Transform Your Gym Frustrations Into Empowerment

Unchecked frustration becomes resignation and then apathy.

Source: Bev Childress

Every one of us has experienced frustration in the gym. Some skill or weight goal seems somehow beyond our reach, and we’ve all but given up on trying to achieve the milestone. I’m here to tell you that frustration is not a “bad” emotion. Frustration is a product of caring and being at a loss for what to do next. The good news is that there are a lot of things we can do to improve, we just need to have a few character traits in order to see it through: caring, humility, courage, and discipline.

A favorite motto among CrossFit coaches and athletes is, “seek out your weaknesses.” This can be a life-changing principle for athletes to embrace because we have been taught to avoid discomfort in most aspects of our lives—the cushiest running shoes, driving instead of walking, taking diet pills instead of engaging in mindful nutrition practices, the elliptical machine over running sprints, or reading the CliffsNotes version of Jane Eyre instead of the full novel in all of its glory. These are all shortcuts in order to avoid discomfort.

What is more uncomfortable than seeking out our weaknesses? Think in terms of life outside of the gym. How many of us ask our spouses or friends, without prompting, “What can I do better for you?” When was the last time you asked your employer or professors, “What do you see as my greatest weakness?” outside of a scheduled evaluation? In general, we do everything we can to appear as close to perfect at our relationships and jobs that we can. Some of us have been taught that we protect ourselves by doing that. Now think of how that would translate in the gym: believing that we execute every workout without flaws is ridiculous to us, and that’s why we have coaches.

Courage and Humility

Athletes who embrace seeking out their weaknesses in the gym learn two qualities that create a more fulfilling life: courage and humility. Humility allows us to learn from anyone, to accept our faults, and to improve on them. Courage leads to more honest discourse with the people who are important to us, deepening our relationships, and it is the quality that allows us to be good decision-makers for ourselves. In short, humility and courage allow us to face discomfort, and discomfort is where change and transformation grow from.

Coaches talk a really big game about seeking out our weaknesses, but what we have failed to do for our athletes is take them to the next step: what exactly to do once they’ve found a weakness. Time and again I see athletes recognize and own a weakness, and then wander aimlessly at figuring out a plan of attack, perhaps practicing a bit more or deciding to no longer cherry-pick WODs. We start out with caring, humility, and courage in facing the weakness, but there is no discipline created after the initial motivation wears off, and discipline is what will carry us through frustration.

Unchecked frustration becomes resignation and then apathy. As athletes, we must prioritize building the habits that lead to discipline if we wish to change. As coaches, we are responsible for guiding our athletes through frustration and transforming it into empowerment, and we empower our athletes by giving them the tools they need to build discipline.

Athletes, Pay Attention

You may know that overhead squats are a weakness for you, for example, but you need to understand specifically why you struggle with them. Is it thoracic mobility? Midline instability? Are your ankles or hips too tight to get into good positions? These issues require different approaches to sort out. Like most of life, one size does not fit all. Schedule a private session with a coach to have yourself assessed outside of class, then proceed accordingly.

  • Identify the source of your frustration. Have a talk with your coach about where you feel your progress is stalling. Their job is going to be to establish what your goals are, what reasonable expectations for yourself are, and to help you create a game plan for making a change.
  • Stick to the plan. Starting a plan only to give up on it later is a recipe for further frustration. You do not get to complain about your progress stalling if you give up! If you haven’t made progress after following the game plan for the established amount of time, then it’s time to try something new.
  • Prioritize building discipline. It is discipline, rather than motivation, that creates results. Discipline is what gets us to follow through when we are tired or overwhelmed. It outlasts motivation by a lifetime. If we have always relied on motivation to keep us focused on our goals, we will find ourselves making excuses when we are tired or “too busy.”

The best advice I can give for creating self-discipline is to follow this simple rule: no excuses, no complaining. People who do not complain find a way to stay positive in the face of adversity. People who do not blame others look at themselves and what they can control. People who do not make excuses find a way—they take action. And on the other side is success.

Coaches, Pay Attention

We often tell our athletes to seek out their weaknesses, but what are our athletes to do when they’ve found them? The answer is more complicated than “keep working on it,” and in fact, that answer is what leads to a lot of unwarranted frustration. Take the above example of the overhead squat. An athlete coached through specific, unique pitfalls in performance and discipline is going to have more success than one that follows a one size fits all program.

When an athlete expresses frustration to you:

  • Avoid trying to talk athletes out of their frustration. Phrases like, “don’t feel bad,” or “you shouldn’t be upset” never work. Reassure them that you are a team and you’ll figure this out together.
  • Ask the athlete what they have done so far to work on the problem. It is important to let them lead the conversation, because their perception of how much effort and attention they’ve put in is vital information for us. It will tell us their commitment level so far and whether they have realistic expectations of their results.
  • Create a game plan. This is a critical teaching moment: focusing on process over progress and effort over results will create many small wins that lead to overall victory. When setbacks occur, we’ll be able to return to how they’ve been doing on their day-to-day game plan. The plan can include reaching out to a specialized professional.

All plans require a time component, whether it is asking an athlete, “What can you do today (or who can you reach out to) to start working on this?” or giving them a 6-week program to follow. Open-endedness leads to aimlessness.

You will quickly learn the difference between an athlete who is looking for help and one who is just complaining. Simply, an athlete who is complaining won’t take action beyond expressing frustration, and it is frequently because they don’t believe that they can change. It will be on the athlete to decide when they are ready to take a deeper look at why they hold that belief, but coaches have a responsibility to build up athletes with low self-esteem. Ask them what they plan to do about their problems to show that you’re ready to help, call them on negative talk with positivity, and relentlessly believe in their ability to change. Our unwavering belief has the power to give them the courage to face adversity.

Act on Your Frustration

Frustration in any aspect of our lives is a wake-up call. This call announces to us that we care about an issue, but we don’t know how to fix it on our own. Is it time to accept things as they are and find a way to make peace with them? Or is it time to make a change? Either of those options are available to us. Only we can decide what is right, and making the decision will require courage. What is not a viable option, which I define as one that will make us happier and more fulfilled, is staying the same and complaining about it.

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