The Madness of a Coach by max el-hag

Reflections from Wodapalooza

As I sit to write my thoughts from a weekend of competing, I have a difficult time coming to a singular thesis about what I felt. I had an abundance of thoughts, emotions, feelings, ups, downs, disappointments, ideas, etc that ripped through my mind during the course of the competition. Generally, I think, when other coaches have an athlete finish on the podium of a field that deep, they leave with a sense of accomplishment and gratitude. Although I wish I were capable of reducing my thoughts and feelings to singularities, that is something I have never been able to do. I do admit, it was nice to watch Travis overcome some of his demons, perform extremely well on game day in spite of some technical mistakes, win some solid prize money, and experience the joy of his training results paying off. The reality, though, is that I was torn apart by inner conflict throughout the weekend. This inner conflict stemmed from a multitude of places, but was largely caused by my wondering where the sport/coaching is going in the future, my self critical analysis of my deficiencies in coaching ALL of my athletes optimally during the weekend, feeling more empathy for my athletes that weren’t performing well than the ones who were, and a variety of other things that I will keep private or save for another day.

First, let me say that the event was excellent. While there were some technical execution missteps, I don’t think anyone could possibly throw an event with that many spectators, that many vendors, that many workouts, that many athletes, and do a better job than the Wodapalooza team has done in only three years of existence. I know Guido will strive and continue improving them and I was in awe of the magnitude of the event, the enthusiasm of the athletes, the prize money, and the general direction of the world of competitions in fitness. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder where all of this chaos was headed and what will I want my role to be as the beast continues to manifest itself. I saw, as I always do, things that turned me off about the community, but also an abundance of things that inspired me and made me feel like I was right where I needed to be in the expansion of my own intellectual/spiritual growth, the expansion of my business, and the proliferation of the larger fitness world that makes me realize my ‘small-ness’ in the whole system. The experience humbled me and made me take a deep breath and realize that largely our experience is out of our control. We can work hard, surround ourselves with the right people, make good judgments about the future, and ultimately still find ourselves at the end of the day subject to fate. This caused a lot of inner turmoil for me as I wrestled with the uncertainty of it all. I can often feel my ego lie to me. I tell myself and others what I am, why I am important, why I work hard, what makes me ‘better,’ but at the end of the day, I know that I really don’t matter much in the grand scheme of the world, life, or even the small fitness world. Sadly, there is no resolution to this inner turmoil. It will sit inside of me as an integral part of my personality until more of my life unfolds and I begin to truly understand who I am. I have learned to keep it with me, side by side with the burning desire I have to be the best that I can be. To fully comprehend the human body in all of its complexity, to build lasting relationships, to build an educational system that I am proud of, to master some of my own physical goals, to put people on podiums, to prove concepts, to have loyal athletes who stand for more than just themselves and their earnings. It will sit inside of whatever it is that I call ‘me’ and use it to drive me forward. Sometimes the uncertainty of it all and the lack of control terrify me, and then I realize that we all are in this together, and everyone is going through that same struggle whether or not they are aware of it. No one man or woman is greater than the whole, in spite of people’s delusions that make them think that they are. To me, we are all clueless and fighting desperately to grasp the beauty and complexity of it all without letting it devour us from the inside. This inner struggle with my own ego then led me to observe the egos of others during the course of the weekend, and reflect on my ability to help my athletes improve while controlling the irrationality of their mind’s self talk.

Everyone who has come to my seminars, spoke with me, or met me in person knows that I don’t really see high level athletes as anything more than people. They are no more or less important than struggling prospective athletes with little talent. I often admire the character and struggle of people who work hard for their specific goals when their progress climbs at a snails pace versus the talented people who are on exponential curves for years at a time. I am not a ‘fan,’ which can obviously be seen if you hang out with me and the TTT athletes, because I constantly make fun of and talk smack to all of them (and pretty much anyone who’s willing to deal with my banter). I see everyone as a person, and there is no automatic respect granted to them aside from my acknowledgement that their bodies are specimens. I actually find some high level athletes intolerable to be around in spite of their physical prowess and beauty. Now obviously I don’t feel that way about all high level athletes, and some of my best friends and closest clients in the world are people who are on the far right edges of the physical bell curve of talent. I just make the point to emphasize that often times people around me who may have little talent, I frequently find inspiring and wanting to be around more. For this reason, I try to ensure all my athletes know I care for them all equally. In spite of their talent level, they all have relationships with me and I struggle for each of them to give them as much progress as I can towards their specific goals. During the competition, I had 5 male elite athletes, 3 athletes in other divisions, and 8 athletes under Kyle Ruth competing all on the same three stages. I managed to see all the heats of my elite males, the majority of workouts for my remaining athletes, and at least two workouts for each of Kyle’s athletes during the weekend. Given how difficult that was, I was proud of myself for being able to manage it all even though I am still pissed at myself for missing some of my athletes compete while I was at the venue one day. Coaches were also not allowed in the athlete warm up area nor the athlete tent. While I understand how this needs to happen to control operations, it highlights to me how irrelevant people perceive coaching to be on a global level in the sport. I wanted to get back there, ensure people were warming up properly, talk down some of the game day nerves, ensure people’s final pace structures were ready, keep them loose, and wish them luck before they went out. As well, it would have been nice to have a centralized location to meet them all in the back tent afterwards to recap the event so they could get it out of their mind and focus on the next task at hand. I made peace with this on the first day though and just acknowledged that I can’t control it. What this triggered in my inner dialogue was a discussion about what exactly people’s perception of a ‘coach’ is in the world of fitness. Some people just brought their significant others as coaches, some brought people who just write designs for them, some people brought their friends, and some people brought their training partners. I am fine with all of this, but as the sport evolves and there is a larger separation of real athletes in the sport, I believe everyone will be truly coached. The objectivity, data collection, third party opinion, knowledge of the inner workings of the body, etc are all necessary components of training at that high of a level. As the competition becomes deeper, I believe this theory will play out in athletes with longer careers, less injuries, better performance metrics, and higher career earnings. So, if coaching will be a necessity in the future, starting the process of legitimizing a coach’s role at competitions to aid in an athletes preparation should begin sooner than later. I have yet to see this at any level in the sport, and it frightens me that perhaps coaches will be intimately involved year round with their athletes, and then distant observers on game day. If this will be the case, the education of athletes will become of larger importance to ensure that they are completely self-sufficient on game day without making any mistakes. My hope is that the world of coaching becomes professional in this sport as it is in all other sports, and that this will be reflected in the mind-state of athletes, event planners, and the leaders of the fitness world.

