Beast, Badass, Nightstalker

Yeah, Nightstalker doesn’t totally fit.  Was going for aggro.

We had a great post in our members group today from a fellow who mentioned that he might have wanted to go a little lighter and easier in his formative years of training.  To his credit, he noted that he might not have been able to come to this conclusion without pushing that envelope on his own.

The thing is, showing up three times a week is so much harder than pushing through one hard deadlift or burly squat.  It’s not even close.  And yet, we exalt these singular moments as though there were no preamble; hell, we exalt failed reps if the lifter makes enough of a cacophony and fuss over themselves (hashtag ‘the grind’).  I see this every day.  Beast.  Badass.  Nightstalker.  It’s no wonder our kids think practices are boring and nothing under 90% ceremony is worth doing–we fixate on spectacle.  And it can be incredibly frustrating to swim against that current when day in and day out the most impressive things you see are the people that just keep showing up.

This is perhaps odd to admit and may come off as a humble brag, but one of my proudest achievements is putting in the work it took to squat 450 and deadlift 600 without being told how badass or whatever I was, or to have built a business without hearing some garbage like “you deserve a vacation.”  What does that even mean?  People in steel mills for 30 years deserve vacations, not folks who’d like to have a few more three-day weekends.  I’m proud to have put in the work it took to lay the foundation. That’s its own reward, and not hearing contrived piffle meant to curry favor or flatter makes me feel like I’m acting like I’ve been here before and people are picking up on that.  That’s huge to me.  I hope that we have created a place where that’s celebrated too.

So I guess here’s to walking in the door.   Even if the door is in your own house.  When you show up, even if it’s just for yourself, you’re doing the hardest part.  As the JAMC sang, that’s the hardest walk.  From A to B.


Coach as Caregiver

One of my favorite films is Diary of a Country Priest, directed by Robert Bresson and based on a novel by Georges Bernanos.  I won’t spoil the plot, but it’s a beautifully shot meditation on the nature of care and the integral function of solitude in the life of the caregiver.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of coaching as care, really before it becomes anything that might resemble education or encouragement.  One of the things that we tell our coaches at Woodshed is that their first duty is to do no harm.  From that fountain, you develop the practice of care: about your profession, about the athletes under your watch, and about your fellow coaches.  Sometimes one track outpaces the others for a time, but you get there.

Solitude in the life of a professional coach means a certain distance, particularly from your athletes.  This can be hard to navigate, particularly for the newer coach.  I remember my first few years of coaching, which alas coincided with the first few years of our gym.  I sold, went to sleep, sold some more.   I was on twenty hours a day.  We were building something, and my understanding as a sole proprietor was that folks had to like you, like really like you, if they were going to stick around.  At some point I realized I had bought myself some friends, but not necessarily to the benefit of my business.  When the first domino fell, I was left with the fuzzy notion that folks who had met my family and heard my stories should just be cool, goddammit.  Of course, that’s incredibly narcissistic and bad business to boot.  People-pleasing usually is.

Years later, our community has grown to twice that size.  I care deeply about our members and coaches, and I know that feeling is largely reciprocated.  But while I have shared significant swatches of life with many, in person and virtually, there is now a productive distance in effect.  My triumphs, struggles, and issues shouldn’t be fodder for the relationship between coach and athlete, or between manager and employee (Christ I hate that word)–my job is to give care, not receive it or ask for it.  This is the splendid isolation that Warren Zevon sings about, a position and a vantage you willingly and completely inhabit.

I knew I was onto something when a friend and I jokingly compared how infrequently the folks in our circles check in on us.  This is as it should be in the life of a professional coach; our people should walk into the gym understanding that it’s about them, not us.  This I know.

The funny thing is, I’m less sure than I was ten years ago about how you ought to teach someone to squat or deadlift.  The more you learn, as it happens, the less you’re sure.


Saturation…great little album by Urge Overkill, by the way.

If you’re an obsessive like me, you have your favorites.  Your shows, your playlists, your people.  You return to them time and again.  The flip side of that is that there is no flip side.  You know how the story ends.  Your experience is at saturation point, it seems.

This weekend I met a friend at a powerlifting meet and gave him some coaching and handling.  (Yes, that’s the proper terminology.)  He and I had talked privately about doing this meet together; for various reasons, I opted not to compete but was happy to be out there with him.  He did wonderfully.

