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Posts Tagged ‘Coaching’

Goalsetting and Girly Tunes

In General, Training on July 6, 2013 at 9:30 pm

I’ve been around a lot lately to see Coach Singalong and his country-music-loving-buddy work out together. You haven’t experienced all that CrossFit has to offer until you watch two men with the collective work capacity of a Spartan army clean and jerk a couple hundred pounds while singing along to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger.” Despite their un-hardcore (softcore? No…) taste in music, they’re both undeniably phenomenal athletes. And, if you compared their scores on the whiteboard, you’d assume they’re evenly matched. But what I find fascinating about watching the pair is that they’re two entirely different trainees.

Coach Singalong is… well, a coach. He knows others will model themselves after his movements. He aspires to competing at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals. He wants to make CrossFit a profession. Most of the time, his every movement is precise. His last push-up is as clean as the first one, even if he slows  between them. Every single squat hits well below depth and he hits full extension at the top. CountryBoy, however, is a totally different beast* (*actually, beast is probably an understatement. This man can bench press a small truck– or a large tractor… for reps). More often, CB is clearly just there to get a workout. A few of his squats miss full depth. If he loses a lift right before full extension, he might not necessarily try it again. That’s not to say that CB can’t hit those lifts perfectly, or that he’s being a dishonest ass that day. It’s just that day, that moment, he’s just working out for himself and doesn’t give a damn. In a stereotypical CrossFit setting, the “hardcore” coach would be “no-repping” the shit out of CB. Would be screaming at him to reach a higher intensity, with more precision. But… sometimes that’s not the point.

As much as I love the CrossFit culture– its passion, its commitment– I think that some participants lose sight of the difference between “training” and “competition.” In “competition,” you want to go all-out… you want to give that 110% and your judges are going to hold you to that precise standard: hips below parallel, chest touching bar, head through the window. From the competitor’s perspective, things look a lot more black-and-white. You want high intensity, and there are clear standards for each movement– from point-A to point-B. With training, there are so many different factors that make a mess of things.

In general, if you’re training for self-improvement, to work on your movement patterns, to work on your health, to become a better athlete– you want the best movement within your range of motion. For some trainees, that’s not a squat to full depth yet. For some, they shouldn’t pull a deadlift off the floor until they have that mobility. For most, that also means that some workouts shouldn’t be for the fastest-damned-time or the most-fucking-reps you can get in that workout. Yes, during competition, that’s important because you’re trying to win by the numbers on the board. But in training, perhaps your personal “win” is a clean where you hit all three extensions, or a kettlebell snatch where you don’t beat the shit out of your forearm. I had a member ask me during our on-ramp if all the “in-between steps” mattered during a Turkish get-up, or if he could just stand the Kettlebell from Point A to Point B. The “in-between” steps matter. They’re not only the most efficient, most stable, safest way to get from point A to point B, but actually the in-between steps of that particular movement also ensure you engage all the muscles that such a full-body exercise intends to train.

You’d think that makes training also black-and-white. In competition… we want intensity and any way from point A to point B. In training, we want perfect form. But it’s not that easy. We’re all so far from perfect. And we have different reasons for training– even from day to day, week to week. And what’s different about CrossFit is, well, we’re really not quite a “sport” in the same way as others… it’s not like a powerlifting gym where every day people come in building towards their next meet… or like Football or Soccer where you’re preparing the team for the game. For a lot of recreational CrossFitters, this is a fun way to get their fitness on and in good company. For CB, sometimes he just wants to get a good sweat and have fun with his training buddy, which I would ruin by telling him he’s missing his lockout on this or that rep. For some of our beginner CrossFitters, they would be entirely demoralized if we “no-repped” every time they didn’t hit all the points of performance. Some of them would never get any reps. It would’ve taken me several months of CrossFit to even be able to write my name on the whiteboard. This means that coaching requires a large amount of compassion and intuition. You have to understand an athlete’s goals, present mood, current motivation, and balance all those things to ensure that he 1) stays safe, 2) progresses, and 3) feels satisfied with his workout. On some days, that means letting CB get away with a few missed reps. On some days, that means slowing a new member down– fixing the second pull of the clean but acknowledging that she’ll need to work on depth and wrist mobility another day.

I’ve had such lofty and faraway goals for myself as a CrossFitter for so long that, for a while, I reached a point where all of my workouts felt hopeless. If I didn’t PR a lift, I wasn’t getting stronger. If I did PR a lift, I wasn’t getting stronger fast enough. If I PR’d one lift but slowed in my metcons, I was getting stronger, but my conditioning was suffering, etc. The way I’ve managed to change this– how I got back to getting excited about every workout and being able to leave the gym each day with some degree of satisfaction– is by setting a small goal for each training session, and adjusting that goal as the session progresses. If I show up at the gym and my bench is just not happening and I missed the strength PR I wanted to set for that day, then I end the day with some technique work. Yes, I didn’t get stronger that day. But I improved my kettlebell clean and the speed of my elbow transition.

