With the encouragement and support of my daughter I recently joined a CrossFit gym as she had done the same. In addition, fellow Board member Darren Danyluk took up CrossFit a few years ago and he has been my role model as I continually bother him with questions and ask him to share his stories of how he overcame the challenges of becoming a CrossFit athlete.
I joined Kitsilano CrossFit a few weeks ago and try my best to attend classes four to five times per week. For those of you who don’t know a great deal about CrossFit I can tell you that despite being a month into my journey I still have a great deal to learn about the system and their approach. Despite that I will try to summarize my journey to this point.
As a fitness enthusiast who had been a regular boot camp participant for the past few years I was quite fascinated by CrossFit and I wondered if I was up to the challenge. Short answer – I am not. Rather, I should use a phrase that my wife teaches to her Kindergarten students. Instead of saying, “I can’t” as they often do in five-year-old fits of frustration, she teaches them to use the phrase, “I am not yet able.” Three weeks into my CrossFit experience I can tell you that the majority of CrossFit activities, skills, and understandings fall into the, “not yet able” category.
What have I learned to this point? First off, the exercise areas are referred to as boxes and not gyms. Exercising in a box tends to make me feel that there is no escape and I have had those moments from time to time during particularly intense Workouts of the Day. The CrossFit approach to fitness is highly competitive but only with yourself. The language in the box is filled with acronyms and phrases that need a great deal of explanation not unlike the eduspeak that we use to communicate in education. An acronym like TTB means toes to the bar and requires you to hang from a pull-up bar while pulling your legs up, without assistance, to touch the bar. A series of Olympic lifts that are to be carried out as an EMOM means that you do the exercise every minute on the minute. In short, the longer the acronym the more likely that the next day I will be lumbering my lactic acid locked frame into work in a manner reminiscent of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. Advil has become my oilcan.
A good friend and a highly respected colleague of mine used this graphic as part of his email signature. He is right – the area outside of our comfort zone is the area where the magic really happens. If that is true, then my CrossFit experience means that I could be the next David Copperfield. With these, ‘where the magic happens’ experiences I often reflect on the parallels to our school leadership experiences. I tend to think about these connections during the Workout of the Day because focusing on something other than my burning lungs and uncooperative body helps keep my fear at bay.
In my CrossFit classes, I am 20 – 25 years older than most of the other participants. They have been training for years, have dependable bodies, and understand the philosophy and the context of the work in the box. While there are varying degrees of strength they can perform the majority of exercises without having them scaled. Scaling is a way of performing something similar to the but at a more approachable level so that it can be done successfully. I may never be able to do a handstand pushup but I can perform a similar exercise with my toes on a box and my body in a jackknife position. CrossFit provides numerous adaptations for those lacking the full strength and mobility to perform the prescribed exercise. Often, the coach will explain the workout of the day and the prescribed exercises to the class and then will take me aside and tell me what he wants me to do instead. So humbling.
As you read this I am certain that you are making numerous connections to all of the different metaphors that CrossFit and educational leadership have in common. However, there is one perspective on this that has helped me greater appreciate the focus of the work that we do in schools. At this point, I am very much like that student in any classroom in the province who is struggling to understand. All around me I see fitter, stronger, and more flexible athletes who perform at what seems to me to be an impossibly high level. They understand the environment and they excel in it. They often hang around the box afterwards giving each other cues or comparing notes on the workout of the day in order to help each other get better. What is fascinating to me and the biggest takeaway to date is that they are truly a community of learners.
I struggle with the exercises, watch others perform them so that I can try to take my cues from them, try to find shortcuts or strategically plan breaks in the exercises so that I can keep going and keep up. If this were a classroom I would benefit from a well-thought out IEP. There are a variety of reasons as to why I keep going and most of your guesses would be correct but the most important reason that I continue is that I am encouraged to do so. Regardless of my lack of ability, strength, and mobility at this point, the other athletes and coaches are extremely encouraging. They pull me aside discreetly to offer pointers and check into see how I am doing. I get fist bumps and high fives and a great welcome each time I show up. In part, that may be their collective surprise that I keep coming back however, I do feel that the encouragement offered is genuine and they seem to be as invested in my success as I am and that is motivating.
I know that every day in schools around the province, struggling students are encouraged and supported by their principals and vice-principals. Like CrossFit coaches, school leaders adapt and scale to ensure that the learning for struggling students is relevant and personalized. That work is not always easy and some of our students may not be at a place in their lives to readily accept the encouragement and support that is offered. However, I believe strongly that the investment we make now makes a difference for them as learners later in their lives.
Last year, as a middle school Principal I created a self-assessment rubric for our Inquiry students and one of the pivotal questions I asked was taken directly from the work of Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser from their book, Spirals of Inquiry. I wanted to hear from our students how many adults believed in their success at school as we know that a strong sense of belonging to school and a close connectedness to the adults at school can positively influence their success trajectory. As I continue on this CrossFit journey, well outside my comfort zone, I am fortunate and encouraged that within the Kitsilano CrossFit community of learners many believe in my success.
At some point along the way I will become comfortable with CrossFit and the expectations of the program. That is not to suggest that I will excel, it only means that I will better understand the philosophy and context. When that happens, I will keep going but I may need to find another, “where the magic happens” environment. Having said that, there is a dusty old guitar in the corner of my house that reminds each time I walk by it and fail to pick it up that musical instruments are meant to be played.