Thursday, May 19, 2011

"How you gonna keep em down on the Farm once they've seen Carl Hungus?"

So, thus begins my series of observations and lamentations on coaching, teaching and learning.

For the summer, I have a new student: a temporary client, on loan to me from another affiliate where this student normally lives most of the year (her college town). If I recall correctly, she has been Crossfitting for approximately one year.

First off, she seems like a great client/trainee: she has a positive attitude, she shows up ready to work. At first glance, she is young (still college aged), cute and not out of shape. Please understand that this HELPS the atmosphere around the gym to have people of all shapes and sizes, but it's human nature that most people would rather be around people like her, than angry old fat men.

Here's the rub; she's already been tainted by another system. Let me explain.

Today is Thursday, and Monday and Wednesday were her first nights. So I am writing this the following morning, and these are simply my first impressions, but to be fair, there is nothing unique about this particular client or this situation. Because she's new to our gym and we haven't had time to have her 'test out' I placed her in the lower of our two levels of classes (for now, as was explained when she enrolled). The workout on Monday was Power to the People deadlifts, then 2 sets of presses, and then some midline stabilization conditioning. Last night was 5x5 in the front squat. I was not her coach during Monday night, but I was for Wednesday night. It was a full class, and due to some recent classes the other five students who are ALL rank amateurs, had 1, 3 or 5 reps maxes for their front squat. I asked if our new girl did too (she's been training for a year). She said she didn't know exactly off the top of her head, so I asked for a ball park. Unwilling to estimate, she volunteered to go to her car and get her training log (SWEET!). When she returned, the most recent record she could locate for doing 'strength work' on the front squat was a workout from several months back where she performed 20, 15, and 10 repetitions with a 45lb barbell. That was it. That was what she had: a 10 rep max, performed presumably 2-5 minutes after a 20 reps max.

Not to be discouraged, I offered, "You can lift with X, and just start really low weight and go up as fast as you feel comfortable/can maintain technique". Which is what she did. I believe she started somewhere around 42lbs (10kg bar+training wheels). It was ok, but could be better. Elbows were low, thoracic curve was very flexed, depth was basically parallel (we encourage a lot more on the front and overhead), knees tracked a little medially, but nothing as egregious as most first timers, and still essentially safe. Keep in mind however, this is a 20ish year old college girl with Crossfit experience; 125lbs BW. She worked her way up to about 67lbs I think, before really losing form and doing one final set a little lighter.

I have high standards for both technical prowess and relative strength; I think both are key to great Crossfitting and great health and movement generally. Needless to say I was a little disappointed in the skill set and base level that was being brought in, but excited by the challenge of helping this client improve the basics, and return to her home affiliate a better athlete.

She approached me after all the other students had left. She was concerned. Not about her lack of strength or technique (she was outlifted by every single one of my students, who again are all mostly beginners) but rather that she was (in my words here) bored. At her gym, they often do some strength work first (like 3 sets of 10-20 apparently) and THEN do a real WOD. She was worried that she would fall out of shape over the summer should she continue to train like this.

Do any of you (those reading this blog) teach anything? I know some of you do, whether it's elementary school, weightlifting or BJJ. So, I pose to you this question: How would you feel, and what would you do to help the student understand, if they came to you and told you that you're training was going to make them worse? Particularly if they were coming in with orthapaedic injuries and low performance (possibly related to their previous training regime)?

The truth is, she's wearing a knee brace due to a very old ACL surgery that has started to 'act up again'. She's kyphotic and hasn't kept to prescribed treatment plan to help her correct it. And she struggles to move 50%BW in the front squat for five reps (as a 'healthy' young woman). Meanwhile she doesn't want to negatively impact her fitness by spending 1-2 workouts a week working on quality of movement and strength.

When I told her how important I felt relative strength was, and how I believed it would help any athlete do more work in less time in a met con type work out, she seemed skeptical, or maybe even disappointed. I felt as though she was trying to tell me that without ending up on the floor in a pile of sweat, sexy metcon style, she wasn't really training. And as I stated earlier, her sentiments are not unique.

Sometimes I feel like Crossfit is ruining Crossfit. I also think that americans are unique snow-flakes, and hence they cannot mold themselves to 'the program'. They cannot subvert their individuality in submission to a complete program that will change their lives, because they know better, have other ideas, or just don't want to do the work.