Admittedly, too, sometimes like CB I just want to get a good workout without fretting too much about my form. I went to the gym last weekend, during open gym hours, just frustrated with a lot of external bullshit that I let get to me. And I just wanted to rage. So… I didn’t make a plan, didn’t give myself set reps or a time, or whatever. I picked movements that were relatively safe and not technically demanding, and I just bear-crawled and burpee broad jumped and slam-balled until the feels went away. And that was what I needed– nothing quantifiable, nothing on a whiteboard, nothing but the sheer adrenaline of the moment. That was my training goal for those ten minutes of that day. The following day, I came back and drilled my olympic lifts with a PVC for precision. As coaches, we may do well to keep such flexibility in mind when working with clients. Some days, it’s not the time to scream at your athlete to go-go-go. Sometimes he needs to slow down and work on technique. Other days… if he’s not hurting himself, maybe you let him go wild. No one wants to come back day after day to have his form nitpicked to exhaustion. Also, the workout on the whiteboard is not engraved in stone. Perhaps this particular athlete needs to cut the AMRAP to ten minutes. Perhaps she can do this weight but for fewer reps. Maybe she should work on double-unders by doing attempts for one minute instead of counting “reps” so that she can fit in skill-work without A) getting stuck on the movement and wasting the entire WOD getting a “good rep” or B) replacing them with single-unders and not really training that skill at all.

So, takeaways: Coaches should consider the different needs of their athletes on different days, athletes could find greater motivation in making small goals for their workouts, and – most importantly – sometimes big, burly badasses throwdown to really girly tunes.

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Stepping Forward

In General, Training on June 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm

As I travel for work and for CrossFit, I find myself becoming more comfortable in the unfamiliar. In fact, I find myself excited by the unfamiliar– by being immersed in new, daunting environments wherein I have the humbling fortune of meeting people so much more knowledgeable and experienced than I am. This past weekend, Coach let me hang out with her and PowerWOD (her boyfriend/strength coach/elite powerlifter in five different weight classes/nicest guy I know with a 800+lb deadlift) while they were in Virginia to conduct a seminar. Though Coach has helped me a great deal just through video correspondence, emails, and my incessant text messaging, it was so much more helpful to be able to work in person. And just to absorb her knowledge and coaching techniques as well. It also restores my faith in the world to confirm that these athletes and trainers whose careers I’ve long admired are also genuine, down-to-earth people who will readily welcome a neurotic Asian chick as a friend. Furthermore, traveling to CrossFit Annandale, meeting their crew and staff and welcoming community– I’m still stunned by the way CrossFit gives people a shared language with which to connect so quickly.

I insist that, of the many cool things in CrossFit, the best thing it has to offer is the way it brings people together. It took fitness and made it accessible and communal– not that this is new. This has happened in group fitness classes, in yoga studios, in bodybuilding and powerlifting gyms long over time. But I think some athletes and coaches forget to take advantage of the robustness of this community. We become comfortable in our boxes, surrounded by our familiar faces. We’re used to our favorite pull-up bar and wall-ball target and afraid to look incompetent in a new gym. But it’s too easy to stagnate in the familiar– in what we already know. It’s in discovering what we don’t know and pursuing that knowledge that we grow.

Speaking of pursuing knowledge, Coach gave a piece of advice that really stuck with me. It was about the 100’s chipper (event 4). Coach didn’t brag about this during the seminar, but I’ll brag for her here. She took second place in her region. On a 400 rep workout. Her point, during the seminar, was that… during that workout, you can’t think about the 400 reps. You can’t start counting at one and expect to get to 400. All that matters is the rep right in front of you. Similarly, when you’re coaching that athlete, you don’t tell her to get 400. You applaud her one and tell her to get two. Then to do another two. Then get to five. Then six. Thinking about rep 400 at the beginning is soul-crushing. But if you rep it out one by one, you’ll get there.

I couldn’t help thinking about how that applied to my life. Or how I should apply that to my life. Calling myself a graduate student felt like a fantasy. Still, the idea of ever becoming “Dr. Jo” feels impossible and ridiculous. The idea that, at the end of all this, I’ll have been in school for a minimum of 19 years (not even counting preschool)… is beyond soul-crushing. If I woke up thinking about the fact that I still have to finish my coursework, and memorize hundreds of texts and spend days being tested on these texts and pass my comprehensive exams and then write an entire book-length dissertation (along with a second book-length project that my adviser and I have agreed I will try to complete concurrently) and defend that dissertation… and afterwards, throw myself at the mercy of a near-impossible job market and beg for a position at a respectable institution and pray that these 19 years of learning and writing and studying have been enough. Well, fuck, I’d never get out of bed in the morning. I get out of bed by deciding that today, I will get to my classroom and teach my class and hopefully those students will leave a little more excited about the power of language. I will go to my office in the writing center and work with students on individual pages and those individual pages will improve and hopefully they will draw from that something they can apply to future pages. I will get to the gym and I will lift something that will break me a little bit so that I can heal and grow stronger and bigger and lift a little more the next time. I will help coach this class and learn from the coaches and athletes around me so I can be a more experienced, more knowledgable coach tomorrow. And in these small ways, these tiny steps, I will inch my way towards the Jo I want to become.

