Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Oddly, my reaction to the small varmint I like to call a ‘chipmunk’ jumping on my head sometime after midnight didn’t include screaming. Instead, after it let go of my scalp and bounced to the floor, we both laid in the dark perfectly still, wide-eyed and hyperventilating. It didn’t scurry and in fact, it landed on the floor with a heavy and graceless oomph which convinces my friend Mark that it was a rat instead of the cute, Disney-style chipmunk I will continue to picture (fingers in ears, loudly repeating ‘LaLaLaLa . . .’) I began to slowly haul up the covers which I had noticed with delight no longer smelled like my cousin Bobby’s wet Golden Retriever until I realized I could be hauling my little friend back aboard like some search and rescue mission. I let the covers back out and ruled out any trips to the out house, the only facilities at my Dad’s rustic camp. Damn the two liters of water I drank and damn Paul Chek for making me drink them.

I was trained for this. A week earlier I bound out of bed with two simultaneous and incongruent thoughts: “That’s the biggest bug ever!” and “how the hell am I moving this fast!?” A beetle – much larger than a Japanese beetle and slightly smaller than a Farfegnugen – was crawling across my left shoulder without prior consent. I consider most of my person a no-fly zone and will protect my air space from all things incapable of at least buying me coffee first. I turned on the light and then scooped up the Jurassic bug-that-time-forgot between the heels of the sneakers I was wearing on my hands like mittens. I crunched it in a way that the Buddha would not approve of and it merely looked at me annoyed. I kicked it’s carcass to the corner, too tired to check if it was dead or face the fact that I just bought myself some seriously bad Karma. I’m so being reincarnated as a housefly for this.

Sure, they were the Cato Fong to my Inspector Jacques Clouseau but it served as a sort of Ninja summer camp. That combined with the special form of psychological torture of living in a house full of antique dolls would prepare me for my return to mat combat – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Anyone who knows antique dolls knows that they have all the charm of mimes, circus clowns and the original Grimm’s Fairytales. Grim. Most of them were made to appeal to the same children who sang ‘Ring around the Rosie’ to capture all the obvious fun and frolic associated with mass death by bubonic plague. The dolls that didn’t look like ‘Chucky’ plotting to slit my throat were debutant divas that dressed better than me and disapproved of my lifestyle. They judged me with their eyes. Everything else about living in the Uppercut's basement for the summer was amazing and wonderful but the dolls were everywhere and they creeped me out. Like the First Emperor of China’s Terracotta Army, it was Liz Uppercut symbolic defense against the oppressive dose of testosterone from three sons and a husband. My squat protocol was caught in friendly fire.

Also, working in a Crêpery – in itself testosterone suppressing – with a name so tacky it might as well have been a crepe-o-rama completed my psychological boot camp. My sister threatened to call often just to get me to answer the phone and have to say it. I hated her a little. And I tried, oh how I tried, but flipping fancy flapjacks to serve on paper plates was like wearing champion sweatsuits with Chanel. It didn’t work and I knew it didn’t work no matter how much I tried to focus on something else.

The owners got the idea for the pancake parlor at a ski resort lift-line in Breckinridge, Colorado where folks reportedly stood in line for 45 minutes for crepes from a kiosk. Most decisions made in sub-zero weather should be disregarded.

At Breckinridge, Kiosk crepes make sense where the ski-bum burnouts defy the social order by making bank in the x-games circuit. It’s an in-you-face to the elite who can afford lift-tickets and new equipment by ski bums who can’t afford to ski but are doing it any way they can, crepe kiosks included.

In Wolfeboro, serving crepes on paper plates and calling them ‘crapes’ with all the linguistic skill and class of a blue-collar middle-American ordering McDonald’s croissant sandwich is to do so without first bothering with silly stuff like demographics. Further, stuffing said crape with ingredients suited to a roach-coach taco is the sort of ‘close enough’ approach that’s embarrassing. It’s simple: Paper plate people eat hamburgers and mushrooms from a can, Crepe people use real utensils and have the kind of gentrified palate that makes listing Ragu Pizza Sauce among your ingredients comical. The only way to make sense of this would be to engineer a way to serve it on a stick out a trailer window at the state fair. I endured but not without my opinion periodically creeping across my features. I tried, but not hard enough, to be merely grateful for the extra income.

None of the locals who I had coffee with in the morning ever offered up their opinion of the International House of Crepes but they didn’t eat there either. I tried never to mention that we not only microwaved eggs but we did so in plastic containers, a practice as suitable for breakfast as gas huffing. We talked of other things while I drank my coffee suspiciously served somewhere other than the crepery. I even managed not to talk about the two twenty-something employees whose ADD, depression and OCD were all properly medicated while their sociopathic tendencies were not. That particular disorder which manages to dodge a landmine of meds will drive a future of blue-collar crime, tax fraud, shoplifting and high profile divorces. Perhaps my pain and suffering will net a tabloid payday when I can say I knew them before they were headlines.

