When CrossFit coach Adam James first started coaching classes at The Arsenal, I thought he was a bit of a jerk. He seemed to be moody and a little aloof. He wasn’t someone I tried to chat with or talk to on a regular basis.
That was two years ago.
Recently, Adam let me squeeze one of his thighs. I was trying to figure out why Adam could squat 3,000 lbs. more than me. I don’t go around regularly asking men if I can touch their thighs, this was for scientific purposes. It was like squeezing a spandex-clad tree trunk.
“Oh,” I said. “That makes sense.”
Adam remembers those first classes too.
“I was shitting my pants,” he told me. “I don’t like talking in front of big groups of people. So my first class there were 10-15 people staring at me saying, ‘Ok, what do we do?’ And I was just like uhhhhhh…..”
Mark Twain has a quote that may apply here: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
It’s not that Adam didn’t know what he was talking about. He had an exercise science degree from Ball State, years of training as a swimmer, cyclist, body builder, a Level 1 CrossFit coaching certification, and, as a founding member of The Arsenal, he had been doing CrossFit workouts for months. Adam had the chops, but he also had a nice side of self-doubt as any of us do starting a new job. And more importantly, he had a history of being rejected.
Which makes me feel even worse for thinking he was bit of a jerk. His aloofness wasn’t a character flaw but a defense mechanism.
Adam was bullied
Adam lived in South Bend, Notre Dame country, but his dad graduated from Purdue.
“I wore a Purdue jacket to school one day, and that was the end of it. Then after that, it was just whatever reason they could find to pick on me. I’d come home from school crying, and it was rough, very rough. I got punched in the stomach a few times. Grade school wasn’t as bad as high school. In high school, everything just kind of escalated. I never got physically beat up in high school, just more mentally and emotionally. I never had a lot of friends, and I was always just ‘that kid.’ Even to this day, I could never figure out why it was me.”
“It put me in a really, really dark spot for like four or five years where I was depressed. That continued into college because when you get beat up and bullied all the time, it really destroys your confidence . . . For a really long time it was very challenging for me to talk to people and trust people and create relationships because I thought it was going to be one of those things where this is going to be the same thing as last time.”
“When it got super bad, I was talking to one friend, and I was on the edge, like “[Screw] it! Why am I here?’ I was ready to check out, see you later.”
Adam had thought it through. He had a plan of how he was going to kill himself. Imagine a world without Adam James. That was the world Adam imagined.
His friend did the world a favor and talked him out of it.
Adam Finds CrossFit
He still suffered bouts of depression throughout college and transitioned into his quarter-life crisis post graduation as he worked at several different gyms before meeting Jennifer Stanley. She told him about the CrossFit gym her friend, BJ McKay, was starting. Adam was the 6th member to sign on with The Arsenal.
“Then when I started working out at The Arsenal, I guess I used it as an outlet. Those thoughts would still creep in every once in a while. And now, they don’t, because through CrossFit and through our community, there are people actually out there who give a shit and care about me. [I learned that] not everyone is going to stab me in the back or try to destroy my life for no reason.”
“I need CrossFit. I don’t do it because I like it and I like to be in shape. That’s just kind of an added bonus. I need it for mental health. If I didn’t have our community, if I didn’t have the family I have at the gym, I’d be a wreck.”
“So from a confidence level, I can get up in front of a class and say, ‘Hey this is what we’re doing,’ and it doesn’t bother me. And I [went] from zero confidence from how my childhood was to now having a lot of confidence . . . and being able to get up in front of a big group of people. And it doesn’t matter if it’s in CrossFit or outside of CrossFit.”
“By nature, I’m very much introverted, but if you see me at the gym, you wouldn’t think so. Now get me to a bar, and then you’re like, ‘Ok, yeah, he’s introverted.’ When I know what I’m talking about and I know what’s going on, it doesn’t bother me at all. So just from that aspect, I’ve changed and grown a lot. And also how I approach relationships. I think I’m a lot more trusting and don’t have to worry about people screwing me over. I’m sure it’s going to happen again, but I’m at the point where if that’s what they want to do, that’s on them, not something I did.”
Adam met his girlfriend Laura Howard through The Arsenal and started to go with her to church at Commonway where Arsenal member Matt Carder is the pastor.
