I remember the first time walking into a CrossFit gym in October 2009…which just so happens to be the same affiliate where I eventually became the Head Coach, and am now the Owner/Operator of. I even remember the workout that they were doing. It was an AMRAP of pull-ups and DB weighted walking lunges to the end of the floor and back. It was a group of about 10 people…men and women…strong and chiseled…with a coach giving technique cues and encouragement. In all my years of team sports, military service, etc…I had NEVER seen anything like it. Out of the 10 individuals, I think half of them were women. Performing pull-ups. And working out alongside men – doing the exact same workout. I was in awe. Afterward, I talked to the coach and discussed when I could come back and start doing classes.
The coach – like all the other coaches – was one of the best athletes in the gym. Their abilities and their physiques made them stand out, head & shoulders, above all others. The Head Coach and the coaching staff were looked at by all onlookers with the same awe that I was stricken with when I saw them in action for the first time. I decided that, once I became a member, I was going to make it my mission to do ALL of the things that I saw them doing. I wanted to do muscle-ups and to go ALL OUT in EVERY SINGLE WORKOUT. I wanted six-pack abs. I wanted people to look at me with the same amazement and admiration that they were looked at with.
I completed the Fundamentals program – and my journey began. I figured out pretty quickly, however, that I may have overestimated my abilities and had some delusions of grandeur in my undertaking with the program. I was a newborn fawn learning to walk on wobbly legs on a frozen lake. I was a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that wasn’t there.
After 2 years of CrossFit, I was 35 years old, and in better shape than I had EVER been…even as a soldier or a semi-pro football player. I could do so many things that I never thought I’d be able to do in my lifetime. That I couldn’t even do in my 20’s. I was also a physical specimen – strong and lean. In my mind, however, I was a failure. I still couldn’t perform the coveted muscle-up. I never finished the daily WOD at the top with the fastest time. I hadn’t attained the status that I desired and I hadn’t achieved the goals that I set for myself at the beginning of my journey.
I came to the conclusion that it was because I wasn’t doing ENOUGH. I needed to do MORE. If the class WOD was 50 burpees…I would do 100 burpees! If it was a 15 Minute AMRAP…I would do a 30-minute AMRAP! I would work out EVERY DAY! MORE! MORE!! MORE!!! I loved the “Forging Elite Fitness” tagline. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to be elite.
I was fitter than I’d ever been…I was healthier than I’d ever been…I looked better than I’d ever looked…but that wasn’t enough. I was still surrounded by people who were much faster, stronger, and more skilled than I was. People who I thought that I should be better than. At the same time, I had my gym mates and bros and others in the CF Community pushing the “Road to the Games!” … “Win at ALL COSTS!” … “Be ELITE!” mentality on me. And I was eating it up. The workouts that I did had no purpose other than to be as difficult as possible. It was high volume and high intensity with ZERO direction. Recovery was not even in the equation. If I took a day off, I felt like I was cheating myself and robbing myself of the ability to be an elite athlete. I was repeatedly told that if I just put in the hours of work…I could get there.
Around that same time, on my yearly trip back home to visit family, I went to CrossFit Strong in Dallas, TX to become a Level 1 CF Coach. First – the gym was as big as an aircraft hangar – and among the instructors at the course were CF Games athlete Matt Chan and Games athlete and CFHQ advocate, and defender of CF, Russell Berger. As was par for the course at that time, we performed “Fran” as a group – during which I ripped probably about 16 ounces of skin off of my palms, and I was nowhere near the front of the pack in finishing time. I also had to use less than the prescribed weight because there wasn’t enough equipment for everyone to do RX. Needless to say – I hung my head in shame…now ALL of the 120 people at the seminar – INCLUDING the two members of CF royalty among the staff – would see that I wasn’t elite. There was also an allotted time for muscle-up instruction; which perked me up a little bit. It was followed by an opportunity for all prospective coaches to attempt their first muscle-up. I could feel it…this would be it. I would redeem myself and – in front of EVERYBODY – including Russell and Matt…I would nail my first muscle-up.
