Three Kinds of Competition

Originally posted over at the Four Elements Blog.

As someone who’s played a lot of sports, I have a lot of respect for competition. It’s a motivating factor in our training—we all want to get better as athletes, and have a healthy drive to surpass those we are competing against. In both team sports and individual competitions, the drive to succeed fuels us to achieve higher and loftier goals. This is an awesome thing.

The first kind of competition is the one we learn when we’re just starting out, and it’s the easiest to understand: competition between us and others. In order to beat the other team or win a tournament, you have to perform better than they do. This pushes us to really give it our all, and makes us stronger athletes. Often, there can be two layers to this kind of competition as well—competing against our own teammates to get a place on the all-star roster, and then the game against the other team or opponent as well. When approached in a healthy way, this kind of competition can be very motivating and even fun.

As you get further into training, the second kind of competition comes into play. This is competition against oneself. Can we improve our times, our skills, our mastery of the sport we love? How can we maximize our training to ensure that we’re continuing to achieve personal records, better times, and higher weights than our past selves? This kind of competition can be even more motivating, because you focus less on external factors outside your control, and more on your own growth and achievement as an athlete.

If you’re an athlete, this is all pretty familiar, right?

The third kind, if you can call it that, is where things start to get a little unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable. The third kind of competition is non-competition.

This sounds kinda nuts but bear with me here. It’s a paradox—how can a kind of competition be non-competitive?

Sometimes in our training, we need to take a step back and purposefully and intentionally opt-out of competition. Illness, injury, rehab, or exhaustion can all take us out of a place where competition is healthy and good for us. I’m working through a shoulder injury that’s putting me on the sidelines from all pushing movements—no overhead lifts, bench presses, or push-ups for me, for probably a considerable amount of time. As much as I want to compete with my fellow lifters, to put big numbers up on the whiteboard, and better times, it’s just not possible if I want to heal.

I also can’t compare myself with previous versions of me—past times, lifts, or performance. I’m not the same as I was 6, 12 or 24 months ago. And that’s frustrating, because I feel groundless. There’s no familiar guidepost, no benchmark, no direction to orient my progress, really.

But non-competitiveness serves a purpose: it allows you to really focus in on healing, without getting recurrent bouts of re-injury or sickness. Even if you’re not sick or injured, everyone needs downtime. All professional sports have an off season.
I think it’s a lot harder for those of us who are not professionals to take that time for ourselves. It’s harder to justify. “Well, I’m not working at the level that so-and-so is, so I don’t deserve to take a break.”

The problem with this kind of thinking is that the body never has time for adequate recovery. Sometimes you just need a few rest days, but sometimes you may need weeks or months off your sport. And that’s really hard. I know. I’m dealing with that right now. But it’s vital.

So what takes the place of competition? I’d venture to say that goals are an appropriate answer—just different kinds of goals. Instead of focusing on outcomes—a personal record, a better time, a higher ranking—choose to narrow in on behaviors instead. Make a recovery plan for yourself, and mark off how many times you do mobility exercises, or rehab, or conditioning, or even much needed rest. Feel good about that.

It’s hard to do, and I’m in the thick of it myself, but see how it goes for awhile. Test it out. The likelihood is that you’ll be able to return to your sport with increased awareness, motivation, and ability.

Daring Greatly - My First CrossFit Competition

A few weeks ago, I did something previously unthinkable: I participated in a CrossFit competition at my gym.  Before anyone freaks out, this was a "just for fun" deal - and there's no Rhabdomyolysis in my future or anything like that.  But it was a big deal for me, because I was pretty dang terrified of the whole concept.

I don't love being looked at and judged, especially when I'm getting down to the sweaty business of working hard.  I do CrossFit for me, as a challenge for myself alone.  I like beating my own PRs and times, but I'm not really about competing against others.  My perfectionism often gets in the way of enjoying such pursuits, because if I don't do as well as everyone else I beat myself up about it for days.

You have to understand, sometimes even the "fun" things are hard for me because of this fear -- fear of failing, of looking stupid, of being embarrassed.  Even within the context of our gym, with people I know, I was feeling the fear intensely.

But my training partner really wanted to do it, and my coaches talked me into it.  For one thing, we would be signing up for the "Scaled" version, not the "Rx" version, meaning the movements and weights were well within my reach.  And if my Plantaris kicked up, I could figure it out along the way. 

Mostly though, my partner reminded me, the victory was in showing up, in facing my fear to try something new, to compete, to see how we stacked up. 

In mentally preparing for this challenge, I was reminded of this quote:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
— Theodore Roosevelt

This quote really hit my gut.  It moved my hand on the board to sign up.  Ultimately, I figured, even if I look stupid, even if everyone thinks I'm weak or fat or ungainly, even if I can't do any of the movements and the competition is a wash, I'm still showing up.  I'm daring greatly.  And there's honor in that.  Showing up engenders respect. 

So how did it go, you might wonder?

Well, actually, we came in 2nd.

Team Finish, on the podium.  From "Daring Greatly - My First CrossFit Competition"

Team Finish, on the podium.  From "Daring Greatly - My First CrossFit Competition"

I totally didn't think that would happen.  But, we both busted ass on the Thrusters, the first movement, positioning ourselves in 1st place.  Then we came in 2nd place on the second movement, a MetCon with jumping pull-ups, box jumps, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, rowing, and wall balls.  It was the last movement, a relay with sandbag cleans as a buy-in, that we fell behind, but you know what?  I can live with that.  Running and jumping are the movements that take longest to come back after a calf injury -- the fact that I was running at all during a competition is magic.

