Are You an Athlete or a Coach?


Coach Janice, OPEX and NGPL Rise Coach, Matt Bryant, Dale, and Coach Kim at the OPEX athlete camp at CrossFit 27:17 in Flowood.

By Janice Marie Ferguson
Kim, Dale, and I had a great weekend at the OPEX athlete camp. OPEX is the training methodology formerly known as OPT, and was founded by James “OPT” Fitzgerald. Although somewhat estranged from CrossFit HQ, (read all about the gossip of the 2009 Black Box Summit here and here) Fitzgerald remains a leader in the CrossFit world with his data-driven and research-based programming work. He has a very impressive resume not only as an athlete, but as a coach and human performance scientist. Many CrossFit coaches across the world follow his ideas and work with him to evolve their own programs centered around developing and fine-tuning their athletes. Fitzgerald has been so successful, that he created an in-depth coaching education program called “The OPEX Coaching Certificate Program.” The certification revolves around the idea of creating a group of highly qualified OPEX coaches who are adept in writing individualized programming for CrossFit athletes, even a whole gym full of varying levels of athletes. This is a lengthy and thorough program that is also a significant monetary investment. Over the next year, I plan to start the program so I can learn more about these methods, and begin to further individualize the Bandit programming based on each of your individual strengths and weaknesses. This is a huge undertaking. And it will take time. I will also need help, and we will phase it in gradually. In the meantime, I have been immmersing myself slowly by following an individualized OPEX-based program with my personal coach, Mike McElroy, owner of CrossFit 27:17, since July. (Mike also writes Dale’s programming.) I’ve even begun introducing some of the work that I do to our gym. Our AirDyne sessions, tempo work, and more have been a product of my new training program. So far, I really like what I’m seeing for myself and for all of you. And we’ve only just begun. I know that each one of you can benefit from a more individualized approach. And I want to work hard to give you the best that I can.

I highly recommend this camp to any of our members. We tested our strengths and weaknesses in many areas including: strength, aerobic and anaerobic capabilities. The OPEX coaches have gathered data from thousands of individuals and have a lot of insight into what our own results meant for each of us. Each person at camp was given feedback on their results and suggestions on how to improve. To see the schedule of camps, you can check out the event page on the OPEX web site. We learned so much about CrossFit and our own physical strengths and weaknesses, but the mental concepts we learned immediately struck me as the most relevant to pass along to our Bandits.

Athlete or Coach?

We started the class by talking about ourselves and describing a little bit of our CrossFit journey. Matt asked us all to think about our goals and why we were there. Were we attending the camp as athletes or coaches? I still really didn’t know why I was there that Saturday. I knew it would be a good learning experience for me no matter “who” I was attending as. Part of me wanted to attend the camp solely as an athlete. But, I’ve been dealing with so many injuries over the past year, and I’m so far behind everyone I used to compete with, that I really wasn’t sure if I was an athlete or a coach that day, or both? For our members, I thought about you asking yourselves the same question, but in the context of your current life situations. I consider each of you an athlete when you come to the gym. But, it is up to you to define the priority of that athlete role in your life in relation to your other roles. What are your other roles? Are you a teacher or an athlete? Dad or an athlete? Maybe you are both? What role(s) is your priority? One must take priority. You can’t serve two masters. I learned that this weekend.

At the athlete camp, I discovered the OPEX methods are as much about lifestyle and reality as they are about workout programming. This lifestyle component is often overlooked by CrossFitters. There’s a culture of unrealistic expectations that we force upon ourselves. We think we can do anything we want. We expect top performances every time we set foot in the gym. We try to forget about our daily stress, life, work and family situations that play a role in our quality of life and quality of training and performance. Through those unrealistic expectations, we put too much pressure on ourselves and live with negative attitudes, get down on ourselves, or make excuses for when things don’t go our way. We tend to lose sight of what our true goal and values are and ignore the reality of our current life situations. No matter the reality of where we place our athlete role in our life, we feel that we should always excel at that role.

