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Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

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.

That’s My Secret

In General, Training, WOD, Writing on May 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Saturday’s conditioning work was actually a hero that’s topped my wishlist for a while.

Rahoi: 12 Minute AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible)

12 Box Jumps (24″/20″)

6 Thrusters (95/65)

6 Bar facing burpees

I realize it’s not a particularly heavy hero, but it still feels nice to be able to Rx the weight for a hero WOD. I also particularly enjoyed yesterday because I got to work out with a few friends I haven’t seen in a while just due to scheduling chaos. It’s remarkable how much more fun a workout can feel in the right company. Don’t underestimate this one– it’s only 12 minutes, but Rahoi packs a sneaky punch. The trio of explosive moments gets exhausting quickly. By the third round, that bar felt unusually high to jump over.

Today was more strength work:

Back Squat: 3×5

Bench Press: 3×5

Dips: 3 sets to failure. I’m up to 3 sets of 10 on the dip station, so I think I’m going to move to the rings to add instability, and hope that helps me build towards the ever-elusive muscle-up.

Then, a quick metcon. Have you ever started a workout and realized two movements in that you want to be doing something entirely different? I was going to repeat the WOD I tried a couple weeks ago (1o rounds of 3 front squats @ 65 lbs, 100m sprint, 60 second rest), but after the first round, I decided that each segment of the round felt too short. I wanted something slightly less ADD today. I’m sure I’ll regret saying this the moment I get to commit to endurance work in earnest, but for right now I really miss longer, focused workouts (as opposed to short bursts). So… still keeping it within a “sprint” framework, I revised my workout to the following:

5 front squats at 65 lbs (Power clean from the ground)

400m run

2 minutes rest between rounds

Felt great. I have to confess that I’m pretty shamefully behind on my work right now because I did nothing  yesterday but read all of book one of The Hunger Games and watch The Avengers movie. I make it a point at the start of each summer to read something less self-consciously “literary” than the stuff I read all semester. I actually don’t have anything against either camp– the “genre” fiction, or the “literary” register… they’re composed differently with different audiences in mind. I can enjoy both, though during the semester, I tend to miss the exhilaration of being able to consume an entire novel in one day. While I can (and have in a pre-seminar panic) fly through an entire volume of Pynchon in one afternoon, it leaves me feeling drained and headachey whereas… spending an entire day visiting Panem’s dystopia just provides a thoroughly satisfying adrenaline rush. I’m now trying to hold off on the latter two Hunger Games books until my trip to Taiwan so I have some good airplane material… somehow, I don’t think rhetorical scholarship will be as good company during a 13 hour flight (not counting the other 10 hours I’m spending on two slightly shorter flights and in three different airports– State College, Detroit, L.A…

If you’ll bear with me, I’m about to launch on a long bout of self-analysis. This is where those of you just here for the fun CrossFit tidbits can sneak off ;). Actually, I’m about to conflate some exercise philosophy with teaching experience, with comic book trivia, and some overly personal confessions– that should give you some insight as to the strange matrix of interests and experiences that informs my worldview. It’s strange to be inside my head.* Anyway buckle up–we’re about to get crazy.

There’s an article I love by Henry Rollins called “Iron and the Soul.” It’s oft quoted and often abused in service of poor arguments, but it’s a beautiful meditation on strength and training. Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect. I think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on someone’s shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character.

Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.

Yukio Mishima said that he could not entertain the idea of romance if he was not strong. Romance is such a strong and overwhelming passion, a weakened body cannot sustain it for long. I have some of my most romantic thoughts when I am with the Iron. Once I was in love with a woman. I thought about her the most when the pain from a workout was racing through my body.

Everything in me wanted her. So much so that sex was only a fraction of my total desire. It was the single most intense love I have ever felt, but she lived far away and I didn’t see her very often. Working out was a healthy way of dealing with the loneliness. To this day, when I work out I usually listen to ballads.

I prefer to work out alone.

It enables me to concentrate on the lessons that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you’re made of is always time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron had taught me how to live. Life is capable of driving you out of your mind. The way it all comes down these days, it’s some kind of miracle if you’re not insane. People have become separated from their bodies. They are no longer whole.

I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind.

The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.

So Rollins (a bit like me) has a penchant for hyperbole. But the sentiment resonates with me. Though I don’t technically prefer to work out alone (and often miss the company when I do it too often), sometimes I love these Sunday mornings when the box is silent and it’s just me and the bar (and the Mean Machine or Jefe vacuuming somewhere 😉 ). These mornings are the only time I can feel my thoughts slow down. I overthink everything; I know. I’m overly sensitive and spend too much time inside my head. These mornings, I can narrow my world to just the pounds of iron and rubber in front of me. I can erase everything but the next five reps, the next 400m loop, the next 12 minutes before the clock sounds and calls me back to earth.

