Stay on Track by max el-hag

Part 1- Dealing with Injuries

** The article on injuries is below after a long introduction about this series of articles. If you just want to read the article, you can scroll down and skip the intro.

Intro to the Series

Motivation is a necessary attribute of any successful quest. The longer you spend in the arena of coaching, or life in general, the more you will notice that improvement, progress, and especially mastery is only attained over a long period of time. Beginners often fail because they aren’t willing to persist doing the things they need to do day in and day out for years even if they are hard or “boring”. Unfortunately many coaches become successful because they are able to motivate or cheerlead for people who engage in quests to which they are naturally adapted. These coaches are able to attract the best young talent or people who have made up their minds to go all in for a change, and are then able to invest in their marketing to paint images that portray their ‘talent’ as a coach using these outliers. But, outliers are always easy to coach because they either get better with minimal struggle or they have struggled for so long that their intrinsic motivation forces them to accomplish out-of-this-world feats. But, motivating someone while they are in the middle of a long dark struggle is extremely difficult and can also be frustrating for both athlete and coach.

The fitness industry largely avoids or ignores these people, and as a result it’s difficult for them to relate to the coaches, leaders, and speakers. Rarely do world-class athletes coach regular people; someone who has to or wants to maintain a regular job, or someone who is struggling to find balance coaching or helping others. The industry is much more commonly focused on a bunch of people who crafted their lives with full control over variables like food, sleep, and training time; who are willing to take PED’s and solely focus on their aesthetic profiles. People then find a ‘coach’ who is living this life, and they have quick short-term success. Because they are finally feeling some physical health they may not have experienced since childhood, they then want to teach everyone in the world what it’s like to be ‘fit,’ healthy, lean, strong, or whatever they attained in their new six month life. Then they become a coach and the cycle continues.

But, we all know people who don’t have it so easy. We also know that many of these people who thought they were moving into their fantasy job are then bogged down with new responsibilities and trying to build business, coach other people, and find time again to do the things that helped their quest be successful in the first place.

This series of articles is written to you! You are one of those people who don’t have it so easy anymore. Often times you find yourself becoming resentful, losing confidence, struggling to figure out what you are doing, and when you see these happy and hopeful messages by the newly indoctrinated “experts” in the fitness culture in the media, you roll your eyes. You know that the illusion of ease will soon pass. So, why don’t we hear about the people who have to struggle? Where are the leaders in the fitness industry who went to war with their bodies, took on quests and failed? Those that are able to age gracefully and were able to come out on the other side of hard athletic pursuits and unhealthily strict athletic diets, who are scarred and battle worn with a perspective that makes them more confident in themselves because they no longer objectify themselves? Who are leading the people who are striving to be a world-class athletes, but are suffering through injuries? Who is giving sound guidance to the overweight person who has listened to every expert in the fitness world only to find themselves back at square one as bloated, overweight, tired, with no self-confidence? Who is inspiring other coaches who want to spend time building their knowledge base instead of learning how to upgrade their Instagram following, marketing techniques, or mastering sales tactics? Who can the next generation of world class talent look to knowing that if they follow someone and FAIL they will still be better people, healthy, stronger, more self aware, and on a path that allows them to express their own unique abilities in the world? This series is an attempt to try to address those questions. This is my attempt to motivate people who feel lost and hopeless or scared as their aging bodies are failing them and they can no longer live up to the ideal that once made them feel invincible.

I am not sure I can motivate those people or even give them hope. I believe motivation is much more powerful when it is intrinsic, but I can tell my story with this journey. I am hopeful that the message touches you if you are reading, so that you can know that you are not alone in your dark time. Other people have felt the pain you are feeling. Someone else has been through the tunnel of darkness in which you find yourself, and emerged on the other side stronger and more capable. I will try to write so that you feel some positive guidance without all the bullshit cheesy motivational lies. My aim is to always be someone willing to stand beside you as you suffer, and guide you to weathering the storm effectively. Many coaches, sponsors and gyms are so quick to distance themselves from you when you no longer serve their needs, or they find a new marketing figure for their machine. This series of posts, will be released over the course of the next few months and is an attempt for me to ‘show myself’ to people. To help other people that may be in their struggle, and utilize all the things I have learned from my own failures so that you might be more likely to succeed on your quest.

