Inner Strength and the Masters Competitor

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by DR. ALLISON BELGER

Inner Strength and the Masters Competitor
What is the connection between these two quotes?

“You never know how strong you are until strong is the only choice you have.” — Unknown Author

“You don’t compete to win. You compete to do better than you do in the gym.” – CJ Martin

The first quotation was posted recently on our TJ’s Gym discussion board by Sherri, one of our members, the day after the NorCal Masters competition we hosted in Richmond, California. Sherri had volunteered for hours at the event, all the while cheering on — and being inspired by — the participating athletes, who ranged in age from forty to seventy-something.

Win or lose relative to our fellow athletes, we have won if we have pushed beyond our perceived limits and proven to ourselves that we have far more in us than we can demonstrate in the forum of a non-competitive training day.
Later that night, while Sherri was talking with her husband, Bill, he mentioned one of his favorite quotes: “You never know how strong you are until strong is the only choice you have.”

Bill has been battling Multiple Myeloma (an insidious bone cancer) for two years now. It has taken him away from his young children and wife, forcing him into treatment centers in the Midwest for months at a time. It has stolen his hair, his marrow, his wellness. But it hasn’t captured his spirit. Indeed, it seems he is stronger of spirit now than during his life before cancer.

The second quotation is by CJ Martin, owner of CrossFit Invictus, who is always trying to get his athletes to enjoy their training and to repeatedly and honestly evaluate if that training is predominately enjoyable and rewarding, or if it is distracting and draining. For CJ, competitions are a chance to push ourselves beyond what we do inside our own gyms, and to test the limits of our tolerance — both physical and mental — during the heat of the battle. Win or lose relative to our fellow athletes, we have won if we have pushed beyond our perceived limits and proven to ourselves that we have far more in us than we can demonstrate in the forum of a non-competitive training day.

Finding the Will to Fight

 Finding the Will to Fight
So what do these two quotations have to do with each other? Maybe nothing. But when I finally sat down to write an article about the Masters athlete population, these two quotations came to mind. I’m a psychologist who believes in the unconscious mind. I believe that when ideas surface in our minds in tandem, there is usually some meaningful connection between them, especially when two seemingly unrelated bits of content emerge almost simultaneously at the start of a single endeavor.

Perhaps for the competitive Masters athlete, a significant portion of our competitive drive comes from a desire to prove to ourselves that if the shit really hits the fan in our lives, we will do better and have more in the tank than we did before.
My unraveling of the mysterious connection is this: Bill is now fifty and has two children. He has quite a bit of life experience behind him. But he’d never been tested or forced to dig down deep and see what he’s made of until he suffered the effects of cancer and its treatment at age forty-eight. One might say that Bill’s daily “training” (carrying on in his job, his relationships, his self-care) pre-illness was just fine, maybe even stellar. But it wasn’t until the competition with cancer that Bill was forced to see if he could do better, fight harder, be stronger.

Somewhere in our psyches, we all possess some level of concern or fear about how we might hold up if the going were to get really tough. I don’t mean thirty-reps-of-clean-and-jerks-for-time kind of tough or a 5k-run-with-a-sandbag kind of tough. I mean hair-falling-out-life-being-sucked-out-of-you-while-your-kids-cry kind of tough. Or worse still, the kind of tough it would take to watch your own child go through cancer. As we age and experience the decline of our youth and the realities of getting older, these fears tend to intensify. Signs of our own mortality mix with the fact that we become less sheltered from “bad” happenings in the world and are more in touch with the potential for things to go wrong.

Perhaps for the competitive Masters athlete, a significant portion of our competitive drive comes from a desire to prove to ourselves that if the shit really hits the fan in our lives, we will do better and have more in the tank than we did before. We will fight harder, tolerate more, and access parts of ourselves that have never been tested or revealed before.  Our hope is that, like Bill, we will be STRONGER, because strong is the only choice we have.

Dr. Allison Belger is the author of The Power of Community: CrossFit and the Force of Human Connection and the creator of PsychologyWOD. Follow her on Twitter at @psychologywod.

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