I’ve noticed that we apply the words “it’s not a sprint– it’s a marathon” to just about everything that matters in life– as much as I love the sprint, it appears that the dreaded long, slow distance is a better metaphor for life. Most journeys towards self-improvement are long and soul-crushing. But despite our dread, we still readily undertake them– and like marathoners, we should approach these challenges not just to cross the finish line, but for every tortuous footfall that takes us there. It’s a marathon. But don’t think about mile 26 right now. Just lift your right foot. Then your left. And step forward.

Growth and Gratitude: reflections on two days of trial-by-coaching

In General, Training, WOD on June 12, 2013 at 9:47 pm

The past two weeks have been a “trial period” for aspiring coaches at our box. I really regret missing the entire first week for my conference in Kansas (despite the absolute awesomeness of CrossFit Lawrence). However, I was fortunate enough to teach three classes in these past two days. Honestly, the experience has just been fantastic and rewarding, very enlightening, and humbling at the same time. For the teacher in me, a lot of it feels familiar: breaking concepts down to their constituent parts, linking them back together in a way you hope will make sense to others. I think the part of it that has been strangest, and that I’d really love more experience in, is just managing the movement element. I’ve been a writing teacher and a stage director. I’ve taught and coordinated people, but only either in sedentary settings or with predetermined scripts. A gym is obviously an entirely different environment. Arranging 15 people and 4 benches for some pre-metcon strength work is a game of strategic navigation that I’ve never played before. Nevertheless, no one died– I think. And no one threw a kettlebell at my head (despite Scotchy’s threats). I’d like to believe that the classes went well. I know I learned something more with each one– about group management, time management, about each of the individual athletes and how they respond to different cues. My favorite part of all this has been getting to spend more time with the community of welcoming, generous people we have at the box. I’ve loved getting to know the new faces when they walk into the class. Additionally, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know my fellow would-be, could-be coaches better. I’ve enjoyed participating in their classes and seeing how they apply their own personalities to the workout– how they analyze and take apart and approach the teaching of each movement. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve felt more energy in this box this past week, and I hope that endures. I’m excited to see where and how we can grow from here. Anyway. I don’t envy The Jefe his decision, and want to express my earnest gratitude to him for having the open-mindedness and faith in people to believe that anyone with his/her heart and mind in the right place has the potential to be a good coach. Of course, there’s much more to the job than the mere desire to do it well. I hope my acts have lived up to my intentions. To those of you wonderful folks that have attended CrossFit à la Jo in the past couple days– thanks for your trust and your time. I hope I have earned it. If not– well, I’m nothing if not relentless. And I will continue learning and growing and improving until I do deserve that faith.

In other (somewhat but not entirely unrelated) news, I PR’d my Cindy today– by almost double the rounds I’d tallied a year ago. My point, though, isn’t to brag about my Cindy score. This particular workout plays to my strengths, and I still have so many areas in which I need to improve. Even today, I know my push-up form collapsed, and I need to strengthen the endurance of my core. But I am improving. I still see myself getting better in small, measurable ways each week as I train. And in just the two days I’ve been coaching, I want to say this to the newer athletes at the box: I get it. To the kid who’s trying to clean too much. To the girl flailing off the pull-up bar. I get it. I get how frustrating it is to feel your body betray your will. I get how infuriating it is to fall so far behind the firebreathers that you feel like you’re not even playing the same game. And worse, how entirely disheartening it is when, afterwards, all the “hardcore” athletes banter about their times and rounds and no one asks you because it’s irrelevant to them. Fuck them. Fuck the weight you can’t yet lift or the pull-up you’re still chasing. You’ll get there. If you slow down. If you stop beating yourself up for what you can’t yet do, and you start encouraging yourself to achieve what you can. Yes, lifting heavy is freaking awesome for you. But sometimes, you need to put down the iron and pick up the PVC again. Retrain the basics. Build your foundation. Allow yourself to progress one small step at a time and applaud those moments. And you’ll be surprised how those tiny, incremental advancements can accrue. And, a month– two months– half a year from now, you’ll be amazed by how far you’ve traveled.

A last note for my State College readers: those of you that have attended classes with the aspiring coaches in the past few days, please do email the box with your feedback– even if you did want to throw a kettlebell at my head. The success of this place is best measured by how it fulfills our members and helps them both define and attain their goals.

Happy Wednesday, all. And, as always, thanks for reading.