Powerlifting meets are curious admixtures.  There are the people who are genuinely happy to be lifting and there are the weird aggro glory hounds.  (Usually in a 1.25:1 ratio.)  There are the interminable waits between flights and the folks who step on your stuff and get in your way while you’re trying to make your way to your lifters in the coaches’ area.  The music, with the Cookie Monster vocals meant to signify…something.  The bright brilliant smiles after PRs and moments of joy like diamonds and halos.

And yet, a meet carries with it the odor of sameness.  (Actually many other odors too, come to think of it.)  When you’ve done or helped with a handful, you’ve mostly seen it all.  This weekend, my mind was inclined elsewhere although I was happy to be with my friend; I missed my family and particularly one of my boys who’d been sad about a friend moving out of town.  In a situation like that, it’s easy to feel like you’re at saturation point with the experience.  What more can you see, especially when you’re confident your friend will crush it, as he did?

About two hours into the experience, I got my answer.  I was in one of the sitting areas off the main hallway charging my phone and reading a magazine.   One of the lifters from that morning’s session walked into the room with his two boys and sat down nearby.  He didn’t look to be a natural lifter (who is, really?) and one of his boys was probably 13 or 14.  They sat there for a few minutes, happily chatting as I wondered how the hell a 13 or 14 year old isn’t looking completely miserable in that situation.

Then the dad put his arm around his son, kissed him on the cheek, and ruffled his hair.

Right.  That was it. I wasn’t at saturation point after all.  There is always room for love and kindness, and your openness to surprise and wonder may bear you up when you least expect it.  I didn’t see that guy bench or deadlift but I hope he lifted ten thousand pounds.

The Custodian of Small Moments

The big things, you remember.  Your wedding day, the birth of your first child, the first colonoscopy.  (Well, it’s kind of a big deal!)

But the small things often slip into ether if we aren’t careful.  What it felt like the first time you held your wife’s hand.  (When was it?)  How beautifully spent you felt, taking off your t-shirt after a run through the Fens in 1995.  (It was a very hot summer.)

And occasionally moments elide in memory.  The first time you heard “Lady in the Front Row” by Redd Kross.  (This was not actually during a blizzard’s long drive, though that is how you remember the song and the snow.)

When I am at my best, I imagine being a custodian of small moments–my own, and then those of others under my charge.  Some need a little dusting, some need a full mop, and others?  Others need to be taken out of their corners and closets and given some sun.

The time you were your best self, in that still, small way?  That time you added to another’s day by spending a bit of your own time?  The moment you thought to capture on social media but instead left to trail off into memory?

Bring them out into the light.  Mind that gap.  Your small moments are big.

Moving On Out

Well, we’re moving to Boxborough.  But first, we backtrack a little bit.

A little over seven years ago, I locked myself in the bathroom of the gym we’d just moved into. This was January 1, 2011, we’d been an official tenant for a little over ten hours, and I was stuck.  I think I only broke the (temporary) door a little bit kicking my way out in a panic.

Turns out I’m a little claustrophobic.

When I look back on these last seven years, it’s hard not to consider that experience an occasional metaphor.  We started small, got a little bit bigger, but we always made do with knowledge and coaching over bells and whistles thanks to some amazing people and a commitment to being deliberate.  Back in the day, there was a kind of blueprint for how you set up your CrossFit gym, from the high equipment turnover to the tenets you were meant to espouse in the name of intensity.  To me, the whole thing always felt like more of a constraint than an aid, and so I’m proud that we found our own way.  We made it work.

But eight-foot ceilings are gonna eight-foot ceiling, and at some point that proverbial bathroom door is staring you in the face.  You either kick it down or you get used to the smell of bleach tabs.

Time to kick it.

You’re Just Like Me, Kid

I’m not sure why, but lately I’ve been thinking about lessons.  I’ve been coaching for close to ten years now, which is a bit longer than some and a lot less than many others, but it’s only recently that I’ve really started to parse the difference between coaching and teaching.  Perhaps it’s splitting hairs and I claim no great insight, but I think the former concerns itself primarily with management and the latter with lessons.  (We’ll save a discussion of good management, which surely includes a healthy dollop of teaching, for another day.)

