2017 Games Reflections - part 5 - What I Learned by Max el-hag

1- The most important lesson sports might teach is loss (failure). It’s almost inevitable in life that you are going to lose something. You might lose something small like your phone. Or you might have to watch one of your animals pass away. You might lose a loved one. You might lose a parent. Some people say “that is so depressing,” but to me it is just a fundamental truth in the human experience. Life is precious because we die. So, what does that have to do with sports?

The truth is that intense competitive sports are generally reserved for the young. The masters are very impressive, but the environment is much more about longevity, being a role model, fighting aging, and balance in life, whereas the individual competition floor is much more focused on winning and losing and securing a financial future, there is a lot more at stake. To set out to win, you must first have a dream to win. Every year that a big competition takes place, the entire field minus one athlete, must experience the loss of that dream. Losing a dream feels very real. It feels like a real loss, but maybe less profound. It became clear to me this year, as I was feeling sorry for myself, that these losses are only in my imagination. That the loss of someone I spend time with, someone who I can touch and feel and laugh with will be MUCH worse. So, these losses in some ways are making me a stronger human. They are teaching me how to live with grace. They are challenging me in a way to stay kind, positive, and optimistic in the face of pain. Everyone can be a ‘good person’ when things are going well in life, but people who stand out are the ones who seem to carry themselves with grace in the face of adversity. That is who I want to be and I realized that all sports are a microcosm of life, a place for us to experience emotions without the more real and profound consequences of life. They humble us, give us perspective, make us stronger, and in general make us better people. It made me feel comforted to know that so many people experience “failure”, and that it was a meaningful pursuit to help create a culture around sport. After all, it has been a part of society for millennia for a reason.

2- Becoming a winner requires first learning how to lose. Very few people get to that level and are just ok “being there.” Everyone wants to win, wants to have the crowds cheer for them, wants to have the bigger paychecks, wants to have the most notable sponsors. But as I said in point 1, the reality is there is only one winner every year. And in the process of winning, each athlete takes a tremendous amount of losses and adversity to make those wins a reality. Mat Fraser in CrossFit lost at regionals in 2013, lost at the games in 2014, then lost at the games again in 2015, and prior to that lost many times in his weightlifting career. It is not that he is invulnerable; it is that he learned how to have the behaviors and actions of a champion as a result of shaping himself from the pains of all the losses he took before his breakthrough moment. Who knows how long this period will last, and if he has a set back, it may end the time he has in the spot light. There are athletes like Annie Thorsdottir making a come back after two tough years to get on the podium. Kara Webb breaking into a well deserved podium spot. Tia Toomey coming back after two second place finishes to ascend. Those people are “champions” in my eyes because of the character traits they developed through adversity. And the real value in what they accomplished will probably not be realized until far into their futures. The real value will likely be in stories they will be able to share, the strength that they have emotionally will help them ground others through chaos, their lessons will be catalysts to teach their kids, younger athletes, colleagues, friends how to put your mind to something and achieve it. It always seems as if the money, the fame, the crowds, and that glory are what we are fighting for, but those moments are so short lived, and there is not that much money in this sport to set most people for life. The spot light shifts so fast to the next new athlete, and forgets people who were great before. What we learn though will last into the future for eternity and provide the closest thing to immortality we can have as humans. It will allow these athletes to impact and love others more effectively. And in the process of giving back, each one of their interactions, and each person who they inspired along their journey have the potential to ripple into a future that they helped build for the generations to come. Ironically that doesn’t just happen for the winners, and makes me realize that the men who allow me to coach them are champions in my eyes because they are putting themselves in the public spot light and have the strength to fail publicly and still come back for more. So, they may have lost, they may have made mistakes, I may have made mistakes, things may not be perfect, but I feel as if I’m the luckiest coach in the planet to have stood in the battle with them, and while we may have lost the battle, the war is not over.

3- I don’t like when this is about me (or coaches in general). I have had so many people ask me “how are you doing?” or “what was (insert coach) like in the back?” Honestly I wasn’t really that concerned about other coaches or athletes. The athletes who I support had dreams that didn’t come true, and I was focused on those. I don’t feel good about that. It’s that simple. However, my desire to be the best version of myself has not changed. Life is full of adversity and this moment, while not pleasant, is really not bad in the grand scheme of things. I have money to pay my bills, good people surround me, our environment in person is building, and in general life could be much worse. I’ve seen many coaching organizations in this sport and others taking credit for their athlete’s wins, but then when they have bad years and set backs are they taking credit for those? Do we really believe that a coach can guarantee wins? Is it really that simple? To me, it shouldn’t matter. It’s not about that.

Sports shouldn’t just be about the coaches. It shouldn’t just be about money/sponsorships. It shouldn’t just be about the super stars. It should be about all of it. About the organizations involved, the communities, the drama, how we fit into the world, the training teams involved, the individual athletes, the ideas that are harmful, the fact that we all believe in the sport of CrossFit and what it has done to bring strength and conditioning professionals into popular culture; it should be about the ideas that are successful, improving the concept of health in the world, the learning from other sports, etc. No one person can reflect or be all of those things. Our tendency to get lost in people instead of the big picture I think is a problem. I understand the irony in this because I just wrote a 6 part series about ‘my’ experience at the Games, but I think it’s true that we need to change and stop putting people on pedestals and then tearing them down when they show their vulnerability.

It is going to be a difficult challenge for my future to try and figure out how to make myself visible enough to grow my business, but also ensure I don’t fall into the trap of believing anything is about me, or more importantly ensuring that the fans we are creating don’t think that I’m doing this for the sake of building the visibility of my own identity. This is about all of “us” and definitely not about “me.”

~ Max

Part 5- What I Learned (you're here now)

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Max El-Hag
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