Step Into the Arena Part I: Shape Fitness to Meet Modern Needs

Without the demands of survival, the human spirit needs occasions to organize in pursuit of shared missions.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”

George Bernard Shaw

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”

George Bernard Shaw

In a world of voyeurism where posts, comments, and retweets denote an “active” presence, more than ever are overweight, depressed, and struggling to care about physical vitality or any movement for that matter. As automation revs into overdrive, the Wall-E dystopia of robot conveyed, passively entertained, perpetual consumers, look more and more like a possibility.

Human work can gradually become less necessary and the human body an evermore arbitrary relic of bygone eras. The point of life becomes satisfaction of impulse—saturation in comfort and removal of all pain. In a world where we aren’t necessary, narcissism and hedonism become the chief operating directives, but only to the detriment of us humans.

Humanity cannot be fulfilled without purpose. We need to be capable, physically active, well-nourished, refined by hardship, connected to nature, and, most importantly, useful to a cause bigger than ourselves. We need a mission and we need a tribe.

The fitness and education industries were born of these needs. As civilizations advanced, progressively more humans witnessed the deterioration of the human body and, after industrialization, the human spirit. Mindless factory work prompted higher rates of alcoholism and physical inactivity.

Gyms and men’s clubs sprung up in communities to counter the pull of bars. Lectors were employed by factory owners to read workers books and newspapers to stimulate their minds, and, most essentially, companies began creating sports leagues to meet the needs of body and emotion.

Gene Staley’s Corn Manufacturing company, for example, employed an enthusiastic young George Halas to build his company football team, the Decatur Staleys. The Staleys terrorized local industrial teams such as the Moline Universal Tractors and the Champaign Legion.

With Halas’s vision, this little league became more organized, building structures, schedules, and norms that eventually allowed them to grow and attract better talent. Eventually, this little team moved to Chicago where they rebranded themselves as the Bears.

“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Robert E. Lee

The origins of our most profitable professional sports league began from a simple human need. Without the demands of war or nomadic survival, the human spirit needed occasions to organize in pursuit of shared missions.

Today these needs are as prescient as ever, but competitive team sports are far less available to adults. As family life is increasingly defined by a frenzied pace and free time dominated by screens our communities grow more fractured and individuals further removed from their nature.

Finding Health in an Unusual Place

In the Winter of 2013, me and five of my best friends booked a five-day all-inclusive trip to Riviera Maya, Mexico. I was 23 and thought the idea of beach, sun, and all the food and drink I wanted was as close to a perfect five days as could be planned. There would be ten of us: four older dudes with wives and one even older dude, a bachelor like I was at the time, who’d prove to be a great roommate.

In the months leading up to the trip, my friends and I were invigorated with a sense of anticipation. They began joining me for a daily group workout session where a few out of shape former athletes reclaimed beach-ready bodies and grew to love the energy and zeal that accompanied the process.

When obstacles interfered with the workouts, everyone found a way. There was a purpose and group accountability pulling the best out of everyone. By the time the trip came around, they had lost weight and many had built a habit they continue to this day.

We arrived in Mexico that July and it was everything we could have dreamed and more. For five days, the boys and girls from Texas owned that resort. One friend, in particular, my Brochacho, joined me as we immediately fell into a five-day pattern:

  • Wake at 8 am and walk to this amazing open air breakfast buffet on the beach. Sip coffee and read the paper for an hour.
  • At 9 am, head to the gym for a flip-flopping (who was I) workout or a bike ride. Far from a compulsory workout, we started the day with these because they energized us for the day.
  • By 10 am, claim prime spots at the pool and visit the bar having no consideration for post-workout nutrition.
  • At 11 am we began each day’s first Crazy Games!
  • At 5 pm head back to get ready and go out for dinner.

The resort featured an event staff led by a charismatic guy named JC. Every day just before 11, he’d start heckling people in an effort to get them to commit to the day’s first crazy game. These were typically bizarre, inherently funny competitions like football kicking competitions, a large Simon Says dance-off, pool relay races, and kayak tug-of-war.

The games served to get the communal, competitive juices flowing around the pool and always immediately segued into traditional team sports games like pool volleyball, sand volleyball, or shallow water water-polo.

Photography by Bev Childress of Fort Worth, Texas

Except for brief interludes for eating, we played constantly over those five days. For each competition teams would assemble peacefully, rules would be established, and then the gloves came off. You became immersed in a new world.

“One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is, and where it ought to be.”

Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code

Bonds were quickly made between teammates whose names you didn’t know, but who intuitively understood where to be for a crushing spike or how to get back on defense. For teammates who needed support, vulnerabilities and niceties were thrown out the window.

You talked like you’d known each other for years. “Hey! If you make one extra pass that goal will completely open up!” In life, cautious and shielded communication is expected, but sport demands honest, harsh intimacy.

Forget safe spaces. Real communication, both verbal and non, are inevitable. High fives, fist bumps, and guttural groans were intuitively synchronized as my temporary, impromptu brotherhood shared in a full spectrum of raw emotions.

Likewise, as soon as competition began I immediately despised members on the other team. Their snide satisfaction after scoring a point; their ability to rally players and propensity for over-intense play. I despised them for all the qualities I loved in a teammate.

