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Archive for the ‘Athletics’ Category

The Expense of Early Sport Specialization

My role in the horse world to date has been little more than loyal supporter. This includes my posts as head cheerleader, financier, and klutzy outsider comic relief (for example, I always seem to be over- or under-dressed). My ROI is measured in the smiles on my girls’ faces over the years. They have seemed to truly enjoy the process, the journey, sometimes with little regard to the outcome or the score.

Everything about the horse world is expensive. Really expensive, actually. There are lots of expensive sports out there to be sure. Golf, tennis, and hockey come quickly to mind. All have in common expensive equipment, coaching, and venues, even at the lowest levels of participation. Most other sports only become expensive when you add in the effects of higher level competition with the new burdens of professional coaching and travel. Think AAU anything, gymnastics or swimming.

One thing that sets the horse world apart is the Sugar Daddy or Sugar Momma, a usually over-monied individual whose sole role is to write checks. Big checks. Lots and lots of checks. Most whom I’ve met don’t really seem to enjoy hanging around horses, actually. Kinda like someone who owns a big boat but gets seasick in the bathtub. The other essential difference between a Sugar Daddy/Momma and a “Little League Parent” is that the Sugar Daddy/Momma doesn’t care a lick about the outcome of the event.

In a funny, very roundabout way this makes me think about youth sports, high school sports, and the behavior of parents in that world. Unlike the Sugar Daddy/Momma the youth sports parent is highly invested in outcomes, not only game by game but also in terms of reaching the next level. As in that level to which the ridiculously large percentage of participants never get. You probably think this is about going pro, about making a living at your sport. Nope. That number is so tiny and has been parsed so many times and so many ways that it’s not worth spending the electrons thinking about how few college athletes or minor leaguers make it to The Show. I’m not even talking about getting a scholarship to play a D1 sport.

What I’m thinking about is some fascinating facts about how few high school athletes go on to play a sport at any level in college.

Seriously, the numbers are comically low. Cut and past this for a look: http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimated-probability-competing-college-athletics. For boys, only lacrosse and hockey are above 10%. More boys go on to swim in college (7.1%) than play football (6.8%). The statistics are similar for girls led by Ice hockey (24%), lacrosse (12.9%), and field hockey (10.1%); all other sports are in the low to mid-single digits. I don’t know about you, but with all of the teams sponsored by Division 3 colleges out there, along with the dearth of multi-sport athletes taking up more than one slot, these figures are really shockingly low.

How, then, can we justify the expense of early sport specialization, both in real financial terms, and in terms of the epidemic of injuries suffered through over-use and under-preparation?

On my most recent foray into the horse world I met a  youngster who plays on a volleyball team that uses CrossFit to enhance their fitness.  She no longer does her first-love sport, tumbling, because of a repetitive use stress fracture in her back suffered before she started to play other sports. All tumbling all the time wrecked her. How many young arms must we scar with a Tommy John “autograph” prior to obtaining a driver’s license before we suggest adding in a little winter reprieve from pitching? Isn’t it just a bit disheartening to think that the ACL tear rate in young female soccer players is higher than the overall NCAA participation rate for girls who played that sport in high school? Mind you, these are TOTAL participation rates, not the percentages of kids who got a scholarship to play D1. The list goes on and on.

Says here that the kids would be far better off playing more sports with their buddies in their hometown schools, both physically and mentally, than they are now joining elite travel programs and chasing after such a small number of slots at the next level. Probably have a better relationship with Mom and Dad, too. For sure Mom and Dad are likely to be better behaved. Throw in a little bit of fitness training that emphasizes proper mechanics in functional movements and maybe we can start a trend.

No Sugar Daddies or Mommas necessary, either.

The Big East Without Football: An Update

This post was originally written 3/10 13. Fascinating how this has turned out.

“Yesterday’s Providence College/UConn game marked the effective end of the Big East Conference. What brought about its demise? Success. Money. The promise of more money. And a profound lack of historical perspective on the part of schools like UConn that have failed to remember from whence they came, and how they’ve come to their present state.

Once upon a time UConn was a sleepy little state college lying in a sleepy little cowtown in Nowhere, CT. UConn had no athletic history to speak of; it played its games against the likes of UVM, UNH, URI. UMass and UMaine. Heck, the athletics in that group couldn’t even sustain football across the board–UVM dropped the sport in 1974. Not a lot has changed at the other schools. The campuses have grown a bit, enrollment has expanded a bit, but the athletic programs maintain their status as a pleasant diversion accompanying the educational process.

But UConn? Noooo, not UConn. You see Dave Gavitt invited UConn to join the Big East Conference in 1974 and the world tilted. Millions and millions of dollars have poured into Storrs and the campus is virtually unrecognizable to graduates of my era. Enrollment, building, and the endowment have soared. UConn is now a “football school” and it departs the Big East, leaving the largely Catholic “basketball schools” behind as it chases ever more wealth. Success has been found.

