Heavy Lifting: Accountability, ego and a safe team environment

I joined Hoosier CrossFit (HCF) at my lowest point of body confidence in 2013. I couldn’t get my toes up off the ground when I jumped. I was out of breath from walking. “Healthy” was a pipe dream I decided to try for because not trying was the same thing as giving up. While I’m a cautious individual, often shy at the outset, I don’t give up easily. I left the gym in 2014 due to surgical complications, and rejoined in 2016. Again at my lowest point. Again, not giving up.

The thing is, I wanted to give up. It felt defeating to re-approach fitness when I’d backtracked on so many personal bests. My last experience with injury and recovery had been in middle school. I tore up my knee playing basketball. When I talked to my coach about rejoining the team post-op, she told me, “It wouldn’t be worth it to train you.” It was a devastating blow. I’d gained weight from inactivity, but I was willing to work. I was coachable. The response I got was that I couldn’t even warm the bench. I internalized the idea that I lacked value, wasn’t good enough, should stop trying. I carried that idea for a long time, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t struggle with reentry into the gym. It took three tries before I committed to consistency, but I persisted.

What kept me returning to HCF was how safe the coaches made trying. I’d been gone a long time, but the only acknowledgment was a “great to see you back!” And yes, it was different to return to a paid membership as an adult than a team membership as a child, but I’ve been in plenty of gyms where I’ve felt too ashamed to stick around let alone re-join. My body was heavier. My movements were slower. My muscles had weakened. I was embarrassed when people asked me if I was new to CrossFit. “No,” I’d say, and tell them I had to take time off for surgical recovery. The response was, “It’s awesome that you came back!”

Letting go of the ego means letting go of fear, anxiety and anger and allowing in safety.

That response— It made it safe to show up and safe to try. Just like the movements of our bodies in the gym, that response was coached. To be an HCF athlete (and everybody who walks into that gym is an athlete), you are required to hold yourself to your highest standard and treat others with respect. This includes words of encouragement and cleanup, but it also includes not tearing yourself down.

I spoke with HCF co-founder Jenna Tieman about how she and her husband, Shaun, keep the gym a safe space. She told me it was about members coming in as athletes willing to put in the work and the time. I’m paraphrasing, but what she said was essentially that being coachable is key; you have to set aside your ego. She brought the point home after one workout when my body refused to perform. I no-repped most of my lifts (if I even got the barbell off the floor), and was so out of breath I couldn’t move or speak for more than 10 minutes afterward. I was confused by my body not working, angry about being out of breath, and embarrassed that no fewer than three classmates came to sit next to me to make sure I was okay, I was unable to be grateful for their concern.

Jenna came over and said, “That one was really hard for you for some reason.”

I nodded.

“Don’t worry about it. Sometimes it doesn’t go how we want.”

While the group practiced post-workout mobility for tight muscles, she repeated for the class,  “Sometimes it doesn’t go the way we want. When that happens, you have to let that go.” She told us not to get down about it. She said we can get lost judging ourselves, end up standing in our own way so the next time we pick up a barbell we discover a mental block. “Don’t do that. Just know that you’re doing your best each time. Hold yourself accountable for trying.”

*

The same ethic Jenna applies to coaching is what I apply to parenting. Well, to human-ing. Sitting in negative thought patterns results in sharing negatives. In fact, it results in being unable to see negatives because they become our normal. At home, we encourage sharing of positives and reframing of negatives in recognition of the ways our thought patterns affect the family. Each of us is one part of a whole. If we turn ourselves over to fear, anxiety or anger, those are the emotions we contribute to our home. Negativity is viral.

It’s hard work, the reframing. In the end, we hold ourselves and each other accountable. We set our egos aside. We coach our minds to coach the home, I suppose.

And beyond the home, in any place I’ve felt safe I have noticed the same. Letting go of ego means we focus less on comparing ourselves to one another and more on aligning ourselves with one another. When we let go of “it should be” we make room for “it can be.” In short, we coach our experience.

*

I let go of my embarrassment and banished the voice in my mind that was chattering on about how I’d failed my workout. When I was able to peel myself off the floor, I left the gym knowing I’d be back to try again. Coaching the body is coaching the mind. What my body hadn’t been able to receive, my mind had. I’d get it right next time.

But there was more to it, an aspect of intervention I found myself dwelling on.

At HCF, we are reminded as we walk through the door to check our emotional baggage and compete only with ourselves. We are expected to learn each other’s names so we encourage each other as we work out, give a high-five and help clean up equipment after class. In other spaces I frequent, we celebrate diversity within our commonality; femininity, artistry, parenting, survivorship. Celebration is accomplished through intentional support.

Jenna pulled me out of my funk and, in doing so, she prevented me from bringing anyone else down. Another way of looking at it is she reminded me that my responsibility is not just to myself, it’s to my group. In holding me accountable for changing my attitude, Jenna was reminding me that I am part of a team. We don’t have to be working together to complete a workout. Being a member means being part of a whole. Taking care of ourselves means taking care of each other and our space. There is no room for competitive comparisons when we do this.

*

In keeping my mind tuned to other’s successes, I am better able to see my own. I can see my peer’s achievements as potential goalposts for personal or physical growth. Missteps are a chance to learn.

Don’t get me wrong. It is hard to set my ego aside. Doing so creates instant vulnerability. The ego is a defense, but letting it go has made way for strength in body and mind. Even better, in a time of controversy, I am able to set differences aside and focus on what is common. While it is important to examine differences and challenge one another, it is also important to have a space  we can go to just be human.

For example, HCF is host to many political viewpoints, cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs. Members range from professor to student, teenager to senior citizen. In every group session you will find multiple genders, body types, sexual orientations and abilities represented. Sometimes, the only thing we have in common is that we show up. It’s enough.

*

HCF is just one of the safe spaces I turn to for strength and comfort. I have many spaces I go to where diversity reigns, but we celebrate a commonality such as femininity, culture, intentionality or survivorship. We come together because we are stronger together. We make each other better by sharing our struggles with compassionate awareness and personal accountability. Sometimes this means we are humbled; we must set aside our egos, engage non-competitively and reframe our pain into triumph.

For more reflections on creating and maintaining safety on and offline in communities and as individuals, with attention to when we can and when we can’t, read the following articles by the moderators of #LinkYourLife, an online safe space for artists and survivors. 

Why this one life hack will change your life forever by Raymond Baxter

The importance of safe spaces and how to understand them better by Charlotte Farhan

What an online safe space is and isn’t by Stacia M. Fleegal

Harmony by Rachel A. Hanson

How bringing others in improves healing and progress by Thomas Ives

Safe Space for Our Voices by Charli Mills

What is a Safe Space by Drew Sheldon

4 Discussion to this post

  1. […] Heavy Lifting: Accountability, ego and a safe team environment […]

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  2. […] Heavy Lifting: Accountability, ego and a safe team environment, By Shawna Ayoub Ainslie […]

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  3. […] Shawna, whose quill is indeed honeyed, reminds us that safe spaces require (sometimes literal) Heavy Lifting. […]

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  4. Norah Colvin says:

    Great post. I really enjoyed the positive message. I think if I knew a “safe” gym like this one, I’d be more willing to give it a try. Life needs to be a safe place for all.

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