I was torn apart by my attempt to coach all of my athletes given the circumstances of the event. On my car ride back from the venue, I actually became extremely depressed and found myself feeling rage in spite of having an athlete podium on one of the most competitive stages in the sport. While one athlete was trying to hang out with me and share his happiness, I had other athletes performing poor relative to their abilities, dealing with injuries, trying to compete while sick, and it was really difficult for me to try to enjoy the weekend. I distinctly remember overwhelming feelings of guilt every time I felt happy for Travis knowing the emotional burden some of my other athletes were carrying during the weekend. As well, feeling helpless in trying to remedy the frustration they were going through knowing that I could not rewind time for them to re-perform the workouts. I went home each night and took some notes on what I felt each one of my athletes needed to work on moving forward as well as reflected on my own potential influence on the performances that were subpar. Were my design structures flawed? Did I prepare people the best I could? Do I let my athletes compete often enough to feel that game day anxiety? What could I have done or said to better help them perform? I don’t have answers to those questions and all I could do was, again, acknowledge that I don’t really know how to create the ultimate athlete…yet. Improving the performance metrics, analyzing athletes, prioritization hierarchies, nutritional strategies in relation to training phases, movement corrective tools, etc, I feel I have a very high level conceptual grasp of the improvement process, but putting that all together while managing the emotions of an athlete during their development and teaching them how to develop the necessary mind state is proving to be an incredibly difficult task. As this was all unfolding, I was torn in knowing what I should be feeling. What were my athletes who were performing poorly thinking? Did they feel resentful if they saw me smiling because I wasn’t empathizing enough with them? And for my athletes who were proud of themselves, did they feel resentful that I wasn’t happy enough for them because I was focused on the frustrations of the weekend? I’m not entirely sure about any of this. What I do know is I measure myself by the reduction of my failures in coaching. So, while I probably should have, for my sanity, spent more time enjoying the success of my athlete on the podium, I paid extremely close attention to all the things I needed to continue to do to help others get better. Even Travis, who executed very well, had holes in his game, game day mistakes, and had the potential to win the event on this specific weekend against this specific field given optimal performances. I felt my competitive drive to be the best coach in the sport tore me away from my feelings of positivity for the weekend’s good aspects. I wondered to myself, ‘…am I making the choice to be unhappy about this?’, ‘…am I learning from the mistakes this weekend in an unhealthy way?, ‘…should I be emotionless about losses and wins to ensure that my emotions don’t cloud my ability to improve’? The struggles of these thoughts don’t end in clarity. They don’t end with this reflection. They continue to live with me as I wrestle with my desire to be better.

Overall, the weekend was a great learning experience. One of my athletes told me that their competition last year “…filled his pride” due to a good performance whereas this year it “…filled his soul” due to the learning experience caused by the struggle. In that moment, I couldn’t have been more proud to have the people around me that I had that weekend. It provided a brief glimpse of clarity to me and helped me realize what is important in my journey. For all the successes I’ve had in my life, for all the time spent driving obsessively to be the best, for all the insecurities I carry, for all the resentment and anger that I still haven’t fully resolved in my psyche, one simple statement made that all disappear in the briefest moment of absolute beauty. The connections we forge in life help us to transcend our suffering together as one. In a word, sharing. I am proud to be building a team and community that can share in my triumphs and failures, and this weekend reminded me to be grateful for all of you. When I can remember to hang on to that, I am able to dissolve all of the conflicts in myself that are meaningless and focus on my place and time in this journey. So, thank you Wodapalooza for the opportunity to grow as a person and coach.

Max

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Max El-Hag
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