Potential

Zarzy, 14.2.

Zarzy, 14.2.

This is the first of a three-part series on virtuosity and excellence.

As a CrossFit trainer, I am always pushing my athletes. As a coach and a teacher, I don’t hesitate to modulate my voice to get greater performance from my athletes (read: I am not scared to yell). However, and I think this is very important, I strive always to understand the potential of the people with whom I am working. This is a tricky thing, because everybody’s potential is different. CrossFit is all about going faster, lifting heavier, doing more, just being better, than the day before, but everyone has a limit to how much faster or stronger they can be at that moment. Or ever, for that matter, and then better has to take on a new meaning, less tangible and more esoteric.

Many years ago, I trained in a particularly brutal and effective style of Japanese jujutsu.  Although it was quite old, it was a bit of a maverick style that was looked upon a little askance by the rest of the martial arts community (remind you of anything?). I was lucky to train at the headquarters, a small nondescript building with torn mats and holes in the walls near the center of Tokyo, featuring excellent teachers and some of the best fighters in a city which abounded with martial arts gyms.

Somehow, amid some truly excellent fighters and a well deserved reputation for hard training,  a middle aged American woman with zero previous athletic experience and no appreciable fitness level gained entrance. When after several years of training, she finally earned her black belt, I was upset and a bit enraged. I didn’t feel that she had the physical ability or the technical skill to embody the ranking and I felt that it made a mockery of my own rankings.

My master got wind of these feelings (I think he was able to read my mind, but I have never been a very good poker player), and had a little talk with me. He explained that, while I might be the better fighter, have better technique, and more knowledge than this woman, she should actually be of higher rank than me because her ability was closer to her potential than mine was. He explained to me that while we may be students of a fighting art, real mastery, especially in an age when men no longer settled differences with 3 feet of steel, lay in reaching one’s potential. And by that yardstick, as I had much more potential than this woman, I had further to go than she did and had.

To someone raised in a society where A comes before B and 1st is hierarchically better than 2nd, this was a difficult concept. In retrospect (please remember that I was quite young then), I am not sure how much affect this talking to had on my youthful confidence that I was right, but it has stuck with me over the years. Especially when I started to make my living as a teacher or a trainer of some sort. My master’s idea that potential reached, regardless of level, is a yardstick for mastery is of special significance to me.

As I train people of every conceivable fitness level and athletic ability, I strive to always understand the relative potential of each person who enters my gym or dojo, and I can usually see that potential far more readily than the person in question can. And I always keep in mind that it is really the effort, not the performance, that truly marks a person.

Thoughts? Please post them to Comments.