The Competence Conundrum

Well fam, my last post sparked some really great conversations and part of me is tempted to just go ahead and post what I had originally written about…but another part of me is despairing that the world has gone completely mad and I should just stay in my own goddamn lane and stick to writing about health and fitness. So to that end I’m gonna save the inflammatory post and write about my ass. Because write about what you know, that’s what all the books and instructors say! Ready?

My ass hurts. My ass hurts because I fell on it multiple times the other day, and for extra fun I had the video camera running so I made a compilation of wipeouts and posted it on Instagram.

I posted it BECAUSE I look kind of ridiculous…which is good, and here’s why:

About three years ago I thought it would be fun to try Olympic weightlifting. I hadn’t done it up until then in spite of always having had a kind of morbid fascination with it – I mean, here were these nervy and amazing athletes that threw hundreds of pounds up over their heads with strength and power and control and speed and technique and…and TRUST in themselves – I mean, weren’t they worried about dying? It didn’t seem like it. I had to give it a shot.

Turns out that weightlifting is hard. Really fucking hard, especially when you decide to start doing it at the tender young age of 38. But I had this weird short circuit in my brain where the more I failed at it the more I wanted – needed – to be good at it. I mean, I’m a personal trainer for chrissake, I have a pretty solid background in strength training and body mechanics…but understanding and doing are two different things, so here we are three years later and I am still not good at it. Which is why I love it: anything that’s worth doing well is worth trying and failing and trying and failing ad nauseum. All you can do is keep a sense of humour and laugh at the fails, because if you’re pushing yourself to keep getting better, they are going to keep happening!

When you start something new, failure is a risk you sign up to take. I posted that video for two reasons: because watching grown ups fail and fall on their asses is funny, but also because there’s this illusion out there that trainers just naturally do everything well in the gym…and that’s baloney – the impressive stuff only happens after hours and hours and hours of practicing and failing and slowly working toward success in baby steps. I’ll get better at Olympic lifting eventually, but in the meantime I don’t feel any guilt or shame or embarrassment over the bloopers.

As adults we come to enjoy and expect a certain level of competence. I mean, we’ve gotten ourselves this far; we’ve done pretty well, so we know how to do life. Right? And the higher the level of competence we’ve achieved (maybe it’s professional, maybe academic, maybe financial, maybe all of the above), the harder it becomes to start something new. The harder it becomes to wrap your head around being an amateur. Nobody wants to suck at stuff – we were forced to do it as kids but once you reach adulthood there’s no need for that bullshit….unless you want it, in which case you have to seek it out.

A while back I was explaining an exercise to a new client (a professional guy in his fifties) and I made a lighthearted comment about moving like an animal – it was a crawl pattern; a motion that we tend to lose in adulthood if we don’t continue to use it (seriously, when was the last time you had to crawl anywhere? Try it. Right now – I’ll wait). Crawl patterns are great for many reasons and lots of my clients have them in their programs.  He gave me the over-the-glasses stare and said, “I’m not here to embarrass myself.” Whoops. Ok, there are two problems with that statement.  One is that actually yes – he WAS there to try something that he’d never done before; that’s the point of getting some instruction, but number two is that why does that have to be an embarrassing and uncomfortable thing?

The thing about being a good beginner is that it’s a skill just like anything else – either you use it or you lose it. The more we learn, the more we seek out opportunities to better ourselves, the more we improve our capacity to keep an open mind, learn new skills, and have some fun in the process. Sounds great, right? Here’s the catch: you’re going to fuck up. You’re going to make mistakes and you are going to look stupid –  but I’d submit that it’s worth it. Worth it a thousand times over because no matter what happens, you’ll learn and grow from it, and in most learning situations the consequences for failure are virtually zero. A bit of butthurt, maybe, if you really failed spectacularly in a public setting…but even then – is that so bad? I mean, nobody is going to club a baby seal if you accidentally say something dirty while you learn a foreign language.

Want to know what’s awesome about starting out? The newbie gains, that’s what’s awesome. No matter what you start at, the learning curve is steeper at the beginning and you make progress relatively quickly, which means that you’ll see improvement from practice session to practice session…so even if getting used to new activities sucks a little bit, seeing that rapid improvement makes that new habit easier to stick to. When you’re new to exercise, the benefits are twofold: while you’re building up your muscles, your work capacity and physical resilience, you’re also building up your nerve cells and developing better neural connectivity. So when you’re learning new skills, you are also practicing the skill of learning…which is pretty cool! Conversely, if you stop seeking out new skills to acquire, your brain will eliminate those neural pathways, essentially “pruning” away those connections that it’s not using.

I had a conversation with a prospective client a couple of years ago about starting to get fit and strong. She was a musician – an accomplished, intelligent woman, and she was visibly uncomfortable with being in a situation where she wasn’t an expert.  “I feel like I should just be able to do this”, she said, “and paying for help with fitness seems ridiculous.” I’m a jerk so I turned the tables on her. “Ok,” I said. “What if I were to say to you that I wanted nothing more than to be a good singer? But since everyone has a voice, singing in the shower should be good enough and paying for instruction is ridiculous. Would you agree with that statement? Or would you tell me that getting really good at music is a skill that requires some instruction?”

The weird thing about getting fit and strong is that there’s this stigma around developing skills. I mean, everyone has a body – shouldn’t we just know how to use it? Well…that’s a lovely idea, and maybe we should just know how to use our bodies, but most of our lifestyles are not conducive to, say, chasing down food, carrying our belongings on our backs, or jumping or swimming or climbing…so we don’t. And it’s not a character flaw on anyone’s part that we forget how to do some basic (evolutionarily speaking) tasks; we just need to adjust our expectations.

So all smartypantsness aside, let’s lose the judgement around being a beginner in the gym – there’s no reason why you should just *know* how to exercise if you’ve never done it before. And also? Being perfect is not a prerequisite. Nobody’s going to pay you more if your knees stay behind your toes when you squat (that’s not even a thing anyway unless the force is strong with you… but that’s a rant for another day) or if you forgo dessert at your staff Christmas party. Might as well try something new. Play. Have some fun being a beginner.  I promise it’ll be worth it.

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