It was my turn. I walked up to the rings. I chalked up my hands. Or…I should say…I bathed my hands in chalk. Which felt AMAZING with all the missing skin on my palms. I jumped up on the rings and secured a false grip on the rings. Out of the 10 or so people before me, the majority of them – I would say 7 or 8 – nailed their first muscle-up. This was it. I remembered all of the performance cues that they had just talked about…tight kip…pull the rings to your chest…throw your head & shoulders in front of the rings…finish the dip… I closed my eyes and started my kip…
…not even close…
I attempted 2 or 3 times, and each time was less successful than the last. The walk of shame from the rings to the bathroom was a slow & dejected shoulder and head-hanging amble. I went to the sink, washed my hands (which felt like holding my palms over a blue flame), and gave myself a long look in the mirror. Looked myself in the eye for a good 3 minutes. I questioned my decision. I would never be on the level that my coaches or Games competitors were. As a tear fell into the sink below me, I started to think of alternatives to being a CF coach and competitor. Perhaps I could go back to teaching. I would finish the seminar, since I was there, and then move on.
The last lecture dealt with programming workouts. As I sat there in the final hours of the seminar, certain phrases caught my attention…phrases like “train with a purpose” and “balance volume & intensity”. And then it happened. I don’t remember if it was Matt or Russell who said it, but – in front of the whole class – a CF Games competitor and representative of the CrossFit model stood in front of the white board and said word for word:
“If you train at a box and you walk out of there every day in a big puddle of sweat…you’re in a bad box…you probably need to find a new one. If you’re in a box that adheres to balancing volume and intensity, and you sabotage that by doing extra work on your own outside of the box, you’re cheating yourself.”
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. All of the principles that I’d adhered to for the past 2 years had been discredited by CF royalty. I took another look at myself in the mirror (without actually looking at myself in the mirror) and decided that I would pursue my future training and my initial coaching with a new perspective. It was no longer about being elite. It transcends that. It’s about moving and moving well. It’s not about performing every workout as prescribed or doing advanced movements. It’s about constantly progressing. And contrary to what many coaches out there are telling their athletes…or what they’re yelling at them during a WOD…throwing “more weight on the bar” does not necessarily signify “progress”.
General Physical Preparedness is everything in CrossFit – “The Unknown and the Unknowable”. However, as Greg Everett says, which I happen to agree with: “Preparing for any random task is not the same as preparing randomly for any task.” There needs to be a calculated and methodical approach to training. The Hopper or deck of cards is not meant to be done every day. If the goal of your programmed workouts is only to be “as sucky as possible”…and the goal of the scaling options has the same goal as opposed to progressing you or your athletes towards the RX movement, then it’s time to reconsider your philosophy.
High-level CF competitors…aka The Elite…are the SMALLEST portion of the population, in general AND in the CF gym. Whether you’re Annie the teen, or Sally the Soccer Mom, James the retired Navy guy, Walter the senior citizen, or even Michael the young stud – there are MANY more reasons, other than being elite or training for peak performance, that you could be training for. Such as longevity, social interaction, or even recreation or enjoyment. James may never get double unders or muscle-ups…and that’s ok. Walter or Sally probably will never do, nor have a need for doing, a full snatch or clean. A full air squat, an RX Box Jump, an unassisted push-up or pull-up…may be the most advanced movements that the majority of people in the CF gym will perform…and that’s ok. Perhaps coaches shouldn’t be screaming for athletes to “put more weight on that bar” as a standard order. Especially when the athlete is still not moving well.
In closing, Greg Glassman recently stated what we, as affiliate owners and coaches, should have a committed focus on. We are performing an extremely valuable service. Our goals, as we direct our members, should be FIRST AND FOREMOST: fighting chronic disease, malnutrition, and inactivity by performing constantly varied functional movements at high intensity. It’s as simple as that. Simple not easy. Obviously, a multitude of knowledge and experience in many areas is needed. And, obviously and without a doubt, some of those who step on the black mats have a potential to stand on the podium…but, the bottom line is: it’s not about being elite or focusing on the higher-level athletes while all the “normal” members – who are, more than likely, the majority of people on the black mats – are left behind. Great athletes will be great with only a little bit of guidance. Annie, Sally, James, and Walter should be getting the most attention…and get as much praise for their progress…even if what they’re doing doesn’t get them followers on Instagram. “Leave your ego at the door” isn’t only directed to athletes, but also to coaches. Hone your craft.