Thursday, October 25, 2007

The "A' word

Instead of littering my Nissan Sentra with the standard pile of empty coffee cups and ponytail holders, I littered it with relationship residue. My jeep – May it be elevated to a KitchenAid Mixer in its next life – operated a lot like I do. It essentially worked but had a collection of ‘allergies’ and ‘sensitivities’. When I got rid of it and bought my Sentra, I was prepared for a whole new relationship and I tried not to make any assumptions about how the previous owner treated a car in which he wedged Captain Crunch between all the seats. Just because a man is willing to eat corn syrup – obviously with abandon given the splatter pattern – doesn’t mean he maintains his car as poorly as he does his person.

Not that there’s any parallel’s to be drawn between how long it takes me to extricate myself from bad relationships, I can at least tell you with no hesitation how far and how fast I can push a Dodge Colt out of an intersection when necessary. But I had hopes for the Sentra and we were happy together.

It all took a turn one sunny day. I had the radio on and I was singing along to a song that turned the story “we dated, now we don’t’ into something really complex while I was busy making the story, “the hazards were off, now their on,” akin to aeronautics. Even if I had been thinking clearly, the word ‘hazard’ itself implies there’s a problem and since, to my recollection I didn’t put the hazards on, and given my history with cars, I assumed something was broken. Well, I did what any reasonable girl would do. I whipped open the fuse box, brushed aside the Captain Crunch and pried the fuse out with the nail clipper I didn’t know I had but managed to forage along with enough of the cereal for sustenance. Wouldn’t any reasonable gal yank a fuse?

With the exception of a viscous attack to my palm by the business end of the nail clipper, I was satisfied with my solution. Well, until I discovered that my turn signals operate on the same fuse (there are friends who are shocked I noticed.) A couple of days later I caught a glimpse of a big red triangle on a button in the middle of my console just above and to the right of my coffee cup. It was like the pimple on the chin of my dashboard and it was the button for the hazards which, as it turned out, weren’t so much ‘broken’ as ‘on.’ Hey - not a mechanic! I sheepishly returned the fuse and to the sporadic use of my turn signal.

Keeping this story in mind, let’s quickly shift gears before anyone starts pondering the reasons why my relationships don’t work (besides, my girlfriends have assured me that men fear commitment and that has nothing to do with me.) Sometimes we act on assumptions that we didn’t even know we made and some of those decisions affect our progress in profound ways. It’s a dialog in our head, often as simple as ‘cars break’ that affects our actions and our outcomes.

I see it with clients all the time. “I’m Clumsy,” “I’m lazy”, “I’m weak” All of which may have been true for an instant or a decade. Some of it was just some silly noise some gym teacher made to explain away an off afternoon and it stuck. But as a result, every failure and every stumble has a ready reason long after the label is outgrown. In fact, the moment I give a client a new instruction or an old reminder, I can almost see the, “I can’t because. . . .” flash by. But if they could see themselves from this side of their eyeballs, they’d see someone who is capable but tripping over their reasons and not their feet.

Consider Client One’s answer when I asked him what, in his development as an athlete, are his obstacles. One said, “The question makes a big assumption, which may be at the root of the issue. I don’t think of myself as an athlete nor will I ever be one, regardless of how much I workout. Maybe that is the initial obstacle to overcome.”

It’s funny because it’s all based on how you define it. Video gamers are now insisting on being called athletes, but a man who spends three days a week with a trainer won’t even consider it. When I talked to another client about what she would do differently if she simply allowed herself that title, she understood that it would impact her nutrition, her sleep and her exercise just by looking at herself from that perspective. And we’re not talking about a shift in schedule, just attitude. Workouts would go from an afternoon play date with a caloric cost to an opportunity to develop skills and make progress.

“The second obstacle is intrinsic motivation,” One continued, “An athlete has a fire within themselves to push their body to achieve…when their minds says they can’t. They look at a weight on the bar, scrunch their face and say there is no way I cannot do that. An athlete sees a mountain to climb a non-athlete sees a really heavy bar and a sweat angel on the floor, even before they pick-up the bar.”

I disagree. I see ‘athletes’ struggle with the same doubts and fears as ‘non athletes.’ The only difference is that athletes have worked through those feelings enough times to know how to ignore them. In my case, I build in support systems to counteract my clumsy, lazy and weak moments. I still have them in my head, but with a whole network of people around me supporting my efforts, that feedback is the background noise of elevator music not a blaring frat party with a screeching punk vocalist yelling, “put the bar down!” so loudly I can’t hear my coach.

One also talked about the stop watch limiting him. He said, “When the stop watch is running, the focus in more on the time then the technique.” This is simply ‘panic.’ The entire first year of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu feels like Panic 101 and so I know the feeling. Experience will allow you to have the presence to focus on both speed and technique but unfortunately you have to believe that the two can coexist or recognize that something’s missing before you can develop it.