End of story, right? Little school makes big time. All is right in the world. Right? Hmmm…I dunno. You see, it’s basketball that has driven this success, and it was basketball that created the Big East. It was basketball and the Big East that made Storrs big enough to find on the map. Basketball, and a bunch of originally like-minded “Basketball Schools” that brought measures of success and wealth to every school in the conference, albeit not equally.

What’s been lost? Tradition. History. The “kindredship” of a group of schools that were of a different ilk, or more accurately different ilks when we compare them with “Football Schools”. The Big East was a kind of special, the first grouping of schools assembled in the pursuit of athletics based NOT on football. There’s a certain absence of something like gratitude in the dissolution of the Big East in the pursuit of football riches. It feels almost like UConn has lost its institutional sense of its own identity.

Will UConn find those riches as it chases wealth for wealth’s sake, forsaking history, tradition, and a sense of who and what it has been? Tune in, I guess. There will be lessons to be learned by other institutions that have grown and become successful within an ecosystem of like-minded institutions with a common tradition and history. Are the presumably greater riches to be found in leaving behind the history, tradition, and culture greater than the wealth to be found in the history, tradition and culture?

Tune in.”

 

Lo and behold things haven’t turned out all that well for the schools that chased the football dollars. No sign of UConn in this year’s March Madness. Ditto Syracuse. Look carefully, though, and you’ll find defending champion Villanova along with tiny littles Seton Hall and Providence.

At least for now the score reads History/Tradition/Culture 1, football riches 0.

“Lift”, Fitness, and the CrossFit Games

Here we are, a couple of weeks away from the CrossFit Games. Getting pretty exciting, huh? Sadly, once again, due to an illness in my extended family, I will not be able to attend the Games in person this year. Last year turned out to be our last with my Dad. This year we are spending as much time as we can with Beth’s Dad. No need to feel sorry for me, though. I think I’ve made it to 8 of the Games, each time as a guest of Greg Glassman who is a most gracious host. I’ll  surf over to the Games site and check out all the different ways to watch our annual extravaganza from home. Maybe this is the event that finally pushes me to get that new, “big ass” TV I’ve been planning to buy for…oh…3 years now.

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal has a book review on “Lift” by Daniel Kunitz, a history of fitness. According to the review, Kunitz is very complimentary of CrossFit and Coach Glassman. Interestingly, the author of the review is a gentleman named Michael Shermer. His personal fitness journey sounds remarkably like that of so many of us in the CrossFit community. Indeed, he even references both “What is Fitness?” and the Ten Essential Characteristics of Fitness. Shermer’s discussion of fitness, sport, and training brought me back to thoughts I have had about fitness as sport.

There is a tension that exists between CrossFit, the strength and conditioning program and CrossFit, the Sport of Fitness.This tension is usually expressed in the guise of criticism of various versions of CrossFit programming. What’s very interesting is the lack of tension on this topic among the truly elite CrossFit athletes. If you look at their programming it looks like they are training to become…wait for it…really good at CrossFit.

Weird, huh?

What does that mean, anyway? Good at CrossFit? Follow Mr. Kunitz’s lead. This is a perfect time for you to both re-read the seminal article “What is Fitness” in CFJ #2 and to recommend it to anyone who is either curious or unsure as to what constitutes CrossFit, and for the sake of this musings, CrossFit programming.

CrossFit is the pursuit of a broad, inclusive general fitness where fitness is defined as work capacity across broad time and modal domains. In the vernacular, CrossFit trains and tests us to move larger loads further over a longer period of time. In order to do this Coach Glassman has identified 10 Essential characteristics of Fitness as so defined and noted in the book review, each of which needs to be equally expressed. Cardiovascular/Respiratory endurance; stamina; strength; flexibility; power; speed; coordination; agility; balance; accuracy.

Fitness as defined by CrossFit and Greg Glassman includes a precisely balanced degree of each of these 10 elements, with no one element being more of less important than any other. The CrossFit Games, and the athletes who take part, are simply an expression of the farthest right side reaches of the fitness Bell Curve. Look carefully and you will see that the events ask for equal competence in all 10 Elements; the athletes are simply better than the rest of us across the board. They get there because they do more work on all of the 10 Essential Elements.

While we here, and most folks in CrossFit Affiliate gyms, can assume agreement on the benefits of seeking Fitness as defined by CrossFit, this is not to say that either our definition of fitness or our particular way of seeking it (expressed through our CrossFit programming) is appropriate for every individual. Some people just like to run really long distances, while others are happiest when they lift really heavy stuff. Still others are interested only in the appearance of their body, and their entire fitness program is geared toward achieving a particular vision or visual. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these desires, nor anything inherently wrong with the programming necessary to achieve these outcomes.

