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Forget About Getting in Shape… Become an Athlete

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A few months ago I came to a long overdue conclusion about myself: I’ve never stopped thinking of myself as an athlete even though I haven’t played an organized sport for more than half my life.

This is a short story of why I haven’t posted here in a while. I’ve been pretty busy reorganizing some aspects of my life around this mini-epiphany.

bikerWhen I was a kid I played baseball, football, practiced martial arts, and would beg anyone around me to catch whatever I was going to throw at them… for hours. The notion of treating my mind, body, and emotions as seriously as an athlete would has stuck with me since those days.

When I was in school, being a “student athlete” was an achievement worth recognizing.  Kids who would do well in school and sport were somewhat rare and it was obvious they had mastered a life skill so many others hadn’t. 

Yet as an adult, it seems all we’re trying to do is survive.  Somewhere along the lines, people give up on being extraordinary – to be that “student athlete” in life.  They’re just trying to get through to tomorrow.

Through years of business, marriage, kids… ups and downs… my system is still running that base ‘student athlete operating system’. It forms the foundation of who I am despite the fact that I’ve never been very good at any sport!

Shortly after realizing this, I started embracing it more as a part of who I am. This meant thinking about myself as an athlete “in training” instead of as someone who “stays in shape”.

This has affected almost every aspect of my life:

  • I started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, and Mixed Martial Arts again. Just before my son was born last year, I had to put my martial arts training on hold – and I decided that when I’d pick it up again, I would be doing it without concern about rank, status, or looking like an idiot. It would be all about immersion, learning, and camaraderie.
  • I joined a Crossfit gym and found a culture that embodies this “everyday athlete” mentality with something they call “the sport of fitness”. Say what you want about the “cult-like” atmosphere (I know I have over the years) I’ve never worked as hard over the course of a 20 minute workout as I do at Crossfit. It keeps me working for “points” instead of going through the motions in the gym, which quickly becomes a pattern for me after a while.
  • I’ve maintained to eat better and spend more time researching the latest in nutritional science (conclusion: I’ve gone Paleo). I’ve spent more time finding local organic fruits and vegetables, doubled down on grass-fed beef, almonds, avocado, spices, and wild fish, and re-upped my Gyokuro green tea obsession. It’s become a family affair as my son shares my veggie omelette with sliced avocado every morning.
  • I’ve re-embraced the importance of sleep and have made sure I’m not robbing my body of key recuperative hours. Some nights this means lights off at 9pm.
  • I ordered a standing desk for my office which resulted in a complete reversal of the neck and upper back pain I had felt for years. Athletes don’t sit slumped over a keyboard all day, every day. Neither should I.
  • I’ve accepted that I’m not 18 anymore, and that soft tissue work and movement is important for me. I purchased a few lacrosse balls (see the comments on my last blog entry for why) and have settled into a routine of moving with less restriction. Lacrosse balls and foam rolls are my friends.
  • I started a journal of my training – something I’ve always wanted to do – using Evernote. I have every jiu-jitsu lesson written up; everything from who I trained with to how I felt. I, of course, was especially proud to write the day I got my first promotion within white belt as unlike boxing or kicking, ground work like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has never really come naturally for me.
  • Best of all, I’ve become a student again. Not just someone who reads 140-character tweets about stuff, but someone who is curious and wants to soak up information. Learning about how to be a better athlete is really learning how to be a better all-around husband, father, manager, and human being. They become inseparable once you make the tie.

Of course, through this process, I also got injured… like a real athlete. I tore the medial meniscus in my right knee while rolling on the mat in jiu-jitsu a day after a super intense 4th of July workout at Crossfit. It required surgery which I had last week, and I’m now on the mend. It was an old injury made worse through an increase in intense activity starting in April. Again, I’m not 18 anymore.

Yet when people ask if it’s going to slow me down, of course my answer is “for now”. No, I fully intend to get back to it though will pay more attention to early warning signs from my body. As my wife said to me, “if you’re going to train like an athlete, you can’t assume you aren’t going to have the types of setbacks athletes have”.

So through this journey, other than realizing that I probably pushed myself a little too hard, what else did I learn? In short I learned that thinking of yourself as an athlete is a fundamental shift in your mindset. It makes every downstream decision easier.

Suffering through the peaks and valleys as you struggle to get in shape – or stay in shape – feels almost like part of the human condition. For decades in the United States people have been saying that you need to exercise more, eat less, and the rise of all sorts of ways to do that has grown into a multi-billion dollar business.