Especially the 'boring' work.

After ten years of experimenting, after 140 credit hours, a bachelors degree (and well on my way to a masters), many of the most prestigious certifications in my field, and hundreds of hours of mentorship under other great coaches... I HAVE A SYSTEM. Presumably that's why you showed up, and presumably that's why you're paying me. Follow the system, do the work. Get what you NEED.

Maybe that's my problem; I deliver what people need, not what they want.


clinzy said...

Funny - I feel like the "boring" workouts (like last night) are the MOST important. I don't care how many rounds of pushups and kettlebell swings I can do in 20 minutes. I want to do rounds with proper form. I want the functional strength so I can be stronger for longer (and more effective) rounds of BJJ.

Plus, squats are awesome.

Jason Struck, CSCS RKC said...

Clinzy, thanks for the feedback.

Noodle this for a second: You like front squats. Your very good at them, considering how long you've been training.

What if I, as a coach, was to tell you that running or other sustained cardio was what you needed next to bring your game to the next level? Would you have a different answer qualitatively than the one you are offering now?

Because that's what is in my opinion more the issue with most people; they don't want to do what they are bad at.

Everyone likes doing the stuff that makes them look like a rock-star. The job of a coach is to prepare you for competition by revealing the things that are keeping you back and guiding you on improving them.

Tamara said...

Unfortunately, it takes time for the athlete to learn to trust what you say. I've been working with the same Oly coach for 8 months now, and he knows me very well. My current lifting cycle is focusing on a lot of mobility work, which is a huge weakness of mine. I have horrendous flexibility for someone who wants to be good at weightlifting. Well, mobility work is BORING. But, he put it in my programming, and since I trust him BASED ON THE PREVIOUS 8 MONTHS of training with him, I did it. And, after a few weeks, the difference was huge. I mean, my improvement in my squats was unbelievable, all do to the mobility work.

I guess what I struggle with as a coach is how to balance this issue with a new athlete like yours. It takes time to build trust, but you also need them to buy in to the idea that YOU are the expert as soon as possible. Otherwise, why are they paying you? Some people with do whatever you say, and some people will question everything.

clinzy said...

You know, after I posted, I actually thought about that very thing. (Whether or not I'd feel the same if this were a running workout in question.) I don't like running. I haven't liked it in decades. I don't mind rowing, from my limited exposure to it, though. But, like you said, I'm paying you to make me stronger, faster, and wiser about my body, right? I don't have the time (or inclination) to do the studying you've done on how to make these things happen. I have to trust that I've made the right choice in a coach and that you're going to make me do the hard work. The whole point of a coach (imo) is to have someone make you do the stuff that isn't fun. This is why I bought running shoes. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and trust that the dude with the stopwatch truly does know what he's doing.

James said...

The problem I'm seeing here is that the client wants to be entertained rather than improve her abilities and overall health. I completely agree with your sentiment that "Crossfit is ruining Crossfit." Clients are led to believe that the only way that they can improve their health and fitness is by ending up in a pile of sweat and other bodily fluids after every workout, and they seem to equate this to a sort of reward system, without which they do not feel accomplished. In all actuality the client would benefit tremendously from a paradigm shift in her definition of training. Training should beget progress, not simply entertain one at the cost of resurfacing old injuries. I think a quote from Pavel sums this up nicely: "It's much easier to burn someone up than it is to make them strong." In my opinion, without an increased level of base strength, this client is on a one way track to injury should she continue doing sexy Crossfit metcons, and nothing but.

I've faced similar problems with many clients: they want instant gratification, and many are unwilling to take things slowly and do it the right way. Moreover, it's problematic when a client prioritizes their Fran time over the longevity of their joints or back. They get entirely too defensive of anything deemed threatening to said WOD times, and then everything goes downhill. At the end of the day, Crossfit is still a training program, no matter how sexily it's packaged. It should improve the health and fitness of the athlete, in terms of strength, mobility, longevity. It's easy for people to lose sight of that, but, in the end, that's what we're here for as coaches: to give you what you need, not what you want.

Jay Ashman said...

Strength is the one area of fitness that all others can be built off of, show her examples of athletes, especially women, who exemplify strength and fitness.