It just may not be CrossFit.

Because of this, the issue of programming is always on the table, especially during the Crossfit Games season that starts with the CrossFit Open and culminates in the spectacle in Carson, CA. Is there an optimal version of CrossFit programming? People take turns at supporting and denigrating the programming on the Main Page and in various CrossFit Affiliate gyms. Countless efforts are made to “improve” on the model you see on what we call “.com”. Some of these alternatives make sense, while others IMO are not really alternative CrossFit programming but alternatives to CrossFit itself. Most of these, indeed most of the conversations in general, have to do with strength and strength training. Are you (is anyone) strong enough? Will CrossFit.com or another version of CrossFit make you strong enough?

The 10 Essential Elements found in CFJ #2, “What is Fitness”, are also posted on Workout  030530 ( ironically on a day when heavy Deadlifts were prescribed). Pretty much all of the conversations noted about programming revolve around the premise that strength is somehow more important than other elements of fitness. Reasonable people can disagree on this point, but as a premise in discussing CrossFit the notion that strength is a, or the, primary element of fitness has no standing. There are 10 elements of Fitness, each no more and no less important than any other if we are seeking a broad, inclusive general physical preparedness that we call “fitness”. Full stop.

Whoa, wait a minute there pal, aren’t you the guy who co-wrote an article called “Strong Medicine” introducing a programming alternative called “CrossFit Strength Bias”? Hasn’t your home gym programming had supplemental strength training per CFSB principals since it opened? Isn’t that statement there just a bit, oh, duplicitous? Forked-typing?

Nope. Not at all. You see, if you read the original article you will see that CFSB is one way to address a DEFICIT in strength relative to the other 9 Essential Elements, not a program meant to gain strength at the EXPENSE of the other 9. As such it, like some others, is a program for the masses, a CrossFitter who perceives a hole in his/her fitness that needs to be addressed, not at all unlike a CrossFitter who does supplemental work on balance or flexibility. Additional Element-specific work, be it strength or agility or whatnot, that drives continued balance and improvement in all 10 Elements is very much CrossFit. All versions of CFSB (I am now using v3.2) are designed to be one way to address this imbalance. There are others that you may enjoy more (Wendler, Westside, Conjugate, etc.), and just like having personal goals, there is nothing inherently wrong with another supplemental strength program as long as it works without the need to sacrifice other competencies.

Whether you are looking at members of a CrossFit Box or competitors at the CrossFit Games, CrossFit is outcome based. The outcome desired is a broad-based fitness comprised of equal quantities of each of the 10 Essential Elements. What goes into the left side of the hypothetical Black Box should produce Work Capacity Across Broad Time and Modal Domains if the Black Box is a CrossFit athlete of any type. An increase in your Deadlift brought about by concentrating on strength training at the expense of cardiovascular/respiratory endurance will be accompanied by a decrease in your 5K run time and vice versa. This may be precisely in line with your goals, but it is not CrossFit as defined by Coach Glassman and expressed at its limits by Games athletes.

Programming for CrossFit should be aimed first and foremost at CrossFit outcomes. For most people, ever increasing fitness as described and defined by CrossFit results in increased health. What you find on CrossFit.com, and what you should probably expect to find as the primary goal in a CrossFit Affiliate gym, is programming that seeks to balance all 10 of the Essential Elements of Fitness, doing extra work in a lagging domain, and increasing all of them in an effort to produce increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.

A demonstration of CrossFit programming will be available in a couple of weeks online and on ESPN. We call it the CrossFit Games. While I won’t be able to accept my invitation to visit my CrossFit friends and see it in person, rest assured that I will be glued to my (hopefully big ass) TV and watching nonetheless.

 

–bingo

An Open Letter to Parents and Coaches of Girls Who Play Sports

Dear Coaches and Parents,

For more than 30 years I have had the good fortune to be a volunteer assistant coach for boys and young men playing football, basketball, and lacrosse, sports I played in high school and/or college. In this capacity I became very familiar with the particular dangers of concussions suffered while playing these contact sports. Indeed, one of my sons suffered a severe concussion as a high school lacrosse player, effectively ending his competitive career. I applaud the recent efforts being made at all levels of competition, especially in the area of gratuitous headshots in football, lacrosse, and hockey.

As a fitness coach for the last 10 years or so I’ve learned of another, all too common injury in sports, one that is disproportionally concentrated in the younger athletes: ACL tears in girls and young women. There is a veritable epidemic of ACL injuries in soccer, basketball, and volleyball. Girls are 4-6X more likely to tear their ACL playing these sports than boys. The numbers are quite simply appalling, and yet I hear not a word about this from any media source. Girls are being felled by this injury in droves but it seems no one is talking about how to prevent it.