Regardless of the outcome, when the game ended sanity and perspective returned and I suddenly realized that this malice was really just respect. These were now people I wanted to know better and certainly hoped would play again later.

You are probably thinking something to the effect of, “Alright, calm down Mr. Gym Class Hero. These are just friendly games.” I assure you, as competitive as I am, my emotions were controlled and directed. Yet, to some degree, I agree with the sentiment.

Clearly, in my approach to competition, you can detect those dangerous seeds of the emotionally destructive sports parent yelling at referees and obsessively ranting about youth athletic competitions long after the final buzzer. These toxic influences are destroying youth sports and endearing kids with very unhealthy competitive norms.

However, I’d argue that these parents are often manifesting the primal, tribal, war-like tendencies that have lied latent inside. Their repressed shadow-side picks inappropriate avenues for expression and, absent of constructive channels, radiates contagious venom. Lacking for the tools of constructive discourse, we’ve seen similarly destructive patterns emerge on social media.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water! Particularly in our outwardly sanitized environment, we deeply need these competitions. More than anything humans need shared missions that force us to break through the self-conscious limitations of polite norms and find flow working together in raw, vulnerable dependency.

Without these experiences, we struggle to know others or even ourselves. Adult game and competition hold the keys to greater physical, mental, and emotional health.

Humans Desperately Need a Mission

Over the last 30 years, America has witnessed a terrifying, steady ascent in suicide, drug-overdoses, anxiety, depression, obesity, and mass shootings. These have only worsened as smartphone ubiquity pulls us into its artificial vortex. Suicide and psychopathy are firmly rooted in alienation and lack of communal play. Likewise, obesity, anxiety, and depression are heavily influenced by physical health, authenticity of relationships, and time spent in flow states.

The causes of each disorder are clearly multi-varied and far beyond my pay grade. Still, I believe strongly that there would be a drastic reduction in all categories if every adult was engaging in team sports competitions a couple of days each week. We’ll often talk about how essential these experiences are for kids, but what makes them any less valuable for adults?

Particulars humans grow increasingly less dependent on themselves and each other for survival, we need a cultural movement towards action, physical capability, and mutually dependent team sport. These pull us back to our bodies, reality, flow, and real human connection. As early factory owners understood, team sport was not just for watching, it was the outlet that allowed us to maintain our humanity.

Over and over people decide they are willing to work all day in a cubicle and then forfeit the passive entertainment offered at home for an hour at the gym, hardening themselves into a more capable, adaptable beast. Clearly, humanity wants more than to be shielded from pain and immersed in pleasure.

Unfortunately, most people’s fitness attempts are isolated, lonely, and overly compartmentalized pursuits. Exhausted from the modern mental pace, engulfed in entertainment, and pulled by social norms, most fail repeatedly at New Year’s resolutions and any attempts to honor their physical needs. We fail to meet these needs because these aren’t packaged with the other needs of the human spirit.

This has been the brilliance of Crossfit and other culture-creating community-driven gyms like it. Regardless of your feelings about Crossfit, the model is worth exploring. Yet, we still need more. Even if your training is consistent and interesting, there is likely a disconnect between fitness and life that sport can help mediate.

The reactionary element of games requires semi-violent movement patterns that are actually the best microcosm for the real-life battles we once knew were coming (whether with animals, in tribal play, or as physical contests). Traditionally “athletic” or not, humans are inherently athletes. Training is essential, but it needs performance on the life stage.

Our culture has normalized a model where sport ends at age 18 or 22 and then is reserved for only our children and our professionals. If you wish to remain physically fit, we are led to believe it should be done for its own sake. The only sports available are training modalities like running or powerlifting.

Adult schedules must be dominated by the increasingly all-encompassing demands of modern parenting. Anyone bold enough to consistently take time for their health is working against community norms. This is insanity driving the nation into ever-diminishing health and promising a worse future for those same children. It’s time we imagine a better model.

I encourage you to look for active opportunities. Perhaps it is just a really good racquetball partner. That is better than nothing, but how could we better incorporate team sport into the adult schedule? Each occupation could form a games league that met a few days a week at the end of the workday. Games could vary from volleyball to soccer, to frisbee football. These would encourage many to adopt other fitness practices. You’d probably be fine if you only added the chief habit, a daily ten-minute workout upon waking.

Perhaps there are other avenues worth exploring where you could create the same concept, but the point remains. If it’s been too long since you engaged in real physical competition, something in you is not fully activated. We need to be active players in life, engaging in daily combats, connecting on a physical level that transcends the superficial, and immerses us in a mission. These needs don’t diminish as we age. We need to jump back into the arena. Life is too short to be normal.

“A soft, easy life is not worth living, if it impairs the fibre of brain and heart and muscle. We must dare to be great; and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage. For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.”

Theodore Roosevelt

This Week’s Mission

Explore your environment and find a way to play. Call friends until you organize an awesome sand volleyball game. If you have access to a bigger group, try soccer or frisbee football.

My neighborhood used to head to the park after dark and play ghosts in the graveyard. Perhaps that is worth trying to recreate. Maybe just head to the local rec and see about jumping into a league of some sort. Force yourself to re-discover the adaptive beast you were made to be.

Continue by reading Step Into The Arena Part II: You Need A Team.