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In Control but Not Controlling
How kettlebells can teach you everything you need to know.
Hi everyone, this week I’ve forgone the normal Stuff format to share a new article. This is a simple coaching cue for the gym that has become much more to me, morphing into an important element of my personal “rules of life.”
You can read the full article below or on the IHD website HERE.
In Control but Not Controlling
Every once in a while, I find a coaching cue that has applications far beyond the gym floor. I’ve found a personal guiding philosophy that grew out of the methods that I use to teach the kettlebell swing: be in control while not controlling.
The simplest possible way to understand a kettlebell swing is to think of it as pushing a child on a swing. Every pendulum has a natural rhythm based on its length and weight distribution—in this case, the weight of the child and the length of the chains. Your job is to match this natural rhythm and add force only in seamless harmony. If you halt the backswing too early, push too hard, or miss your timing, the motion of the swing will be jarring for both your back and your child. In a sense, you are in complete control as your timing and force dictate the whole motion of the swing. Yet, you are not controlling each moment. If you tried to control the full range of the swing, you would need to hold onto it and run back and forth. This is a funny image that doesn’t seem out of the question for some safety-obsessed parents but it’s also inefficient, not much fun for the child, and altogether the “wrong” way to use a swing set.
This balance of control and release dictates most kettlebell movements as well. Optimal performance, and thus optimal training effect, requires understanding how much, when, and where to exert your strength and when to relinquish control to the natural flow of the movement. Often, being in the most control means letting go of our expectations to dictate every detail and manage every moment.
Similarly, steering a motorcycle has little to do with input from the handlebars. A turn at high speed requires the bike and rider to roll sidewise. After leaning over to initiate the turn, the handlebars naturally follow to stabilize the movement. The rider must allow this to happen. Novice riders often try to exert too much control as they overestimate their role in the maneuver. This tight grip and body tension restricts the motion of the handlebars and prevents the bike from handling as it was designed to. A motorcycle, like a child on a swing or a kettlebell at arms-length, has a natural rhythm to its motion. Failure to honor this design results in slower and less stable turns which flips the balance of stress and fun for the rider. A skilled rider does not have a mastery over their machine, but rather feels respect for it. Like any harmonious partnership, a motorcycle rider understands which aspects of the ride are up to them as well as when to step back and let the bike’s natural abilities shine. Mastery requires humility. Safety requires a fluid transfer of responsibility back and forth. Ultimate control requires knowing when to ease your grip on the moment.
The 21st Century Relationship with Control
Technology allows us to control more aspects of our lives than ever before. We can live in near isolation from the cycles of the natural world. We can learn about a person’s history and preferences before ever meeting them. We can purchase anything from the device in our pocket and track the shipment in real-time. We can watch countless reviews and teasers before we choose a movie for date night. And most of us cannot recall the last time a friend stopped over for an unexpected visit without texting first.
With ever-growing control over our lives comes the increased expectation for control—the classic effect of luxuries slowly transforming to expectations and eventually necessities. Just this week, as I was researching new coffee shops to draft this very article, I was frustrated that the Google listings and websites for each shop didn’t show me the criteria that I cared most about: the number of tables available and suitable photos of the interior for me to thoroughly “vibe check” the space. Something as important as me and my article could not be left to mere chance.
It is as unrealistic to expect to learn such things from a quick Google search as it would be to learn what Shane smells like or how many ounces of water Marika will drink today. I searched the coffee shop only to learn their business hours so that I could plan my day, but my unconscious expectations from years of Google searches took over. I wanted to be shown exactly what I wanted to know precisely when the curiosity first struck. I expected too much control over this encounter, even as I was preparing to write an article expounding the folly of such expectations. Further, I chose to write at a new coffee shop specifically for the novelty and discovery (and the flow state they can help inspire). Control over the exact details undermines the sense of the unknown that I was seeking.
Dave Egger’s fictional yet telling masterwork, The Circle takes the trend of technology-fueled expectations to its logical end. It closes with the main character, Mae Holland standing over her best friend Annie in the hospital. Annie is in a comatose state from a nervous breakdown after learning some horrifying news about her family history from the ubiquitous and all-seeing technology of the day. Mae feels no concern for her friend, no remorse for her part in creating the technology, and no fear for its future implications. Instead, she feels deprived and frustrated that she cannot know the thoughts currently running through Annie’s unconscious mind.
Our expectations for control bring us nothing but emotional angst. Fortunately, our ability to know and control previously unknowable things lags behind the fictional world of The Circle, if only slightly. The more we can know, look up, and control, the more we expect these abilities. The more we expect these abilities, the lower the bar becomes for situations to completely overwhelm us. Increased expectations of control lead to frustration, fragility, and heartbreak.
Our “control issues” are far worse than just the distress that they bring. They also prevent us from experiencing the most beautiful elements of life. We find the deepest joy in situations where we must balance our personal agency with excitement and comfort for the unknown. Romance gets its excitement because we cannot fully know the contents of our partner’s mind and we cannot predict the exact outcome of opening our hearts or of linking our life to another person. Parenting is fulfilling because your conscious shaping will only dictate a tiny fraction of the person that your child will become. The rest falls to the cultural and social influences outside your control. You simply have a front-row seat to the discovery of this new, emerging person. Surfing inspires a mystical reverence in devotees because to ride a wave is to insert only slivers of agency and control into an unknown and shifting landscape. Riding a motorcycle is thrilling not only from the speed and acceleration but from the feeling that no matter how much you try to control the experience, you are ultimately just along for the ride.
Like swinging a kettlebell, we need to understand the natural movement of the world around us. Like riding a wave or a motorcycle, we need to see that the most powerful forces at work are outside of our control. Our role is to coordinate our movement with this natural motion and exert our control only when it will be most effective.
We can model our outlook on the cycles of tension and release used to swing a kettlebell. As I reach the top of a kettlebell swing, I bring my eyes to the horizon and allow my face to relax, and sometimes even smile. Only then, can I release my full body tension and take a breath in preparation for my next explosive effort. I can only give my best to the subsequent rep when I release, relax, and reset. The bell can only follow the proper path with the proper timing when I relinquish ultimate control once my part is complete. Constant stress and strain don’t allow our life to progress properly. This approach wears us down and ensures that we are never able to apply our full strength. Like a kettlebell swing, we need to learn to apply our strength only when warranted. And just as critically, we need to learn when to step back, observe the effects of that effort, and plan our next move.
When I feel frustrated or slighted, I find it helpful to ask myself how much of my angst is due to expectations of control over something that I have no business controlling. No generation before us was able to read a review, scroll a person’s social feed before meeting them, preview a scene from a live webcam, or purchase with a “satisfaction guarantee.” Disappointment, frustration, and seemingly unfair treatment were as natural as the rise and fall of the sun, and expecting to stop them was just as foolish.
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Thanks for reading!
Life is too short to be normal,