Can anyone tell me why that is?

It’s not like this is a new phenomenon. A brief Google search turns up academic articles published in 1999. It’s also not as if these injuries are only of historical importance. The daughter of a friend was the third girl playing the same position for the same U17 soccer team for the same coach to suffer a non-contact ACL tear in 2015. Nor were they the only girls on that team so afflicted. When asked what changes had been made by the team or the coach in response to these injuries my friend shook his head. Crickets.

Can anyone tell me how this is OK?

The answer, of course, is that it is not OK. Not even a little bit. The causes underlying the increased risk to suffer an ACL tear in which a female athlete does not come into contact with another player are relatively well known. Studies have been done examining the way girls jump and land. As it turns out, girls tend to change direction and land with an outstretched, straight leg. Boys, on the other hand, do so with a flexed leg, reducing tension on the ACL.

If you watch girls running you can’t help but be struck by the valgus position of the knee when their foot lands on the ground; the knee is markedly inside the foot.  Girls tend to have stronger anterior muscles and therefore tend to be quad-dominant runners. They pull their upper leg forward through the contraction of the thigh muscles. Boys, on the other hand, are posterior chain-dominant runners, pulling their legs up through the contraction of their glutes and hamstrings. Without a strong posterior chain to counteract the effect of the quadriceps, the ACL is again under increased tension, magnifying the risk caused by knee position.

We know why the injuries occur, and as it turns out we also know how to prevent them, or at least reduce their frequency: teach young female athletes safer movement patterns, and put them in strength and conditioning programs that specifically train their posterior chain. If you see this type of training you will recognize it immediately: it’s how we train boys.

Can anyone explain to me why this is not occurring with young female athletes right now?

Even at the highest level of women’s sports we still see non-contact ACL injuries. For example, in 2011, 6 of the 21 members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team had suffered an ACL tear at one point in their careers. However, in more recent years there has been a decrease in these injuries at the professional level because teams are training their female athletes in better neuromuscular recruitment patterns, which creates sounder movement. Athletes are doing strength and conditioning programs that emphasize strengthening their glutes and hamstrings. Hence, we are seeing dramatically fewer ACL tears at the highest levels of women’s sports. There is no way to justify not doing the same thing for girls early in their careers.

Proven templates already exist to do just this. Simply utilizing the off-the-shelf PEP program of stretching and plyometrics has demonstrated meaningful decreases in the incidence of ACL tears. Rather than use such a basic program when it comes to high quality movement patterns, why not look to someone like San Francisco’s Dr. Kelly Starrett? The founder of Mobility WOD and author of “The Supple Leopard”, Dr. Starrett is a consultant to dozens of collegiate athletic departments. He recently took over training for an elite 150-member girls volleyball program with the specific aim of reducing ACL injuries in those athletes. His teachings on proper movement mechanics are peerless, as a quick perusal of his book will attest. Perhaps we should be looking at what he is doing.

Jeff and Mikki Martin have been training kids in Southern California, the epicenter of youth soccer, for well over a decade. Their protocols include meticulous attention to the type of mechanics taught by Kelly Starrett and emphasize the importance of strengthening the posterior chain beginning around age 10. As the developers of the original CrossFit Kids program and more recently founders of The Brand X Method™, they have trained hundreds of young girls who play soccer without a single one of their athletes suffering an ACL injury while under their care. They arguably have the longest track record of successfully and safely training youngsters. Perhaps we should be looking at what they are doing.

One thing is for sure: it is not OK to continue with the status quo. Simply doing what you have always done is nothing less than condemning a high percentage of your girls and young women to suffering an ACL tear and all that goes along with it. The nature of the sports in which we see an epidemic of concussions is such that the only way to prevent them is not to play those sports. This is not the case with non-contact ACL tears in soccer, basketball, volleyball and other sports played by girls. Prevention is possible through the institution of training programs that emphasize the teaching of new, safer movement patterns, as well as strengthening the muscles of the posterior chain.

I’d like to propose a 3-part solution to this problem. First, we would like to offer training to coaches in how to teach better basic movement patterns. One of the most fundamental goals for those of us who utilize The Brand X Method ™ to train kids and teens is to create a cadre of coaches who can do this. We hope that this can become a core part of in-season team training. Secondly, we wish to make available our coaches, and coaches who share our concerns and philosophy, to train your athletes to have a stronger posterior chain. The data supporting the inclusion of weighted squats, deadlifts, and power cleans both in season and out of season is compelling. Our coaches are experts in teaching the proper mechanics involved, and our athletes progress in a safe and measured fashion.