In this first part of the article, I’m going to talk about injuries. In subsequent weeks I will talk about body composition, dealing with disappointment, building a business, working for other people, and a variety of other lessons that apply to athletes and coaches hoping to make an impact on the fitness world.

Injuries

Throughout my athletic career I’ve experienced a torn bicep tendon and torn labrum that needed surgical repair, a broken wrist, a broken ankle, knee surgery, two herniated disks, a broken nose, a torn labrum in my hip, chronic knee tendonitis, chronic back pain, countless concussions, and countless strains, tears, and pulls. Each of those experiences, while heart breaking at the time, now allows me to be truly empathetic to my athletes’ and prospective clients’ suffering when dealing with injuries. I remember so vividly how each one of those experiences caused so much frustration and misery. I had put so much investment into my body and had so much motivation. I couldn’t stomach the idea that people I was competing against were training while I was sitting on the couch getting fat because I couldn’t move. I ate to feel some relief from the pain. I remember trying to get back into the gym, and being so scared that the injury wasn’t healed and it would happen again. It was so paralyzing and each time it made me feel suffocated by the experience.

I remember how seriously I took each one of my quests. I remember thinking that life wouldn’t be worth living if the outcome I was working towards didn’t manifest as a result of my hard work. I remember thinking that other people who were trying to help would just never understand because they never cared about anything as much as I cared about these quests. These injuries occurred sporadically on different athletic paths; while trying to become an NCAA wrestler/football player, to become excessively lean/muscular, to be a successful MMA athlete, striving for the CrossFit Games, and while simply trying to get the respect of athletes as a coach who can still do some impressive things with his body. Each time one of those experiences happened I remember feeling as if I were being broken internally. I can actually remember my self-confidence being destroyed and wondering how everyone else in the world was going to perceive me now that I was ‘pathetic.’ What follows in my category based lists are words of wisdom I would give to my younger self, both from a practical standpoint to improve healing, and from an emotional standpoint to keep motivating him through his struggles. They are separated into two different categories because both of them occur for different physiological reasons and cause different psychological pains.

Chronic pain – Where an old injury or repetitive overuse causes a constant feeling of pain or discomfort. This can range from mild to server in its pain, but the key is that it lasts for a long duration of time.