But is it all supposed to be this hard? Why does it always, always feel as if we’re doing the thing someone else wants us to do instead of what we like and enjoy? We do silly things like run on a treadmill in a hot and depressing gym when it’s 68 degrees outside and there’s a slight breeze. We look at it all as a “sacrifice” instead of as a “mission”. We resent it. We feel like weirdos when we say “I don’t eat that anymore” instead of feeling empowered. We feel like we’re missing out on life instead of thriving within it.

Being an athlete is a lifelong thing. A way of relating to yourself. Whereas getting in shape feels like work. Sure, you want to set goals for yourself, but what you really need is purpose. Similar to the thought of “being on a diet” vs. a “way of being”, how you present yourself TO yourself is critically important.  Think about yourself as an athlete and you are an athlete.

Here are some of the benefits of ditching the “old way” and becoming an athlete:

  • You’ll think like an athlete. Your comprehension will improve, your synapses will fire quicker, you’ll be more alert, and you’ll prioritize your well-being and performance when you make choices.  Being an athlete means that even during the off-season, you’re still an athlete. So you’re always thinking ahead.
  • You’ll eat like an athlete. You’ll view food as fuel (note that this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it anymore). You’ll stop thinking about food as a quick fix – it’s something you plan, just like the rest of the things that are important to you.
  • You’ll crave consistency. You can only get better at physical activity through lots and lots of repetition, and consistency is the key to progress.  Even on days you don’t feel like it, view it “just something you do” and you’ll eventually start looking forward to training sessions.
  • You’ll feel like an athlete. Your muscles and joints will reflect your hard work back to you. You’ll have energy and will feel upgraded.  You’ll be able to keep up with people half your age and play in the company softball game without worrying about being sore the next day.
  • You’ll meet people like you. All athletic adventures have groups of like-minded people also looking to get better. Whether it’s paddle boarding, tennis, running, or something a little crazy like fighting, you’re going to inevitably form new social circles.
  • You’ll harness beginner’s mind, or what I call the “white belt mentality”. When you start anything new, you have to get past that awkward phase. You’ll ask tons of questions and feel like a little kid again. But that’s what it’s all about: personal growth. Don’t worry about looking stupid, just do it.

Sounds great, so now what?

  • Form a master habit of sport. Sport of any kind, but preferably something you’ll find both intrinsically rewarding and challenging. Something you used to do and loved, or something you’ve never done but have always wanted to…
  • Let it permeate other areas of your life over time; take it slow. Enjoy the process. Start calling yourself a <blank> depending on the sport you’ve chosen from day one. Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t one…
  • Compete with yourself every day.  Compete with others in a playful way.  Work to get better each time out.  Track your progress and celebrate successes…
  • Research your sport. Research what makes people great at that sport. Particularly people who it doesn’t come easy for. Try stuff. Experiment. Let it become a part of your life…

Most of all, just have fun with it! After all, moving, eating, and sleeping are supposed to be fun.

Written by Mike Torres

August 21st, 2011 at 4:50 pm

  • had a CrossFit workout today, that kicked my booty — but that’s why I went. in that environment, we encourage each other to stretch beyond what’s comfortable, to help bring out the best in each other!

  • Sachmo

    Hey man, love your posts…

    Don’t you find yourself in time ‘bankruptcy’ when you commit to such physical training? At least at this point, I find it quite difficult to juggle any serious sport / hobby / interest / etc and advance in it to the level that I would like without dropping the ball on something else.

    Perhaps you should write a post on paring down to the essential… : ) Seems like the only way to really excel.

    • Thanks!  To be honest, time bankruptcy is always an issue I struggle with.  But while the write-up makes it seem like I’m training 4 hours a day (my fault for not being clear) the reality is it’s a total of 40-60 minutes of dedicated time per day; and it’s certainly not everyday.

      And the other things I do here, like the soft tissue work or prepping food, I just do while I’m watching TV or reading/listening to books; things I would already be doing.  There isn’t any added time needed, it’s just that I’m not being a zombie on the couch.  I’m doing 20 minutes of movement while doing something else.

      Ultimately, I do struggle with this.  There’s a question of “if you aren’t going to give it 100%, is it worth it?”  And the way I look at it is that I do give it 100% within clear boundaries.  I know I’ll never be elite level without thousands of hours invested, but that’s OK.  I don’t want to give up on trying – or doing something – just because I can’t make it to the top.  I will make the progress I can make within the boundaries I set.

      And my family and my career come first.  So I have to be OK with those tradeoffs as well from time to time.

      Not sure if this helped, but there it is.

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