Six years ago I was kayaking a river solo in March (yes I know this is not recommended but I’m not you).  If you know anything about whitewater kayaking, the early spring and late fall are ideal times because the water table is high.  The water temperature was about 42 degrees with a light snowfall and I had planned a familiar route that was just over 3 miles.  Kayaking to my stop point, I would change out some gear and run back to retrieve my truck.

About 500 yards down river I entered a bottleneck when I miscalculated a rough spot and was tossed.  A series of additional mistakes made sure I went head first into the drink.  I don’t know if you’ve ever jumped head first into 42 degree water but it sucks.  It literally takes your breath away.  Unable to right the boat or breath, I bailed and scurried like a wet rat towards a rocky ledge.  On the rock I was out of the water but on an island.  The embankment was a twenty foot swim away and my truck was parked 500 yards upstream.

I tell you all of this because it was a surreal moment that I recall with clarity.  I have 4 good stories of nearly drowning: 3 in a kayak and 2 in water of similar temperature.  Although I do not perceive this as “nearly drowning,” I clearly recall the initial feeling of hitting that water, the moment panic set in, the desperation of pulling my body (and my boat) onto a rock and the decisiveness of standing there precariously weighing my options.

Every day I’m confronted with people who struggle with their desire for rewards and their fear of risk.  People want to be more powerful, more capable, lose weight, increase health, fight off disease, look better or just feel good.  We want the rewards but we fail to understand the commitment.  It is easy for people to attain a small taste of success.

Consider this:

Person #1: weighs 278lbs works out for 5 months and loses 50lbs.

Person #2 has been training for 8 months and can back squat his body weight.

Person #3 works up to a 100lb deadlift.

Person #4 learns how to perform an Olympic clean.

Each example demonstrates outstanding improvement.  Now consider this:

Person #1 remains at 225lbs for the next 6 months.

Person #2 has only added 5lbs to his back squat in the next 5 months.

Person #3 has been at a 100lb deadlift for a year.

Person #4 cannot move past the bar when performing a clean.

Although this is not a great deal of information I can tell you these people show up every day, appear to try hard and desperately want to improve.  Or do they?  Are they really desperate?

Desperation is a funny thing.  We say things like “I’m starving,” but are we really?  Have we ever really been desperate enough to attain a goal?  Desperation drives us to reveal our intent and our intent is either to find an escape or confront the task.  Unfortunately this is not something we can synthesize. This is a primal response to a particular stimulus that increases exponentially as we improve.  What elicits one person to consistently improve over a year while another stagnates?  It is that individual’s intent to confront the fear of challenge each time they grip that barbell.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, feels this pressure.  The person who is intent on improving will allow fear to excite the neuromuscular system without letting anxiety creep in.  They will find motivation, not despair, in desperation.

This is important to understand for those who have worked hard, demonstrated some improvement but struggle to progress.  It’s easy to say “no fear,” but that is not helping the individual who’s struggling to produce the necessary skills to get under a barbell.  Imagine if you are a novice who is inundated with the successes of others while being told “no fear!”  Clearly you will perceive your feelings of fear as inadequate and out of place.  You will struggle to balance hiding your emotions with your desire to perform.  This will not work.

Watch Julia Rohde here.

Ask any sports psychologist if the top athletes have ever felt: desperation to perform, or nervous anticipation prior to a training session.  Consider how many times an experienced athlete has failed a lift or been sandwiched by a barbell only to go back and attempt the lift again, and again, and again…

Perfection is inspiring but failure is motivating.

I did not deliberate on that rocky ledge very long.  It was an easy swim and a quick run to the warmth of my truck.   There were no witnesses, no one to judge me.  Once I made my decision to resolve my situation calm set in.  Before giving it any more thought I got back in the boat and slipped off the rock.

My intent to get back in the water is no different than my intent to generate more force as the weight increases or my intent to get back under the bar after a failed lift.  We all struggle with the same emotional spectrum.  Our intent, whether is achieving goals or demonstrating force, is a conscious effort that only we can make.

An Open Letter To The Unfit

We love you.  In fact, we adore you.  You are welcome, accepted and admired.  We understand the majority of the commercial fitness industry has made you feel unwelcome, inadequate and even inferior.  Please trust that the day of the meathead and oiled bodies is dead.

We all see you come through the doors doe-eyed and nervous.  We all appreciate your fears and anxiety.  Our hearts go out to you but for one reason or another it is not in our grasp to call attention to this fact.  All we can do is watch and wait.  All we can do is hope to see you come in more than once.

We understand the pressure you feel.  We all feel the same pressure.  In fact, the fitter we get the more pressure we are under to perform.   Keep in mind much of this pressure is self-imposed.

We understand your fears.  The Snatch makes us all nervous and there is a box jump height that puts fear into everyone.  You are not alone.  Everyone, at some point, was new.  We all had to go through the process of learning new movements before we became proficient.  Stay strong, stay committed, we will help you.

We see you quietly shy into a corner with your scaled devices and plug away at the workout.  We see the strain in your face.  We feel the pain in your muscles.  We can sense the doubt in your mind.  We know how much you are suffering.  The human in us just wants to rush over and help you or permit you to stop… but the athlete in us knows this is for your own good.  We know you must learn to hold your own.  You must learn to finish and give effort.  We know that Tough Love is sometimes the hardest love to give.

Although we all admire the elite, the exceptional, we are often stopped dead in our tracks watching someone perform their first box jump or plug through their first bout of legit burpees.  Which brings another point, we all hate burpees!  It isn’t just you.

Everyone hurts.  We all wake up feeling like we’ve been hit by a Mac Truck.  Our backs are tight, our shoulders ache.  Stay with it!  In time the soreness is less significant and with training your body will adapt and cope better with this stress.

I have seen people glance at the elite but I’ve watch whole rooms come to a halt to watch the newbie perform their first repetition of anything.  You are vital to our identity.  In our world effort is respected over natural ability.  This is the great equalizer in our ranks.

You remind us of what it means to preserver and give effort.  It is easy for the strong to game workouts.  The most elite in the room never have to worry about finishing last.  You quietly plug away long after others have finished.  We cheer you on because you remind us of what is great and powerful about the human will to commit.  We want you to know that in these moments you inspire and bring us all together.  As you progress we all get to share in your achievements.  The experienced lifter is satisfied with a 5 pound improvement but you are genuinely excited.  The room may stop to watch the experienced athlete but everyone genuinely celebrates your accomplishments.

Your excitement, your progress, your struggle is like putting everything we do under a microscope.  It is like watching a movie in real time where the hero, our underdog, comes out on top.  We love you.  Next time you are sitting at home or in your car debating on whether or not to come in… come in!  We are waiting for you!   You are somebody very special.  You have value beyond measure.