Fear and loathing under a bar

I grew up in the heyday of the “No Fear” brand. I vividly remember buying a t-shirt from Fairman’s Skate Shop in West Chester, PA which said “life is just sudden death, overtime, and the clock is ticking.” I remember it being cool as hell. I also remember owning a skateboard that I was terrified to ride because every time it rolled across a seam in the sidewalk, I was certain that my lanky and uncoordinated 13-year-old self was about to end up in the middle of the street. However, I rocked that shirt until there were holes in it.

Why is fear important? For starters, the instinct is designed to guide our survival. It’s hardwired into the oldest part of our brain, the limbic cortex, to keep us alive. Pretty important job. In our daily lives, there just aren’t a lot of true life threats for most of us (sure, dodging SEPTA is up there), but the chances of a raptor hungrily waiting around the corner while you stare unsuspectingly at your phone is low. At the same time, our world is becoming faster and shallower. Quick decisions. 10 second videos (Vine, RIP, was an app that made videos limited to less than 10 seconds and actually FAILED). Side hustles. Main hustles. Meetings to talk about meetings. Yet, we still have the same good ol’ collection of grey matter between our ears. Our operating system (brain) is designed to steer us away from things that cause pain and scare us and back to the safe zone of understood and anticipated experience (for instance, you’re more rested waking up in your own bed rather than a swanky hotel because even while unconscious, your brain is operating under less stress at home).

This means that it is always easier and less stressful, to let fear guide the process. Fear is easy. It’s a biological system designed to be easy. The problem is that in the absence of true threats and perceived need for immediate decisions, the instinct gets misapplied. Fear keeps us in jobs where we’re unhappy, relationships that aren’t fulfilling, lifestyles that leave us wanting more and so on, because even though we’re unhappy – we KNOW that we’re unhappy and there is predictability there. The problem is that this also isn’t how we grow. We grow and develop in response to stress. In overcoming stress, be it a physical endeavor or emotional experience, we develop a greater capacity to come back and handle a similar situation again in a quicker and less damaging way in the future. Constant stress burns out this feedback loop (post-traumatic stress) where the time necessary for adaptation never takes place (read – rest and recovery). The other problem is that this response takes time and doesn’t line up with our fast-paced lives. We feel that we need to make decisions RIGHT NOW, without the time to process information. When we do this, our limbic brain is there waiting – firing up the split-second response it has developed to protect you from that raptor and boom you make a quick decision away from stress and move on and now “OMG, A NEW SHINY THI….”. The irony here is that as we live in a world with fewer and fewer actual, real, immediate threats to life, the part of our brain built for that response is doing MORE of the heavy lifting in how we make decisions and inhibiting our growth.

“Ok, fine, but why the hell am I still reading this on the blog for a gym” you might be thinking. Well, because at the end of the day, the part of your body most important to us is your brain (sorry glutes, you’re a close #2). Becoming more physically and emotionally capable, entirely depends on your relationship with your brain. Practice of movement and behavior is what creates space necessary for understanding, skill acquisition and relative stress inoculation. Put another way, practice is how we develop an understanding of fear. Recently, I listened to an interview with Olympic Skier Bode Miller and he was asked if he was afraid when rocketing down a sheet of ice at 100 mph. His response? “Absolutely”. So, how did he do that? Practice. An accumulation of experience that allowed him to thrive when a new stimulus was applied. There’s no fearlessness gene, they would get wiped out of the gene pool pretty quickly. There is learned adaptation and those who can learn faster, are more successful. In that example, what’s the benefit of being able to control that emotion, learn and stay on his skis at a speed faster than anyone else? World Championships and Olympic teams.

High achievement and peak performance come from those who can apply their maximum preparation to moments of maximum unknown outcomes of risk and opportunity. To be clear, that is absolutely not saying to get on a set of skis and point them straight down the mountain when you have never successfully ridden the bunny hill to win at the Olympics. It’s saying that through consistently experiencing and overcoming stress – that prepares you for when the moment is necessary, to make a decision based on the accumulation of your knowledge and acumen, NOT act in fear. Fear is there, and fear means that the moment is important to you, but it doesn’t mean that fear is what has to control your response. Be grateful for your fears. These moments are rare, however they can also be some of the most meaningful of your life when understood. That acknowledgement is what is often referred to as “flow”. When difficult tasks are easy and fluid. How ballplayers talk about the ball slowing down, or being able to not hear the crowd in a packed stadium. The art of doing exactly what is required of a complicated task in the very moment it is required. High performers don’t anticipate what’s about to happen. They are confident enough to respond to what’s about to happen regardless of what will happen because of their deliberate practice. Achieving maximum effort and impact at the moment of its greatest potential benefit – the goal of our lives at the end of the day.  

Creation of this capacity is a huge part of the rise in mindfulness training and intention related activity. Rather than blowing through barbell cleans, it’s using that time to set an intention of why you are doing that and practicing deliberately, not just going through the motions. The tyranny of the immediate, is how we fail to really acquire new skills or do so at rate that takes much longer than it should. By stewing over and fixating on why you can’t clean 135 pounds instead of moving flawlessly at 75 pounds, you’re slowing the process of successfully achieving 135. This is why lots of sweating doesn’t automatically equate to fitness. There is no space for deliberation.

We are in the business of maximizing human potential. Our goal is to deliver the maximum adaptable stress through the simplest application. That’s why in a class with us you can expect to spend only 10-15% of the time moving at intensity. Our goal is to keep that percentage of time as low as we can while yielding the greatest result so that you spend the other 85-90% of your hour with us moving with intention and executing deliberate practice. Going fast requires attention. Ours and yours. The answer to people crashing cars while trying to text at 80 mph isn’t that there aren’t enough distracted driving schools. The answer lies in having enough confidence in experience to put down the phone and focus on the road. That confidence comes because you conducted your every-day work and life with such deliberate practice that if something is vital and new, you’ve done such quality work that the crisis can wait and depend on your systems until you can finish doing a quality job of the task at hand (not crashing your car).

Our business is not teaching you how to move barbells. We are in the business of giving you an opportunity for deliberate practice through challenging, varied and fun ways. Heavy objects require attention and respect, that’s why we like them. You are used to answering email, it’s easy. You aren’t as used to learning how to safely and efficiently put something heavy over your head, but you can learn it. If you can work on mastery of those physical skills that demand your attention and potentially elicit fear at first (i.e. that heavy thing over your head), what else starts to become easier when given that lens? The answer is everything, and because so few people are taking the approach to acquire skill and understand how important of a gift fear is, your practice of that makes you an even more amazing human being.

I have to include a work cited for this because my limited understanding and learning has come from reading and listening to people who are a hell of lot better at explaining it than I am:

“Deep Work” by Cal Newport

“Stealing Fire” by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal

“Know Fear” podcast with Tony Blauer interview with Logan Gelbrich (@functionalcoach)

“Chasing Excellence” podcast with Ben Bergeron – all of them

“Finding Mastery” podcast with Michael Gervais – all of them

“Shop Class as Soulcraft” – Matthew Crawford

Categories: WOD