Conversations in Coaching

In Training on May 15, 2013 at 6:55 pm

I’ve been teaching for almost as long as I can remember– starting with peer-tutoring programs in elementary and middle school. In high school, I  guest-lectured in English classrooms during my summers in Taiwan. I also tutored students one-on-one and sustained these relationships from afar when I returned to the States. I saved money in college by working for SAT and AP-prep tutoring companies, and eventually stirred up my own small business in Arizona. These days, I teach composition and creative writing at a University. This summer and upcoming year, I’m also working at the Graduate Writing Center, where I help  fellow graduate students develop their writing. I love teaching– perhaps selfishly sometimes because I’ve always understood it as not only a process through which to share my experience and knowledge, but to enhance my own comprehension as well. In a good student-teacher interaction, no one goes unchanged. Everyone’s perspective changes. It’s a conversation.

But with all my experience, I’m still scared when I think about the magnitude of responsibility it entails. Teaching is serious shit. By virtue of my very position in front of the classroom, I’m granted an assumed and sometimes unjustified expertise.

I want to believe that all my students care enough and think critically enough about the world that they won’t take my words at face value. I try to instill in them the will to question what they’re told– to find their own reasons for following “rules.” But that’s not always the case. Even the kid rolling his eyes in the back of my classroom, fiddling with his iPhone in his lap– if I tell him to put away his Angry Birds and I write on the board “Thruster (noun): a form of sadomasochism performed in windowless garage gyms,” he might actually believe this new dictionary definition of “Thruster.” He’ll believe me not because he’s dumb or mindless, but because he placed a certain amount of trust in the University when he chose to attend– that it would educate him. It would guide him towards a better version of himself.

I try to be as honest with my students as I can at the beginning of each semester: I will never ask you to do something that I don’t believe will teach you something. I will not waste your time. I am confident in the merit of the things I’m teaching you, but I don’t know everything. If you ask me something to which I do not know the answer, I will tell you. And I will find the answer, if I can.

I think that same level of self-awareness needs to go into coaching. CrossFit certifies anyone who pays for a $1,000 seminar and passes a relatively simple, multiple-choice test. This says nothing about his/her ability to train an individual. But when  a gym supports that person– puts him/her in front of a class and a whiteboard– the members naturally trust the individual to know what s/he is talking about. I was once told– just once– that I needed an exaggerated “shrug” to finish my deadlift– to completely break all body tension and shift my shoulders back in order to get a valid, visible rep on the lift. Since that one, offhanded remark, I’ve been shrugging at the end of every deadlift. Even when I deadlifted on my own, I would no-rep myself and criticize myself for forgetting the damn shrug. It wasn’t until I had my deadlift form critiqued by a strength coach that I realized: the shrug makes absolutely no sense. You finish the lift by extending your hips. You keep your shoulders where they are because they’re holding hundreds of pounds off the floor and if you lose tension there, you force all that pressure onto an overextended spine.

I see two faults in my story. The coach who told me to shrug probably knew that the shoulders needed to be behind the bar, but didn’t understand that that visual cue was to ensure the athlete had achieved hip extension (and not spinal hyperextension). Non-critical-trainee-Jo simply thought “hrm, a coach told me so so it must be truth.” I think coaches do need to realize the amount of responsibility and authority that they have– they need to make sure that they’re properly educated and that they’re confident in their ability to give sound advice. But also, athletes need to take responsibility for themselves as well. There are fantastic coaches, and mediocre coaches, and people who have no business coaching. There are fantastic coaches that have bad days, and there are fantastic coaches with gaps in their knowledge. The thing is– bad advice, or even advice that’s not suited to the trainee– will inevitably happen. An athlete must learn to protect herself by educating herself and learning and knowing the eccentricities of her own body.

Let’s look at “scaling” as an example. I like the idea that most workouts were designed for certain time frames. For example: “Fran” is supposed to be a 4-7 minute workout. Athletes should scale accordingly even if it means a 45 lb bar and banded pull-ups. If an athlete completes 21-15-9 95lb thrusters and strict pull-ups in half an hour, he is no longer performing “Fran.” He has converted a quick, metabolic conditioning workout into an agonizing chipper. But in this situation, if said athlete insists upon a 30-minute Fran just because he can “Rx” it, I don’t think it necessarily falls on the coach to argue with him. After all, it’s his body. As the trainee, then, Half-Hour-Fran needs to acknowledge his training goals and how best to achieve them. The coach can (and should) offer advice, and should explain the philosophy behind the programming, but it’s up to Half-Hour-Fran to recognize his current weaknesses and address them accordingly.

The process of teaching and learning– coaching and training– should involve demand awareness of personal responsibility for both parties. We trust our coaches to know what they’re talking about and to admit when they don’t. We trust our athletes to understand their own needs and to articulate them when necessary. If you’re still beat up from the last workout, maybe today is not the day to try for that deadlift PR. If you can do a 95lb thruster, but not more than three at a time, perhaps you are not yet ready for a prescribed Fran. I’m a firm believer that there’s no “perfect” training protocol– that developing athleticism is a journey and there are infinite routes towards the same destination. Better communication between coaches and trainees can help us find the paths of least resistance– so that coaches don’t misguide their athletes, and athletes don’t wander off alone.