Today I’m thinking of an old math teacher who granted me an enormous kindness at a difficult moment.  In seventh grade, I moved from your standard 8:15-2:05 grammar school routine to a junior high several towns over.  My dad would drop me off at school on his way to work (actually it was not really on his way so this was pretty early, like an hour before school started) and I played football after classes, so most days I was there from 7ish to 5:30 or 6.  Couple that time change with a threefold increase in homework and this felt like the end of the world to me.  I remember coming home one night and just bursting into tears, telling my parents that I felt like I never saw my family anymore.

At school, the seventh graders had temporary advisors to get us started.  Every student made a list of faculty members he wanted for his advisor, but in seventh grade you received a temp right off the bat while your more permanent one was in the process of assignation.  My TA was my math teacher, Mr. Carroll.  I was never sure that he really liked me because I think he thought I didn’t try hard enough in class, but he was solicitous and kind nonetheless.

One day we met right after school had gotten out and before practice started.  We sat in an empty classroom–I think it belonged to one of the history teachers–and we went through a pretty standard give and take.  Keeping up with my homework, making friends, enjoying football.  And then, almost in passing, he asked if there was anything else I’d like to share.

So I told him that I was having a hard time adjusting to the time away from home.  I probably wouldn’t have told my history teacher or my Latin teacher, both of whom I adored.  But Mr. Carroll was a small dude, the height of most of the kids in my grade if that, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I thought of him yet so I thought why not?  Maybe it felt like I’d be telling some kid whose opinion didn’t really matter.

He smiled.  “You know,” he said, “my wife sometimes tells me she feels like she never sees me during the school year.”  The thing is, Mr. Carroll lived in the gate house at the entry to our school itself.  So he was never more than a two minute walk from home.  “It’s a hard adjustment every year, after the summer.”

And in that moment, I felt so much better.  My sadness hadn’t immediately passed and he hadn’t said anything remarkable or profound.  But you know what?  He showed up for me in that moment.  And that, to me, is one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever been taught.  We may not always have the right words, the right facial expression, or know how to handle a tough situation.  But we can always show up for someone.  And sometimes, shit, most times, that’s the very best thing.

The Store

After I have been downstairs for an hour or so, the boys come down to say goodnight.  My oldest sits on the arm of the couch to talk while my youngest hops on one foot, gesturing wildly with a new drawing.

They have decided to open a store.  I can order items in advance, if I want.  D has crawled into my lap by this point and I joke that I’d like to buy the thing which guards against farts on my knee.

He laughs and keeps talking.  Yes we can order this item, yes it will be ready soon.  While D and I transact business, L is describing his drawing to me.  As he limns out details, his eyes alight on the cover of the book I’m holding in my left hand.

It’s a paperback from several years ago, something on taking your fitness business to the next level.  Right now I would settle for what I remember to be ground zero: nothing but pure, clean work.  Just me and my urge.  And yet, there’s an outsized picture of a brain on the cover and L is transfixed.  He sees the brain and I see his brain work words to mouth: he speaks the title of the book silently and then looks up at me.

My oldest is still talking and my youngest starts hopping again and I pull them closer to me.  Every second I hold that book I’m just sitting there in the easy chair not really living much anymore.  I ought to throw it off the fucking wall.

It’s funny how sometimes it hits you when you’re not expecting it.  My beautiful boys and their wide eyes and yammering mouths, full of wonder and intention.  They have every dream in the world and I’m sitting in an easy chair, chasing one dream like it’s tonic to all that awaits–slings and separation, sickness, old age, the end of things.  I’m sitting in an easy chair, moldering and lying to them with my eyes.  Like maybe if I can just get things right, if I can just figure out how to work a little less, how to fucking moon over things a little less, and maybe love a little more, be a little more fucking present instead of in a fucking haze of self-improvement because nothing is ever fucking good enough, none of my fears will come to pass and I can look at my boys with love and tell them I’m here, and that being here will always be good enough.

I ought to throw the book off the fucking wall and put on the end of The Color of Money, the part where Fast Eddie says “I’m back.”  That’s what I ought to do.  But instead I go upstairs and look at the sign D made for the store.

“For the time of your life,” it says.