Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Case for Training Without Adrenaline

You’re standing at your bar, and you have that sick, nauseous feeling in the bowels of your gut. It’s the day to challenge your Fran time, and you put 115 on your bar like a boss. The timer says ten seconds, and tiny beads of sweat form on your fingertips through layers of chalk. Five seconds. Your heart begins to pound. Three seconds. Two seconds. You’re in it now kid. You better go hard. One… GO!!!

At that moment, you start lifting your brains out and throwing your self around the pull-up like you hated the flesh on your palms. Your muscles scream, flooding with lactic acid, but you’ve drowned them out because you found your Master of Puppets cassette the day before and you fast forwarded to Kirk Heinrich's killer solo on minute six. 

You collapse. You breathe. It’s over. 

This scene is part of what makes CrossFit so damn fun and so damn easy to get hooked. Challenging limits and seeing what you’re capable of is an incredible rush, and it’s part of what drives people to do irrational things (base jumping, bull riding, karaoke). 

I’m going to encourage you to do just the opposite.

Not every time, but I believe there’s much to be gained from being fully present with yourself and your environment during a difficult WOD. We exert so much of ourselves toward avoiding discomfort and pain that it becomes a distraction from what’s beautiful about experiencing those feelings. I know that’s a strange thing to say because it goes against all our natural instincts, but if you can embrace discomfort in a safe setting then it makes you more equipped to deal with pain in other areas of your life.

Over the summer, I went on a climbing trip with some friends who are much better climbers than I am. They’ve devoted more time to it since college when we went all the time, and it showed. Their technique and route planning ran circles around mine. But where I had the upper hand, though, was my ability to be uncomfortable. When they came to a position that caused some discomfort, they bailed quickly to find an alternate route. I, on the other hand, was able to accept the pain and push through. 

In yoga, this is known as sitting with your discomfort. An article in New York Family describes how this same mantra is used by a psychotherapist with her clients. Rather than allowing someone to avoid a subject that is difficult, she asks her clients to “dive deeper and explore” the pain in their lives.

When we rely on external factors to push us through a WOD, like a screaming coach or loud music, we’re creating a co-dependent relationship that diminishes the motivation you have within yourself and distracts us from feeling pain. Adrenaline simply becomes a pain killer.

This goes to why it is you come to CrossFit in the first place. Are you there to just get through and check it off your to-do list, or are you there because you believe the experience is beneficial to your health and growth as a person?

Friday, November 28, 2014

CrossFit Allows Ordinary People to be Extraordinary

The event was in an agriculture showcase pavilion. The walls were covered by blue and gold panels, centering a slightly off center banner with a faded Tennessee Tech golden eagle. A carpet of artificial turf covered the uneven ground, leaving mounds and valleys like a fourth grade geography project. There was a cold draft running through the building in a way that’s probably perfect for showcasing livestock. A sign over the normal concessions area reminded me of a the concessions at my little league games. Suckers for a quarter. Hotdogs and Cokes for a dollar. “Popcrn” was fifty cents.

Everything about the facility was very functional, outdated, and ordinary. This was hardly the place where one could expect to see the greatest athlete in the brief history of competitive CrossFit, but everyone in the audience at the Hyder Burks Pavilion for the Iron Eagle Challenge was there to see someone extraordinary. Whether he was there to legitimately compete or he wanted to do his hometown a solid, Rich Froning was there as a competitor.

Now I didn’t expect him to ride in on a winged lion holding a scepter. But to my surprise, he was surprisingly ordinary. 

Not his competing, of course. He was a marvel to watch. But he, himself, Rich Froning, was someone I could easily pass on the street and not notice. He hung around waiting for his turn on the bumpy surface, chatting with other competitors. A couple of my friends snapped pictures with him. He occasionally hung around in the back to look at his phone.

This didn't seem right. I’d seen this man dominate the fittest on Earth. He did it almost effortlessly. Why didn’t he seem… different?

This is the secret of CrossFit. This is why it’s become a national phenomenon. CrossFit is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. 