When One Door Closes: The End of the Open and New Beginnings

In General, Training on March 28, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Well, it’s officially that time– when I must graciously (gracefully?) (gratefully?) bow out of the CrossFit 2013 Open. I knew this was an inevitability when I signed up. Eventually, in order for the events to be competitive, they’d need to raise the weights to something respectable for women like Annie and Kris and Talayna– something that would try the limits of my pitiable strength. For the record, I almost predicted 13.4 exactly — admittedly, I thought it would be 13.3, but I definitely speculated about a clean-and-jerk/toes-to-bar infinity ladder. The weight for this ladder, unfortunately, is 95lbs. I’ve cleaned 95 lbs less than ten times in my life. I’ve jerked it once. I’ve never jerked it directly following a clean, and the last time I cleaned it, I weighed 108, it was just before the powerlifting meet, and I was a tad heavier than I am now (and avoiding all metabolic conditioning like the plague). It seems to me ridiculous that someone as small as I am can shed muscle, but my body never ceases to surprise with its strangeness.

Anyway, after the workout was announced, I decided to go in today to see if I could even manage my former 1rm. Admittedly, I’m a bit beat up from deadlifting 215×3 (PR!) yesterday, but still… I stalled out at 90lbs and that took everything out of me. I’m not going to ask a judge to sit and watch me try (and likely fail) to clean 95 for seven minutes just to stay on the leaderboard. The members of our lovely community have asked me if I’m going to attempt the WOD, and they’ve expressed their condolences that I won’t be able to participate, but while I appreciate their compassion, I really don’t find it necessary. It’s not a big deal to me. I knew this would happen– I don’t feel left out, and… most importantly, I’ve fulfilled my goal of the Open: participate without psyching myself out, without worrying about disappointing anyone, without investing too much in the competition. It was just fun. That said, I’m also disappointed with where I am right now. Last fall, when I cleaned 95lbs, I wanted to be able to Rx Grace by this spring… which obviously hasn’t happened. I take full responsibility for that backsliding… I didn’t take into account how returning to metcons would deplete my muscle gain– in fact, having never made that shift (metconning to strength training to back again) I didn’t anticipate how my body would shift and adapt.

So… I have an announcement that I’ve been keeping under wraps for a bit. For an experimental period– at least the month of April, I will be working with and individual coach via distance-training. I have my reservations because of the limitations of distance, but she’s a professional CrossFit athlete and coach and Level 1 seminar staff member whom I respect greatly. In fact, she was my first-ever CrossFit hero. And the opportunity to work with her was too great to pass up. She’s also willing to work with me so that I can still participate in some of the box’s WODs, which was vital to me– I want to remain a member of this community, and she understands that impulse. For April, she’ll be programming my strength work, some skill work, and my nutrition, and my conditioning will remain with the box’s programming. It’s not optimal, but I hope it will work and allow me to grow as an athlete and future coach– to learn from one of the best– and still remain a constant at LionHeart.

If I can be blatantly honest.. I’m terrified that if I fall short here it will be a sign that I’m really as hopeless an athlete as I think I am… that even with the guidance of one of the best, I’ll still go nowhere. But… I look forward to this opportunity, and I’m doing my best to quell the insecure little squeaky Jo inside my head. This is an incredible opportunity… and one I need right now. I’d like to stop overanalyzing my training… I need to learn, once and for all, how to eat like an athlete and not like the asthmatic, entirely sedentary kid I used to be. And by experiencing this side of the coach-to-individual-trainee relationship, I’ll hopefully also be better and more capable of becoming a coach in the future.

As for how my Zone diet experiment went? Meh… it was definitely interesting. I know more about how my body responds to different foods in different proportions. I still feel like the prescription given to me was too little food. I didn’t lose weight on it, but I didn’t gain either. Admittedly, proportionately, I was/am stronger. I have a 3/4 bodyweight press and a bodyweight bench now. My deadlift is well over 2xbody weight– approaching 2.5 I’m five lbs short of a 1.5xbw back squat. However, the numbers themselves are pitiful because my weight is so damn low… and while I’m sure there’s a way to tweak the Zone to help me get up there, I don’t think that’s what I’ll be trying next. I’ve since abandoned the Zone and returned to drinking almond butter from the jar. I’ve put on a few pounds that seem to be sticking around… though I’m not any stronger yet for it. Mostly, I’m just biding my time until I start with my new coach April 1st. I intend to follow her prescription to a T– if there’s anything I can do in this world, it’s “homework” ;).

