Reflections on Atlantic Regionals 2016 by max el-hag

Initially when I started coaching, I genuinely believed that a coach could be the differentiating factor in creating champions. As my knowledge grew and I coached a variety of people in different sports with different levels of talent, I realized that this was not the case. People who become champions (or winners or CrossFit Games qualifiers or whatever ‘success’ metric you want to use) are a beautiful combination of preparation, exquisite genetics, perfect timing, excellent execution, confidence in abilities, and a million other chaotic variables we can’t control. As a result of this realization, my business, marketing, and content will never be marketed on the lie that there is an optimal program, or an optimal plan, or a scientific way to guarantee results or develop a competitive edge. We coach people, period. We strive to develop technical proficiency, movement quality, long-term health, better strength, better endurance, more robust athletes, relationships, and overall good structure. And we aim to do it better than anyone else. But that isn’t measurable, and so I can’t guarantee even that.

Marketing experts would probably advise me to post a massive article about my qualifying games athlete. And forget or ignore the rest of my athletes who were in the trenches at regionals who fell short of their goals, but I won’t do that. This year’s regionals, like all athletic competitions we take part in, had its ups and its downs. We cannot highlight only the victories because it is the failures, the struggles, and the losses that make a victory worth the risk. These “negative” aspects of competing are the experiences that continue to ignite the fire within us to search for our best selves. They are the low points that precede stories of greatness. They either break us, or stoke our fire to work harder for an opportunity to go out in front of an audience and measure up against other people’s talent, effort, and methods. I just read a quote in Phil Knight’s book, “…when sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that mystics talk about.” I feel that as a coach, because I am so invested in the lives, personalities, struggles, and emotions of my athletes, I get in some way to experience that feeling. So in that spirit, this blog post will not be an article praising the victors, it will just be a series of observations about this 2016 Regional season.

Congrats to Travis

Everyone who follows TTT knows that Travis Mayer is one of my longest standing elite athletes in the sport of CrossFit™. We’ve worked together for 4 years and have continued to improve and stay at the leading edge of the sport’s growing talent pool. Our inner circle always laugh because in spite of making it to the games (now) three times, making the podium at OC Throwdown and Wodapalooza, and winning on a team at The Granite Games, he is relatively unknown on a broad scale. Travis is determined to change that. Last year was a pretty difficult year not qualifying for the Games. But, like always, Travis 100% trusted my analysis of his performance and we created a plan to fix what went wrong in previous years. He has diligently worked on his mind state, his ‘why’, his movement quality, his lifestyle, his happiness, his pain tolerance, and now, he’s punched his ticket to California. I was very happy for him. After getting sick on Wednesday, having a horrible day 1, and managing his own competitive demons, he was able to make a comeback to place third in a pretty tough region. I know how much that victory meant to him and how much left he has that he wants to accomplish. I will be there with him, like I am with all of my athletes, giving him as much guidance as I possibly can to achieve those things. But, I would be lying if I said my life would change dramatically had he not qualified. My business would continue to grow, my self-confidence would still seesaw between the stratosphere and the depths of hell, I’d still have tons of other athletes to live vicariously through, and I’d still respect all the work that he put into this year. I am honestly more proud of his growth as a human being than I am in his growth as an athlete. That being said, the sport of CrossFit™ is getting so competitive now that being able to earn a trip to Carson is worth my congratulations. So, aside from the single hug and the “alright, good job, rest up cause we have more work to do” after he qualified, this is about as much praise as he is going to get from me.

Congrats to all of my and TTT’s other athletes

We had a couple individuals on teams who qualified for the games and many others on teams and individuals who didn’t qualify. I don’t want to undermine their accomplishments because Travis got his own paragraph, but based on the number of them, and because they are being coached by a variety of our TTT coaches, it would be too much writing to write their individual stories here. For my athletes I am extremely proud of them and I think they all know that I experience their pain with them. Even qualifying for Regionals now is a ridiculous task. We had athletes who barely missed out on trips, some who had to withdraw from injury, some who were just happy to be there, some who were middle of the pack, some who exceeded their expectations, some who dramatically underperformed and the full gamut of results as is typical with sports ‘teams.’ But, I am proud of each and every one of them. I have been an athlete and lost. I vividly remember having felt that my dreams and ambitions just shattered and life was hopeless. I’ve felt the pit of despair and hopelessness that comes with the realization that you put an entire period of time and work into something for a specific outcome that doesn’t happen. I’ve wondered “what now?” after my dreams came crashing down. I know what it feels like to be on an athletic floor all by myself, covered in sweat, and feel like I let everyone down and that I was a pathetic failure and all of my efforts were worthless. That feeling sucks. But, I also know that every time I have experienced that myself as an athlete or as the coach of an athlete who is feeling it, I was motivated to work even harder to avoid feeling that again. I know that all of the athletes who are continuing their journeys after this year with us will experience the same thing and come back stronger. Just being there on the competition floor was an accomplishment and something that should be celebrated. I hope none of them take anything in their athletic career for granted. They are in the trenches, and they deserve to be proud of what they have done and they certainly have earned my respect no matter the outcome.