The major sports in America are all inaccessible to 99 percent of us. I can play basketball, but I’ll never play with Kevin Durant. I can go to a football game, but I’ll never have access to talk to Peyton Manning. The stars and their abilities are separated from us because they are elite and we’re not. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this divide (namely money), but it doesn't change the fact that my inability to run a 4.2 second 40 yard time or dribble past LeBron James prevents me from having access to that world.

In CrossFit, however, this is a real possibility. My friends, who are everyday normal people, competed against the best. Literally. The best. They got smoked, but it was awesome.

This might come across as living out some childhood fantasy of being a sports hero, and maybe it is. But this is the same feeling that makes fantasy football a $70 Billion industry (that’s billion with a “buh”) and the World Cup the most significant, cultural event on Earth. We all want to be a part of something amazing. You might be above experiencing the dreams you had when you were ten, (ahem… snarky NY Times writer…) but for the rest of us its a heck of a lot of fun. 

Froning didn't actually win the Iron Eagle Challenge. It was a partner competition, and his other half couldn’t finish the last lift of the hang clean ladder. This, however, made him even more endearing and likable. I’m just speculating, but winning didn’t seem like the most important part of the day to him. It was the joy of competing, and that’s something we can all share.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Don't Let the Whiteboard Define You

The whiteboard is such an obnoxious thing we do in CrossFit right? This little tap on your shoulder telling you to go harder so you could beat Janet’s Fran time or Tom ’s front squat. It’s annoying isn't it? This daily reminder of what you could've done because, odds are, you're like the rest of the world and dont red line every single workout. It’s like your nagging mom or disappointed dad are assessing your WOD.

This is the self talk so many of us have in the gym. Its constant. It raises so many feelings of inadequacy, like our workouts pail in comparison to anyone else’s and we’re somehow failures.

Stop and think about that for a second. We feel like failures because of the results of a WOD. Instead leaving our box feeling empowered, we feel defeated because our best didn't measure up to someone else’s best. 

When I was training for a half marathon a couple of years ago, my friend who was a seasoned marathon pro told me, “There will always be someone faster, and there will always be someone slower. Just run your race.” This is the reality of the whiteboard and the important distinction between competition and comparison. 

The pursuit of beating everyone in your box is a battle without end. Because as soon as you're at the top, there will be another box… then another… then another. You might as well be on a hamster wheel.

Let me give you an image of what the end game of this relentless pursuit looks like down the road. Wright Thompson of ESPN wrote a haunting description of Michael Jordan’s life after basketball. He seems so miserable, unable to test his now faded abilities against the best. Watching his aura of invincibility fade. There’s no aging gracefully for him. Just rage that he’s aging at all, losing the competitive ability that made him better than everyone else.

Its an odd thing we do to ourselves, taking this one aspect of our God-given lives and use as a litmus test to what kind of person we are. Just getting to the gym might have been an overwhelming battle for you the day you posted your worst Fran time. Your child vomited in the car. You had fight with your spouse. Your boss said you had to work over the weekend. All these things can affect our performance, but we get hung up on our place on the whiteboard because thats what everyone else will see. This is is how I will be assessed as a person.

How silly is this?

Part of what has made CrossFit so special to me is the lesson that I’m capable of more than I would’ve ever imagined. That I can be a strong, powerful man who can accomplish something hard. That I can accept a challenge and succeed. This means more to me than anytime I’ve “won the whiteboard”.

So how can we chose a better way? How can the whiteboard become a tool for you as an athlete to challenge your limits and not a roadblock in your personal growth?

Simple: You must tell yourself you don’t need it.

This isn’t an easy thing to do, considering it’ll probably tap into to a whole lot of other issues you may have swirling around inside you, but it’s not complicated. The whiteboard is a tool. It cannot tell you anything about your life other than the basic numbers of a WOD. That’s it. It can be a fun way to compete with your fellow athletes or it can take over and sabotage your experience with CrossFit. It’s ultimately up to you.

Allow the lessons of you've learned challenging yourself in CrossFit to translate into this part of your life. This is the Murph of growing as a person. You have to chose to change the dialog in your head, even when it’s hard. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Weight-Lifting Takes Guts

Success is terrifying. 