Lastly, the data supporting the inclusion of full-body functional movements executed at relatively high intensity is equally compelling when it comes to not only injury prevention, but also in developing stronger, faster, more durable athletes. The Brand X Method ™ is a proven program that emphasizes proper mechanics and safety. It is the latest version of a program that has been creating highly athletic youngsters and teens for more than 10 years. This type of physical fitness directly translates to more capable and confident athletes in all of the sports mentioned. At CrossFit Bingo our Alpha X Youth Athletics program is available to train your athletes all year round, either individually or in team settings.

It’s time we all start talking about these non-contact ACL injuries in girls’ sports, just like we have been talking about concussions in boys’ sports. Parents should be asking what is being done on behalf of their daughters. Coaches should be committed to stopping the epidemic of non-contact ACL injuries in their female athletes.

We can help.

 

Darrell E. White, M.D.

Co-Founder, CrossFit Bingo

Co-Founder, Alpha X Youth Athletics

 

 

March Madness: Real Sportsmen and Women

I, like some 6 or 7 million like souls, spent a ridiculous amount of time yesterday in front of a screen watching college athletes play their games. Unlike, oh, 6.9995 million or so, I spent a couple of hours NOT watching semi-professional basketball players because I tuned in to the DIII hockey quarter-finals between Amherst College and Norwich University. A thriller, Amherst won after pulling their goalie with 45 seconds remaining and scoring the tying goal not once, not twice, but THREE times before pulling it out in OT. Every senior on both senior-laden teams played his last meaningful hockey game; no pro sports for the DIII stars.

It would have been fitting if the mid-ice circle had been filled with the empty skates of the just-retired.

What does this have to do with CrossFit? Heck, what does this have to do with anything? By and large NCAA Division III athletes play for nothing other than a love for their game. It’s no different in any sport than it is in basketball or hockey. There are no athletic scholarships in DIII (although being an athlete may help get you in to school), and with a couple of unique situations (squash?), the DIII athlete is competing right where he or she belongs. The biggest fish in the DIII pond is no more than a minnow in the Division I sea.

Yet they play. It matters. Each athlete in each sport cares just as much as any of the semi-pros in Div. I. You don’t read or hear heartwarming stories about extraordinary academic outliers (Aaron Craft, OSU ’14) at the DIII level because that’s the norm. It’s play, though it matters while one is playing. There’s a team to be on and teammates to depend on, who depend on you. Shared suffering toward a common goal is no different at Amherst or Norwich as it would be at Washington or Wisconsin. The lessons are the same and ring as true whether played out in front of 30,000 strangers or 300 people on a first-name basis.

I used to miss being on a team. Used to miss the locker room. Even missed teammates I didn’t particularly care for on a personal level because, well, we were teammates and we had common foes and a common goal. Ask my wife, Beth: nothing really filled that hole, nothing really replaced what it was and who I was when I last walked off the field, my spikes figuratively laying empty on the 50 yard line. I accomplished all that I reasonably could–there is no market for a short, light, slow cornerback who is a slave to gravity.

Time and distance have pushed the memories and the longing to the margins. Since discovering CrossFit once again I have a sense of shared suffering in the pursuit of a goal. Do I have a team? Sort of. It’s kinda big and the locker room is different, for sure. I do have a sense of team, though, especially during our own CrossFit version of March Madness. For all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Open it really is the one time we all come together on our particular fields of play. Like any group of men or women on any NCAA team, drawn far and wide from circumstances vastly different or eerily similar, for 5 weeks that which we share is more powerful than any of our differences.

33 years removed from my last game, that has been enough.

 

Why “Fran” Still Matters

“Fran” came up as the WOD on CrossFit.com a couple of weeks ago. Then it came up at my son Randy’s Affiliate, CrossFit Bingo. For the umpteenth time since 1/1/06 I saddled up and did “Fran”.

I got crushed.

It’s funny…well, it’s always funny when someone ELSE gets crushed by “Fran”…but I was just talking with my friend Jeff about programming in general, and programming for old Guys like us in particular. We’re kinda wonky nerds when it comes to CrossFit programming, and we talk about this stuff all the time. Jeff said he no longer does “Fran” at all, so frustrated is he that he will never even approach his lifetime PR that he finds no value in doing “Fran” as Rx’d. Instead he does all kinds of variations on the theme as a pure training exercise, seeking the value of the work and not necessarily the comparison to a previous set point. I get that, at least to a point.

In that response lies the answer to a plethora of questions about CrossFit programming, and indeed CrossFit training itself. A benchmark workout by its definition is meant to provide a marker against which one might measure oneself. This is one form of the competitive nature of CrossFit, my beloved “you vs. you”. It is also a source of continued attack from outside the CrossFit community, that all CrossFit programming and training is necessarily performed in “attack mode”. Every WOD is only a successful endeavor if you go to that “dark place” in which PR’s are found. This is a gross over-simplification of not only CrossFit but high intensity exercise in general because it implicitly ignores the fact that the definition is “relatively high intensity”. There are some days in the gym when intensity is relatively not very high at all. Sometimes even on purpose.