She has been tainted by the koolaid and expects every workout to be balls to the wall, when most of us smart ones know that training is a means to an end, not the end itself.

"finishers" or metcons have been overused to the point of overconditioning, thereby weakening people, causing overuse injuries and overtraining.

her goals are her goals, but in order to get to those goals she is going to have to listen to people who know a lot more than she does about working towards those goals. If her goal is to feel like a trainwreck after every workout, she will eventually grow tired of that. If her goal is to be in shape, look good and be fit, then listening to you would be in her best interests.

Unfortunately, metcon warriors get so entrenched in that concept they assume that muscular endurance equals limit strength, and its completely untrue.

She would be better served slowing it down, getting her form mailed and being gradual about her progressions rather than trying to beat the clock.

I have many clients and they condition twice per week, the other 2 days are for lifting and accessory work, even on those conditioning days they are doing some lower volume lifting, but the lifting is prioritized. And I never lost one due to not being satisfied with their results yet.

Josh said...

I partially blame certain programming (i.e. 'The Biggest Loser')that leads people to believe that if they rain sweat everyday then they can quickly "look great" (regardless of the health risks involved). I've seen some follow ups of these people and they're essentially back where they started because they didn't learn the fundamentals or understand why their old lifestyle got them out of shape/morbidly obese to begin with.

I'm relatively new to the program but I've visited quite a few communities in our virtual world and I also agree that "Crossfit is ruining Crossfit". I keep seeing people concerned with "hardcoredness" and bragging rights because they (maybe) excel in one particular area, regardless of the fact that greener folks who are open to proper coaching are generally making improvements of some increment across the board.

To retouch on the running point - it isn't my favourite thing either but I know it'll ultimately improve my my stamina/oxygen efficiency which in turn helps me maintain technique throughout WODs. I'll throw an applicable Stones lyric out there "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might get what you NEED."

John said...

Hey there Jason and thanks for tagging me. I am not pulling any punches here, so feel free to pull this down.
On reading your post, my first thought was “that’s so Jason,” followed by some introspection and admission that it is also a lot like me… I don’t coach and it has been years since I last taught, but I do mentor, lead, and manage people every day. The thing that I struggle with the most is that I don’t suffer fools lightly. If someone doesn’t know what they are talking about, is a dumbass, or has a different approach or philosophy, I tend to write them off completely. I can’t – or won’t – help them. Sometimes I have that luxury and it works, sometimes, it doesn’t. As my boss has reminded me recently, the problem doesn’t always lie with the other person. Sometimes, it rests with me and my unwillingness to understand where the other person is coming from. When I read this, I see you struggling with some fundamental questions.
What are your priorities as a coach? Do you want to help all clients, or only those who (as I do) share many of the same beliefs / principles? In other words, are you going to write off a new client who, in your view, likes latte and refuses to see the value of organically grown, free market, locally roasted espresso? Or are you willing to serve the latte with your own twist and use that as a gateway to other products that you offer, including the ones that you really care about? As a business owner, you can choose to take all comers and offer what the public wants, offer a mix of training with a bias towards / focus on strength training and lead clients in the right direction, shut out everyone except those who embrace your philosophy, or anything in between. Obviously, your decision there has major revenue implications (let’s face it, the market is, and always will be, what it is – chasing the fad and ill-informed). Ultimately, you have to decide what your focus will be and what you’re willing to offer.
Intertwined with that is the decision as to what type of coach you want to be. Do you want a cadre of dedicated, knowledgeable, like-minded clients who require little training and are just as much use as training partners as they are as clients, or are you willing to / interested in motivating, training, and leading people who are all across the spectrum? How quickly are you going to write them off? Are you willing to nudge and suggest, and give pointers, and let their philosophy evolve over time, or is this a one-or-done?
So I guess what I’m trying to get around to here, as a client of yours for over a year and hopefully, a friend, is that I see an awful lot here about you, and why there is something wrong with the client, and how she needs to turn her head around, see how messed up she is, recognize your impressive skills and experience, bow to the master, and recite the dogma. C’mon. Your Kool-Aid is still Kool-Aid. And while your dogma is GOOD dogma, you’re assuming a lot for a new customer. You also assume you know why she’s there.
She is there for her, not for you.
She is there for what she needs, not necessarily what you want.
She is there to learn what she is ready to accept, and maybe only a hair more.
She is only as motivated as she was when she walked in the door
And she brings a lot a baggage – like all clients.
She wants to have fun – no matter how she defines that.
Do you want her? Because she will decide for herself if she needs you.