It’s a weird thing to say or write, but it’s true. Success is exposing. It’s standing on stage naked and facing the crowd. It’s allowing the world to feel the weight of who you are. It’s accepting that failure could come at any moment.

I’ve spent most of life afraid of success for this reason. I was afraid that my true identity might be revealed, and that I might not be much of a man. So sometime around my freshman year of high school I discovered self deprecation. Rather than face the risk of being laughed at, I could beat them to the punch and laugh at myself first. I’m not sure that I even realized it happened, but I became the funny guy.

This works well at parties. It does not work well in the gym.

I finally realized this on my fifth day of the LSU Shreveport lifting program. We’d just finished our first week of ten rep sets, and I was fired up to lift heavy snatch and clean and jerk singles. I was feeling swol. Real swol.

Except that didn’t happen.

My lifts actually went backward. I could barely lift 30 pounds less than where I was the week before. I felt so defeated. I did the walk of shame, trading my heavy plates for lighter ones. I went for a big boy challenge and got crushed, like a little kid not picked for the team. 

So I went back to my old habits. I made lame jokes about Kryptonite and that I was on “reverse Shreveport”. I was my 15 year old self trying to not get picked on in Algebra class. When I walked to my wife (whose doing the program with me) to get a laugh out of her, she instead called me out. 

“You need to take yourself more seriously.”

She was spot on. Lifting takes courage. Not because it’s hard to put your body weight over your head (which it is), but because lifting forces you to accept yourself as is. I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not when pulling the bar off the ground. In that moment, I was a man who could snatch 115 pounds and I felt like a failure. My jokes were a place to hide. 

Success in the gym isn’t measured in lifting more than everyone else, and it’s not measured in lifting more than you did last week. It’s in the daily practice of doing something hard. In accepting where you are today and then challenging those limits.

Not in PR’s. Not in competing. Not in winning.

I don't make jokes about my lifts anymore. Not because they're not funny (although sometimes they are) and not because I stopped being myself, but because I don't want to hide. I have to accept where I am today and challenge that limit. Tomorrow that may be different, but that's how I will determine success today.

Today, I will do something hard.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What I've Learned Through CrossFit

My clean and jerk max is 175 lbs.
My snatch max is 150.
My dead lift max is 350.
My back squat max is 315.
My best Fran time is 7:15.

None of these figures actually matter. They’re not all that impressive compared to Olympic lifters and CrossFitters. I’m not getting paid to improve my lifts. (It’s actually the opposite). But those numbers represent the greater story of my life over the last year and a half. 

My story is one of learning to hide. As a chubby, awkward teenager that grew into an awkward, slender adult, I became a master at hiding my true self. I just wanted to make everyone happy, so I became whatever the particular crowd I was with wanted me to be. So rather than pursue my own dreams I lived thorough my friends accomplishments, and I avoided conflict like the plague. I saw myself as helpless and weak.

I understood the Gospel in that Jesus loved me, but I didn’t understand how that made me into a powerful man of a God. In my eyes, Jesus loved me but I had to convince everyone else. My Young Life leader in high school told me I was a chameleon, changing my stripes to fit whichever crowd I was, but I saw it as self preservation. If they saw who I really was, there was no way they’d like me or accept me.

This way of life worked for a while. I was popular in high school. I made close friends and had amazing experiences in college. I fell in love and married an amazing woman.

After a few years, however, the charade had worn thin. Working to make everyone happy no longer worked, and my wife grew tired of living with a shell. I was a 29 year old man with no spine, no conviction, and no heart. I was the accumulation of years of becoming what everyone wanted. My Young Life leader’s words finally made sense. I was a chameleon who was no longer fooling anyone.

It was at this low point that my wife encouraged me to start going to CrossFit. (And by encouraged I mean she yelled at me to go out and do something.) I was terrified to walk into a room of strangers so exposed. I’d been scared of weights for a long time. Most of my life actually. On the surface, I’d tell you it was because I didn’t know anything about how to use them and that I didn’t care about being some muscle bound dude. But in reality, weights intimidated me. They only know truth. I could either lift them or I couldn’t, regardless of what I wanted people to think of me. I was going to be exposed. 