I'm so glad I showed up.  It's changed the way I think about CrossFit.  I realized that I let fear guide me a lot of the time, and that it's a waste of energy.  I need to try new things, and try hard, and keep moving even when it's really difficult. 

I noticed this week too that I've stopped fronting in a lot of ways -- I don't complain, I don't go light on weights, I've stopped apologizing for myself.  I show up and do my work.  And that feels really damn good.

The Upper Echelon

The other day, before I ended Precision Nutrition, I got really triggered by an email they sent out about their finalists for the women's Lean Eating program.  You can see the content here: Women's Lean Eating Finalists

What I found so triggering about this email was the Before and After pictures.  I felt profoundly disappointed that I hadn't achieved such radical transformation during my own PN journey.  I felt like I'd failed.

Even though we all know Before and After pictures are bullshit, and even though I know my goals ended up changing during the challenge, I still felt like I "should" have lost a bunch of weight, gotten super toned and tan, and had amazing After shots.

The "shoulds" really plague me you guys.  Not just about this PN thing, but in a lot of other stuff.  Lately, it's been coming up around CrossFit and not being part of "the upper echelon". 

Photo courtesy of Kris Bates at Grassroots CrossFit

Photo courtesy of Kris Bates at Grassroots CrossFit

In my box, we have a wide range of ability, from those just starting CrossFit with no athletic background, to athletes looking for more crosstraining, to intermediate CrossFitters, and then those who are looking to compete in CrossFit competitions.  When I started CrossFit, the gaps weren't so wide.  We had folks across the spectrum in the everyday classes, and I got to know some of them pretty well and enjoyed working out with them.  Now, because of Team Training, there's more of a divide, and I realized the other day that I'd been feeling envious of what the upper level athletes could do, and left behind, sad that I couldn't keep up.

But here's the thing: I was never at that level to begin with.  And even those who started at my level and worked really hard to get better are different than I am, because we are are fundamentally different from one another.  What works for those bodies may not work for my body, and vice versa.

My friend Lacy often tells me, "You have to realize that healthy comes in many different types of bodies."  And she's right. 

I'm doing what's right for me.  I know myself well enough to know that I try really hard.  It may not be obvious to everyone around me, and if the "proof" of health is killer 6-pack abs, then my fitness is probably not obvious to anyone.  But so what?  I know how exhausted I am at the end of a CrossFit WOD.  I know that I've been crushing my upper body and core workout 2x/week, plus a bunch of recovery work as I heal from my injury

I could be one of the upper echelon at CrossFit if I worked out 5-6 days a week (maybe even multiple times a day), ate a totally clean diet, and pushed myself constantly to get to competition level. 

I could be one of the Precision Nutrition finalists if:

  1. I'd made it my only goal for the year
  2. I was willing to sacrifice my relationships and mental health in the pursuit of weight loss, and
  3. if I'd had worse health to start out with

Because here's the thing about amazing Before and After photos: you have to look pretty out of shape in the Before picture to have a dramatic After photo.  True fact.  And I was in pretty damn decent shape before Precision Nutrition, so my After photo wasn't going to be off-the-hook incredible anyway.

But the truth of the matter is that I am doing everything I am willing to do to have a fit body, and I am healthier for it.

Juli Bauer, one of my favorite bloggers, writes in PaleOMG about how she's changed her perspective on how to train because of a similar realization:

My body is different than every single other person in this world. Completely different. I could workout the exact same, eat the same, sleep the same and do everything the same as one of my jacked competitive CrossFit friends, and I would look nothing like her. That’s because my body is different. And my goals are now different than they were. Before, I wanted to compete. That’s it. I did that and then I changed my mind so I could live a happier lifestyle. I didn’t think I would ever stop training and stop competing, but I did. Have you ever thought you wanted something and changed your mind along the way? If you haven’t, you’re boring.

I eat a healthy, whole foods-based diet, I work out multiple times a week at CrossFit, I go to yoga when I can, and I exercise sometimes for the sheer joy of moving my body.  I meditate every day.  I make time for my friends and loved ones, and I try not to stress too much about moderate indulgences from time to time.

That's what health looks like to me.  And I've determined that as much as I envy the upper echelon sometimes, it's not really worth the sacrifices I'd have to make - the strained relationships with friends and partners when they want to go out and I don't because I'm afraid of lack of restrictive eating choices, the scheduling everything around my gym time, the mental gymnastics of when to eat and how much and how to structure training. 

I'm sure people that are really committed to competition love figuring out all that.  To them, it must seem like a really awesome puzzle to work out.  And as a Type A overachiever with an analytical, problem-solving side, I kinda get that.  But I tried doing it for a year and it didn't work for me. 

I'm someone who loves creativity and spontaneity, and ultimately, balance.  I'm not willing to make training and/or weight loss my life.  So I'm focusing on what's real and achievable for me.  And the nice thing about that?  I don't resent the upper echelon any more.  They're doing them, and I'm doing me.  And that feels pretty damn great.