Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Lesson in Sportsmanship

For the past two months, I've been training for a Highlander competition put on my by friend, Gant Grimes, in Wichita Falls, TX.  A Highlander competition is a hybrid between a Highland Games and a Strongman competition and includes both throwing and strength events.  Training for this competition was quite a challenge, but I've been wanting to try something new and so I figured that the worst that could happen would be that I wouldn't really like it.  I currently don't have a coach I work with and so most of this was largely self-taught.  I'm not a thrower and literally had one throwing session with a friend of mine who taught me the basics a few months ago.  From there, I mostly I relied on watching a lot of YouTube videos for technique and email exchanges for program tweaking.

The six events I had to compete in were as follows (weights were higher for the men):

1.  Weight over bar.  This is throwing a 28 lb weight over a bar that gets increasingly higher as each competitor clears the bar.  Last competitor standing wins the event.  (And by standing, I mean the last competitor to clear the bar when no one else has, not being the only one not suffering a head injury.)

Svavar has clearly mastered this throw.  56 lbs approximately 17 feet in the air is no small feat.
2.  Braemar stone throw.  This is throwing a 16 lb stone in a manner similar to a shot put.  Each competitor gets three attempts.
Not stepping over the toe board is one of the hardest parts.

3.  Axle clean and press for reps.  An axle is basically a thick bar, making it harder to grip and press overhead.  The bar had to be cleaned from the ground and then pressed overhead as many times as one was able in a minute.

Jim with a 200 lb axle, not easy at all.  
4.  Light weight for distance.  This was done with a 14 lb weight on a chain and thrown similar to a discus.  That's right, weight, spinning, and throwing.  Sounds dangerous to me.
Me practicing with homemade implements.  
5.  Farmer's Walk.  Carrying 85 lbs in each hand, each competitor had to walk or run a total distance of 120 feet for time.
The men carried a lot more than 85 lbs.  175 and 200 lbs in each hand depending on the weight class.
6.  Max deadlift.  After performing all those events, over the course of 4 hours, we each got three attempts to pull as much on our deadlift as we could manage.
The winner of my division, deadlifting 300 lbs like it was nothing.  
Now, I have to admit a few things.
1.  I am not that strong.  Yes, I am stronger than the average woman, but that's because I train for it.  In the grande scheme of female strength athletes, I'm not terribly impressive.
2.  I am generally willing to make a fool of myself, but don't generally enjoy it.
3.  I am incredibly accident prone and there is always a possibility of grievously injuring myself.
4.  My children are excellent cheerleaders and are even more impressed when I lose my balance and fall down throwing a kettlebell on a chain.  But, they wouldn't be at the competition with me.

Well, despite my misgivings, I went to Texas last weekend to compete.  There was a practice session the night before and despite my confidence in my training, the first female competitor I met was a former figure competitor and despite the fact that she had just had a baby five months ago, was clearly much stronger than me and in very good shape.  And then some more showed up.  These women were impressive.  Strong, fit, and obviously well suited for this competition.

A great group of women and fellow competitors.
The next morning, a professional Highland Games competitor joined our ranks as did the wife of an Icelandic strongman.  This deck was seriously stacked.  I was the smallest by far.  I felt kind of puny actually.   We got started and in the first event, weight over bar, I  had to bail early after pulling a muscle in my neck.  This is the part where I usually start making jokes about how weak and old I am, but I was not the oldest person there by far and was actually competing against a grandmother and therefore didn't really have a leg to stand on.  So, onward I went to the Braemar throw.

I'd like to think that Iceland flag socks give one super powers, but this gal was clearly a superior athlete.
I was feeling a bit self-conscious, but then something happened.  I was practicing my throw when one of the other gals came up and complimented me.  "Good form!", she said with a smile.  It was Brittney, the professional Highland Games competitor who had just won weight over bar in a seemingly effortless victory.  And I'm pretty sure she meant it.  I placed fifth out of six in this event and my furthest throw was 17 feet, 4 inches which was reasonably close to the rest of the pack.