I talked to Client Two about what it would mean to be present since the time investment would be the same just the focus and point of view would change leading to greater progress. Two had a chance to think about it and said, “Your point is a great one about being more present and doing it well versus just doing it (where it is whatever cross fit training item we are working on). My default is just bear down and get through it. What’s ironic is that is my typical modus operandi whether in the gym, on the mat doing a martial art, here in the office or even dealing with interpersonal issues.” The reason we had the conversation so pointedly is that I understood how likely it was that he handled other areas of his life in similar ways.

The assumption One made next is interesting. He believes that the inability to visualize success is hardwired. One said, “The mind is typically wired to focus on failure or maybe it can more easily visualize failure then success.” I argue that what he’s identified is the fear associated with failure, which in our evolved world, is the closest we get to actual danger. That’s where the evolutionary hardwiring comes in. As Mark Rippetoe once said, in explaining the challenge presented by the snatch, “it is not instinctual to step under falling weight.” Well said. Identifying possible danger and working to avoid them is how we stay alive. In the absence of sharp-toothed and foul breathed pursuers, workouts are one of the few things we have left to make us wet ourselves.

People just aren’t comfortable with fear existing as a byproduct of successful survival. It always needs to be about something and usually that something is injury. After all, most of us have been injured and fearing injury seems so wise while fearing just to be fearful feels so wussy. Clients almost never say, “Wow, that scares me because I don’t think I can do that!” There’s always some mechanical limitation or some physical malady that no-kidding prevents it. Check out the answers to, what you fear:

Client Two: “Like you, my back has been a concern for me although in my case really only since around 2000. I threw it out and couldn’t walk for a couple of days and that really bothered me. I have thrown it out a few more times but never as badly since. I realize that it has a lot to do with flexibility (especially in my quads). There are certainly times when I am nervous that some movement will injure my back whether that is a twisting motion or lifting motion around my back. I know somewhere mentally that building my core would help protect my back, but I never seem to make extra time to work on that. When I am “good”, I exercise and the flexibility is way better. Doing various exercises with you sometimes helps and other times even when I am nervous about my back works out as long as I do the exercises correctly. I do have some fear about doing something badly/wrong – but you know that is probably more about being aware of what and how I am doing what I am doing. If anything, I believe that I don’t have an awareness of what my body is doing, but our conversation has me thinking that this really boils down to me not paying attention to what my body is doing because I am too busy thinking about something else…”

Client Three: “Internal voice – what I can tell myself I can / can’t do, what’s too heavy or too much, etc. This is often reinforced by the ‘Lack of Knowledge’ because one of the things that constantly gets in the way is something of the form ‘If I run another half mile, will I just be injuring myself’ or ‘if I try to lift another 10 pounds will I tweak something’ and if so, how long is it going to take for the minor injury to go away.”

Client Four: “Reinjury.”

Client Five: “If I was to worry it would be about pulling my back and making it stiff.”

Don’t get me wrong, the concerns are valid. But total systemic meltdown doesn’t necessarily come with a warning ‘twinge’ and even if that was step-one in the process, you’d probably only know it in hindsight. Often a twinge is just a twinge. Bodies are funny like that. In addition, you should know that I can’t read twinges like tea leaves and I can’t diagnose or give insight when what you’ve said all wide-eyed is, “I felt a twinge!” Twinge or no, if you routinely operate inside your workout from the perspective of ‘badknee’, ‘badback’, ‘badankle’ it can limit who you are as an athlete. Progress is measured by injury status and the push to accelerate is dictated by hard-to-read aches and pains which sometimes are just part of the process. It's a whole different workout when you come from the perspective that stellar form will keep you uninjured and you focus on that rather than tragic consequences.

When questioned further, One said he feared, “‘Phoning-it-in’ showing up and doing a workout and not giving 110%. Letting the last few reps be sloppy. Letting my mind psyche me out. I also fear disappointing my trainer. Seriously. I know you believe in me, which is super, super motivating. I don’t want to let you down. So, when my form slips or I scrunch my face because of the heavy weight...even before I pick it up, my mind is getting ahead of me. I look back on the workout later and say I could have done better.” Funny, the same things scared me but I changed it in my head from ‘what I fear’ to ‘what motivates me’. What’s the difference? Mainly the butterflies in my stomach that pop up before the workout are pleasantly fluttering rather than chewing angrily through my intestinal mucosa. Subtle but important.

Back to my driver’s seat: Every gadget I own has a manual stashed in the junk drawer with a trouble-shooting chapter that begins with ‘Step One: Check to see if it’s on’. I didn’t even need to look at the hazards as if I was a mechanic; the answer was stashed in a familiar place I never look. The same could be said if you want to know where to look to be an athlete. It’s the familiar place called childhood where competition was fun, learning took practice and sometimes you got hurt. We just didn’t attach a whole lot more to it than that.

And just so you know, after I returned the fuse, my right turn signal started blinking frantically as if my car is having a panic attack. But only on the right. I’m not going to call it ‘broken’. I like to think of it as a ‘sensitivity’ to right turns. The big squeaky noise that developed is a matter for the mechanic but in the meantime, I prefer to think of it as a small rodent with big vocal cords subletting my catalytic converter.