Poetic Faith in False Idylls
Recently, I’ve found myself shying away from the use of the label “athlete” around the gym. Maybe because it’s an artifact of a faux counterculture that pisses loudly on limitations and pukes triumphantly on the chalk-frosted floor, and calling everyone an athlete taxes my capacity to suspend my disbelief over certain kinds of unbelievable bullshit when I’m forced to accept other kinds of unbelievable bullshit issuing forth from this septic masquerade.
What is an athlete anyway? We can look up the word in various dictionaries and get some sort of pedestrian blah along the lines of this. Yay. Rah. Whatever. Honestly, I don’t really care if you want to label everyone an athlete—maybe you think it sounds better than referring to everyone as “clients.” Kinda mutes the unfun economic dimension of the relationship, while highlighting the utopian fantasy on which that economic relationship relies. But tell me, how does this ubiquitization square with your loud and triumphant aversion to such noxious idols of the PC culture as participation trophies?
I can get behind the “athlete” label when attached to fitness competitors or those clients who train exclusively to improve their sports performance. But what about other gym denizens? The harried moms, the stressed professionals, the reluctant “uncoordinated” kids? What about them? Are they really athletes?
A few years ago, I began playing around with a concept as a way to capture what I was seeing with The Brand X Method™: “new athleticism.” The idea is that we may not all be athletes, but we can all be athletic. Anybody and everybody has athletic potential. It was meant to convey the broad, inclusive, and general character of TBXM, as well as its goal of longevity in physical activity across the life course. Please don’t steal it and use it in your next overproduced fitness video. I felt that I was onto something, and I was. But it turns out that my “new athleticism” was only new to me.
Adderall in the Family
Since 2011, I’ve spent a good deal of time writing about my younger son, the squid. I’ve never said a peep about my older boy, who we used to call “the squeak,” but is now a full-blown teenager and decidedly unsqueaky. The reason for this bias is simple: my main interest for the last five years has been youth athletic development and the squid has served as a convenience sample of one for my observations on sport specialization and intensive participation, whereas the ex-squeak faded out of sports a while ago.
He’s an interesting study, my older boy. When both kids were tidbits, my wife and I knew he’d be the heartbreaker and the squid would be the ballbreaker (the ensuing years have done little to dissuade us of this). Something about him, my older son… he always seemed to be running on a parallel track, never quite fitting in, intelligent though with an artistic streak (one that he refuses to explore), but a bit… blurry. School was a challenge and social situations awkward. About five years ago, his pediatrician diagnosed him with ADD (without the H, which research is now suggesting is less about attention deficit and more about executive function impairment). “Off the charts” ADD, we were told. The diagnosis was made solely on the basis of a Likert scale questionnaire that we and his teacher answered. It almost seems that, depending on my mood and the weather, my answers coulda had him labeled an anxious-depressive, a mime, a psychopath.
With very little knowledge of the condition, my instinct was to address it via nutrition*, but the pediatrician strongly recommended Adderall, which, he said, would eventually “rewire” my son’s brain. I was not thrilled, but the fact is the kid was and remains a ferociously finicky eater (set on that path in part by new parental expedience) and trying to get him to change his diet would’ve been a tedious and aggravating grind. Frankly, the Adderall steadied him enough to turn his grades around, and he was keenly aware of the drug’s positive impact on his ability to focus. So we stuck with it, and we allowed him to dictate his dosage. He usually stopped taking it during summer breaks and, this school year, he simply didn’t resume—his choice, and my wife and I fully supported the decision, both of us happy at this point to wean him off the meds. Perhaps the Adderall has rewired his brain, or perhaps this rewiring is simply a matter of maturation—his executive function, among other things, coming online. I don’t know enough about it, but I do know that he’s maintaining A’s at the moment and we’re not wrestling with him nearly so much over homework and projects and remembering chores as in past years.
He’s not symptom free, but I’m not sure if you call them symptoms or character traits. He’s got his own drummer and the beat is deceptive and trippy with prog metal time signatures. There are times when I feel he’s ghosting along a band of some highly refined spectrum that science is only beginning to understand, and adding even more confusion is that I can’t tell where an alleged condition ends and adolescence begins. Another instinct whispers to me that I need to let my boy be who is, that I shouldn’t kowtow to the rectangular strictures of a society compelled to identify, define, and label all things as a way to concoct order.**
Whether the kid is actually impaired or simply different, I know that exercise can help with some of those traits that make it harder for him to march within the established (acceptable) rhythms of society.
My son’s favorite pastime is gaming. His computer is about the size of a chunk of Stonehenge and customized enough to possess Skynet, and nowhere is he more at ease, more engaged, more joyful, than when he’s online with his disembodied friends fucking virtual shit up. Don’t talk to me about the evils of videogames. Don’t share with me details of your strictly enforced device-free zone in your preciously tidy and super-organized neo-Craftsman-style home. Don’t tell me about how your kids prefer authentic vintage wooden toys, and spare me the photos of your children stretching their own vellum on which to scribe their sonnets. According to research, there are reasons why the instant feedback of videogaming is so appealing to those with conditions similar to my son’s, so I’m inclined to allow him the freedom to do something that brings him some comfort and grounding. And I’m inclined to quote (often) Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell: “Everybody is so full of shit.”
However, in practical terms, my son spends too much time physically inactive, whether it’s gaming or interacting on forums or reading or watching Family Guy, so I make him hit the gym twice a week. He’s part of the teen weight lifting class and attends conditioning class afterward. Pretty sure if no one mentioned it he’d be perfectly content never going to either again. Ever. But when I say it’s time to roll off to the gym, he gears up with no comment, no fuss, and absolutely no enthusiasm.