And the thing is… some mornings I shatter PRs, sometimes I fall drastically short. But it’s not about that. I find these sessions satisfactory regardless of the total weight lifted or the time of each round. I spend so much of my time dealing with abstractions and theory that there’s something profoundly comforting about the reality of the gym. Here I’m rewarded for my efforts, struck down when I’m overeager or overambitious. Here, I can try and dream, but two hundred pounds is two hundred pounds and if I don’t have the strength and mass to move it, I won’t.

I wrote a difficult email this week to a student who protested the A- she received in my creative writing course. I struggled with it because… she’s been a fairly diligent student. She’s obviously done the reading, turned in everything on time, and attended office hours. She answers questions in class and cares about her grade. Unfortunately, writing is not her thing. In fact, I was rather proud of how far she’d come throughout the semester– from writing almost purely expository essays to at least understanding the concept of a scene vs summary. But her characters were single-dimensional, her conflicts buried or nonexistant… I couldn’t in good conscience give her an A when I’d held her peers to a certain standard for the quality of their work… She’d argued in her email that she tried. She mentioned nothing about the final product, but that she put in so much effort. I accounted for that effort in her participation grade– balanced out her quiz scores and figured out extra credit opportunities that would improve her course average. But it’s also an awful fact of life that… the end product still matters. Her process was fine… given another year of this effort, I could actually see her writing A stories. But… she’s not there yet. Yes, grading writing is very subjective, but contrary to many accusations, it’s not as if we’re throwing darts to determine grades… All good writing instructors I know have thoughtful approaches to their grading and they evaluate based on a set of standards for what the piece does or does not achieve. But I wanted to tell this student that I was sorry… that I understood, that I felt like I’d failed her somehow for not helping her get there faster, but that she should still take pride somehow in how much she’s achieved this semester. Strangely, at this time, all I could think about was how the gym has taught me that… effort isn’t everything. I can yank on the bar all I want, but a 135lb clean is still well beyond my reach. It will take a lot of patience, a lot of intelligent training, a lot of recovery and nutrition, etc to get me to that point. And when I’m ready, hopefully, someday I’ll drop below 135lbs and bear it up across my shoulders. But there’s no… “I tried.” The Iron doesn’t give a damn.

And yes, Henry Rollins, that is my antidepressant too. The greatest comfort I can find in the harsh realities of life is the reification of it in something I can touch, can lift– or fail at lifting, whatever the case is that morning.

My friends who do yoga talk about the revelatory moments they’ve had during stretches or poses where all the tension, all the trauma of their past releases and they just can’t stop crying. I’ve found similar moments in WODs… a few of them. The WOD I talked about with The Cyborg– back when I could scarcely front squat 65lbs and he coached me through 12 rounds of 4 reps each minute followed by V-ups. More recently, 12.3, which I conducted a lone on a Saturday after I returned from a AWP (a writer’s conference) in Chicago. Sometimes, in “digging deep,” I unearth more than I intended. Like Rollins, I find working out as a way to deal with feelings of isolation, frustration, inadequacy… Sometimes something snaps and each movement feels like an exorcism… the burn becomes a slow bleeding out of the toxins I’ve unconsciously imbibed.

Then we get to the geekiest reference in this post… if you’ve seen the Avengers movie (not-much-of-a-spoiler alert), the skittish (and very well-acted) Bruce Banner (The Hulk) eventually says “That’s my secret… I’m always angry.” Randomly, throughout my life and in very different groups of friends, I’ve always drawn many references to The Hulk. I think mostly people find humor in the irony of imagining a 5’3″ Asian girl converting into a colossal, florescent-green tank of rage. But the thing is… there’s a little more truth to it than that. I mean, I don’t have an invulnerable, radiation-induced alter ego (though how cool would that be), and I’m not constantly angry. But I feel like I’m constantly… contained. It’s not a feeling I’ve always had– more like something slowly accumulated in the past couple years of trying to become an “adult.” I’ve always had a penchant for overexpression. I attach very easily and completely to people. I want to state everything with probably too much honesty (hence… the blog). But I’ve slowly accepted that mostly that doesn’t work in real-world settings. That, as we get older, people become more reserved, more protected. And a lot of our interactions are dictated by more social forces and precautions than I care to tally. But that leads often to me feeling… silenced. I suppose “the iron” is my way of working through that– so that, unlike Bruce, I don’t become constantly angry. But it’s why, when I spend too long away from the gym, I start to feel edgy– breakable… perhaps about to morph into hullking green terror.I don’t suppose that’s a healthy state of being and I’m trying to figure out a way to be more balanced. Perhaps this is a stage we must all progress through? Or… at least one that I must before I find more stability. Until then… I’ll try to keep it to more productive smashing.



* It occurs to me if I actually had to paint the landscape of the inside of my head, it would be an hazy assemblage of Minas Tirith, Gotham, and Stormhold. My mindscape would be frequently visited by the Fellowship, the Justice League, and the Avengers. Occasionally, it would be raided by the Joker. Also, there would be an arctic training facility a la Rocky IV, and every morning, Rocky and I would conduct focus mitt rounds to Eye of the Tiger.