“I lead a small group at Commonway [church]. It was just one of those things I would have never done before. And after our second meeting, I was just kind of the leader [I was] the one that talked the most and made the decisions. It comes natural for me now, which is really nice.”
“I’m still in the military [National Guard] and got promoted to sergeant and moved into a leadership role. Two years ago I would have never thought of doing that. So it’s helped me a lot to develop into a leader. BJ has done a really good job at developing [the coaches at The Arsenal] and challenging us as leaders and how to be a valuable part of a team instead of being individuals. So that has helped a lot. He’s given us books to read, stuff like that, and kind of changed the way I do things and think about the world.”
Adam does every workout almost every day. He was a little disappointed with his finish in the CrossFit Open even though he placed a few thousand places higher than last year. Ultimately his goal is Regionals.
“Bodyweight workouts . . . that’s my stuff. Heavy squats and bodyweight stuff, except for handstand pushups. . . The thing with handstand push-ups, once they’re gone, they’re gone. I would kind of pick and choose before what workouts I do, and I often avoided ones with handstand push-ups because I knew I was bad at them.”
CrossFit coaches: they are just like us! Except Adam changed. Now he makes sure he doesn’t miss the workouts he’s not good at.
“So now, every time there is a workout with handstand push-ups, I do it. Do the ones you are not good at.”
I reminded Adam of his struggle with double-unders.
“They were terrible. That was another thing I would avoid. I hated them. I hated getting whipped by the rope. I hated missing. I’d throw my jump rope across the room. It was frustrating. So I started practicing [double-unders] ten minutes a day. At first I hated it, and I didn’t get any better, and it was frustrating. Even back in October, which was less than six months ago, I still was not good at them. One day, it clicked. I bought a new expensive rope, and it fit. I could do 50-60 in a row, where before I was struggling to get ten or twenty. It was a year and a half of struggling. Erica McKay sent me a video a few months ago of me trying to do double-unders, and it was awful. She said one day you will look back at this and laugh at how bad they were. Now when double-unders show up in a workout, I’m like alright, let’s do this. That was a long journey. It helped me with coaching. I can be like, I was in your shoes, for like a year and a half.”
“People need to focus more on doing a movement correctly than trying to get more weight. If you’re not hitting full depth on a squat, it doesn’t really count. I don’t care how much weight you have on the bar, if you’re not going all the way down, what’s the point? So practicing form over adding weight, which is partly my job, and partly your job, too. You know your abilities so don’t get a big head and try to put up a bigger number. Second thing is just listening to what your coach tells you. If you’re unsure about something, ask the coach. Don’t be afraid to approach us. We’re there to help you.”
I asked Adam about some of the coaching moments that stand out, secretly hoping he would talk about my overhead squat or something, but he didn’t.
“When Brooke Shrieve got her first pull-up, that was a big deal. She jumped like a koala bear into my arms. It scared the crap out of me. But I had worked with Brooke for so long on just being able to do strict pull ups . . . that was a really big coaching moment for me. Now there are moments where it is just second nature as a coach to say, “No do this…” and boom, they get it. With Courtney yesterday, I helped her fix her kip with handstand push-ups, and now she’s doing handstand push-ups. Jenn Stanley walking on her hands and getting down and saying, “I’m amazing!” That was a cool moment, too. Little things everyday that you don’t really think that much about because it happens multiple times a day, but to them, that’s huge.”
“I guess as coaches we don’t realize that we make that much of an impact and when you have that much impact on someone’s day, you always have to make sure you bring your A game whether it’s your first class you coach or your last class you coach.”
“I always tell people, if you want to get good at this stuff, you have to come consistently, just come in and work hard and everything else will take care of itself. You are going to have bad days, but come in the next day, and I guarantee it is going to be better.”
Through CrossFit Adam found a girlfriend, a church, a mentor, confidence, and a family. In CrossFit as in life, results may vary. Although we may never squat more than Adam nor complete 28 rounds of Cindy, we all can show up each day a little better and a little more determined than the day before.
High-fives and fist bumps, laughs and smiles, and perhaps the occasional thigh squeeze are how we celebrate, but it’s the struggle that connects us all.