Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Goals, Motivation, and Being an Athlete

Today I wanted to respond to something Tim posted on Monday.

Here is an excerpt:

Try doing something you don't think possible. Two results are likely possible. One, you fail or two you succeed. Failing is not a bad thing. We learn more when we lose then when we win. Those who accept challenges and fail are far better off then those who simply won't try because of fear of failure. Accepting a challenge and completing it gives us a great sense of accomplishment and confidence. Both are good for our general well being.


I realized when I read this that this has been a huge revelation for me.

I have been training and going to gyms for the last ten years. I always wanted to improve my fitness, and I tried a lot of different things, but the common thread was that I always set "reachable" goals and focused on moderation. I would improve, reach some initial goals, and then plateau. This happened with several kinds of weightlifting (circuit training with machines, "typical" free weights), cardio machines, short distance and longer distance running, classes at the gym, and training for triathlons. Each time, my performance leveled off, and my motivation consequently evaporated.

To understand this series of failures, I think it is useful to ask this question: what makes someone an athlete?

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where the culture dictated that innate ability made someone an athlete. Only the "natural athletes" played sports at my high school. If you were uncoordinated, not that strong, or kind of chubby (or all three, like me), you simply did not put yourself through the humiliation of trying out for a team. That culture still exists there and probably throughout much of the country. People revere the small proportion of the population that are "real" athletes (high school, college, and professional athletes) while laughingly dismissing the concept that "normal" people can be athletes. This is not just some people; this is, I believe, the cultural norm.

Soon after I moved to Colorado, I noticed that the cultural norm here is different. Health and fitness are valued here. And anyone can be an athlete because it's about training, about effort and dedication. I have seen substantially overweight people compete in triathlons and elderly people run marathons. However, the emphasis does tend to be on endurance. Who do locals consider the "best" athletes? Long-distance runners, cyclists, triathletes.

So I had two definitions so far of athlete:
1. people with innate athletic ability
2. people who work hard and do endurance sports

The second is certainly more forgiving. So for a while, I remained convinced that I could never be coordinated, powerful, or skilled, so I decided to tough it out with endurance sports. This was bittersweet because of course I could never be competitive at these sports. Really, while people shaped like me may participate in endurance sports, you do not see any competitive endurance athletes with my body type. They are lean, compact, and straight, not curvy. Training did not change my body type. I was destined to be in the middle to the back of the pack. I got lots of "hey, good for you for even participating" feedback, but that did not feel good. Because I didn't just want to participate, I wanted to be an athlete. And so my motivation plummeted.

To conquer this mentality, I needed CrossFit. CrossFit teaches coordination, power, and skill. I was astonished to realize these are things you can learn! With CrossFit, I know that if I work hard enough, I will get good. It makes me feel like an athlete for the first time ever, not a second-rate athlete, not a participant, but a real athlete. And for the first time, I have not plateaued after initial improvements but instead have continue to improve. My motivation increases each day.

I could not do this without setting "unrealistic" goals. For the past 2 months that I have dedicated myself to CrossFit training, I've had to fight myself on almost every workout, to keep from scaling back the workout too much, to keep from pacing myself. I'm finally starting to get it, that I don't need to worry about moderation, that I just need to go for it every time. If I can't do it, then I'll reach my limit trying. It's so freeing to let all that go, to not be afraid of what I can't do. That's why my motivation keeps increasing. I look forward to each new workout as an opportunity to let go a little more, to push myself a little harder. That's how I define athlete now.


Jane said...

Great philosophy. I'm proud of you.

Bluescaptain Joe said...

That rocks, Amy. I have to confess, though, that I'm not quite there yet. Maybe in a few years I'll find this sort of thing more appealing. I guess it's just the lack of structure that scares me away. If they'd get one of these gyms near me, I'd go for it.