While I fully understand Jeff’s sentiment (I will never get within two zip codes of my “Fran” PR), and I do find myself looking for “Fran Proxies” for most of my training, I still do “Fran” in both “as Rx’d” and scaled forms. Getting crushed by “Fran” the other day was just as important as a measurement as were each iteration on my way to that PR so long ago. IMO there is a definite value to knowing and understanding where your fitness stands at any moment (mine is challenged by the time issues of not enough time to train, and too much life stress affecting the quality of my non-training time), and “Fran” is as good a metric as any. I had little to give that day, but I still got back value from my training–I went to the gym and moved both my body and a bit of extra weight instead of just heading home from the OR.

We all lose a little bit of our objectivity when it comes to “Fran”, though. It’s the original WOD, after all; every CrossFitter in the world not only knows exactly what you are talking about when you say “Fran” but they can tell you pretty much every time they’ve ever had with her. There’s still much we have to learn from “Fran”, both about ourselves and about high intensity training in general.

“Fran” is pure CrossFit, a couplet that combines gymnastics and barbells in a time domain that allows us to work almost completely within the glycolytic energy pathway. Each time we are about to transition to the oxidative pathway we change exercises. Doing “Fran” is a worthwhile training exercise done as part of a fitness program that emphasizes variance as well as intensity. Even if your fitness has crested, if you are on the back side of the mountain in some way like my friend Jeff and I are, returning to a well-known benchmark to provide a measurement of your moment is still instructive. Knowing where you are at any given time gives you an important compass point that allows you to objectively evaluate why you are there and how you will get where you wish to be. Doing “Fran” as your WOD is step one on your way.

Viewed as either a pure training exercise or a near existential benchmark, “Fran” still matters after all these years.

 

On Football

Randy texted me about the exciting finish to the ND/Stanford NCAA football game. It made me smile. Not the result, not even the topic, but the excitement. A parent is only as happy as his least happy kid, and at that moment one of my kids was very happy. Randy’s football playing days are long behind him, but the game still brings him joy.

Me? Not so much.

Oh sure, there was a time when football never seemed to be any lower on my list of wonderful things than 2 or 3. I was a medium-sized fish in a puddle as a high school football player, but I didn’t have the game out of my system when I graduated. Accepted at one Ivy League school and waitlisted at another, I turned down both because I was too small to have any chance of playing football at that level. Instead I went to a very old, very small school and played a bit all 4 years. Now done as a player I was nonetheless still enthralled by all other things football.

Many of my closest friends were met on the freshly cut football fields of my youth. Wins and losses followed on those fields, most of which I’ve long forgotten. Indeed, I’ve written before that it is only the losses I remember, especially those that resulted from some personal failure in a game. A fumble, perhaps, or a blown coverage. And yet there is no escaping the fact that those countless hours at practice, in the locker room, and on the field are in large part responsible for who I am, the adult I’ve become.

It’s a powerful thing, football. Families rally around a favorite team. Lifetime friendships are renewed and strengthened through shared fanhood. Annual calendars are set only after the team’s home schedule is published. The game itself is exhilarating to both play and watch. At least, it was. I find myself finding all kinds of reasons not to watch football games now. Not consciously finding “big picture” reasons like domestic violence or performance-enhancing drugs so much as tiny reasons, like Beth wants me to tag along to the barn, or Abbie the world’s smartest (and most easily bored) dog would like an adventure kind of reasons. Football of all sorts played at any and all levels has sunken to a kind of triviality, easily trumped by a trip to the grocery store.

No one thing is responsible for this falling out of love, as it were. This fall is different from the last, and the one before only in that it is now glaringly obvious that football holds for me no essential attraction by itself. Looking back my only surprise is that it took me so long. Why didn’t I begin to turn away as my friend the ER doc buzzed through Dan’s shoulder pads with a saw in order to get him into the MRI? Or when I walked onto the field after Randy knocked himself out cold with a helmut-to helmut tackle to force a fourth down, his first concussion? I was still young, still sure that the game would bring my sons what I thought it had brought me.

I see them now, both of my boys, face down and immobile, and I shudder. I started to see them each time I saw a player go down in high school, or college, or the pros. I began to see that I valued those young men nearly as much as my own boys, and I started to notice that the game of football had become The Game. Those entrusted with The Game did not–do not–appear to share my feelings about the players.

