I am really good at scaling workouts for any athlete, during any workout, in almost every situation. I don’t think this is a special gift, but rather, I think it’s because I am a CrossFit junkie. I watch vlogs and listen to podcasts about CrossFit, read CrossFit articles, watch CrossFit movies, talk about CrossFit with anyone who will listen, and even write a blog, mostly about CrossFit. If left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t do much else. Some could argue about the personal psychological dangers of me owning and operating a CrossFit affiliate; but, in the end, whether my obsession with CrossFit is good or bad, it adds up to the fact that I deeply appreciate the experience of a workout, and in a larger sense, the experience of CrossFit.
That experience is a narrative for me. I feel it as deeply as any book I read or movie I watch. I recognize the twists, I gasp at the unexpected turns, and I long for the release of tension as the conflict builds and drives the athlete towards resolution in those final few seconds of a WOD. It’s a deeply emotional catharsis for me when I coach and see an athlete truly appreciate how the workout combines so many aspects of inner and outer self and offers insights into unexpected physical and emotional strength.
I found myself contemplating these somewhat existential aspects of the basic CrossFit workout as I recently consumed a series of articles and podcasts about rep shaving, cheating, and the concept of “Rx” (read as “prescribed”) in CrossFit. You can check them out here:
“Why are you still using Rx”
“What Rep Cutting Says About Your Character”
“What Complaining About Rep Cutting Says About Your Character”
“Rep Shavers” Best Hour of Their Day Podcast
As I’ve been listening to the different arguments and reading the various opinions concerning this topic, I feel like the growingly aggressive conversation keeps talking at and around itself without actually going anywhere. As each additional voice enters the fray, I keep waiting for someone to address the deeper question of why anyone would want to shave reps. What makes someone resist scaling? Why do so many programs drive athletes towards injury, all in the pursuit of some arbitrarily designed workout? Aren’t we all just exercising for time? What the heck are we fighting about?
I get caught up in the debate as quickly and as easily as everyone else. I’m guilty of wondering if someone is somehow less of a person because they consciously or unconsciously skip a rep or shorten their range of motion for those last few seconds. I’ve done it. I’ve seen others do it. I’ve let people get away with it. It happens. I make quiet judgements in my head and I feel like an ass. But as I stop and listen to myself getting wrapped up into the mess, I can’t help but wonder if maybe there’s a deeper narrative at work here and if we’re going to talk about deeper, universal narratives, I thought maybe a literary expert could have something to say.
In his seminal work, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell explored archetypal myths and heroes across thousands of cultures and determined that these stories shared an almost universal mythological structure. The work is a must read and continues to influence much of our literature, cinema, television, and even social media today. The truth is, whether you agree with Campbell’s theories or not, we all see ourselves as the hero of our own journey. When our journey or the journey of the heroes on the big screen follow Campbell’s model, we feel a sense of comfort in the unseen structure of the story. As Carl Jung suggests, this sense of hidden order exists as a part of our “collective unconsciousness” and when we see it manifest in the stories of our lives, we feel safe, purposeful, and recognized.
Campbell’s work goes on to borrow concepts from a myriad of other psychological theories popular during his time, including Arnold Van Gennep’s three stages of psychological development, The Rites of Passage. Campbell renames Van Gannep’s stages of development as “separation, initiation, and return” and frames these concepts within a traditional three-act play. Basically, for a hero to fully develop, she must first separate from the normal world due to some catastrophic loss or failure in Act 1, she must descend to a mythical underworld where she will be initiated through trials of great struggle through Act 2, and upon succeeding in her challenges, return to the normal world in Act 3 in order to heal or lead those who she left.
For me, a lover of narrative theory and story, I quickly saw a coherency between this three part structure and almost every CrossFit workout. All good WODs share a definitively powerful beginning, middle, and end. There is a driving need to ensure that the Athlete Hero progresses through this order to effectively reach her final resolution at the end of an exceptionally challenging workout.
I believe what’s causing all of these recent arguments in the CrossFit world is that, whether we know it or not, we feel a deep sense of disorder and abandonment when we rob our athletes of their critical hero moments. Allowing a culture that accepts rep shaving for a slightly better time, or seeing coaches and athletes who prioritize performance over process makes the community feel uncomfortable and it lashes out. Equally dangerous to our collective unconsciousness is creating inauthentic hero moments with purposefully artificial celebrations. We inwardly bristle. We look away. We feel uncoupled from the shadow of ourselves so we write articles. We can’t understand how we might also be responsible for all of this so we record podcasts that attack athletes’ character. In other words, we have lost our way from the hero’s journey and don’t know how to get back.
Athletes will shave reps. Coaches will have bad days. Just as heroes must fail before they can journey through the underworld where they will learn their greatest lessons, we must recognize that the second we walk through the gym doors, we’ve agreed to be on this hero’s journey together. We owe it to each other to support the good and bad decisions whether that leads to success or failure. We have to go through this process over and over again before we can hope to move to Act 3 and return to the real world.
When someone falls short, pick her up. When she succeeds, cheer the loudest. If someone isn’t meeting the standard, tell them. Ask them what they need and be willing to offer it. This short journey is all we have, and even if it is just exercising for time, I think there’s enough room for everyone to be whatever version of heroic they need to be when they come to the affiliate.
I think it’s kind of fun to imagine this might be our own version of Campbell’s age-old universal myth. If so, I’ll see you in the box and I’ll be the one handing out swords so we can slay all the dragons and save the day.