Training to Win

I’m not above that culture, and I’ve learned a very hard lesson that’s now taking me more than a year to recover from. One of the most compelling ideas we talked about was “training to win, not training to do the most work.” I have always felt like I should do whatever work was on the board for the day. And often, I try to do even more work that other people around me are doing, as well. More work for myself has always equaled better performance in my misguided opinion. If the training took me three hours, I didn’t care. I had to do it. And I had to do it exactly like it said. If I had an injury, I would push through the pain, because if I couldn’t do the daily work, I would be set back. If I failed a lift, I was upset. It was the end of the world if I didn’t PR my 5k. After all the work I had put in, I felt like I should always be better. There’s no time for backpedaling. Never did I consider my life outside of the gym as a factor. I felt that if I blamed my lack of sleep or good food, or stress on my performance, that I would be making excuses. But, my life started to catch up to me. I had to miss training here and there. Or I couldn’t do everything on the board. I was too tired to run on my off days. I was too busy or too tired to meet up with my running group in the mornings and train again in the afternoon, so I had to choose one over the other. I was down on myself. I felt like I was losing all my gains. I belittled myself and questioned my determination and dedication. “Real athletes make time for their training no matter what,” is what I told myself. So, I continued to compete and train at the same level. My sleep was getting deprived. My diet and hydration were poor. Worry and self-doubt set in. Then, the chronic injuries began.

Training Must Reflect the Reality of our Life Situation

Another concept we talked about was that our training volume needed to reflect the ebb and flow of our life situations. We must match our training to where we are in our personal lives. This weekend, I realized that in the past four years, I totally ignored my life situation changes, and the fact that I was making life choices that were separating me from my goal of being an athlete. The most draining and affecting of those life changes is my choice to move from being an employee with relatively low responsibility outside of work, to a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week, 365-day a year business owner and head coach who doesn’t have a day off.  Even when I have a day off, I’m not. People still contact me about the gym. There’s still programming to write. I still have work to do. There’s never a day that I can absolutely put everything down from the gym or CrossFit and just be me. Ever. At least not for now.

I’ve had jobs before that I’ve felt like I don’t have a day off. I used to be a teacher, and I hated when people told me how nice it must be to have summers off. I never felt “off” being a teacher, either. But, this is a whole other level. The place I’m at in the gym is more than just being a business owner. I’m also the head coach, membership manager, sales manager, human resources manager, accounting manager, purchasing manager, media and marketing manager, receptionist and so many other jobs that I won’t bother to bore you with. I’m overwhelmed. Every gym owner is. That’s not a secret. But, I never really took a moment to accept the reality of how much my life was changed when I decided to open a gym. I opened the gym because I was passionate about sharing CrossFit, and because I needed a place where I could train to further my athletic goals. But, rather than respecting the changes and mental and physical toll that would take on me, and forecasting that my choice may actually separate me from my goals to be an athlete, I ignored that thought, and kept on training and competing at the same volume—just like I did when I was still a teacher. I really believed I could still be an athlete. I can do it all. I used to actually think that. I’m a typical dreamer.

That’s where I was when I entered this seminar. I have this fantastical vision for our gym. I want it to be a great place with amazing people and with opportunities for people like me, who want to pursue CrossFit as a career, but don’t have any other local option besides opening their own gym. I want it to be a place were people who enjoy competing in CrossFit on a serious level can come and get the training, equipment and support they need. But, I also want to be an athlete myself. And, I want to be with my family–be a soccer, basketball and cross country mom, and take my kids to the movies or the zoo. Unfortunately, opening your own gym is not the way to have the best of being an athlete, parent and a CrossFit coach. I haven’t taken my kids to the zoo since back when I was a teacher and I used to cringe at non-teachers who commented about all my time off. I’ve also discovered being a gym owner is not the best option for having the priority goal of being a CrossFit coach. My time spent finding new ways to be a better coach is often interrupted with the boring administrative functions of our business operations. I don’t recommend this path to anyone with a family who also has goals of prioritizing that family and being an athlete or a CrossFit coach. If you think you want to open a CrossFit gym in the future, and you have other interests or goals, like being an athlete, a CrossFit coach, soccer mom, president of the booster club, or any other interests, you need to hear this: YOU WILL HAVE TO CHANGE YOUR GOALS. It may be temporary, which I’m realizing now, is OK. But, to be quite honest, knowing what I know now, if someone were out there offering what I’m offering to our coaches and our competitive athletes, I would have never opened a gym myself. I would have been just as happy hitching my wagon to their party. (If you’re interested in how we’re making our coaches into “self-employed” coach entrepreneurs in our gym, you need to sign up for our Bandit Coach Intern Program starting January 3.)