And then came the axle press.  I was nervous about this one.  It requires a lot of strength and cardiovascular conditioning to be able to throw a thick bar over your head as many times as possible.  And everyone was watching.  But then everyone was cheering.  I had to rest a few times, but managed to eke out 28 reps before my minute was up and I had to drop the bar from exhaustion.  "Good job!" I began to hear from the other ladies.  We walked as a group over to the area where we were to throw light weight for distance.

Sixty-five lbs is not actually that heavy, but multiple reps as fast as you can is pretty taxing.  The winner of this event had a total of 50 reps in under a minute.  Quite impressive.  
Learning how to throw weight for distance was a challenge for me.  The weight is on a chain and in order to get some momentum on the weight, you execute a turn, very much like a discus throw.  As I mentioned previously, I am not very coordinated.  It took me a long time to finally get the foot work down and not get thrown about by the weight.  So, as I'm warming up, two of my fellow competitors asked me to show them how I was setting up for the throw and moving the weight through the turn.  I was a little surprised, but happy to oblige.  Teaching, after all, is what I like to do best and we had a good time warming up for the throws.  I managed to place fourth in that event and got some sincere compliments from my fellow competitors, one of whom credited me with getting some more distance on her throw.  Which was a very pleasant and welcome surprise.  I ended up throwing 34 feet 10 inches in this event, placing fourth.

My friend Dave Van Skike, who had taught me how to throw, had told me why he liked Highland Games so much.  It was because everyone was out there to have a good time and see that everyone else did as well.  I didn't really get this at the time.  But now it was becoming very clear.  We weren't competing against each other as we were competing against the weights, the axle, whatever implement was the challenge at hand.  Both in my division and the men's division the competitors were coaching one another and cheering each other on.  If someone wasn't doing well because of their technique, corrections were offered and improvements were made.  It began to seem more like a competition against the event itself and the competitors were all on one team.

The Masters division.  One of these guys decided to compete that morning at the urging of the other two. 
My personal experience with this came when I made a nose dive over the finish line on my farmer's walk.  I crashed hard into one of the bumpers on my farmers bar and took the brunt of the force into my sternum.  As I laid on the ground covered in dust and burrs, trying to figure out if I had broken anything, the other gals came over to see if I was okay.  "Just embarrassed", I murmured, truly mortified.  But then they all helped me up, dusted me off, and made it all okay.  Enough such that I went on to attempt a personal record of 225 lbs on the deadlift platform after pulling 205.  I didn't pull it past my knees, but everyone was cheering nonetheless.
Getting some speed.

And . . . down.  

But back up again with a 205 deadlift.
I went on to help judge the middle weight men's competition and as an observer, this point was made even more plain.  Competitors were more like teammates and no one would have been satisfied if everyone didn't attempt their best.  Corrections were offered, encouragement given, and improvements were recognized and praised.  To the astute observer, it looked more like a clinic than a competition.  Beginners as well as the guys setting records were as equally amazed and pleased with their performances. In a nutshell, it was a lot of fun to watch and participate in.
In an epic battle for men's middle weight weight over bar, you couldn't tell who was competing and who was coaching.
I've been to a lot of different competitions as coach and competitor, but this was the first one where both fun and personal performance were a priority and ego was not an issue.  This was very different from what I have observed in the past few years.  There seems to be a growing trend in sports and fitness that I find rather distasteful.  To describe it accurately, I would have to say it essentially supports an idea that there are a select few who "deserve" to compete and everyone else is to be disdained.  I've read articles and opinion pieces where folks who completed a marathon were mocked because they didn't complete it in under four hours, where folks who make it to the gym every day to get some exercise are mocked because they aren't lifting heavy weights and prefer the elliptical, and where a great deal of back and forth fighting goes on between the supporters of different fitness gurus.  It gets a bit depressing.