The junior high coach carries the star running back to the bench, there to wrap the sprained ankle in the hope of returning him to the game. Junior High! In a high school freshman game, a rout, the first string defense is still on the field in the fourth quarter, the opportunity to play in a game slipping away for kids on the bench who may never get another chance, when the starting safety goes down with a severed spine on a play he should have been watching from the sideline. What was the first string learning at that point in that freshman game? Alumni and athletic directors and coaches at colleges noted for academic excellence openly opine that they cannot win without lowering the admission standards for football players, and just as openly run those kids off the team and out of their scholarships when they are no longer needed to win. The game in the NFL becomes more violent by the week, with ever more gratuitous violence magnifying the carnage wreaked upon the bodies of the players. Ex-pros roam the earth as a kind of walking dead.

When did football become The Game? When did the keepers of the game become keepers of The Game? When did football players as young as high school become little more than a modern stand-in for gladiators thrown into the arena for the amusement of the many and the benefit of a tiny protected few? I’d like to think that there was such a time, an inflection point when it did change, but I fear it has been ever thus. If that is so then I, too, bear some responsibility for what The Game has become. I did not turn away, or turn my own sons away, at the time of my own dawning awareness that The Game and its keepers cared naught for our sons at all, but only for themselves and their respective place and privilege. The ends (get a bigger coaching gig, fill the coffers of alma mater, protect the TV ratings) justify ever more distasteful means (alter transcripts, bury criminal behavior, obfuscate and evade when asking for public funds).

There was a time when my own playing days were long over when I still found myself on edge as the weather chilled and the smell of cut grass filled the autumn air. It was time to get ready to play football. Those days are in my distant past, and I find that I no longer even think about watching, indeed can no longer see myself watching, except as a vehicle with which I can channel the joy of a child who loves football. This may answer “why?”: I can no longer watch a game whose keepers have lost sight of the fact that someone’s child plays in The Game.

One wonders about the parents of gladiators past, when and why they stopped watching their version of The Game.

 

Reflections of an Aging Athlete

Old. Yup. “The Heir” turns 26 today. “Lovely Daughter” is 24 and my doppelgänger “Lil’bingo” is 22. My body is screaming from yesterday’s CrossFit WOD–I ran a mile. I’m answering emails and questions from CrossFit friends about CF in the “Master’s” category. I am closer to 55 than 54, closer in age to my cataract patients than my school-age patients. My Dad had a quadruple bypass at 54. Old.

How do you do this “old thing” anyway? It seems I don’t have an owner’s manual for myself, just like I didn’t have an owner’s manual for the kids. What am I to expect now? What is it that lies just ahead, and what then beyond that? Is this muscle soreness a freak thing, the anomaly, or is it a harbinger of things to come? How about fitness gains? I’m now 9 years into my CrossFit journey. How much longer can I expect to achieve PR’s? As I contemplate these questions how far forward should I allow my gaze to roam?

There are no answers to those questions, of course. Any answers only lead to the next set of the same. To look too far beyond a couple of tomorrows is as dangerous as it is to look back beyond a couple of yesterdays. Looking behind even a little bit risks the indulgence of regret, what has always seemed to me to be a sure recipe for sadness. I have written elsewhere that to go even further back, beyond Creation or the Primordial Soup or the Big Bang is an invitation to madness.

To look too far into the future is to invite desire, to risk the creation of wants that grow into something that feels like need. If or when these fail to materialize a different type of sadness arises, this one born of resentment. If one projects these too far into the future, to retirement, to rest, to redemption and beyond, the risk of madness can arise once again.

I surely do not know the answer to the question of how to age well. There is no map for the journey that lies ahead, no cosmic GPS. I have only the strategies that have served me thus far, and the hope that they will serve me yet. I have faith, and that faith allows me to resist the temptation to look either too far behind or too far ahead. Faith is the vaccine against madness.

And I am happy. I realized it once again in a phone call with a dear friend, met through Crossfit, and once again when I said goodnight to my darling Beth last night. I am happy because I have very little desire and even less regret; I want what I have and this inoculates me against both resentment and regret.

Yes, indeed, I am older, but I have at least one more today. That’s just what I wanted.

 

Competition: Post Your Own Score

Why do we compete? In many ways it’s the nature of the beast, part of the human condition. There’s an aspect of competition inherent in just surviving the toils of everyday life, those zero-sum competitions that are unavoidable and require that you try to win. Or roll over, but I can’t imagine that too very many of us here are in that habit.

What I’m more interested in is the competitions we volunteer for, and beyond that how we choose to handle both those competitions and ourselves while competing. Do you compete as a vehicle for self-evaluation? Self-improvement? To rank yourself relative to a peer group? What metric do you use in any of these? Is it effort or progress, or is it comparison with some external marker? No answers here, really, just a gentle prod to think about these questions before committing to the competition.