I worked long hours which were detrimental to my training and my health. I even started to roll over cautiously in my sleep holding my arm just so to accommodate the spatula I imagined was still in my left hand. I wondered if my stomach was bothering me from the lack of sleep, the fourteen hour shifts or the celiac flare-ups from dreaming wheaty dreams of crepe assembly performed at a monotonous pace. I woke everyday to find the boss had ordered a completely new set of arbitrary, contradictory and nonsensical directions designed to trump the arbitrary, contradictory and nonsensical directions of days previous. I completely failed at the shrug-it-off resilience of the younger girls who giggled in the back room and messaged up-to-the-minute reports of drama and mayhem to laugh about later.

It’s funny now though.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty,” said Sir Winston Churchill but he didn’t mean to suggest that every opportunity is worth the cost of pursuit. A career in substandard pancake assembly was not a goal that inspired me. Even so, what motivates optimum performance from a team with varied skills towards a common goal even when teammates sometimes exhibit a questionable commitment to that end result? This is something I’ve dealt with frequently in coaching groups of athletes facing the same workout but with their own set of challenges. It’s helpful to first understand the concept of learned helplessness and how it affects perception given that things are going only as well as each person thinks it is.

Martin Seligman first explored this theory in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania in a series of experiments that would have PETA consider a Fatwa. He and Steve Maier shocked dogs giving some of the animals a means of escape and some no way out. After the first experience, dogs that previously had no escape were given options to dodge the shock but instead 2/3rds of the animals helplessly whimpered and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

Or in the less severe and the less-likely-to-be-covered-in-your-health-plan version, ‘once shocked, twice shy.’ This is the common reaction to facing something you’re bad at by avoiding it all together or by a justifiable lack of effort.

One third of the dogs handled the situation differently. “Of the roughly 150 dogs in experiments in the latter half of the 1960s, about one-third did not become helpless, but instead managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation despite their past experience with it. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with optimism; however, not a naïve Polyannaish optimism, but an explanatory style that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent.”

I think I’ve seen this so often because CrossFit coaches push this button more than trainers who teach a more predictable ‘Fitness program’. The fact that the workouts create an environment in which the athlete has no control over the programming, means that coaches often end up managing pessimistic explanatory individuals displaying an exaggerated stress response in part because the experience is designed to be so inherently stressful. As it was explained, “People with pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent ("it will never change"), personal ("it's my fault"), and pervasive ("I can't do anything correctly")—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman 1993).”
Because the movements taught by CrossFit coaches are complex enough to require significant practice before the athlete achieves mastery, the experience leaves an opening for the kind of pessimistic internal dialog that stymies a person. Changingminds.org explains it this way:

How we attribute the events that occur in our lives has a significant effect on our attitudes and efforts in improving our lot. In particular there are three types of belief that affect us:

· Stable or unstable cause: If we believe that events are caused by factors which do not change, we assume that it is not worth us trying to change them. So if I believe my success is based on an unchangeable ability, it will seem that it is not worth my trying to improve myself.
· Internal or External cause: We can believe that events are caused by ourselves or something outside of ourselves. If I assume a serious car crash was my fault, I will be less likely to drive again than if I attribute it to a greasy road.
· Global or Specific cause: If we believe that events are caused by a large number of factors then we feel we can do less to change things than if we see few and specific causes

Trying to convince somebody who finishes their first CrossFit workout that they are not genetically blighted can be a tough task. Likewise, trying to get past the deflated “I can’t do anything right” attitude of a person who works in an environment in which seemingly random and sharp criticism is the norm is of equal challenge. I’m not trying to say, however, that either of these cases lead to chronic depression or, for that matter, pervasive pessimism but I am willing to argue that it can block further progress in any given area of a person’s life even if they thrive in other areas.

When I trained the soccer moms early in the summer, I was faced with examples of this mindset right from the start. What I saw as a coach were four women performing the workouts and experiencing the expected level of stress with little decay in form (objective event) while they saw something totally different. The argument I heard was that the workout was ‘too hard’ (subjective decision) in spite of the fact that they all finished the work in approximately 20 minutes without injury or changes in load or volume from the program originally prescribed. What I then asked was, “too hard based on what?” Simply, the DATA supported my argument not theirs.

The basis for ‘too hard’ is the set belief that exercise looks, feels, smells and tastes like ‘X’ and that anything else is wrong. David Diggle describes this in his e-book, ‘Mind the Gap, The Science Behind the Sporting Mind, “In order to reduce the overwhelming amount of information coming in through the five senses, the nervous system deletes, distorts and generalises this information to make it easier to deal with. It is those finer Internal Filters, formed and maintained by the unconscious mind, that instruct the Reticular Activating System. They specify what information to sort for, and it is usually those things that confirm an individual’s long-held beliefs and expectations.” In other words, CrossFit didn’t match ‘X’ for them and rather than seeing that as a challenge, they saw it as something wrong.