Oh! Since I won’t be participating in 13.4, I’d like to brag a little bit about the awesome people in my life who have and will. The Cookie Monster, despite having only been to a CrossFit gym a handful of times in his life (though having strength trained all of his life) did a very respectable 60 reps this morning– and it was his first time ever trying toes-to-bar. Coach Zebrapants, our resident firebreather, beasted out 105 reps, which I’m confident will be very competitive for our region. And I want to wish a special good luck to the Mega-tron, who will be attempting this WOD with a 1rm of 105… which means the clean-and-jerk portion will achieve new levels of suck. In fact, I think we hit our 95lb clean PRs on the same day last fall… clearly, she’s outpaced me, and I’m damn proud to see it happen.

Good luck to the rest of you as well. Be safe, have fun, and stay awesome 🙂

CrossFit, Compassion, And Chilling Out

In General, Training on February 3, 2013 at 5:39 pm

So! A few observant readers may notice the gigantic strikethrough in my last post after I’d claimed to settle on a “new training program.” I feel bad posting a revision so shortly after– as I am notorious for program-hopping– but I do think this is for the better. In the past week, I’ve had a few truly heartening conversations that have reminded me of why I so love this community and how lucky I am to be surrounded by such generous, compassionate people.

I’ll start off with a statement I made in that last post: I am a plan-based mammal. I’m so plan-based, I’m fairly certain that it borders on some degree of OCD. I try not to let it affect too much of my daily life, and more importantly, I try not to let my small paranoia and aggravations impact the much more easygoing folk in my life– though I readily admit that oftentimes I am less successful than others. Regardless, I’m so plan-based that I cannot sit still for as long as I have a to-do list (which is always). I must always be working on or eliminating something on that list– getting groceries, getting my car fixed, planning lessons, grading homework, studying, working on a paper, a short story, an essay, querying agents, training, reading about training, planning for training… etc. I map out my days ahead of time and weeks ahead of time and I wish it were something I could even say I enjoyed, but it’s really something I do to keep myself sane… to placate the frantic, neurotic Jo in my head. It’s for this reason that I grew so dependent upon “training plans.” Also, common wisdom tells us to have training regimens, right? The internet is abound with “plans” for your first 5k. We have Starting Strength and Greyskull and 5/3/1 and Catalyst Athletics’ huge archive of Olympic training cycles that are all “plans.” So… as much as I am a CrossFit devotee, there is something about the unpredictability that scares the bejeezus out of me. Going to bed without knowing what workout I’m going to do the next day makes me more anxious than it should any sane individual.

Add all that to the fact that, for my first six or eight months of CrossFit, I actually made little to no progress. My strength numbers didn’t go up, my endurance didn’t get any better… I was in the gym for hours every day (longer than I should have been), but I was just hopping through WODs at random and breaking down more than I was rebuilding. So… I’m terrified of spinning my wheels again, of wasting my time… of putting all this work and dedication and heart into something and disappointing myself– or worse, those that have supported me.

But perhaps I’ve thrown myself too far into the opposite side of the spectrum.

Zebrapants was kind enough to sit down with me and chat this morning, and something he said really stuck with me: “This isn’t supposed to be stressful. Have fun with it.” It’s something I tell others all the time– have fun with your fitness! Enjoy it! And I do. I enjoy every minute I’m in the gym, but I spend too much time outside of it agonizing what I should be doing, overanalyzing why certain numbers have dropped or why others haven’t increased as they should. Truth be told, I have it so easy compared to someone like Zebrapants. I’m not competing. I have no Games-related ambitions, and the only reason I would ever compete is just to participate and to enjoy the community. There’s a little bit at stake for me in being “good”– in that I’d like to cultivate a certain respect from my athletes, but I’m not trying to get to outpace Rich Froning or dethrone Iceland Annie. 

So… have fun with it. I believe that CrossFit works. Hell, I’ve seen it work. I’ve seen it transform individuals not just physically but mentally. I need to trust that it can work for me without overthinking, without overplanning– that constantly varied movement in all modal domains will stimulate growth and self-improvement without a meticulously plotted roadmap.

So, Zebrapants suggested that I take one heavy powerlifting day a week, one heavy Olympic lifting day, and do three of the box’s programmed classes. And two rest days. Perhaps this time around, since I won’t be programming my own random 20 minute amraps throughout the weeks, I’ll actually see some progress. I also hope that, by now, after having tried and researched all these different strength programs, I’ll have a decent intuition for what I should and can focus on depending on the week and the other wods I’ve had. Is it the optimal way to train if I were trying to become a competitive firebreather? No. But I just want to be a more active, capable participant in this community, and I hope this is a step in the right direction. Also, I’ll note that my “heavy” Oly days are going to involve weights I can handle with good form… I’m sick of letting my ego get the better of me and landing shitty cleans at 95lbs when I should be catching them smoothly at 85.

So… my days will be up in the air, but I think I’ll probably do Monday and Friday as strength days, WOD with the classes Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, and use Thursday and Sunday for rest, mobility, and technique.

