In the Hopper

One of Greg Glassman’s big innovations in creating CrossFit (whatever you think of its many pros and cons) was to set out a clear definition of what fitness actually is, as well as a set of clear proposals for how we might test it.

One of those proposals was the hopper test: in short, you write every exercise, every sport, every possible physical feat on pieces of paper, and drop them into a bingo hopper. Then you randomly draw out, say, ten of them, and make people perform those ten, randomly-selected physical tasks. By Glassman’s definition, the ‘fittest’ person would be the one who performed best, overall, on those randomly selected tasks.

But Glassman also observed that the hopper test has an interesting side-effect. Because we all know what we’re good at, and what we aren’t, if you were to actually participate in a hopper test yourself, you’d have a very clear idea of what you most wanted to see come out of that hopper, and what you’d most dread.

Perhaps you crush heavy weightlifting, but can’t run to save your life. Or perhaps you’re great at moving yourself around in space, but atrocious at anything involving flying objects and hand-eye coordination.

From that, Glassman posited what he though would be the theoretically best way to improve your athletic ability: imagine the five things you’d least want to see come out of the hopper. Then work on those, deliberately and intensely, until you mastered them to the degree that they became the things you actually most hoped to see selected. Then move to working on the next worst five.

In real life, that approach doesn’t work. Glassman mentioned he’d tried it briefly with his early personal training clients. And, in short, it’s so demoralizing to suck badly at everything you do, takes such an emotional toll, that his clients would simply drop out rather than repeatedly face those most-feared tasks.

So, instead, CrossFit was built on the idea of broad variation. With a wide array of stuff thrown at you, you’re forced to address the things you suck at, while also feeling buoyed up by getting to excel at the things you do well.

Still, that always reminded me of an observation from my trumpet teacher at Yale, a professor in the School of Music. He pointed out that if you walked up and down the practice room halls, you’d think you were listening to the New York Philharmonic warming up. Left to their own devices, students spent time practicing what they already did well, rather than take on the hard task of improving the areas where they fell short.

For me, running has always been my biggest athletic weakness. I dreaded the timed mile in gym class, and would demure when invited to join friends for a weekend jog. Sure, I pushed myself to do it when necessary, at one point even (unexpectedly) doing a half marathon. But I sure as hell wasn’t going running if I had the choice.

That’s why, this year, I resolved to stop sucking at running. It’s the reason I took on several months of SEALFIT, and the reason I’ve been following Power Speed Endurance programming ever since.

So far this year, I’ve almost certainly run more than I did in the decade prior. And though I’m still not a good runner, still won’t be lining up at a road race start anytime soon (even for a 5k, much less a marathon), I can definitively say it’s paid off. My times have improved, and my distances have increased. But, more importantly, it no longer seems like something I tell myself I “can’t” do. Today, I ran a mile as part of my workout warm-up, and another as part of the cool down. And though that isn’t much, for the first time, I found myself setting out on each run with no trepidation. I knew I’d be totally fine. And I felt ready to consider what might come next on the most-feared list of my personal hopper test.

May 27, 2016