I pointed out that at any time the women could stop the workout if it was indeed ‘too hard’. But, I’ll admit that something about the ‘3-2-1-Go’ of a CrossFit stopwatch says otherwise and it’s tough to convince anyone that stopping is an option. Seligman did further experiments to prove what a difference that understanding can make.

“A similar experiment was done with people who performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. If the person could use a switch to turn off the noise, his performance improved, even though he rarely bothered to turn off the noise. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract its distracting effect (Hiroto and Seligman, 1975).”
If simply stopping was the answer, what would motivate an athlete to work through it? That’s where a good coach or a good boss recognizes that each person has a different set of challenges that require a different set of tools. Dave Diggle, a former Gymnast and Gymnastic Coach addressed this.

“When dealing with someone whose value system conflicts with your own, you feel it is impossible to communicate with them in their or your current state. By changing some of your behavioural traits either permanently or short-term you can align your behavioural compatibility, allowing you to communicate and influence their behaviour and development before returning to your preferred core values. A double agent if you like. Pg 65”

As a coach or a boss, that forces you to ask yourself the question, do you want to be right or do you want to be successful. If you’re concerned about being right because you’ve been a coach or a manager for so long and you have a certain amount of data that supports the fact that you know what you’re talking about, you may find yourself technically ‘right’ and in reality, unsuccessful.

That’s where having a goal and a clear ‘moving towards’ motivation matters. Having a clear picture of ‘success’ and the factors that would define success is a lot more motivating than a picture of the failure one hopes to dodge or the list of ‘don’t like’ gripes to avoid. And simply designing around potholes and pitfalls doesn’t give clear direction either.

Diggle says, “People move either toward or away from what they do or do not want in life. An example of this is we all know of someone who has tried to lose weight or get fit. Some people do it with ease, while others live on the diet and exercise rollercoaster, losing weight only to put it all back on and more. Oprah Winfrey is a famous and classic case of ‘away from’ motivation, although she talks very optimistically and passionately about her career, she continually talks negatively of not wanting to get fat again or being fat.”

“Those who are ‘away from’ motivated will constantly talk about what they don’t want or want to be. These are the people who say,” I don’t want to be fat,” or,”I don’t want to be unfit.” Sure, this holds some intrinsic repellant motivation initially, however the instant you are not ‘fat’ or ‘unfit,’ your motivation goes and the momentum slows down to a stop. This leaves you desperately short of motivation to continue on your path, and certainly with no room to excel.”

As in all things, balance is the key. Diggle describes the following, “People who move ‘toward’ their target too strongly or blindly may never get around to doing those unpleasant things along the way which are necessary, such as technique foundations or specific physical conditioning. This may leave you vulnerable long-term and expose you to injury. Alternatively, people who are too ‘away from’ motivated may never move until things get bad enough to force their hand. This could be too late to make up the lost time, and leave you wondering,”What if...?”

The key ingredient to motivation is balance and a willingness to be able to do the things that at first may appear unpleasant, while avoiding the relative comfort and safety of staying snugly in ‘average.’

This left me with some interesting decisions to make this summer. I found myself weak and struggling after doing a detox. I had tendonitis in my right knee, a souvenir of speed work in India, shoulder issues I’d been dealing with since my sleepless in Seattle days and undernourishment from a traumatized digestive system yet I didn’t want to lose any more ground.

Having to back down to my lowest point ever in a strength protocol was demoralizing for me. My friend Lance enduring endless ‘remember when’ details comparing my current ‘mortal self’ with the athlete I’d been. Not only was I unwilling to acknowledge my current condition but I was also unwilling to accept that where I’d been hadn’t been particularly great either. I was snugly average blaming all of my obstacles on genetics, age, IQ, social status, etc. trying to push forward in spite of the results I was getting. In truth, to become a better athlete than I was, and that’s the goal, would be to tear some things down to start over and to incorporate the missing pieces – rest and recovery – in a program that was smarter not harder.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, demonstrated the power of the default in his book Predictably Irrational and in his talk for TED in which he asks, ‘Are we in control of our own decisions?’ His studies show that, when it comes to answering complex questions or making hard choices, we tend to go with the default. He demonstrated this by showing that organ donation statistics vary in European countries from 4 to 100 percent depending on how the question is worded and what ‘checking the box’ means.

He also tested a scenario in which a patient was scheduled for hip replacement before the doctor discovered that the patient had never been prescribed a particular drug. In the case of one alternative drug vs. hip replacement, doctors chose to pull the patient back and try the pain killer. When the choice was complicated and there were two untested drugs, the doctors chose to go ahead with the surgery. The default was easier.

I see this all the time when I have a lengthy and maddening discussion about compound free-weight movements vs. Cybex only to see the person amble off to exercise with the cyborgs in spite of the sense I make. It’s predictably irrational that they can work out WHILE drinking coffee and watching the game. It’s the default.