My own feelings

I had a friend ask me “how do you feel about the regionals?” after they ended. That is a funny question to me because I never have had a strong enough command of the English language to portray the complexity of my emotions, and I never think I just feel ONE thing. I know some people who can say they are “happy” or “sad” or “disappointed” or any other of the range of singular emotions. But, I feel many things about the regionals: I feel happy to have built a community of people who I like being around, I feel proud that I have earned the respect of the people who trust me or my coaches with their goals, I feel sad that some of my athletes lost and don’t get to experience their dreams this year, I feel excited for the future, I feel angry about some of the no reps that I didn’t think were justified, I feel disgusted at myself for being unable to predict the future, then instantaneously feel joy in the evaluation of my irrational insanity, and I feel just about everything else I can label. That is actually one of the major reasons I hate going to competitions as a coach. I am obsessed with being in control of my thoughts, my actions, my behavior, and just about everything else and it’s difficult to be “in control” when you are overwhelmed with feelings. Everyone close to me knows I would prefer to be a robot, and I think that feelings make the human experience so complex because of their unpredictability. I hope that sharing my feelings with others can help athletes and coaches know that it’s a pretty normal experience to be overwhelmed with different emotions in big events like that, and also maybe show people that you don’t have to be an obnoxious person in the face of those emotions. You can’t control them, you can’t select just the good ones, you can’t block the bad ones, you can’t ascribe blame to something else and feel them less… they are just part of life, like it or not. So, if you want to be in the competitive arena as either coach or athlete, you need to get used to them. That will continue to be a process for me as I have the emotional development of a 5 year old throwing a temper tantrum.

What I’ve noticed in athletes that I think needs to change emotionally (winning and losing)

I love winning, but more importantly I HATE losing. Pretty much in anything. Even stupid board games are enough to turn me into a rage-filled hateful maniac. I vowed never to play monopoly again because last time I played someone (who shall remain nameless) sold his property to another player for less than it was worth to gang up on me. To me that violated the sacred code of competition and the selfish nature that is required to compete well to win. I’ve learned over time to laugh at myself when I lose, but the feelings of frustration still rise up, I just don’t let them take over. I tell this story to illustrate that I understand my athletes on a psychological level. I’m sure in some ways it is some sort of a ‘label-able’ sickness that many striving-type people have. But, I’ve learned over time to recognize that it’s not the outcome, but the journey wherein the magic happens. When my coaches in the past used to say that, I really wanted to punch them in their faces and tell them they were worthless idiots. But over time, I have admitted to myself that my younger self was ‘wrong’ as usually is the case with growing older. When I coach people now, I try to remind them that nothing really changes when you win or lose. When my athletes lose, I remind them that it is ok to feel sad about the loss but still feel a positive range of emotions. It’s still possible to feel grateful that you have an able body, proud of the progress you made in a year, happy for your fellow competitors who get to live out their dreams, and accepting of the current reality you are experiencing. At every moment in your life, every single thing that has ever happened in the past had to happen exactly as it did for you to be experiencing what you are experiencing in that moment. Since that is the case, any negative experience you are having in the moment is absolutely necessary for a future moment of happiness. I try to help my athletes remember that when they are feeling down about the event. I try not to let them overinflate their sense of self-importance. We get to workout and compete for a living… there are much worse fates in life.

Things I’ve noticed as the sport grows

Everyone in charge of the growth of CrossFit™ as a sport has done an amazing job. I don’t say that to suck up to anyone because I’m not really too concerned with the acceptance of people I don’t know personally. I just say that because I know how difficult it is to run and grow a business. What they’ve been able to accomplish over the years has been fascinating to watch, and really helpful to businesses like mine. Their ability to improve their marketing, improve the fan experience, challenge the athletes to get better, and build a global community around a sporting event really is worthy of praise. I understand why people are jealous and resentful of their success, but I also have to recognize I would never have been capable of doing that because my passions are too focused, and I’m a bit too much of a purist. I am thankful every day for those people because they allow me to have a platform to teach, a platform to coach, a sport to take part in with my athletes, and a community to be a part of. That being said, I think there are definitely some things that could be improved upon in future years, of which I’m sure they are aware. At TTT, we’re looking forward to the continued growth, legitimization, and changes required to continue the growth of the sport.

The athlete pool is getting ridiculously deep and the margin for error on game day is so small. The weekends are becoming more and more dictated by execution on game day. It’s not necessarily the fittest 5 that are going through each region, but the fittest 5 over the course of those 3 days. How good you are in training doesn’t really matter much anymore because everyone is just as good and just as hungry. Instead, the best performers will go. I think in the next couple years you are going to have 5 qualifiers in every regional who can potentially win the games. For example, Ben Smith last year took 4th at regionals and then won the games. This year Dan Bailey, who took 4th at the Games last year didn’t even make the Games. I am curious to see how this will all play out, but I am excited for the advancement of the testing and the continual upgrade of the challenges at each stage of the game. If the past 7 years of growth is any indication of the future, it will be fascinating to see what is possible in the years to come.

What does the future hold for TTT?

Nothing really changed as a result of these past three weekends. I don’t have any big revelations or big announcements to make. For once in my life, I’m truly just enjoying the ride. We will definitely prepare Travis and our team members for the games as well as we can. We will continue to build our educational products, we will continue to seek answers, we will continue to train, we will continue to make fun of ourselves (mostly me making fun of everyone else who works with me to make myself feel better about being pathetic), and we will continue to serve our clients and athletes who choose to take part in CrossFit™ as well as the many others with different physical or athletic goals. These last three weeks were great except for the fact that I lost more hair on my head that I didn’t have to give, had about six heart attacks, and gained about 30 pounds. All in all it was healthy and ‘fun’!

Good luck in your Games prep or 2017 off season!

~ Max

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