest or for the most rounds, I should be thinking about doing it with good form. It’s a fine line, though, because I know there’s a certain social capital in being “flashy.” The Firebreather is accorded automatic respect for how much weight he can throw overhead, for the muscleups he strings together without breaking a sweat. I really enjoyed this recent post  by Justin Lescek (of 70’s Big). Basically, he points out how we tend to flock to gifted athletes for advice even though some of the world’s best coaches aren’t athletes and some of the best athletes are awful coaches. (We see this in academia too… some of the writers I most admire are just really disappointing writing instructors). I actually think there’s a reason for this… the truly gifted are freaks of nature– they’re anomalies. Their experience may not help because no one else’s body will respond like theirs. If most people obeyed the Rich Froning training plan (and trust me, I see plenty on the CrossFit forums who try), they would burn out within a few weeks. Now, that’s not to say that the gifted athlete can’t step back and understand his own eccentricities and then become an extraordinary coach by adapting to the individual needs of each trainee (I have the fortune of working with such individuals)… but that doesn’t always happen. The reverse is also true. I don’t have to be able to clean 250lbs, to be able to observe when someone’s hips don’t fully extend before he drops. I don’t need to squat 500 before designing a training plan that can get someone with the physical potential to do so to fulfill that potential. Of course, there is value in experience– and that’s part of why I’ve been more experimental in my training– trying brute-force linear progressions, the many Westside variations, more traditional metcon routines, etc… learning what works and what doesn’t– but my own experience may still vary from that of anyone else, and the value of that experience is in the knowledge that I can offer a new athlete. I don’t need to be able to say “squat 5×5, three times a week because I did it and it made me a squatting monster.” Instead, I want to be able to tell someone, “Well, the Starting Strength method works like this, but is only recommended if you abstain from most conditioning work… Wendler’s 5/3/1 model accommodates CrossFit well because it’s lower volume and easy to follow, but it’s also better for intermediate lifters,” etc.

So… with those goals in mind… basically, I want to be the best athlete I can be without comparing myself to the firebreathers out there because that will drive me crazy and is not actually what I’m trying to do. I think it’s much more respectable if I make sure my chin undoubtedly clears the bar every time I do a pull-up than if I have a 25-round Cindy and fudge all the reps. Don’t get me wrong– I’m still going to try to become the best CrossFitter I can become, but for me that means… movement integrity before speed, mindfulness before competition. There are phenomenal coaches who are outstanding, Games-level competitors, but I don’t intend to be one of those. I will feel much better no-repping an athlete if I know that I hold myself to the same standards, whether or not it means my time is slower than his, whether or not it cuts a few rounds off my score.

I have a lot of respect for Stephanie Vincent, who coaches at CrossFit King of Prussia and writes her own blog, Radical Hateloss. She has a truly wonderful article for the CrossFit Journal, titled “Coaching Fitness From Scratch”– if you have the time, I really recommend it. She undertakes a thorough discussion of scaling as someone who has required a lot of scaling in her life. If I interpret the article correctly, I think Vincent still can’t do prescribed pull-ups. And she’s a coach– and a damned good one too, based on the comments on her blog and CrossFit KOP’s facebook. I love the perspective she brings to the topic of scaling– that it’s actually a mechanism through which we can treat our athletes equally– so that we can be equally demanding of “unfit” members. It’s not patronizing to ask someone to use a band so that he can get the full range-of-motion on his pull-ups rather than continuing to jump up and kick around until his forehead nears the bar. The band is enabling. It allows him to get the full benefit of the workout– to push his body harder, to teach it the right muscle memory so he will have it when his strength gets there… and it is the job of the coach to help him see that. I also love the really creative scaling options that Vincent gives– such as incline push-ups rather than knee-push ups, or banded knees-to-elbows rather than knees-to-anything.

I guess it’s a silly, nitpicking detail, but I think the change I’m trying to articulate is that I want to shift my mindset from CrossFitter-in-training, to CrossFit-coach-in-training. What will make me someone worth listening to and learning from– a 3 minute Fran or the discipline to make sure I break depth on every thruster? Of course, I absolutely see the value in being a competent athlete and still aspire to do so. I eventually want to participate in a few local competitions, even, for the experience, to further engage with the community and add to the knowledge base from which I can draw… I want a sub-4:00 Fran and a 1.5x bodyweight back squat. But I want to get there with my eye on the larger goal– It’s more important to me to foster the community atmosphere, to encourage all members regardless of skill levels to set and fulfill their individual goals, to learn from the gifted athletes and trainers around me, to focus on my integrity of form, to remain patient patience and an aware that ultimately my WODtimes aren’t what’s going to make me a good coach.

If this sounds a little repetitive, it’s probably because I’m just trying to remind myself. I really do get swept up in the competition fever and start to feel down about myself for not being faster, stronger now. But ultimately that wouldn’t get me where I want to go anyway, so really… I need to focus on me. On being someone worth trusting with your health and well-being. And requires so much more than a beastly squat– as much as I want that too 🙂

Hope everyone else is doing well. Good luck to those with finals and other end-of-semester stresses. The holidays draw near– may they bring you much love and comfort.

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