But, I didn’t hitch my wagon to anyone else. So, here we are–just a bunch of Bandits, taking the hard road. The road less traveled. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I opened our gym. I love my Bandits. I felt compelled to do it for the sake of our future coaches and athletes. No one was creating the opportunities I was looking for as a coach and athlete. So, I felt it was my only choice. But, I will be honest, it sure hasn’t been what it’s cracked up to be. My fantasy world didn’t last long. Gym ownwership has been a drain on my personal life, changed the dynamic of my family, and completely changed my destiny. And this weekend, after all this time, I finally realized it’s changed the priority of my athlete goals.

Why do you need to know this? Simple. I don’t want anyone in our gym to repeat my mistakes. It is important for us to be realistic about our current life situations and to face some hard truths about our life, our goals, and the reality of the choices we make.

Back to the question: Athlete or Coach?

Many of the people in attendance were not only CrossFit athletes, but coaches. There were a lot of different levels of athletes, not only in skill level, but in investment of that pursuit. The same was true for the coaches present. Some were “all in” as gym owners, and others were full-time coach employees, while others were part-time coaches. The founder of OPEX, Fitzgerald, has a strong opinion that you can’t be both an athlete and a coach. If you want to be a “real” athlete, you have to sign on the dotted line. This means all other endeavors in your life must come second to that pursuit. The same is true for a coach. If you want to be a “real” coach, to be the best in that field, you will have to forego your own personal athletic goals, to master the art of coaching.

There was a great article that I posted several months ago about the topic of being an athlete written by Greg Everett, another black sheep of the 2009 Black Box Summit. I hope you took the time to read it. You will be smarter for it. Here it is: “Are You an Athlete or An Exerciser?”

Being at the camp made me look at things through a lens of reality. I think that for the dreamers among us, we have a skewed perception of all the things we want to do. And we often trick ourselves into thinking we can do it all, all the time, and at full speed without having to sacrifice anything. That’s just not true. The sooner we can accept the reality of our situations, and that those situations are created by our own personal choices, the better we will become. That missed lift all the sudden comes into perspective. Maybe it’s not the end of the world that we didn’t get a PR on our Fran time? Because the reality is, perhaps we haven’t been coming to the gym but twice a week for the past month because we choose to participate in our children’s activities, or spend more time with our boyfriend instead. Or, maybe we just got a new job that is causing some disruption in our regular schedules. All of those are factors that we have control over. No one has forced us to do anything in our lives. We make choices that we must accept the consequences of. While our value systems may compel us to make certain choices, such as choosing family over CrossFit, we must be realistic and accept the outcome of those choices, which could be a missed lift.

Now, I’m not condoning that everyone miss their kid’s Christmas play or sister’s birthday party to do CrossFit. That’s not where this is going. What I’m hoping that our gym will realize is that in missing our workouts to attend those events, we have chosen to prioritize family/friends over our athletic goals. Many of us choose to prioritize work and school over our athletic goals. While most everyone would accept that prioritizing work, school, and family are normal, and in some cases expected, and depended upon, for our family’s future, it is important to remember, prioritizing those values are still a choice that we intentionally make. For those of you who are still in school, you don’t have to go to school. No matter what society tells you about “having a fall back plan,” AKA an education, I promise, you can certainly make it without one. There are a lot of athletes who live a meager lifestyle that is arranged around their sport of choice. Many Olympic athletes live in poverty by choice. They will do whatever it takes. This is because being an athlete is at the top of their priority list. They are what OPT calls “real athletes,” not a “wannabe athlete.” You could live in a van down by the river if you had to. Having a traditional home and lifestyle is not something that we “have” to do. There is nothing in this world stopping you from making the choice to leave your family, friends, school, or job to pursue your athletic dreams. The only reality that we must face is that we can’t typically have all of our wants. We have to sacrifice. We have to be honest with ourselves and ask: “What are my goals?” And then, compare those goals to our current path and life situations and choices. Then, try to align our expectations of our performance with that. If we aren’t reaching the goal, if it is important enough to us, the only way to stay on the path to that goal is to change our life choices and our priorities.