It’s instructive to observe someone competing, especially if that someone is you and you are able to be a detached observer either during or after the fact. I grew up in a golfing family, and in many ways I learned about how a man is supposed to carry himself by being a caddy and getting an up close view of men competing. Golf is a pretty cool vehicle for this. You call penalties on yourself. Your next shot is played from whatever clusterfluck you created with your previous shot. There is a well-established and time-honored etiquette meant to be followed win, lose, or draw. You learn a lot about a man or a woman by watching them compete on a golf course.

Why do you compete? Only you know the answer, and the rest of us can only know if you should choose to share that with us. How you compete is entirely different. Each and every one of us who is witness to that has a brief and telling insight into who you are when we watch you in the game. Even when no one else is watching the insight is still there for you if you are willing to watch. Even when you are alone the measure is till taken in some cosmic way, for in any competition you will still know how you played. In life or in the game, with or without a judge, you always know if the rep was good, if your ball moved or not.

Your measure is taken by how you post your score.

When CrossFitters Compete

Registration for the CrossFit Open, the largest simultaneous participatory athletic event in the world, begins January 15th. Are you in? Of course you are! It only costs a few bucks (sorry Dave Castro, I haven’t actually been to the Games site yet so I don’t know the actual entry fee!), and you get to take part right alongside everyone. Even Rich, Annie, Julie, Sam, Jason, and, you know, EVERYONE.

Competing in CrossFit, CrossFit as a sport, is not really my thing. I have too many old injuries that take all of the fun out of “unknown and unknowable” as a game, but I totally get the whole “it’s fun to compete at my thing” aspect of CrossFitters competing . The Open is one cool way to compete, and for me it’s the only one that is enough fun for me to throw my hat into the ring, too. Even at that I will approach each event with safety as my priority. I want to be a part of the whole Open experience, but at the same time I don’t want to get injured and miss any training time in the gym because, let’s face it, I really like begin in the Box.

Injuries in competitions pitting CrossFitters against one another have been on my mind lately. Not crazy, freak injuries that are just bad luck, but injuries that appear to be predictable, at least to me. I’ve been a spectator at almost every CrossFit Games, multiple Regionals and Sectionals (when we had them), and many local competitions set up just for the fun of the competition and the gathering. I’ve been to a number of one’s locally very recently. There’s a trend in these non-HQ sanctioned events that I’ve noticed, and I think we need to talk about it. Now, with the Open almost upon us, is a really good time to do that.

The Open as you know, or are about to know, is one WOD per week posted each week for 5 consecutive weeks. That’s it. One WOD. Not 3 WODs with an hour between each, or a weekend’s worth of work that includes epics like “Elizabeth” followed by “Grace” followed by “Fran”, or a Sprint Tri followed by the BUDs obstacle course. One WOD per week. On top of that you will discover that the WODs chosen will allow for the maximum amount of participation; almost no one will be excluded by a movement or a load that is beyond them because of the structure of the WODs to come. This has been the signature of the Open and there is no reason to expect that the wide-open funnel at the entrance to the Games will be any narrower in 2014.

Yet, when I visit a Box or attend an event as a spectator, or even just look at the WODs posted for a competition, I invariably cringe at what I see. There might be enough volume to make even the hale and heartiest from the NC Lab blanch. The loads on familiar movements are so extreme that they are almost self-parody. To top it off there appears to be an “arms race” between competitions to see who can program the most obscure movements in our entire CrossFit quiver, stuff we do on only the rarest of occasions, and even then only for the unique training effects to be garnered more through mastering the movement than maximizing work with the exercise. Think heavy Turkish Get-Ups or ambushes with axel C&J. These competitions are supposed to be fun for Heaven’s sake!

The “Gamesification” of local competitions is a tragedy in the making. Looking at the events in some of them makes me think of some of the WODs I see posted in various places, long chippers with ever more clever names, each meant to out-do the last. These WODs as an Odyssey have been aptly called “Any Asshole” WODs, as in “any asshole” can put together a bunch of exercises and thrash a group of CrossFitters with them. Even worse is programming for regular CrossFitters that simply pounds away, day after day, with this kind of stuff, or pounds away at them in a local competition. People are getting hurt, missing work, missing time in the gym. It’s not OK.

I am confident that this year’s CrossFit Open will be like the last. It will include standard issue exercises and loads we can handle. Coach Glassman will see to that. For the rest of you who are holding “friendly” competitions around the world I am throwing down the gauntlet: stop hurting my people! Think CrossFit Open more than CrossFit Games when you program for your event. Be inclusive with movements and loads–you can very adequately test your competitors fitness with exercises and weights we use all the time. Save those weird and wacky events (100M backward sprints! One-arm barbell Cleans!) for the controlled setting of a training session under the direction of a trainer concentrating on technique.

It’s supposed to be fun, but as we say in my day job: it’s all fun and games until someone pokes an eye out.

 

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