I've been to some competitions recently where I was really disappointed in the overall tone.  Some participants were not only disrespectful of their fellow competitors, but were generally disrespectful of the competition and the judges.  Profanity, temper tantrums, and a general lack of manners took away from other people's enjoyment of the meet.  When I take my athletes to a meet of any kind, I expect them to support their fellow competitors, be respectful of the venue, and most of all, be respectful and polite to all of the officiators of the competition.  To me, sports and competition are an opportunity to be the best at the game, not beating everyone else.  Its a small distinction, but makes a huge difference in my mind.  I believe that the ancient Greeks viewed the original Olympics as an opportunity to bring people together, not create divisions.

After wiping out numerous times during my first and only throwing lesson, my friend Dave told me very plainly that if I wanted to compete, I should do it.  ‎"Biggest thing, does not matter how you feel, just show up and compete and if you don't come home hoarse from spurring your competitors on, you're doing it wrong."

Truth is, I wanted to try a Highland Games or something similar, but was afraid of making a fool of myself.  He told me that it takes a lot of guts to stop talking about competing, step outside your comfort zone, and actually compete and that, in and of itself, should be worth of a great deal of respect from one's fellow competitors.  I believe this to be true in theory, but last Saturday, that respect was evident.  It's clear to me now that I had a reason to have high standards for sportsmanship because it does, in fact, exist.

A great group of folks and a great day of competition.

Training the individual

My job as a trainer and coach is a pretty fun one as jobs go.   However, one of the first and most important lessons I learned was that there is a big difference between how I train myself and how I should train others.  Individuality is perhaps the most important factor in developing effective training programs and one must recognize that everyone has different goals, abilities, and perceptions regarding strength training and fitness in general.  Their goals are not my goals and the most important goal is to improve quality of life and make daily activities easier and more enjoyable.  There are a few questions I must answer regarding a new client before deciding on the proper approach to take.

As much fun as I have doing it, most clients don't want to constantly have to carry or throw heavy things and max out their deadlift.
What is the individual's daily routine?
The average person's daily routine will require that he or she be able to be mobile, climb stairs, pick up and carry things or small people, and perform household chores and yard work.  If a person is regularly carrying heavy grocery bags and/or children into the house from the car, we should recognize that part of their training should involve picking up and carrying heavy loads.  If an elderly person is having trouble getting up the stairs in his or her house, we should recognize that we need to strengthen and condition the legs such that this person can continue to get up the stairs and live independently.  If a truck driver is suffering from back pain from long periods of sitting while driving, we should recognize that all the muscles that stabilize the spine need be strengthened and posture improved.  As trainers, we should be able to correct movement patterns, strengthen the muscles that support the joints, and condition the body such that it performs at a higher level.  Simply addressing the activities and movement patterns that one uses in every day life can greatly improve one's quality of life.

Being a mom is demanding enough.  The most basic resistance training can provide both relief from every day aches and pains and the additional energy needed to keep up with the demands of work and family.
What is his or her sports/activity history?  What is he or she currently doing for fitness?
This question is very important.  I have trained high school students, wrestlers, weightlifters, marathon runners, people recovering from injuries and surgery, and people who have never worked out a day in their life.  Knowing their background will give you a very good idea as to what kinds of forces and effort your people are used to encountering.  It will also give you an idea as to what they may be particularly good at even if its been decades since they last participated in sports or fitness activities.  For example, former dancers usually maintain their flexibility, volleyball and basketball players usually still retain some measure of explosive leg strength, and runners typically have very good muscular endurance in the lower body.

As a former basketball player, Enoch has no shortage of explosive leg strength.  
 However, time away from physical activity means that you need to be very careful with how quickly you get them back to being active.  Someone may have maintained a great deal of strength over the years, but this should be no excuse to hit the ground running.  Going too hard, too soon can result in acute and long term overuse injuries.  You must give the body time to adapt.  A good rule of thumb with beginners is to stop long before they are sore.  If a person is starting to get sore during the workout, he or she is usually in for a few days of extreme muscle soreness which has an effect on motivation to continue.

