Can’t... or Won’t?

I make it a habit to tell the athletes and individuals I train that the only currency we deal in is attention and effort. At first, this seems to be a concession, an admission that unfortunately this is “all” we’re in control of. The work reveals the cost of this standard, and the burden of paying attention becomes heavier and heavier when we resist the urge to shrug it off our shoulders. What I’m really trying to do is show how much we are able to control. I’m trying to trigger a shift in values from Quantity in movement to Quality in awareness. A shift from seeing the improvements in our bodies as ends, to understanding them as tools, as means for something much more worthwhile.

Whatever our goal, we all enter a gym because we recognize a gap between our ability and our potential. This gap only exists because of our tendency to measure things. Weight on the scale, weight on the bar, the face of the stopwatch. We measure them against our past selves, against each other, against who we think ourselves to be. The Fitbit teaches us that data is our friend; that “what gets measured gets managed”. This is of course true, to an extent. Soon however, we can’t do without the numbers; measuring and analyzing only in that context. We know too well what we are capable of on a given day. We decide what sort of effort is out of reach without a strict and thorough plan of attack. We treat our personal records as a line in the sand, to be crossed almost on accident whenever we “feel good” that day. Complacency creeps in the same way water inevitably will follow the path of least resistance until it leaks into our basement. It’s a law of nature. Slaves to our inner expectation of the effort required for certain weights and paces, we never notice the cage of our own perception being built around us, until self-limitation, hesitation, and caution are our first instincts in the face of risk. Even if we become aware, it’s likely we view that cage as protection rather than imprisonment. Protection from what?

Failure. Failure is the strong, abrasive surface that sharpens and polishes us. Without it, we become scuffed and dull. We don’t adapt, and in the same way astronauts who spend time in space lose bone density due to decreased gravitational demand, we shrivel and atrophy in the muscle that matters most. We sit in the cage we’ve built trapped by what believe ourselves capable of, safe from the perceived embarrassment of failure, Not recognizing real enemy is in the cage with us. Quitting. While failure is a forceful and sudden, like a car speeding down the highway until the last drop of gasoline is spent, quitting is much more stealthy and sinister. We should dive head-first into situations in which we can fail, because we understand the distinction between failure and quitting, the difference between losing something despite a firm grasp, and simply throwing it away.

Even if we train in an attentive environment, even if we are held to a standard and hold complacency at arm’s length, sometimes our effort isn’t enough. Eventually, what may be asked of us is overwhelming enough to exhaust our capacity even when we are at our best. This is Failure that we can value for its rarity, since nobody truly goes beyond the ceiling of their ability willingly. We must be towed out into water too deep to stand in, and when our excuses run out, attempt to swim back to shore alone. These situations are rare, however, and most of our shortfalls -in the gym and out- are the result of a decision. If not actively quitting, then quietly loosening our grip on the situation. Discomfort, fatigue, and fear steal our attention and prevent us from controlling what we can control.

To combat this, we must be careful about our language around training, careful to say what we mean. Terms like AMRAP (as many reps as possible) or “for time” speak in no uncertain terms. They should be used sparingly and respected when describing a workout.  We all know what effort looks like, and most of us learn how to act the part even when we are not feeling the way we portray. Here lies the power of a coach. With enough time and enough trust we have a lifeguard that can help us find the deep water that truly teaches us to swim. Someone to enforce our vocabulary, to hold us accountable to what we say and do in the presence of others. Someone to notice when we fall into the old habit rather than reaching and clawing for the new one, and to help us correct our course. Never quit. Fail often. Keep your head above water.

  Sometimes to find the edge of the cliff we must go over. Sometimes when the weight is heavy and success not guaranteed, a spotter is the last thing we need. 

Sometimes to find the edge of the cliff we must go over. Sometimes when the weight is heavy and success not guaranteed, a spotter is the last thing we need. 

  We are comfortable in situations we find familiar. A gym is the safest, most contrived environment ever devised to intentionally widen the margins of our experience, to literally become comfortable with discomfort and eliminate as much as possible the panic response that kills our ability to perform.

We are comfortable in situations we find familiar. A gym is the safest, most contrived environment ever devised to intentionally widen the margins of our experience, to literally become comfortable with discomfort and eliminate as much as possible the panic response that kills our ability to perform.