Discovering life beyond the barbell / by Dana McMahan

But wait, there’s more

I’ve told a lot of my story on this blog, about my brief shooting star in powerlifing, the too bright-too soon star that crashed and burned.  But there was a lot that I didn’t talk about, here or anywhere. Until my story in Elle magazine on this experience came out this week.

Runaway Train: What happens when a sport changes your life-and then you can’t do it anymore? Carried away by the power of powerlifting, Dana McMahan discovered new abilities and hard limits.

Writing this story and dissecting the experience in the weeks following my injury and surgery served as therapy (helpful, since there are no sport psychologists where I live). It was also profoundly painful (have you ever poured alcohol on an open wound?) because it required an unflinching look at my issues; an analysis of truly why I kept going when I knew I was hurt. We all have issues, but we don’t all write about them in a magazine with more than a million readers.  Let me tell you, it’s freaking scary. I had nightmares in the days leading to publication.

So if you read it, I’d like to give you an online addendum. I only got 2,000 words and could have spent that on just the great stuff alone. The dysfunction -– my own and that in the relationship with my coach — could have used another 5,000. (For that matter, my editor said this was a book, not a single article!) Luckily I don’t impose a word count on myself here.

I spoke with some very insightful sport psychologists during my research, and while unfortunately the word limit meant we didn’t get to include some of their quotes, they had quite an impact on me so I want to share them here (especially for female readers, who are – I learned– at more risk).

“With a personal training relationship, it can be hard to clarify and hold to important boundaries,” says sport psychology consultant Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Athletic Coaching Education at Western Virginia University College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, and a former weightlifting coach herself. “There is the potential for dysfunction to occur… more likely in someone with lower self esteem, less experience, who hasn’t received the kind of approval they needed in other areas of life. Women are also more likely to fall into this area, particularly when we are talking about a physical activity realm, an area that many women don’t get a lot of support or encouragement in.”

She went on to say, “Athletes will put up with emotional abuse that in any other setting they wouldn’t tolerate,” she says, “because the coach holds the key to elite performance and achievement.”

“People coming in with low self esteem looking for surrogate confidence and approval … it’s a dysfunctional place for the athlete because the center of confidence is coming from an external motivator,” she says. “They’re crushed when the coach isn’t happy and on cloud nine when he is.” (She said this without even knowing that the day I finally hit my goal of bodyweight bench press, instead of celebrating, I cried on my drive home because my coach hadn’t been excited – he’d said I should have done more.)

“The person wraps up their whole being in the sport and the coach, believing ‘they’re the one that knows best for me.’ The athlete loses the ability to listen to that little internal voice. When the coach is not aware or doesn’t care … When he doesn’t understand the impact [he has] and the potential for damage, and you have an athlete who has low self confidence and puts the coach’s thoughts above their and own relinquishes control, you have a recipe for disaster.”

Though it’s sad to think that other people have gone through similarly painful experiences, it also made me feel immensely better to know that I wasn’t alone in my reaction to the situation.

While she helped me get some perspective on the coach-athlete dynamic, Eddie O’Connor, Ph.D., a clinical sport psychologist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, shed light on my inner drive to keep going.

“You were getting something so incredibly powerful and rewarding that met such a tremendous need of power,” he says. “And you just kept wanting to feel that.” He compares this compulsion to the inclination to speed through a yellow light—a natural tendency for athletes, he says. “A lot of times you just want to close your eyes and muscle through.” But, he warns, speeding through as the light turns red often ends in a crash.

There was lots more, but word count or no, I know there’s a limit to what you will read!

I appreciate both of these experts talking with me. Although I wish we could have included their insights in my story, I hope it means something to them that speaking with them helped me a great deal. It helped me stop blaming myself (so much, anyway) and has equipped me to be healthier in my training and relationships moving forward.

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5 responses

  1. Can you provide a link to the original article? Is it online?

    May 18, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    • I wish I could! It’s not online – I’m not sure when/if they’ll post it (they still have the May issue on their site), but if they do I’ll be sure to link it up on here.

      May 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm

  2. Paul

    Very interesting I never appreciated the value of a positive coach/trainee relationship before this post!

    May 21, 2012 at 2:21 pm

  3. Wow… I’ve never worked out with personal trainers or coaches before. I had no idea the kind of impact they could have on a person’s psyche.

    May 21, 2012 at 10:56 pm

  4. [from Kyle Schuant]
    I was responding to someone who posted saying she didn’t realise the client-trainer relationship was such a big deal.

    I’m a PT, so I can tell you – you spend a lot of time together, and the trainer sees the client at their most vulnerable. We’re vulnerable when we’re doing things at the edge of our capabilities, and when we’ve had a long-sought success or a frustrating failure.

    A good coach or trainer will congratulate you on what you’ve achieved, and encourage you to achieve more. If they’re too congratulatory with now then they’re letting you stay where you are, but if they push you too hard you may end up injuring yourself, or driving home crying. It can be a difficult balance, and the point of balance will differ for each person, what is “encouragement” to one person will be “pressure” to another.

    As I said above, success leaves us as vulnerable as failure. I’ve seen it many times, where a client completes a personal best lift, racks the weight, and instead of jumping in happiness they turn towards me to see my reaction. So your comment about going home crying after a very good lift really hit home for me.

    If the coach is perceptive and the two have a good relationship with a lot of openness, honesty and trust, they’ll figure things out. Everyone makes mistakes in their relationship with others, it’s simply that in the fitness world you sometimes make a mistake when someone has 100kg on their back, so the consequences are pretty serious.

    Your blog and experiences have given me a lot to think about as a trainer, I’ve shared it with some women clients of mine. Keep it up.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:11 pm

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