What are any deficiencies, injuries, or disabilities that we need to correct?
Where you get started with these folks is incredibly important.  It can mean the difference between being able to sustain a long term strength and conditioning program and getting overwhelmed and/or injured before significant improvements are made.  Sometimes, you have to keep things very simple for a long time.  Some of my clients start out immediately with barbells while others use light implements for months while they improve posture and general conditioning.

Resistance training with kettlebells can be a good way to get started or maintain some strength and muscular endurance.  
As an example, we have a broad range of individuals who train with the Raleigh Weightlifting Club.  All ages and activity levels are welcome and we try to accomodate all of them.  Does this mean that we hand everyone a barbell and get them snatching and cleaning as soon as possible?  Absolutely not.  The body has to be conditioned to handle loads at high velocities.  Some of our younger teens do nothing but strength train for months in order to improve their posture under the bar while some of our young athletes have mastered the lifts within a week or two and add weight every week..  Some of our older folks work for months to improve their flexibility and range of motion on the basic lifts.  For some of them, who may have had joint replacements or prior injuries, we simply work within the range of their abilities knowing that they may never be able to execute a full overhead or front squat.  And that's okay, its not required.

Manuel is one of our high school students and an amazing athlete.  
What are the client's goals?
Discussing goals and setting realistic ones is probably the most important step in having a successful client relationship.  Most clients will tell you that they want to lose weight and maybe "firm up" or "tone".   As a trainer, one has to understand that this simply means that they are not happy with where they are fitness-wise. A good trainer will help the client to figure out what exactly he or she is not happy with and work on fixing it.  Back pain, inability to participate in sports, lack of energy and endurance, and joint pain are all things a trainer can address and possibly make better.  Being able to pick up and carry one's grandchildren, play kickball with one's kids, or compete in a weightlifting meet or endurance event are all goals that many people don't consider, but are usually very pleased to realize as a possibility.

Competing in an event like the Warrior Dash is both fun and a reasonable goal to train for.  
Regarding fat loss, I make it clear that I can make my clients stronger and more conditioned and make them feel better in general, but fat loss takes a 24 hour commitment from the client.  Fat loss, and muscle gain, is largely dependent on diet and I cannot control what a person eats.  For my clients who wish to decrease bodyfat, I simply ask them to write down a few days worth of their daily intake.  Usually just writing it down highlights the problem areas.  However, I take the approach of making slow changes that one can stick to and slowly improve things over time.  I have found this approach to be much more successful than a massive and immediate diet overhaul. Sometimes, just changing meal times and/or increasing protein intake can begin to make positive changes in body composition.

Honesty in diet journals is the key to success in body composition changes.
The most important question is this:  How many of the client's goals am I, the trainer, going to be able to help with?
This is largely up to the client.  It is dependent on how many times a week they will train with me, how much effort they put in to my training sessions, whether or not they follow my "homework" instructions (these include additional workouts and flexibility/mobility work), and/or how diligent they are about eating responsibly.  I have seen individuals make huge strides with one training session a week.  I have seen individuals fail to progress significantly after mutliple weekly training sessions for months on end.

I do not measure progress based on body composition, but on demonstrated improvements in strength, endurance, and cardiovascular conditoning, relief from pain, and/or improved quality of life.  My favorite improvements to note are when a client reports being able to do things with his or her family that were previously out of the question.  Having a mother happily report that she was running races with her kids and having fun is just as exciting as having one of my teenagers hit a personal record at a weightlifting meet.

Megan, another high school athlete, hitting a 66 kg personal record on the platform.
Personally, I train for strength and do things that a lot of my clients consider pretty extreme.  I love what I do and am always happy to share and teach what I do with my clients, but over the years, I have come to recognize that my goals are not everyone else's goals.  More importantly, I can improve an individual's quality of life more effectively by viewing him or her as an individual and taking into consideration what he or she is willing and able to get out of my training sessions.  At the end of the day, my goal as a trainer is to make people better at enjoying their lives.  Understanding one's clients is the first step.

My fellow weightlifting coach Jason Davidson and one of his training groups.