There’s this affectless quality to his efforts at the gym. He gets after it like Hannibal Lector tossing together a light snack. He never bats an eye at what’s asked of him; in fact, he wears a thousand-yard stare the entire time, his expression delicately smoked with the most subtle hues of reptilian contempt. Us coaches are leery of wandering across that hooded Damien gaze for fear of being burned to ash.
It’s kinda funny, actually.
Labeling theory centers on the idea that self-identity can be socially constructed according to labels ascribed by (usually majority) social groups. It’s classic sociology (see, e.g., Howard S. Becker’s Outsiders ), and it’s gotten the most mileage in the study of deviance. The theory suggests a pretty powerful phenomenon: When a social group labels an individual as “not social norm X,” that individual adopts the identity and behaviors of “not social norm X,” essentially becoming “not social norm X.” As Eminem put it: “And I am, whatever you say I am. If I wasn’t, then why would you say I am?” Although it pertains mostly to criminal and deviant behavior, I think labeling theory plays well in other games (marketing, politicking, anywhere there’s spin) as well as on smaller scales.***
I also think it’s fair and fairly obvious to say that labeling draws much of its potency as a dynamic in what are essentially power relationships. The coach-client interaction carries many of the characteristics typical of a power relationship. So yeah, I can see how if coaches and trainers are calling clients “athletes,” some portion of the latter could embrace the idea. Is that a bad thing? No. In fact, adopting the identity and behavior of an “athlete” (whatever the fuck trainers mean by this label) can lead to genuine benefits for some clients (and for the retailers who sell athletic gear like uppity-sloganed t-shirts and tall funky socks and competitive fitness footwear).
But a power relationship only functions if both sides play along. My kid ain’t playing along. Even if he registered the word “athlete” in his mind, it wouldn’t mean much to him; he just doesn’t care. I think to some extent that this may be true of a significant percentage of our clients. The idea of being tagged an “athlete” might seem slightly absurd to someone who hardly knows his way around a barbell and is just thrilled to be at the gym getting some exercise. To me, the Pollyannaish-no-excuses-no-fear-we’re-all-capable-of-everything-hyper-earnest-Howdy-Doody-smiley-face utterance is perfunctory and ultimately gutless, not to mention fucking condescending. Like telling my dad that he’s “80 years young” to protect him from the fact that he’s 80 years old. He’s 80 years old for chrissakes. You think that old bastard needs to be protected from words?
Yes, words can be mighty. I have a degree in anthropology and spent a decade editing sociological stuff, so I’ve had my fair dosage of discourse analysis and semiotics. Words are empty vessels until we imbue them with meaning—and power. But that doesn’t mean a trainer—even one of unassailable authority—can say, “You’re an athlete,” and, voilà, Nanu**** appears. Not without the client’s buy in.
However, I do think that people can become more athletic, that they can develop an athletic self.
“You mean like an athlete,” you say.
“Yes,” I say.
“But not an athlete,” you say.
“Right,” I say.
“Because having the nerve to call someone an athlete is condescending,” you say.
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“That sounds like bullshit,” you say.
Let’s look at my sophomoric “new athleticism.” Over the years of working with two different kinds of teens—those who came in “off the street” and those who matriculated up from the Brand X Kids program—it appeared to me that long exposure to the program created athletes from the clay of “non-sporty” and sometimes sedentary children. But during this time of discovery, I was also learning a lot about prevailing models of athletic development, and what I wanted to s
ee as some expanded form of athleticism actually fell within the conceptual realm of “physical literacy.”
I gave the briefest description of the term in my last post. TBXM isn’t making athletes; it’s developing the physical literacy potential that every kid (every person) possesses. What I thought was a new athleticism was really something quite old, primal even, an expression of a fundamental dimension of human being.
I don’t call my older son an athlete. And neither should you. With a smoldering look, he’d call bullshit. In his mind, an athlete is the kid who struts around campus wearing a jersey on game day. The kid whose label gets broadcast on social media every minute by proud parents busy managing their online identities (a form of self-labeling maybe). But you know what? There’s a distinct possibility that the signifying athlete can’t do strict pull-ups or squat without stressing his knees. My kid can. My kid does 40+-inch box jumps; he power cleans and snatches with complete aplomb; he climbs rope, and he runs with a wonderful stride. And he DGAF. He’s no athlete and doesn’t want to be one, but he becomes more physically literate every time he comes to Brand X. That means—whether he knows it or not, whether he likes it or not, whether he GAFs or not—he’s preparing himself for a lifetime of physical activity; he’s sharpening his self-concept, bolstering his self-esteem, broadening his worldview, and stimulating his cognitive functioning.
One of the pillars of TBXM coaching is fostering a culture of success. The intent is for kids to have a space in which to empower themselves, and they can only do that if they internalize that culture. No amount of simply talking about it will create that culture if the kids don’t embrace the ideas. Words can be empowering, but they’re empty sacs of wuh-wuh-wuh unless filled with shared meaning. That’s the essence of language—and that’s a critical driver of physical literacy. We just need to be careful not to fill our words full of shit.
* A few years later, I found support for my vague instinct in David Perlmutter’s Grain Brain.
** I think this compulsion to force-fit order feeds our dark love affair with the apocalypse, total breakdown.
*** I find that the TV show Dark Matter plays around with this theory.
**** Hadn’t thought about this movie in years. Then I did. A black American coach travels to Africa and stumbles across the world’s greatest athlete, who happens to be white, like sun-struck-crypto-Aryan-surfer-looking white. Anybody else’s eyebrow rise?