On a related note, I wanted to share with you a reader question that I received via email (who graciously allowed me to post it here). Actually, for those of you that find me somehow via the internets, I can’t tell you how flattered and grateful I am that you read my random musings. It still makes me a little giddy to receive emails and messages sometimes, so… keep ’em coming! Anyway, Kelly wrote me an email with the following question:

“Since I read so much good stuff about crossfit on your blog and others I decided to try the crossfit gym near my house but its been a week and I don’t feel like I fit in. I’m in okay shape (went to the globo gym 6 days/week  before this. did yoga, pilates, bodypump), but all the moves are new to me and I can’t use the same weights as most of the other women and it seems like they already have formed cliques. I haven’t seen the big deal that everyone keeps talking about. I just feel left out and demoralized after classes.”

First off, Kelly, I’m sorry that this is anyone’s experience in a new gym, and I’m sorry that other members and coaches haven’t taken their time to make you feel welcome. I think it’s admirable that you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone and decided to try something new. As for the movements themselves– they’ll come… because CrossFit is so varied, chances are no one’s good at everything the moment she steps in the door. Make sure you establish a good, safe foundation first– learn a proper squat before you ever load an overhead squat… do one push-up with a tight core and good form rather than 10 sloppy flops and half presses. Honestly, the grand majority of the people I’ve met in the CrossFit world have been genuinely invested in helping others. Perhaps if you spoke to your trainers, they would be willing to help you with the areas in which you feel lacking. Same with trying to approach the other members at the gym. Give it a little more time. Most people really couldn’t care less if you’re lifting the same weight on the bar– if you take five minutes or fifteen. It’s just a matter of showing up with the right attitude and putting your all into it– and enjoying it! If, after a while, you still feel as if this environment isn’t for you… you won’t have lost that much. You could try something else or return to your former routine. But at least you’ve ventured into new territory, absorbed new knowledge and experience :). Good luck, Kelly!

I think the above is why I’m really glad I’ve tried all these different strength programs and spent so much time researching the many different methods CrossFitters have adapted to their programmings for different biases– olympic lifting, powerlifting, endurance, etc. I was speaking with one of the girls at the gym earlier this week– a natural-born athlete (the anti-Jo) who joined last year and picked things up so quickly. She hopes to participate in local competitions by this time next year… and honestly, I’d love to be coaching by that time. Being a competitive athlete doesn’t have much of an appeal to me, but I’d love to help others get there– and to help any one reach his or her goals be it making regionals or just running a complete mile.

Something I really appreciated about my talk with Zebrapants: He didn’t patronize or belittle my ambitions. I know I sound a bit like a crazy person when I obsess over the minutiae of my training… and I feel like it probably sounds even crazier when I talk to someone who’s actually training to make Regionals… But he treated my concerns as absolutely legitimate and worked with me and my compulsions to figure out what I could do that’s both productive and adaptive to my neuroses. I think that’s key to maintaining the spirit of CrossFit as this sport becomes a larger phenomenon. CrossFit is a big deal because it made fitness both fun and accessible to so many people– because it was “universally scalable” and it acknowledged that our physical needs differ by degree and not kind. Somewhat paradoxically, I want to stress the “individual” in that universality. Because we can cater to such a wide-ranging population, I think CrossFit should keep in mind the many different needs of its participants and continue to cultivate inclusive, accepting environments. So coaches like those at Kelly’s gym should remember that a new member might feel uncertain, and take the time to work with her on the basics so that she’s comfortable with the foundational movements… so that she doesn’t feel lost amid the flurry of thrusters and clean and jerks and toes to bars and etc…

Anyway… Thank you for paying attention to my ramblings. I’m sure I’ll fret about something or other again soon, but hopefully I’ll also start to chill out a bit. Next week, I’ll be attending a Level 1 seminar in King of Prussia. Expectedly, I’m excited and nervous as hell. I’m sure you’ll get a full report!

… also enjoy the football or something that appears to be happening today.

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.

Bitchslapped

In Training, WOD on September 29, 2012 at 3:41 pm

WHITTEN

Five rounds for time of:
22 Kettlebell swings, 2 pood/1.5
22 Box jump, 24 inch box/20
Run 400 meters
22 Burpees
22 Wall ball shots, 20#/14#

On paper, it doesn’t look terrible. But if you consult the CrossFit mainsite, it delivers discouraging news: CrossFit titans such as Austin Malleolo and Kristan Clever took 30-35 minutes to complete the workout. Our box listed this morning’s WOD with a 45 minute time cap, which usually implies that… most members will exceed the limit. I went in with the hope of coming in just under 45, but I had no idea if that was feasible.

Caveat: I scaled the KB swings to 1pd. I’m actually rather proud that I can do a full American with 1.5 now, but 22 would take me so long that the swings would have been the bulk of my WOD. Nevertheless, I’m a slow runner and I pause too often in my box jumps, so I figured the workout would still take me a long while. And it probably would have, if it weren’t for a little external motivation.