  • Improve your movement quality: Most people, especially those who are athletic, are able to do skills/tests/assessments to mask weaknesses, mobility restrictions, or instability. Do not take short cuts with regards to movement. Constantly strive to increase the quality and complexity of your movement base without taking your joints into excessive ranges of motion. This rule applies to skills that are a part of your sport as well as purely in the broad sense of movement. From the functionality of your toes all the way to the mobility and control of your cervical spine you should constantly be upgrading your movement quality. The body is such a complex and interconnected web. Most people will tell you that they know exactly how to fix you, but our collective human body of knowledge is not advanced enough to have an understanding of the interplay of the muscular, nervous, fascial, circulatory, vestibular and organ systems nor how they interplay to create pain sensations. However, I can tell you from my experience that people who are restricted and unable to freely express movement patterns and joint ranges are much more frequently in pain than those that are constantly working on their ability to express their bodies in space.
  • Seek as many opinions as you can get: Trust in a coach and a plan is important. You always want to feel supremely confident that the person you are trusting is taking you in a direction that is making you more likely to succeed. However, it is never a violation of trust to seek alternative opinions. If your coach has your best interest in mind and you find new information you can present it to him/her and upgrade the structure to make you more likely to get out of pain. Integration and bringing ideas together is always more effective than isolating them apart from one another. If you are constantly in pain, it is not necessarily your coach’s fault, but it can be associated to a poor training design or way too much volume for way too long. Many people in the field claim to be experts and make promises that they can heal you with their methods when they can’t. So be cautiously optimistic. Accept that bullshit and charlatans are EVERYWHERE, but also be open minded to finding the diamonds in the rough. When you find an opinion or method that you like, stick to it and see it through. Do not jump from method to method so that you can invest whole-heartedly in each attempt to heal yourself.
  • Develop skills in other areas of your goal: There are always things to improve that don’t require you to be fully out of pain. For example in CrossFit you can focus on pacing, watching high level athletes technique, breathing or meditation drills, supplement or nutritional upgrades, training the aspects of your fitness that don’t cause any pain, etc. The mind is your most powerful tool and will always upgrade your ability to express your physical potential. Do not let the fact that your body is not improving stop you from getting better. Seek to improve every day, no matter what.
  • Focus on sleeping and eating: Eat the most food you possibly can of the highest quality you can find. Having extra raw material and being in an energy surplus can be extremely calming to the stress perception systems as well as provide you with the micro and macro nutrition required to actually heal. In addition, sleep as much as you can. Think of 9 hours as a minimum plus daily naps. There is nothing more anabolic, outside of actual synthetic drugs, than sleeping. Don’t let anyone call you gluttonous or lazy. Stick to your commitment to heal.
  • Address your total training volume: U.S. culture in general is obsessed with “more”, and that has permeated fitness. Competitions become more extravagant, more volume, more intensity, more contractions, more movements, more loading. As a result the preparation requires more to keep up with the demands. Some people are physiologically suited for more and so that growth fits them well, but others aren’t. If you are in pain constantly, the first thing you should do is rest. Take some of the stress off of your system and let the inflammatory processes take place and heal your body. Your body is so much more adaptive than you give it credit for, just give it time and allow it to do what it needs to do in order to heal the pain.
  • Address your mind state: People who love themselves and are full of self-confidence seem to heal better. The more competitive and angry and intense people are, the more those people seem to struggle to recover. I’ve been surprised that in physical disciplines the best of the best are less often what I would call ‘battle hardened warriors’ and much more often light hearted, happy go lucky, jovial people who love to work hard. That can vary depending on the sport, but for all sports related injuries self-confidence is key. There is a large field emerging that seems to be influencing research and traditional medicine, that says our mind state can influence pain. This concept is most notable with John Sarno in relation to back pain. Whether or not this is correlative, causative, or quackary is irrelevant. It’s worth considering that if you can become more happy and confident, you may heal faster. If nothing else, you are still going to be happier, and that is a better way to live.
  • Make peace with the worst alternative: We have a very hard time projecting into the future. You think that you can understand what you will feel like if you never are able to work out again in your life, but you can’t. The human spirit is so resilient and you are capable of dealing with much more than you think. Even if everything is as bad as your fearful mind is saying it is, you will survive. Be prepared for the worst and hopeful for the best. It is possible that you are too old to do what you want to do anymore. It is possible that your injury is going to stop you from ever improving upon the level you had once been. You must not delude yourself and continue to hide from those realities. Ironically, accepting these will help you to truly relax. That state of mind will lower the constant stress response and improve your likelihood of healing and getting the thing you were seeking in the first place. I don’t remember the exact quote or who said it, but it goes something like this… “the best way to attain an outcome is to let go of your desire for the outcome.” So, calm down and just let it happen.

Acute Pain – A direct trauma or movement caused a severe injury that had a definite starting point. If the effects of this last for long periods of time, this can turn into the above category, but most injuries in this category resolve themselves.

