I know how to to tell people what to do and I am pretty good at it. Unfortunately, my often hyper-focused need to motivate people into action can feel a bit prickly to those on the receiving end at the gym. In the spirit of maintaining a growth mindset and always trying to get better, I’ve given my coaching style a lot of thought. I often film myself, ask for feedback, and assess, or obsess over my classes.  So where’s the balance? How does a coach who comes from the rank and file of the military blend with a population who more or less just wants to have a good time and sweat a little?

I understand the world through movie quotes and gifs so when I think of the existential conflict between following orders and doing whatever you want, I immediately see Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise sparring in a courtroom during A Few Good Men.

I’ve probably watched that movie over 1000 times and can’t help but echo the words, “We follow orders, son. We follow orders or people die.” 

But CrossFit is not combat. CrossFit classes do not have “code-reds” for “sub-standard” athletes and people don’t die if someone can’t quite follow the coach’s explanation of the workout…hopefully. In that previously referenced courtroom scene, Tom Cruise’s character, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, questions Jack Nicholson’s character, Col Nathan Jessup, concerning the death of one of Jessup’s marines stationed at Guantanamo Bay. By the end of the testimony, Kaffee walks Jessup into a rather dicey self-incriminating admission by playing on Jessup’s narcissism and hyper-focused belief in the power of hierarchical power. Eventually, Kaffe out-maneuvers Jessup, catalysed by the now famous line, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” 

tom cruise GIF

So what’s the “truth” in this situation? The truth is that when dealing with NORMAL people who have not learned everything they know about human interaction from the military, many of the rigid hierarchical structures by which I measure effective leadership: efficiency, order, speed, economy of effort, lethality of action, and mission accomplishment don’t often translate to meaningful personal relationships and pleasurable customer experiences.

Narratively, A Few Good Men takes advantage of the dramatic stereotypes of the military, specifically the cultural conflicts between combat and non-combat personnel. Jessup even reminds Kaffe and his legal team, “I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4000 Cubans who are trained to kill me.”   

In the movie, two young Marines stand trial for their lives. The dramatic irony of the story eventually leads us to feel for these two marines and allows us to forget that they let a shipmate die and that they, and their superior officers, abused their positions of authority. I assume that Col Jessup eventually pays his dues or at least quietly finds his way into a less-than ideal retirement. Watch the movie and make your own conclusions but despite the cheesy ending where one of the accused marines ceremoniously (and inappropriately) salutes Kaffee as he leaves the courtroom, I think the moral of the story is that a hero knows which orders to follow and which ones to violate. 

So there I am, standing at the white board, squirming inside my skin as conversations continue despite being 10 minutes into class. Do I yell at them? Is that the order of the day? No, that’s ridiculous and certainly not appropriate. And what about the pesky athletes who take too long in the bathroom or choose the very moment we are about to start the workout to change their shoes? Do I just start the clock? Nope, not effective either. And what about the athletes who are on schedule? Do I let them get frustrated because I don’t respect their sense of order? I struggle to find a balance and I am not quite sure where the line exists.

Again, we aren’t going into battle. No CrossFit athlete will die because class runs 5 minutes long. But, I’ve often heard and read advice from experts in the industry suggesting to “just tell people what to do. Options paralyse. The group will either conform the outliers or they will weed themselves out.” Other, equally successful mentors, advise the complete opposite and warn that the group dynamic is the worst thing to happen to the fitness industry. 

Personally, I’ve started watching some of our other coaches at Fairwinds because they are really freaking good. I am so impressed by the variety of styles we have in our small little group. Even when I’ve written the workout, crafted the class plan, and know the arc of the stimulus, their execution of my vision consistently surprises me. And in that surprise, I rediscover my curiosity. I am willing to be a beginner again and find some patience.

Just because I think I’ve been “crystal” clear with my orders, isn’t there room for people to have questions or to take their own path? In reality, aren’t those questions or unique interpretations of the situation actually opportunities for me to connect with those athletes who might be lost in the group? To find an excuse to offer a personal touch? Yes, the answer is yes.

So even if I feel like people are purposefully not “following my orders,” what’s more likely is that I’ve simply lost the forest for the trees.  Time hacks, getting in line, gym-floor set up – these are the trees. The forest is seeing how hard people are willing to work, the smiles afterwards, and the conversations that continue long after the workout ends. 

Last week I talked about the shape of water. Water allows itself to bend, to flow. Its force isn’t in its rigidity but in its ability to take whatever form necessary. I can be water. I can take a second to let folks finish their conversations or change a pair of shoes. If we miss a few reps in order to take that last nervous pee, oh well. I can’t guarantee I will stop telling people what to do. But if they don’t want to listen, I can be okay with that. Slowly. 🙂

See you in the box.

-Coach Jack