I started at a comfortable pace– pushing to a point of discomfort, but nothing terrible. Then Coach Cyborg reminded me exactly why my most humbling workouts have always been in his company. Sometime near round 3, he started paying more attention to me– elbows weren’t locked out at the top of that swing, hips didn’t reach full extension on that box jump, squat lower for the wall ball. Something he’s reminded me often, and something I try to keep in mind for every workout– if I want to be a coach, I should perform in a manner that I would want others to emulate. When I was new to CrossFit, I allowed my form to degrade deplorably because I cared more about the clock or the rounds, or the abstract idea of “intensity” than the integrity of my movements. These days, I try to focus on precision and cleanliness. But somewhere in there, I’ve become a little too comfortable. No longer made anxious by the clock, and now strong enough to handle wall balls and box jumps without delirium, I’ve forgotten the vast divide between what our brains think we can do and what our bodies can actually do.

For the 4th 400m, The Cyborg told me to make it in in 1:30. I have no idea what time I took, but it was certainly longer. My lungs were seizing, my legs were shot, and I thought I was moving as hard as I could. But when I stumbled through the door, he told me that I’d taken forever and I should make up the time on my burpees. I’d like to take this moment to retract everything nice I’ve ever said about burpees. Yeah, they’re a delight when you’re 88 pounds of nothing. 30 pounds later, they’re a shitshow. Sorry everyone– you’ve been right all along– burpees suck ass. The Cyborg screamed my reps aloud, remarking every time I slowed down. My asthma, which started during the runs had pushed mucus from my lungs into my throat. My head was a complete fog, and the world shrank to nothing but the five inches of rubber in front of my face each time I flopped to the floor. I was beyond pain– where intensity had exploded into annihilation, and mind was trying to shut itself down. But I managed those burpees. And then the wall balls, and another set of swings and another 22 box jumps. For my last 400m, The Cyborg appeared alongside me and ran just two steps ahead the entire way, calling back to me. I was breathing so heavy that I couldn’t hear the traffic around me. I thought my chest would explode with each inhalation, but he kept on yelling and somehow, my legs, these alien appendages, just pedaled away beneath me. I made it back in the door at 1:35. More burpees. And then the wall balls. Wall balls aren’t nearly as bad for me as they used to be, but at this point, I was spent. I thought those 14 pounds would carry me to the ground each time the leather struck my hands. But The Cyborg was unforgiving. I could not rest. Not now. At 15 reps, I got a few seconds, and then up again. No, not now. No you can’t rest. No you’re not done. Seven more. Don’t put it down. Five more. Three. And done, at 40:01.

I’ve become complacent in the past few months of training. When I first started CrossFit, I was so weak that everything sucked– even 10lb balls with an 8ft target. But as I got stronger, movements became easier and I forgot to carry that same exertion with me. No, I probably should not work to this intensity too frequently, but I should remember that when I think I’m done, when I think I’m tired, there’s so much more left untapped. Your body is smart– it’s made to protect itself… it will want to take the easy way out not because it’s lazy, but because it’s trying to conserve resources. But your body is also resilient. If you demand more of it, it will rise to the challenge.

After yesterday’s post, today provided a truly satisfying reminder. I don’t give a shit what my body was or wasn’t built for. I will beat it into submission ;).

Also, with The Cyborg’s remarks, I’m reminded so much of why I want to be a CrossFit coach someday. I want to help people find these moments– to see in them potential that they have yet to recognize and to rally those resources until they convert weakness to strength and overcome all that self-doubt. We have such tremendous trainers here, and beyond working on the integrity of my movements, I hope someday to incorporate much of what I’ve learned from them. I want to be able to have the Mean Machine’s positivity, and Zebrapants’s raw passion. I want to emulate Jefe’s patient, acute observation, his inquisitiveness, and generosity with his knowledge. And, like The Cyborg, I want to be able to drive people– to know when some athletes require gentle guidance, and when others need to be bitchslapped into high gear. And I’d like to think I’d bring my own individual experience to it too– to know what it’s like to start from nothing, to demand muscle from bone, to unlearn all the awful habits of your body… to do this while watching all the lifelong and natural athletes exceed you… to watch beginners PR with weights well beyond your reach… to want it all so bad that it doesn’t fucking matter, that you will work for it if you have to measure your progress in years.

One more bit of wisdom from The Cyborg. Before every “Hero” WOD, he makes a statement about how these remind him that “life is pretty good.” Whenever we undertake a Hero, I look up the individual after whom it was named. Army Captain Dan Whitten was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. On February 2, 2010, Whitten’s vehicle was struck by an explosive device. He died that same day. I assume the date (2/2) corresponds with the 22 reps in the workout. But as much as I’ve whined about my lungs seizing and my legs flailing until they lost sensation, that’s… all negligible. My forty minutes of “suffering” is incomparable to his sacrifice– to that of his family. And if I’m going to do something like this in “his honor,” then I damned well better give it my all. And… I’m glad someone was there this morning to remind me that my “all” is more than I thought.