“Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” – Wu Li, Zen Master
I have been lucky enough to train some pretty fantastic athletes as a coach. One of my athletes drives racecars, a skill he has been mastering since he was 5 or 6 years old. As part of his strength training we went karting a few times, which usually devolved for me into lessons in utter humiliation. Think playing 1-1 with a Div 1 NCAA basketball player. Or arm wrestling a bear. After lapping me over and over (on a track short enough that I probably could have run around it faster than driving around it), he complained to me that I was always in the wrong place in this certain turn, so eventually he just passed me on the outside.
“Was I not on the racing line?”
“Line? You were just slow.”
“What’s the right way to get through that turn?”
“The faster way.”
This driver had been racing for so long that he didn’t have to think about the racing line, something that I struggle to even see. He didn’t have to think about where to brake or how to shift the weight onto the rear tires when he experienced oversteer. These were all discrete skills that he had mastered until they became something he could execute unthinkingly. But I was more impressed with another ability. This driver was able to reflect back on where I had been in a certain turn, while pushing his kart around turns in the fastest possible way, and plan ahead a few laps in order to time passing me at a particular location. It was intuitive. And to me, a novice, it might as well have been a superpower. However, like most human qualities, this is simply a skill. And most advanced athletes have begun to master the skill of awareness.
Awareness is the skill of owning the present. Of knowing what you are doing, why you are doing it, when you are doing it, where you are doing it, and how you are doing it. It is a skill born of deliberate practice and like the squat, press or pull, it can be practiced intelligently and diligently until it becomes a habit. The key to owning the present is coming to grips with the fact that we spend very little time with our minds actually in the present. Most of the time our minds are concerned with the past and the future, haphazardly jumping from one to the next while occasionally focusing on the present just enough to remember what the hell we were doing. Staying focused in the present is actually a pretty hard skill and in order to practice this skill we have to become disciplined in how we think about bridging the gaps in our awareness. Over the course of this three part series, I will be talking about some of the ways that I have found to increase the quality of training by making it more deliberate. Essentially, how to avoid going to the gym, messing around for an hour then realizing you haven’t made progress in a year.
In order to tackle this skill and make it a habit, we are going to delve into the past, the present and the future. I like to think about becoming more mindful of the present as a feedback loop of reflecting and planning, assessment and prediction, thinking about what just happened and what we would like to happen the next time. So I am going to show you some tools that I, many of my athletes, and most of the great athletes use to make this process more intuitive. It will take a fair amount of practice, but even if you take a single step down the path to becoming more aware, I can promise you that the rest of your life will be better for it.
The Past, aka “Stop Guessing and Write it Down”
One of the most important habits that successful athletes engage in is reflection. In fact, I could broaden that and say that most successful people engage in regular reflection. Reflection takes many forms, but the people I know who are best at all practice some form of journaling or logging. For most of us, this will be a simple training log. There are many ways to get started, but in my opinion, you should log two kinds of data: the quantitative and the qualitative. Reflection does not have to be a touchy-feely concept (although it certainly can be if you would like it to be). Most reflection takes the form of a simple question like, “how’d I do today?” The most obvious answer to that question is usually numbers:
Snatch 8x2 95#
Clean & Jerk 5x1 135#
Front Squat 5x5 135#
Press 5x3 95#
This is an example of useful quantitative data, and it what most people think of when they think about training logs. Reflecting on how you did with numbers can be enlightening and objective, but those four lines above do not capture the whole story of an experience.
Let’s take another training example. Here’s one of my standard, punch-the-clock workouts:
5 or so squats
carry for bit
a few presses
a few pull ups
some other stuff
rest til I get bored
This workout is pretty vague and that’s on purpose. I do this workout on a very regular basis and it has become a barometer of sorts. Because when I’m done, my own judgement of the success of this workout will not come down to a number, like time or load. When I look back on this workout and ask, “how’d I do today?”, there are other qualities that I am reflecting on. Did I feel better at the end than when I started? Did my knees stay out on every squat? Were my swings snappy in the hips? Did I lock out my presses and touch my chest on the pull ups? How did the movements feel and is there anything I need to keep an eye on?
This is an example of qualitative data. It is the record of my experience of a workout. I write down anything that I think I should be noticing or anything that I think might be evidence of my progress towards my goals or potential obstacles. I write down what I am worried about, but I also make it a point to write down what I did well. That way, when I am nervously going over my training log, I get a boost of confidence when I see my areas of qualitative improvement.
If you are journaling your workouts now and have noticed that you record one of these types of data but not the other, a simple place to begin would be to start answering a single question at the end of every workout. Dedicate a week to recording the new type of data by answering that single, open-ended question. The best person to come up with that question is you, because you are the one who knows what data is most relevant to your progress. Here are some examples to get you started:
“How was my form?”
“How do I feel?”
“What did I do well?”
“Where was my focus?”
“How did I move?”
“How did the weight feel?”
“Was I tired?”
If you are not currently journaling, then there is no time like the present to get started! Check out this article on how I got started and explore your options on the “how” to journal. My suggestion is to find something you are already recording every day and piggyback on it. Do you keep a calendar? Start scribbling in it! Have a blog? Add a category or a tag! Keep it all in Outlook? Attach a note! If you do not do any of those things already, then I suggest Coach Stevo’s Super Simple Smiley Grid:
One of the most important lessons I have learned from people who have journaled for years or even decades, is that the point of journaling is not to just write down what you did, but to actually do something with that information to make yourself better. So don’t get too hung up on what to write down, just get started and write anything down. It won’t be perfect and it won’t be everything. However, the point of journaling is not to record, but to reflect. Take the time to think about your progress honestly, and for the love of all things heavy, stop guessing and write it down!Draw this somewhere you’ll see it a lot (bathroom mirror, gym bag, whiteboard at work, etc.). Now at every day answer the question, “how’d I do today?” This can refer to your training, your diet, telling your wife you love her (love you, baby!), or any other trackable piece of qualitative or quantitative data that you need to improve in order to reach your goal. Draw a smiley face on the days you did well. If you did not do well, draw nothing. The point behind that is so at the end of the week you see a bunch of smiley faces on days you did well and blank places where smiley faces could be next week if you dedicate yourself to improvement. In my experience, drawing frowney faces can be discouraging, which is the opposite goal of this entire process. So stick to smileys and stay on it!
One of the most important lessons I have learned from people who have journaled for years or even decades, is that the point of journaling is not to just write down what you did, but to actually do something with that information to make yourself better. So don’t get too hung up on what to write down, just get started and write anything down. It won’t be perfect and it won’t be everything. However, the point of journaling is not to record, but to reflect. Take the time to think about your progress honestly, and for the love of all things heavy, stop guessing and write it down!