Why I Kicked an Athlete Out Of My Box
My job as a coach is to make people stronger. It’s really that simple. It is mostly a physical task, as in, my job is to make you physically stronger. But there is also a fairly large emotional component to it, one that is too-often ignored. Because the path to physical strength is a long one. It involves you being able to assess any task, figure out whether it will help you or harm you, make adjustments on the fly and proceed with your own self-interest as your foremost responsibility.
Or, as I more often say it, “listen to your fucking body.”
Over the years I have watched Sam (which is totally not her name) make great strides. She was never timid, but she sure as hell wasn’t physically strong when she arrived. Now she is. Her body and spirit have changed immeasurably. She is a joy. Her journey has been a source of pride.
But she doesn’t listen to her body. It is something that we’ve talked about a great deal. I’ve pulled her aside, as she was wincing through a workout or two, and told her that she has to listen to her body. That we DO NOT WORK THROUGH PAIN at Rocket. EVER.
We work through fatigue. We work through fear. We work through uncertainty. We work through sore muscles. WE DO NOT WORK THROUGH PAIN.
We talk about that a lot in our gym. Ultimately, Brady and I look at each other and often shrug, remarking that adults can do whatever they want with their bodies, there’s not a lot we can do about it. If they don’t listen to their bodies, if they don’t listen to us, what are we supposed to do?
Sam came in today. Nursing at least two legitimate injuries that I know of. (As in, not sore muscles and fatigue, actual injuries, that have involved doctors.) Our awesome coach of the day modified the workout for her, and told her NOT to use her arm, at all. I was working out next to Sam, and concurred whole-heartedly with our coach.
Sam did it anyway. The coach laughed and said, “Sam’s a stubborn one.”
I told Sam to put down the weight and leave. I would clean up her stuff.
“No, really,” I said. “You can’t be here. I won’t watch you do this to yourself, not on my watch. You were told what to do to be safe, you ignored it, you can’t be here.”
It sounds mean, I know. I felt like a bitch, but my job is to make you stronger. If you are broken, you are not stronger. If I sit back and watch you break yourself, it’s my fault. “Right now, you are turning me into a tool of your pain and destruction, and that is totally not fair to do to me. I don’t deserve that. You cannot do that to me. You cannot do this in here.”
I really like Sam. A lot. I do.
We talked a bit. Sitting there, in the middle of the gym floor. (It was a small class. And really, we are a tight-knight community at Rocket, I like to think it was all very supportive, if not jarring.)
I explained, as simply as I could, why I was kicking her out, for now. And why she would be sent home if she tried to come in and work out again in the next week. I gave her a hug, I told her I adored her and cared so much, and that she had to figure out how to heal herself emotionally and physically so that she could continue this incredible journey on which she has already accomplished so much. And she left.
But here’s the deal, as simply as possible:
1. The goal here is getting stronger. It is not bragging rights. It is not the ability to say you did some cool – which is often, really, just stupid – thing. It is getting stronger, and that is a longitudinal process. If you are injured, you are the opposite of stronger. While injuries can be great teachers, they are not great accomplishments.
2. As a community, we all set the standard of acceptable behavior. While I will always applaud grit and passion, I will never reward dangerous ignorance. No matter how benign or well-intentioned. Just like standing up to a bully, the mere act of calling it out helps others better learn their own boundaries, and the strength they have to stand up to bullies. So to when we abuse our bodies. I do not want to normalize the idea of doing things that are bad for our bodies in this gym. Although, on the one hand, I could shrug and say, “she’s an adult, she can do whatever she wants,” in a community this tight, that changes the boundaries of acceptable behavior. If it causes other people to think they should work through pain, then it makes a more dangerous environment for everyone. If it causes other people to think “well, Sam does it, I guess I’m supposed to also,” then it’s dangerous.
3. When your body is injured, it needs to heal. Period. However long that takes. Even the slightest aggravation will add time on to your recovery and increase the risk of not healing properly. It is your job to protect yourself. Period.
4. Under all the muscles and sweat, the greatest thing that CrossFit can do is teach us to respect our bodies. It can teach us to push our boundaries, but respect them. The emotional fortitude that comes from this journey is far more important than the brute strength. Learning when to walk away because the fight won’t help you is hugely important. (It works in love, in life, at work, with friends, everywhere – and you can learn it in a gym.) Claiming the right to your own health and happiness even when you think everyone around you is doing something different, or expects something different, is hugely important. (It works in love, in life, at work, with friends, everywhere – and you can learn it in a gym.)
5. You have to learn to take personal responsibility without taking it personally. Just because you are hurt, or can’t do something right now, doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Or dumb or bad or weak or stupid or anything else. It is what it is. An injury is simply the result of an action that didn’t go as planned. It is no more an indictment on your worth as a human than the weather is when it rains on a picnic you planned. It is an unexpected event. How you handle it says more about you than the fact that it happened.
My job, first and foremost is to help you get strong. Physically, and emotionally. It takes a lot of strength to walk away. To change plans. To let go of expectations. To feel your pain and learn from it. To judge yourself based only on how you feel, not on the external metrics of what others are doing. Or the purely imaginary metric of what you think others expect.
Because the path to emotional strength is a long one. It involves you being able to assess any task, figure out whether it will help you or harm you, make adjustments on the fly and proceed with your own self-interest as your foremost responsibility.
That’s the emotional strength that we build. And it is impressive as hell when people get good at it. It is also something that last a lifetime.
Injuries are not accomplishments, but they can be great teachers. They can teach you how to listen, how to redirect, how to rebuild. If you listen.
I can teach you that, too. But you have to listen.
I will not hurt you. I will not let you use me to hurt yourself.
I will help you. Using whatever means I have. Even if it means taking a break, so you can listen to your body.
It has taken me years as a coach and gym owner to learn that I can do that. But I can. And I will.
I think it makes me stronger. I think it will make Sam stronger. I think it makes the whole Rocket community stronger.
As she was leaving, another member said, “way to take the high-road” to her as she left. There were smiles. Well-wishes.
As a coach, having watched her get so strong in the past few years, I have still never been more proud of her than when she walked out, head held high, smiling, and said, “Okay, I’ll see you next week.”
She worked hard for that strength, and it will serve her well.
** UPDATE: Now that this has gone wildly viral, it feels important for me to post an update on Sam’s health. She took a week off, doing NOTHING to use her injured joints. She came back, admitting that everything already felt better. She has gotten FAR better at listening to her body and her coaches. At understanding her boundaries, and respecting them. At taking rest days. And she is still VERY much a beloved part of our Rocket community. She has said “thank you” many times.
I do not think that I am special. Most of the CrossFit coaches that I know and love and consider both friends and mentors would do the same thing. Collectively, we are sick and tired of the fact that THIS is not discussed as an integral part of what makes CrossFit special. That although the fire-breathers are awesome, CrossFit is really for ordinary people, finding extraordinary strength in a strong and supportive community. I am one of many. I just write real good. – August 5, 2014***
My husband Brady and I own Rocket CrossFit in Seattle. We love it, we think of it as extended family, and yes, we take it personally, because it is such a huge part of who we are.