When's the Last Time You Gave Back?

(Source: Beverly Childress)

 

As something of a rabid capitalist, I find myself with conflicting feelings when it comes to the realities of the fitness industry. Make no mistake, fitness is big business. There are real dollars to be made, products and services to be sold, and strategies that can turn the right idea into an empire. Like any industry, there are charlatans and geniuses, conmen and gurus. There are those who labor tirelessly in the pursuit of their craft, freely sharing their demonstrable expertise, and make very little money doing it. There are also more than a few who know next to nothing, but market very well, and so make a killing while improving almost no one.

 

 

In short, the fitness industry is nothing like a meritocracy. Very often, the cream is not allowed to rise to the top, for the simple reason that many of the best minds in the industry are motivated more by altruism than money. High financial barriers to entry combine with the laughably low value most Americans place on their health to force the vast majority of fitness professionals into a voluntary vow of poverty if they wish to ply their trade.

 

So it is that I am of two minds. It isn’t right for anybody that so many gyms, studios, competitions, and races have to rely on people working for pennies (or less) to perform critical functions. On the other hand, present economics being what they are, many of these places that I know and love simply vanish, in the absence of all that altruistic, drastically undercompensated work.

 

The way we fix this broken system starts, as with most things, by changing minds. A larger segment of the population has to become convinced that taking care of their bodies should occupy a higher line item on the budget than, say, a daily $7 cup of sugar from a coffee chain that, curiously, contains no coffee.

 

Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly how we’ll crack that nut. If I did, I’d be off doing it and making millions of dollars, instead of penning an article that will try to convince you to do a little work for no dollars. But that last part is exactly what I’m going to do.

 

What Do You Owe to Your Sport?

As a late-blooming athlete, I have a somewhat unusual perspective on my athletic pursuits. There is such a sharp difference between what my life looked like eight years ago and what I am today that I feel it is a moral obligation to share what I have been given with those who may not yet understand it. In fact, my first forays into coaching amounted to my exuberance overflowing onto a couple of my unsuspecting friends, one of whom was my wife (the most wonderful woman in the world). Fortunately for our marriage, she survived my early efforts at coaching.

 

Mountain bike racing was my gateway drug, all those years ago. The organizers of a local race series befriended me, got me solidly hooked, and unintentionally helped change my life. That’s no exaggeration: when I bought my first mountain bike, I was carrying 50lbs of extra fat, smoking a pack a day, and getting winded walking up stairs. Four years later, I was crossing the finish line at a 100-mile mountain bike race. With everything this sport has given me, how could I say no when they needed something back? The same local race series that got me started was suddenly in need of a race director, and I jumped in with both feet.

 

Tonight is the first of our eight-race season, which means I have been pulling my hair out since January, going to meetings, recruiting sponsors and volunteers, checking trails, testing new timing equipment, and promoting our events. The series benefits the local IMBA chapter, which means nobody makes a dime, least of all me.

 

Your Sport Needs Your Help

In a perfect world, I’d get paid for all the hours I pour into making this race series a reality. So would the dozen or so people who turn up with smiles on their faces to help mark the course, run registration, and take care of the hundreds of odds and ends that make our little race series the most fun you can legally have on a Wednesday night. But those economic realities I spoke of earlier mean that the best we can hope to do is take care of our costs and scratch out a few hundred dollars here and there to pour back into local trail work and expansion of future riding opportunities.

 

These circumstances hold true across the vast majority of small-time athletics. It’s not lip service to say that your hometown marathon (even if your hometown is Boston) would never happen without the hundreds of volunteers working the expo, the water stops, the medical tent, and the post-race beer garden. All those judges at your local CrossFit throwdown are there for the love of the sport, not a paycheck. Even the semi-pro teams in your area rely on a big team of volunteers to keep the crowds fed, beer-ed, and entertained.

 

As much as it chafes my inner entrepreneur, this is the reality. If we want our sports to continue to thrive, we will all have to put in the sweat to see them grow. Recreational athletics is a very competitive space, in terms of available activities. Without opportunities to compete, to ride, to race, people will just go somewhere else.

 

It’s Time to Give Back

If you can’t remember the last time you put down the barbell, parked the race bike, or kicked off the running shoes to go help out, maybe it’s time you should. Your sport needs you. After everything it has given to you, after the way it has shaped your life and created your circle of friends, how could you not want to give that gift to someone else? There’s no glory in it (and exactly zero dollars), but in your own small way, you’ll be working to make the world a better place, in the best way you know how.

 

Who knows? Maybe by working our butts off to grow the things we know will improve the lives of others (if only they’d try them), we can demonstrate enough value to shift the culture. Maybe if we work hard enough, we won’t always have to do it for free. But even if that never happens, we’ll go to bed at night satisfied that we gave back to the world at least as much as it gave us. Isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?

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