Source: Bev Childress
If you listen to the wrong kind of “experts” these days, there’s a good chance you’d never try anything. You shouldn’t go running, because it’ll ruin your knees. Long, slow distance will destroy your bone density and won’t make you that much fitter, and sprints are dangerous because you’ll probably pull a muscle or sprain your ankle. We’re meant to run without shoes, so unless you’re ready to run barefoot, you’re not listening to your biology.
Riding your bike on the road is too risky. You’re going to get hit by a car. But don’t go mountain biking either, because that’s just insane craziness meant for those weird Red Bull guys on YouTube. But you can’t train on the local bike path, because that’s not what it’s for, and you’re going to run over a kid on roller-skates if you go faster than 12mph.
Also, don’t deadlift. It’s just too risky, nobody does it right, and the rewards aren’t worth it. Don’t even think about Olympic weightlifting. It’s too hard, too complicated, and it takes too many years to learn enough to safely put a PVC pipe over your head. Maybe if you had started with a national-level coach when you were five, but really, it’s too late for you now.
And for heaven’s sake, stay away from that CrossFit box. Kipping is a mortal sin, nobody there does any technique work, and everybody blows their back and/or shoulders out inside of a week.
Oh, you’re thinking about becoming a coach yourself? Well slow down there, partner. You’re going to need a Masters in kinesiology and five years of unpaid apprenticeship before you can safely walk somebody through how to use the leg press at your local gym. That weekend cert and those books you read taught you nothing, and your years of training experience don’t count, because they didn’t happen in a university classroom.
Afraid of the Wrong Things
When did we become so risk averse? When did we decide that a dinged-up shoulder is a bigger risk than staying on the couch? While 610,000 people will die this year from heart disease in the US, the fitness industry is actively discouraging people from trying out something that might interest them enough to change their lifestyle.
What’s funny is that all that noise is usually limited to debates about training methodologies. You won’t see a video diatribe about the dangers of a pickup game of basketball, but how many people do you know who’ve blown a knee doing that? Nobody suggests you should pay for a half decade of professional coaching before you join your work’s softball team, but if you trade that aluminum bat for a steel barbell, all the experts come out of the woodwork, screaming “STOP! YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!”
Calm down, people. None of this stuff is actually that complicated, or anywhere near as dangerous as that sweaty, swole guy on Facebook says it is. I think fear is garbage as a source of motivation, but if you want to be afraid of something, let it be the slow creep of sedentarism and decrepitude that will erode your ability to do things like dress yourself or get up off the floor before you’re 60. Swinging a 12lb kettlebell with absolutely terrible mechanics, frankly, isn’t going to send you to an early grave. (But seriously, it’s a hip hinge, not a squat, Gertrude. You’re killing me.)
The Double Standard of the Established Coach
Part of the problem is that the vast majority of coaches and experts in the fitness industry have made their discipline their life’s work. These are people who have intentionally developed their physical prowess since a very early age, and have devoted an enormous number of hours to polishing their craft. So it’s only natural for them to be horrified when they see a 40-something accountant trying to snatch for the first time. The list of movement faults and potential injuries scrolls past their eyes like the Matrix, and they freak out, unable to pick the one to address first. Instead, they just take to the internet to tell everybody to quit polluting their precious sport.
These are generally the same coaches who love to get on their soapbox about the low barriers to entry in the fitness industry, and how all these young whippersnappers with their weekend seminar certifications don’t know jack, and they’re bound to hurt somebody. The irony is that, once you talk to these same coaches, you find out that they weren’t so great or knowledgeable when they first started out, either. I have heard the phrase “you’ve gotta crack a few eggs” come out of the mouths of some of the most respected coaches in the world.
What if they had listened to the same advice they’re now giving when they were starting out? Would they have even tried to become a coach? We need to acknowledge that everybody’s got to start somewhere. At some point, every great coach was a nervous, starry-eyed newbie, with their first client, ham-fistedly tossing cues at them by the basketful. Maybe they did more harm than good, that first time around. But they stayed with it, got better, and now they have a book out with their smiling face on the cover.
Likewise, we have to stop discouraging people from trying stuff they suck at. It’s fine to promote safety (take those 45s off and put them back where you found them, Jimmy), and encourage people to pursue continuous improvements in their movement quality. It is not fine to bash people over the head with their faults, or to tell them that the new sport they’re so interested in is far too advanced for them.
It Won’t Kill You
As someone who took a ten-year break after a less-than-illustrious high school wrestling career to pursue my hobbies of getting fat and smoking Kamel Red Lights, I have a different perspective. With very little money and absolutely zero idea what I was doing, I woke up one day ten years ago and just decided to start trying stuff.
I took up mountain biking to get in better shape to ride my motorcycle. Then I got a road bike to get in better shape for my mountain bike. After I blew my ACL (in that pickup game of basketball), a physical therapist told me I shouldn’t run any more than I had to, so I started training for a half marathon. I’ve raced a dozen of them since. I’ve had back issues my entire life, but I found out I really like picking up heavy stuff and putting it down, so I started strength training, and Olympic weightlifting, and even entered that hive of athletic scum and villainy: CrossFit.
And a crazy thing happened: I didn’t die.
To be fair, I’ve had a few injuries, but by and large, they haven’t been from any of the things you hear all the warnings about. Every injury I’ve had so far has healed (even the ones that needed surgery), and I’ve learned from the experience. My weightlifting technique is still not Instagram-worthy, I’m not going to win a powerlifting competition any time soon, and even my running is just this side of mediocre. But I’m okay with all of those things, because I’m having fun. I’m working on getting better, learning about myself and my sports, and having incredible experiences with friends that I would have never had, if I’d listened to the naysayers and stayed on the couch.
I also discovered, as I began to share my experiences with my peers, that people were hungry for the sort of first-person experience I could provide. They didn’t want to be preached at from the High Church of Saint Barbell; they wanted somebody who was like them to tell them that they were doing okay, and how they could do a little better. So in addition to my own practice and voracious study, I got a few weekend certs (gasp!) and started coaching a few people who asked me for help.
I’m not a world-class coach, by any means, and I may never become one. I’ve gotten more than a few things wrong through my early years of coaching (as my wife, the most wonderful woman in the world and my first athlete, can attest), but the target is continual progression toward eventual mastery. Just like my lifting, running, and biking, I’m going to keep working at it, because I enjoy it and find it fulfilling. Most of all, I’m not going to turn away people who come to me for help and advice, simply because I don’t have the right smattering of letters before and after my name. I’m not afraid to say I don’t have an answer, and I’m very happy to point those questions toward better and more knowledgeable coaches than myself, but if I can help, I’m going to.
Novices Are an Opportunity, Not a Problem
While American athletes continue to set Olympic records, we have overwhelmingly become a nation of spectators. We’re dying in record numbers from inactivity, not sprained ankles. If we want to change these circumstances, there will necessarily be millions upon millions of newbies, among both athletes and coaches. They’re all going to do a whole lot of things wrong, and more than a few will end up with a sore back and a bruised ego.
But that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay, because the flood of new athletes and coaches represent not just a potential shift in our culture toward prioritization of health and fitness, but an enormous business opportunity for those master coaches who are willing and able to take on the task of educating all these novices. The people are hungry; let’s feed them.