Anonymous said...

First, I totally agree with Tamara and James. Second it seems to me that there are 2 prongs to this question. The first being how do you help someone develop an attitude towards training, or learning in general, that will serve them properly? The second prong is how do you sell your system?

There is an inference that a student shows up to learn not to tell an instructor how they do things. When my students begin to argue with me I remind them of this, as gently as I can of course. This is usually followed by a rational explanation of how what I am showing will make you better at both what I am teaching you and what it is that you want to do to begin with. You do a really good job at this with me in relating specific movements back to pugilistic motions. In this case you could argue relative strength developed through these motions will help you destroy the previous motions that you were doing.

A second part to this is perhaps bargaining/setting a time frame. "Try it my way for X amount of time and we will re-evaluate." Your system works and the numbers will speak for themselves, especially if the person is keeping a log and can see consistent improvement.When people see that it works they devote themselves to it more fully. Perhaps you can use one of her previous workouts as a benchmark test to show her why you train like you do.

This will go a long ways towards selling your system and expertise. The other part of this you already do pretty well and that is to sell your enthusiasm about it. It also doesn't hurt to have a gym full of people who are equally enthusiastic.

Jason Struck, CSCS RKC said...

Wow John! Thanks for some great and thoughtful comments.

This is definitely a lot more like the community I wanted to get started by writing about these issues. I've copied and pasted a big chunk of your comment right in front of me so that I can address them point by point, BUT I will be brief, because I can see how many of them could be topics for a full post.

Priorities as coach: I am going to re-word this into "mission statement as a gym" and say that Crossfit Full Circle is about empowerment. I want people who devote themselves to training with our coaches, in whatever capacity they choose, to leave more capable of doing what they wanted to do in the first place. This speaks to knowing what this particular client really wants, and the truth is, I don't really know yet. I think this is one of the issues with Crossfit broadly creating a brand for itself that sometimes clashes with what we (Full Circle) want to do. Some people with a prior model of what Crossfit 'is' may not think that what we are doing is Crossfit. I beg to differ. But what makes us different from the other box down the road or across the country may not be immediately clear to the newcomer.

What kind of clients do we want? Ones that we can empower. I see that opportunity writ large in this particular case, and I meant it when I said I am hopeful about the opportunity that this client represents. I don't want to write off people simply because they don't already agree with us. I have to say I want to get better at helping people get that what we want for them is best for them. I think that's a tough sell though, because people are inclined to believe that they already know what is best for themselves. Especially if another fitness professional has already compelled them to think that something else is the way to go.

As far as serving something palatable now, so they can get the real stuff down the road... well there's the rub. In a group class setting, you are somewhat constrained by the need to deliver programming for a group, so it's hard to tailor each individual's training to their current expectations. The necessity is a one-size fits all approach that can never be perfect for every single individual at any one given time. The funny thing is, I see the biggest opportunity being in converting the ones that don't agree with us yet, as they stand to benefit the most from what we have to offer. My struggle is one of marketing on some level: how to sell the mundane and unromantic day to day work that will pay off the biggest in the long run, while faced with the reality that I am competing with the sexy metcon which is more exciting in the short term.

The one thing I hope does not get misunderstood is that I don't think the client is wrong, but rather that they have been misled by previous encounters in to thinking that something less fruitful is what they need to be doing. That can be difficult to overcome, if for no other reason than I am the late-comer. If they already believe one thing, it's going to be harder work to change their pre-existing beliefs than it would be to help someone who has no particular opinion to begin with. I hope it didn't seem disparaging towards this particular person when I compared them to their classmates. I added those details to heighten the absurdity (for lack of a weaker synonym) of her protest. The mojo out there is so strong, that even given the evidence of her low performance in this aspect of training, the client was still not compelled to see it as particularly important to improve, or that only doing strength work was an effective use of her time as compared to some strength work with a continued greater emphasis on metcon ( in their words 'finishing the workout laying on the floor in a puddle of sweat').