I mentioned this yesterday, all too often we hear that time spent in the gym helps forge a better, more capable person. What we don’t hear is how.
It’s as though there’s some mystical, alchemical transformation that takes place. As a trainer and coach it’s tempting to, if not outright promote, at least not discourage this notion. After all, if I’m the holder of some arcane knowledge, with secrets that imbue a better life, greater liberty and the attainment of true happiness, doesn’t that make me more valuable? Greater value on my part justifies a higher price tag on my services and helps push me along my own happiness scale, right?
Only, it’s not really all that mystical and the last thing I want for myself is to be found frantically pulling levers behind some curtain trying to play the great and terrible Oz. Far better, I think, to share my observations as I see them, check in with your reality, compare notes as it were, and slog along in good company. Who knows? We might find a way out of the trenches together.
So how does a gym rat become a better person?
After all this lead up, the answer may actually be anti-climactic.
Hard Work + Achievement/Failure = Greater Confidence
At least that’s the little equation I’ve come up with. Let’s look at each component.
Hard Work: Hard work is essential to progress in the gym. This is a truth that many a gym-goer misses out on and it’s the reason why so many of the people you see day in and day out in the gym never change. They do the same routines with the same weights, the same cardio on the same machine at the same resistance time and time again.
They’ve hit a plateau of homeostasis. Their bodies have adapted to a certain work load and they’re comfortable. Change never happens in comfort.
Achievement/Failure: Achievement and failure are both essential to growth. Frequently I find clients who are thwarted in their growth by too much success. When success comes too easy we take it for granted and are unable to handle failure when it occurs. Faced with a difficulty, the hyper successful all too often pull a “sour grapes” response and deem the enterprise not worth the effort.
In order to be whole we have to embrace both sides of reality. To truly know success we have to know failure.
Archetypally we understand this. Every great hero must fall before he’s able to attain his final triumph. Sometimes we forget that we created archetypes so that we can look with cartoon clarity into the themes of our lives.
In 1978 David Carradine starred in a martial arts movie titled Circle of Iron. The story line was first presented by Bruce Lee, but his untimely death prevented him from making the movie. The story is of a young fighter on a quest for the Book of All Knowledge. Along the way he must pass many tests and learn many lessons, from teachers that blur the lines between allies and antagonists (sound familiar?). In his usual humility, Carradine plays the roles of all the teachers and we get to see just how naive we, as an audience, were about what good martial arts action looked like.
I bring this up because there is one scene which stuck in my mind and I’ve carried with me ever since I saw the movie at ten or eleven years old, young enough, anyway, to be impressed by the aforementioned martial arts action (ah, the folly of youth.)
In this scene our hero, Cord, played by Jeff Cooper, is walking with The Blind Man, played by Carradine. As they walk along the outskirts of a village a beautiful young boy appears, he’s surrounded by admirers, and clearly walks with the confidence of the golden child. As he walks past, The Blind Man strikes out and breaks the young boy’s nose.
Of course there’s drama and as they walk away Cord asks, “What did you do that for?” The Blind Man responds that the boy was too pretty (don’t ask me how the Blind Man knows this, he’s a mystical teacher, okay?) and would grow up to be an insufferable man. With a damaged face he would come to know adversity and thus learn compassion and other admirable traits.
See? Struggle makes you a better person. Personally, I’d rather struggle over a heavy deadlift or trying to get past my current block in the snatch than get smacked in the face by some mystical guru, but to each their own.
Confidence: This is the reward of the gym. Confidence is the core that all other benefits are built on and it comes from having a true understanding of our abilities. Only by testing those abilities will we know what they are.
On the side of not knowing lies fear. We fear we’re not up to the task, the fret and worry come because we don’t know. Fear disappears in the face of knowledge. In success or failure there is no more fear because now we know.
Facing these fears time and again, engaging in a daily ritual of success and failure we come to know more about who we are and what we are capable of. Regardless of what that is, the experience of testing and knowing cannot help but create a serenity that’s difficult to find any other way.
I like to remind my morning clients, from time to time, that they’ve just performed the hardest task of their day. How liberating is that? How much more confident can you be in your day knowing that you’ve already handled your most difficult effort and that the rest of the day is downhill?
We all experience crisis. It’s a part of life, a necessary counterpart to our highs. The last year of my father’s life was, for me, an extended crisis. It began with a un-diagnosable pain, increased disability and finally a diagnosis of terminal cancer. From there came hospital visits, denial, last ditch attempts to save his life, grief, palliative care and the final acceptance. Once he died, my duties continued, no longer tasked with his care and managing his needs, I was tasked with managing the estate which is only now coming to a close.
The lessons of the gym sustained me through this trying time. I knew my strength, I knew the needs placed upon my shoulders and I was confident enough to carry them. Of course I had support, from my gym family as well as my immediate family. Which brings us to tomorrow’s topic, community. Gyms, well good gyms anyway, form communities. More than just seeing the same people on the treadmill, a good gym pushes its members, that common struggle forms bonds not found elsewhere. More on this tomorrow.