Are you athletic? Or are you just in shape?
There’s a relatively new phenomenon I’ve noticed as of late; maybe I’m just not very observant and this has been around for quite some time, or maybe my perception is off and I’m totally crazy. In any case, I wanted to put this out on (virtual) paper and ask for some other opinions and observations, so here we go. It seems (to me) that there is a recent influx of individuals who are in incredible shape, but are not athletic. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I want to remind everyone of something Obi-Wan once told Luke, deep in the swamps of the Dagobah system: “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view”. So, for the purposes of this article, we first have to establish my point of view.
One of the definitions for ‘athletic’ that I found reads: “of or pertaining to athletes; involving the use of physical skills or capabilities, as strength, agility, or stamina”; obviously this definition is extremely broad (heck, the word “athlete” is in the word and definition). Much like the definition of “fitness” is very nebulous, the definition of “athletic” is right in the same realm. Is this bad? No. It just means we need some further refinement, which is where my point of view comes in. When I say ‘athletic’, I’m specifically referring to a person’s ability to use physical skills or capabilities while moving fluidly in three dimensions, specifically while playing a sport. And when I say ‘sport’, I’m referring to field sports: rugby, lacrosse, soccer, baseball, football, ultimate Frisbee, etc. I realize that this is a very narrow definition, but I ask you to stick with me for this.
First, I’ll explain what I mean in the idea of someone moving in three dimensions. Think back through your last few months of workouts; I would guarantee you’ve done some squats, pressing movements (bench, push-ups, press/push press/jerks), pulling movements (deadlifts, pull ups, rows, Olympic lifts), and probably some metabolic conditioning (sprints, rowing, jump rope, burpees). What do all of those movements have in common? They only move the body in one to two planes. What’s a plane? Well I’m glad you asked; for a quick crash course, take a look at the image below:
So we have three planes: Sagittal (divides the body into left and right halves), Coronal (divides the body into front and back halves), and Transverse (perpendicular to both the Sagittal and Coronal). All of those movements above fall into one of these planes, moving either straight up and down, or to the front and back. I can’t think of any CrossFit workouts (named or otherwise) that I’ve done that involve any sort of movement from side to side; moreover, I can’t think of any that ask us to move from one plane to another while performing a third task. I will freely admit I haven’t been in a CF gym for quite some time, so it’s very possible these workouts exist (which makes this whole article moot). Now think back to your experience on a sports field; was there ever a time when you only operated in ONE plane at a time? If you did, I would imagine you had a relatively short career. In field sports, the most successful athletes are able to transition seamlessly from one plane to another while still completing a given task (dribbling a ball, juking out a defender, tackling an opponent, etc.) without missing a beat.
Secondly, why ‘field sport’? Well, in today’s world, the idea of ‘sport’ is ever changing. The emergence of the National Professional Fitness League is just one example; below is a short list of some of the other sports that can be found around the world:
-National Sauna Championships
As you can see, the range here is broad, and each has in own unique training stress. Each requires a specific set of skills that really only apply to its slice in the wide world of sports. Conversely, if one is talented at one of the field sports (ex. Football), and decides to try a different one (say, soccer), he or she might not be able to dribble a soccer ball like David Beckham, but on a field they can sprint, plant, cut, change direction, and move right along with other experienced players on the field. And in general, they are able to pick up the new game in a relatively short amount of time, and play halfway decently. I would venture that everyone can think of an example of a person they know who has demonstrated this ability.
Now with the framework set, I’ll move on to my observations. Every Sunday I play Ultimate Frisbee down at the beach; it’s a pickup game so it’s not incredibly competitive and usually lasts for about 2-3 hours. At the very least, it’s an excuse to get outside and get some sun. More than once I’ve brought my friends from one of the local CF gyms who wanted to try it out. I would warn them that it can be a gasser; if you’ve never played, Ultimate brings in aspects of soccer and football (soccer in the sense of the length of game and constant movement, football in the sense of quick explosive sprints and fast changes of direction), all with the handling of a frisbee. They always give me a skeptical look; after all, they have conquered Fran, and Murph, and that one workout that had a gas mask and weighted vest; can handle the unknown and unknowable. Inevitably, they get on the field and find themselves getting run in circles by people who are far less in-shape than they are. It’s not that my friends aren’t fit; they are some of the fittest individuals I have met. But ask them to quickly change directions on a sprint, and they look like a bowl of jello trying to move around. They will be sprinting down the field for a catch, and rather than the executing plant/cut/sprint technique that I mentioned above, it’s more of a sprint, start chopping their steps to slow down, open their front leg and turn their body (thereby signaling the new direction of travel), then start sprinting again. And this isn’t an isolated incident; think back to the Games events that asked competitors to perform an “athletic” task like change direction or throw a softball. This pool of men and women competing for the title “fittest person on earth” had trouble completing these basic tasks.
I don’t bring this up in an attempt to bash CrossFit or other related activities in any way, shape or form. Rather, I bring it up because I find this whole situation interesting in that it has created a unique umbrella of fit but traditionally “unathletic” individuals. Usually, competitors went to the gym to better themselves on the field; activities in the gym were meant to build a raw strength base, while the individual skills required for the sport was honed on the field. With the huge growth of the CrossFit community and the development of the Sport of Fitness, the gym has effectively become the competition field. This adds a whole new level to the psychological aspect of competition (you know as you’re getting tired your opponent is too so you just have to outwork them; conversely, no matter how many times you thruster the barbell, 95lbs is always 95lbs), but also brought in this whole crowd of people who never played sports growing up, but are now considered an athlete. I’m not saying this is bad by any means (I actually think it’s awesome), it’s just very interesting to me that there is this whole subset of people willing to beat themselves down for the whiteboard, when there is nothing else to be gained.
I want to end this little article asking for inputs from the community. Thoughts? Comments? Disagreements? Keep in mind that, for the sake of this article, I defined “athletic” in terms of how it relates to field sports; I’m not saying that this is the only way to define the term. If anything, today’s wide world of sports have shown us that calling someone “athletic” is about as descriptive as calling someone “nice”. And again, this wasn’t an attempt to bash or put down folks in any way; it’s just one person’s observations in an ever growing arena.