Three Phases in the CrossFit Journey
The final concept we talked about is the three phases of being a CrossFit athlete. Everyone goes through these phases. And Matt asked us to think about where we were on the continuum.

PHASE ONE:  Everything is new to us. Our first pullup. Our first double under. Our first muscle up. We are making huge 15-20# PRs, everything is awesome, we are awesome. We feel better and stronger than we have in our lives. We are invincible. We may not even have to really change much in our lifestyles: we eat the same, sleep the same, and have similar lifestyles to our pre-CrossFit selves.  CrossFit is the change. And it feels so good. We expect the gains to just keep coming. We are on top of the world.

PHASE TWO: We are old hat. PRs slow down. We are lucky to have a 5# PR once a year on our lifts.  We can do consecutive doubles. String together pullups and muscle ups. The growth is still happening, but it is much slower. We begin to think something is wrong with us. But, nothing is wrong. We are just reaching the edges of our unique genetic potential and natural talent. Making more gains requires us to focus more on the task and give more respect to the role of nutrition, sleep and consistency in our training. But, we don’t want to think about that because we remember when we used to have huge gains. We often get discouraged because we aren’t able to see this as a normal plateau that happens to everyone because we are still working out with phase one folks. These people are still seeing massive and explosive gains. Their progress shrinks our perceptions of our own, which leads us to compare our chapter 21 to their chapter 1.

PHASE THREE: You finally realize that to keep the gains coming, as slow as they will be, you have to make some changes. Some people realize these changes have to be healthy: eat better, modify our training to accommodate the current life situation, sleep more, train smarter, think about our goals and lifestyles and our choices in the proper context of what we are able to give to each role. However, some people go about these changes in an unhealthy manner. They think they need to train more because more equals better. They make drastic fad diet changes. There’s a fork in the road at this phase. You’re either entering this new phase with enlightenment about your training, performance and goals. Your gains continue to progress in a healthy way, OR either you’re heading down a path of dangerous health scenarios: injury, overtraining, stress, high cortisol levels, chronic illness, and adrenal fatigue. It’s not fun to train anymore. It’s a job. It creates stress when you miss your work, or when you perform poorly. At this point, all the achievements and gains you’ve made through the other phases revert. It can take months or years to recover from this downward spiral.

Where are you in the Three Phases?

If you haven’t learned by now, this CrossFit journey isn’t all about the physical. It’s about your mental and emotional health, too. The sooner you can connect your physical progress and growth to your mental growth, the better your outlook and more realistic your expectations will be. That dangerous path was the path that I was on. And it is not a fun place to dig out of. My goal for all of you is that you will find yourselves in the third phase of your CrossFit journey enlightened and satisfied with the choices you’ve made. I hope you can accept the priority those choices have given to your role as an athlete. You are the only person who can choose where to prioritize that athlete role in your life. You are the only one with the answer to the hard questions. Our job as coaches is to help you develop a realistic approach to managing your answer and the realistic outcome it yields. So, before you come to the gym again, ask yourself those hard questions. I promise, the missed lifts and poor performances won’t be nearly as painful. The pressure to perform won’t be nearly as stressful. Your expectations will be more aligned with the reality of your situation. I’ve learned the hard way that we may take some wrong turns and live in fantasy world along the way. But, we can always make changes. We always have the power to choose another path. You are the only one that can answer the question, “Am I at Bandit CrossFit today as an athlete or a coach, mom, or a business owner?” The question will be unique to each of you and your own roles. And the answer doesn’t have to be the same every day, every month, or every year. Goals and priorities can change. You may not even like the answer that you come up with today. Putting the microscope on our own life and asking the hard questions that we are afraid of can be uncomfortable. But, it is necessary for our growth. It is necessary for us to move forward in our journey with peace in our hearts, and to pull ourselves out of fantasyland and back into reality. So, ask the hard questions. Are you an athlete? And if so, where have you placed that role on your list of priorities? I want to know.


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