  • Surgery should be a last resort: I’ve watched so many people go the surgical route and not resolve the pain issue. I’ve watched many other people hear they HAD to get surgery only to take an alternative route and recover to 100% over time. Some issues are going to require surgery, but make sure that you get as many alternatives as possible and start with the most conservative first. The athletic development process is a marathon and putting off a traumatic surgery with a long recovery will not be the end of the world. It could potentially impact the next season, but it will be worth it in the long run if you can make a full recovery without surgery.
  • Train around your injury: Do not stop moving. Having an injury is not an excuse to sulk and get out of shape. Your body has a tremendous capacity to decondition and a tremendous capacity to adapt, force it to improve even when you cannot force it to heal. Whether that means boring work in the pool or skill work or grip training, find a way to constantly strive for perfection knowing that you will never attain it.
  • Stop feeling like a victim: Injuries are part of the game and part of life. Being scared to get injured is like being scared to lose money when you invest. You can sit on the side-lines and watch people strive for glory protected in your cushioned little life or you can choose to get yourself dirty in the arena yourself. But if you step in the competitive arena, be prepared mentally for the set-backs that are sure to come. There is no coach on the planet who can guarantee that no one will get injured under their watchful eye. There are definitely horrible coaches who don’t know anything about movement or technique who will see much higher injury rates on their athletes, but injuries are a part of the game for all performance development. Stay poised, be prepared for them, stay focused, and work through these injuries day by day when they come.
  • Rehab Fully and Completely: Pay the money for professional therapists who have worked with high-level athletes and put them back into performance disciplines. Traditional physical therapists may not have protocols that are aggressive enough to prepare you for the things you want to be prepared to do again and it’s worth the extra money. Do not jump back into your traditional training until you are fully rehabbed, but understand that your rehab should still be extremely difficult.

Acute + Chronic

  • Don’t be Stupid: Being stubborn will not serve you. If your body is telling you that you did or are doing too much, you will not will-power your way through it. Do what is required to make it feel better. Check your ego, change your behaviors, and learn to have some compassion for your body instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole. “Pushing through it” is not a sign of toughness; it is a sign of stupidity. There are very few times where it is appropriate and you should be at the point that you are being paid as an athlete or being prepared as a military personal to go to war before you even consider this as a viable alternative. It is said that Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same result. If you are in pain and you are training the same, eating the same, thinking the same, following the same gurus, and you are expecting that pain to go away, you are acting as if you are insane. Think more clearly about what you are doing.

If you are injured, in pain, or have athletes that are in pain, keep fighting the intelligent battle. Some people are lucky enough to go through decades of life/training without ever having been injured or experienced pain and likely they will never relate to you. They will likely give you advice that is not useful for you. Everyone experiences difficulties in their life and if you are struggling with pain or injury, it is just your time. This won’t be the last time and it may take a long time to heal, but you must accept it and do your best to cope, learn and grow. “Why” you and “why” now may never reveal itself, or you might be lucky enough to find it extremely purposeful in the future. This experience may help you deal with adversity in a bigger issue down the road, or may give you experience to help others and feel more fulfilled. The world is mysterious and chaotic, but often times it does expose its beauty if you look closely enough for long enough.

I’ve spent years of my life begging for the pain, both physically and mentally/emotionally to stop. I’ve literally begged whatever or whomever was in control of the chaos that is life to let me die in my sleep. I have spent hours of days suppressing the rage that stemmed from this frustration because it was so powerful. I have felt that these injuries were destroying all possibilities of my future happiness. But, after years of frustration, here I still stand. My body is in so much less pain, I am able to train and do what I love and push my performance metrics up and I have a body of knowledge that I can pass on to people I care about. I will never be what I once was, but I can use that to help people who are beat down, and athletes who are facing adversity calm the storms a little more quickly than I was able to do for myself. I can help to cultivate relationships and provide a sounding board for that frustration with a truly empathetic ear. I also have perspective to ensure that I help athletes avoid ever walking in my footsteps so that they can remain healthy and pain free with a higher statistical likelihood.

I’m not sure how many people are as lucky as me to can get to the point where they see their most frustrating and weakest periods turn into the strengths that build their gifts. But I can tell you that there is hope. It will take strength and grit, but if you are willing to fight hard enough, long enough, and hang on to the stuff that matters, your path will reveal itself and help you grow into something you couldn’t have comprehended prior to the experience. Stay strong through the pain and it in turn will give you more strength.

~ Max

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Max El-Hag
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