To my surprise, however, no one kicked me out. The weights exposed me and I was brought into the open, but to my surprise no one abandoned me. Instead, I realized how much I was holding back.

Progressively, my daily reconstructive process worked its way into other parts of my life. I stopped believing the lie that I was weak and started knowing that I was strong. I stopped believing the lie that I was inadequate and started knowing that I was capable. I started living my life knowing that God had made me into a man that had what it takes. 

Challenging WOD’s still makes me nervous, in the same way talking to people I admire turns me into a ball of nerves. But the difference I’ve learned through CrossFit is that I can accept who I am because at my core I’m capable enough to meet a challenge. The numbers I wrote in the beginning are more than records to impress other people. They tell the story of God building me into a man.

I’ve grown over the last year and half from an awkward, slender adult into an awkward, muscular man. 

And I wouldn’t have it any other way...

Saturday, August 9, 2014

David Wilson and the Defining Moment of My Childhood

I was pushed back to the worst day of my childhood Thursday.

I say worst because that’s the sort of thing a teenager feels in the moment their small world comes crashing in. I had to quit football when I was 14 for the same reason David Wilson announced on Thursday. Like Wilson, burners (or stingers as my doctor called them) indicated a neck injury that made it too dangerous to play football. Like Wilson, both our playing careers ended before they really had a chance to begin.

As a middle schooler obsessed with football, all I wanted to play for my high school team. My older sister was a cheerleader, so my parents took me to every game. To a pre-teen from a small town, the how-ever-many-thousand seat stadium at Sevier County High School was awe-inspiring. I lived for the moments where I could stand close enough to the sideline to hear the players cuss and see the sweat under their face masks. They were god-like to me.

But like Wilson, just weeks before my dream of playing high school football began, it all ended. After having seven stingers the season before, I got my eighth during preseason camp with the freshman team. We were doing a typical, “show how tough you are drill”, and I was out to impress my coaches and teammates. I lined up against a bigger teammate, hit him with my right shoulder, and it was done. I knew my fate as soon as it happened. My doctor (who was a former team doctor with the Steelers) told me I had to quit or risk permanent damage. My mom cried. I just stared at the floor.

So when I heard Wilson’s story and watched his retirement announcement, I relived sitting in the doctor’s office 16 years ago. It was so devastating at the time, but as a 30 year old husband and father I see that moment so differently. That was the moment God pulled away what defined me and began creating a path to bring me to Himself. It was transformed from being the worst day of my childhood into the day I began becoming who I am today.

I hope Thursday becomes the same day for David Wilson that my day was when I was 14. His gleaming optimism makes me think it will.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Was it Worth it, Big Blue? The Risk of Hiring John Calipari

When Kentucky hired John Calipari in 2009, Pat Forde wrote for ESPN, “They want their winner and they want him now, and they’re not worried about what happened at his previous place of employment.”

Kentucky got its winner, and the wins came in a big way, fast. Final Fours. A National Title. Lottery picks. Cal won elite recruits over with his hip arrogance.

Today, that arrogance has become blame. For the school. For the media exposure. For the players. This is what Kentucky signed up for when it got its winner. A man who says of his players, “The program almost got hijacked,” or “They’re counting on me too much.”

Was it worth it? The Kentucky brass knew the man they was getting into bed with. They knew the bridges he burned and the ashes he left at every other stop in his career. This should come as a surprise to no one. 

It should also be a very sobering thought for anyone clamoring for their school to hire a new coach. We should all ask ourselves, “What do we want and what are we willing to give up to get it?” Winning is amazing, but is it worth what Kentucky is going through now? We forget that we're building our school pride and identity around 18 and 19 year old students, using their talents and abilities as long as they are useful to satisfy what it is we're coming to sports for. Cal has been a master at manipulating this to his own advantages.

Forde concluded his 2009 article with the assumption that Memphis fans probably didn't care about what happened at Cal’s previous place of employment when they hired him ten years earlier.

“Ask them how they feel today.”

Big Blue Nation needs to take a long look at whether or not this is what they want from their program going forward.