I’ve walked the path of CrossFit detractor and of the converted. We’re not all dickheads, and the mental space CrossFit has given me is all.
“Oh, here we bloody go,” I can almost hear you thinking. “I thought that The Big Smoke was a quality publication – not a platform for this gym junkie to bang on about tidying up her snatch or whatever the hell those wankers do…”
But I implore you to give me a few minutes of your time, so I can attempt to increase your understanding of something which is so often trashed due to it being broadly misunderstood. I know this, as I used to be one of the people who trashed it.
Lemme tell you a little story.
Last Friday, the mood was unusually sombre as I walked into the gym. Two friends crouched down with my coach on the black rubber mats, looking solemn and speaking in low voices. I slowly descended to join them as our coach cautiously said, “I have some bad news…”
There were in fact two pieces of bad news. Firstly, due to unforeseen circumstances, our box (that’s what a CrossFit gym is called) was closing, effective immediately.
The second piece of news dovetailed darkly from the first: my coach delivered the crushing news that the cancer he’s been fighting, the cancer he had hoped to be in remission from, had spread.
When we are enjoying success, humans are tempted to hastily and proudly take responsibility for our good fortune; dismissing the crucial role of luck in determining the outcomes of our lives. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that we are merely the puppets and that the universe is holding the strings; naturally we want to feel that we author our own choices, and to some extent we do. However, ultimately our capacity to operationalise any decision-making process or choice is determined by biological and social lotteries beyond our control; it’s basically all down to luck and coincidence.
The role of luck in determining the direction in our lives is thrown into harsh, fluorescent-lit acuity when we see someone we’ve come to consider as family being dealt such bad luck; we feel as though bad things shouldn’t happen to good people, but one must remember that the universe does not have a personal vendetta against us. We do not choose the cards; we are dealt them.
Setting boundaries and assertively communicating them is an unnatural process for many people, and training this skill in CrossFit provides an opportunity to practice and support the transfer of these skills into other areas of life.
Overwhelmed with emotion upon hearing my coach’s news, I cried with him and told him how three months ago, he, the box and the other members in it had literally saved my life. They had given me a new reason to get up in the morning. I would awaken at 5am with the same existential dread and nihilism as always, but by the time I walked out of the gym at 6.30am, the feelings of worthlessness, sadness and desperation I’d felt would be replaced by surprise, pride and joy at what my body had been able to do. The results of this ritual carry over into other areas of my life, like my teaching, and enable increased levels of confidence, energy and self-compassion throughout the day.
I don’t think that the general population have thought about, or fully understand this stuff, which is why people tend to give CrossFit and its community such a hard time, and why I am bothering to try to explain it.
Since January when I began training, I’ve been thinking about transferable lessons between CrossFit and social work practice. This abrupt change in my training situation (the Scooby Gang and I are currently sourcing an alternative box) has highlighted the importance of accepting and adapting to change, and seems like the perfect time to begin reflecting through writing on this and other shared aspects of the two disciplines.
Social inclusion is an underpinning aspect of social work practice and of CrossFit. Inherent in both disciplines is the philosophy of honouring diversity in people and accepting the infinite continuum of difference in abilities, talents, needs, values, desires and range of experiences. Establishing equity is the corresponding requirement for ensuring that diversity is accommodated, and in both disciplines, equity is established through the provision of options and encouragement, but never forcing an agenda. Rather, equity is established through the use of central tenets of Self-Determination Theory: competence, relatedness and autonomy. In CrossFit, competence is facilitated through the provision of a broad range of manageable activities and options that cater for all levels of need, so that people can develop confidence and avoid injury. Additionally, needs for relatedness and autonomy are fulfilled by the sense of community within a CrossFit box; people feel connected with one another as they flourish in a healthy environment and build their physical and mental strength.
Also on The Big Smoke
- The true value of motivation
- Goalzie: The app that sets quirky goals to improve mental health
- Health as wellness: The loss in what we gain
In social work practice, we foster positive risk taking. Whilst standing by to help in the event that something should go awry, to facilitate the independence that can only be sought through experiential learning, we stand back and let the consumer self-determine their own pathway in life. In CrossFit, positive risk taking is absolutely necessary. Within reason people must be allowed to try unfamiliar physical movements, in order to understand where their boundaries are and what their bodies are capable of. If they fail, awareness is brought to which parts of the body need to be strengthened or what supports need to be put in place before the next attempt. In sport and in life more broadly, we learn through failure, and through negative experiences. The hardest things to do are often the most worthwhile, and we are usually learning the most when we are in pain.
CrossFit teaches us how to locate and set boundaries. With the help of an astute, empathic and knowledgeable coach, athletes are supported to find where they become uncomfortable. We are encouraged to keep pushing those edges out that little bit further on days when we feel strong, and on days when we are not feeling so strong or confident, or when we injure ourselves, we are encouraged to step back, reflect and think about how we might tackle a movement differently next time. In social work practice, we encourage people to look after their own psychological health through using assertive communication to set healthy boundaries in their relationships. We encourage people to raise their self-awareness in regards to boundary violation, and look at why the violation occurred. In order to prevent future violations, we teach interpersonal skills, and instruct people on how to make assertive statements that clearly let others know when they have reached psychological thresholds in relationships. This ensures clear distinctions in who needs to take responsibility for which sets of problems, and to avoid unhealthy victim/saviour behaviour and mentality. Setting boundaries and assertively communicating them is an unnatural process for many people, and training this skill in CrossFit provides an opportunity to practice and support the transfer of these skills into other areas of life.
Before I began CrossFit, I too was one of the many among you who was sick to fucking death of hearing people banging on about it. A couple of months ago, I was discussing my new exercise regimen with a friend, who enquired about my fellow gym-goers: “Are they all vegan?” To our mutual delight, I automatically replied, “No, they’re CrossFitters, not dickheads.” My response highlights how quickly we judge others’ life choices when they are incompatible with our own, or when we haven’t bothered to try to understand them. Of course there are a heap of dickheads who CrossFit. Similarly, the atheist and vegan communities are rife with dickheads, but this proves no connection between dickheadism and CrossFit – it’s a spurious relationship. My guess is that dickheads are destined to be dickheads well and truly before they become members of these communities, not because they become members of them. Because dickheads tend to be loud and stand out, they give the rest of us a bad name, but as an aside, can someone remind me of when generalising became a universally intelligent thing to do? Perhaps in this case, it’s necessary to borrow some principles of social justice from social work and remind ourselves of the dangers of prejudging and stereotyping individuals and groups of people, and instead apply a culturally humble perspective as we seek to learn and understand.
I am so lucky to have found my CrossFit pals and to have had such an encouraging first coach; I could have easily stumbled upon a group with a different mission, vision and values. I am unbelievably lucky to have found this movement at exactly the right moment – a pivotal moment in my life, during which it would have been so much easier to reach for familiar, unhealthy coping strategies.
This article is dedicated to my first CrossFit Coach, Matt Haapu. Thank you for your investment of energy in my training. Your guidance has facilitated massive growth in my physical and mental muscles. I’m looking forward to training with you again one day, when you are good and ready.