I’m a better coach because I was a stupid athlete. I didn’t know then that I was stupid, but now I’m a good coach that I can just see it. I could spend my time wishing I wasn’t stupid and imagining things I’d achieved athletically, but that wouldn’t get me anywhere. Instead, I have realized that my poor and / or misinformed decisions have made me a much better coach than I would otherwise have been. From my missteps I have developed knowledge, empathy and awareness. And I can see the stupidity of my athletes a mile away.
My stupidity manifested itself in two ways – overtraining and injury. I separate these out because overtraining injuries can occur, but they are not always linked. Based on my experience, I am able to coach my athletes from the perspective of what not to do and how to deal with the tough, dark times that training brings. And anyone who has trained for any measurable length knows what I mean by tough, dark times.
In 2005 I was kicked out of every gym I belonged to. I was kicked out for showing up too often. I was unemployed and exercised two or three times a day. It was my coping mechanism. I had done an adventure race recently, I did BJJ almost every day, I trained for a kickboxing smokers match, and I did CrossFit, I don’t know how many times a week. I had a cold in my chest for over a month, couldn’t sleep at night or stay awake during the day, I gained weight even though I ate less, and it took me a good ten to fifteen minutes to squirm and every morning I wanted mine Put on sweatpants because my sciatica was so bad I couldn’t bend my hips.
For some reason it didn’t cross my mind to stop exercising. But one by one, my coaches told me to go home so that I couldn’t go through their doors. When Andy Petranek from CrossFit LA sent me home, I went to the parking lot, sat in my car, and cried. I thought the world was over.
But the world was not over yet. A few days later Andy invited me to watch the class or, better yet, to help him train. For me it was the beginning of a new career. It was the first step towards an eight-year mentorship, during which I learned more about life and coaching from Andy than in my thirty years to date.
I never had to do a kickboxing match and I still have back problems to this day. But I might never have become a coach if I hadn’t overtrained myself to a pulp. I wouldn’t trade my coaching career for being pain free every day. And, as mentioned, I’ve earned the gift of spotting the stupid a mile away too. I know who you are, you overtrainers – I know you inside out. And since those tough, dark times, I’ve made it my business to reach out to those who are on the same path, so maybe they won’t go as far down the rabbit hole as I did.
Turning injuries into missions is not uncommon for coaches. When I spoke to Zach Even-Esh earlier this year, he told me that he too has turned an obstacle into an opportunity. After years of trying to use bodybuilding-style training to aid his athleticism, Zach’s body eventually gave way:
When I was twenty-five and the UFC was very big. I did shooting fights and tore my cruciate ligament while exercising. When I was operated on, I was so pissed off. I was so angry. I remember thinking before the anesthetic, “I’m going to do something about this training and teach wrestlers around the world how to avoid all of my mistakes.” I was on a mission.
As with Zach, the injury became an eye-opening experience that forever changed my relationship with my clients. The second biggest lesson I learned that led me to become a better coach was when I broke my ribs.
I broke my ribs doing pull ups. No, I wasn’t strong enough to pull and break my ribs (that’s what people always imagine first). Instead, I did kipping pull-ups and got greedy. I wanted to keep a personal record of consecutive pull-ups. I finished my twenty-ninth rep, which was a record for me, but I settled on thirty. Thirty just sounds better than twenty-nine, doesn’t it? Well, I lost my grip and fell down. It wouldn’t have been that bad, except that there were a lot of forces involved in the tilting process and our bar was too high for me to reach from the ground, so I climbed onto it from a wooden plyobox. Instead of landing on the floor, I landed my ribs on the box first and that was it.
What I learned from that injury – aside from the obvious parts about max reps, greed, and pit position – came during the recovery period. At this point I had been training CrossFit for a number of years. And I forgot how hard it was to be a beginner. When I broke my ribs, I was unable to exercise for a few weeks and was slow for a few months. My first workout for my back was about twenty slow-motion lunges. A few weeks later I did a very gentle yoga session and was sore for days. The first time I tried a pull-up again, with a thick elastic band for support, it was really a challenge.
I remember standing there in the middle of training, looking at the bar, looking at the rubber band, and then saying out loud, “I don’t remember it was that hard.” Andy Petranek looked over at me and said, “What , Pull-ups? ” And I said, “No, CrossFit.”
The months of recovery reminded me of what it was like to have to work for everything, they helped me imagine how daunting it is to be new and unsportsmanlike, and they gave me a sympathy and patience I’ve never had before . Being stupid, greedy, and falling off the shelf made me a better coach for the rest of my life.
People have so many theories about why great coaches and great athletes are usually different people. They theorize that even great athletes forget how to be a beginner. But I wonder, after all the coaches I’ve talked to over the years and all the coaches who have told me about their injuries, whether athletes who have stunted careers because of an injury don’t become the best coaches because of that . Jeff Martone, who has suffered a lifetime of injuries healed from kettlebells, shared the following with me:
If you look at all the surgeries and injuries I’ve had over the years, I can say, each and every one has been a blessing because it made me a better coach. It also made me a better coach, gave me a better eye for detail, and I’m much more patient with people.
So whether my injuries were due to ignorance, a stubborn competitive instinct, or the coping mechanism of overtraining, all of these bad, misinformed, stupid things made me better. While it may have affected my performance, it made me a better athlete in many ways and it has certainly made me a better and more human coach.