Preparation & Scaffolding

One of my favorite theorists is Vygotsky. His work influenced how I taught aquatics forever and it’s time to revisit an old friend.

Last Saturday, my coach said he wanted me to know what 205 felt like in my hands. We are working on my deadlift and while I’ve pulled 190 a few times, 205 would be a lovely PR on track to make the goal weight in June. All I had to do was lift it out of the rack from about mid-thigh and hold it. At first, I couldn’t lift the weight. The bar wouldn’t budge. After a moments thought, he re-loaded the bar to 185 and described how he would put 205 in my hands. My job was to lift the bar out of the rack, and he would load extra weight once the bar was up. It worked. Today we lifted from 45s instead of the floor, which puts the bar higher than my sticking point, and I pulled the 205 which wouldn’t budge from the rack a few days ago.

Vygotsky’s idea is a novice can accomplish a task beyond his capabilities with support from an expert. Vygotsky was concerned with cognitive tasks and we first became acquainted during an educational psychology class. Over time, the novice learns how to learn and the expert’s assistance at that level can be removed. Others have extended the work and refined ideas of how far the novice can stretch with assistance. The distance is personal, called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). If the expert places the novice too high, even with coaching, the novice will be unable to complete the task. If the expert places the novice too low, the learner will be unmotivated because he has already mastered the content. Because these concepts are nearly 100 years old and absorbed into common knowledge, my exercise-science-trained weightlifting coach flawlessly erected appropriate physical and mental supports and withdrew them as they became unnecessary.

The expert has to deconstruct the skill and the learner into their component parts, and adapt the attempt at the skill to the learner. Not every expert is naturally able to teach a novice because most experts have internalized complex skills and forget how many parts there are. For example, a meme floated through my social media feed and claimed “Showing up on time” required zero skill. Showing up anywhere on time is actually a complex skill, as any parent of a four-year-old can attest. We spend inordinate amounts of energy teaching small children how to create a system to ensure they have clean clothes, a clean body, whatever materials they must take with them, acceptable shoes, and transportation. Perhaps a meal or a snack before leaving is necessary. If there is no expert in your house to teach you how to plan and prepare to be somewhere on time, you may or may not learn. If your expert’s teaching consisted of yelling or unrealistic expectations, you may or may not learn. You may learn you aren’t the kind of person who is ever on time, and incorporate that belief into your identity. “Showing up on time” is the result of the successful execution of a complex sequence of skills, resting on the ability of the prefrontal cortex to manage executive functioning.

Everyone needs a little help now and then. The best help is a carefully constructed set of supports which allow the learner to teach himself and are then removed.

Friday I will pull 205 from the floor.



Saturdays have this strange, roller-coaster quality. I can go to the garage and lift! Yea! I have to go to class. Boo! Saturday is squat day! Boo. My squat is getting better! Yea! Equanimity is still a goal state for me. I spend a lot of my time on the various roller-coasters in the amusement park that is my life right now.

And I feel angry. Really angry. It has something to do with the end of the semester and graduation and life pressures. That’s fair. What wasn’t fair was throwing the barbell after a few sets of terrible squats. Nothing felt right. My knees were creaky, the squat wasn’t deep enough, the shelf wasn’t supporting my upper body and a warm-up weight was kicking my ass. It felt so wrong, I picked the bar up off my back, hoisted it overhead, and threw it into the J-hooks from about three feet, and yelled “No!”

The garage is supposed to be my happy place, where the weight makes it all go away. I don’t have to share it with my family or the people at school. The garage is my place, where I have space and excellence and effort, and the barbarians tore down the gate. Like most people, I resorted to blame. It’s their fault, those people. Those people who are not me. They stole one of the happiest hours of my week.

If you live for a few hours in the week, you’re doing something wrong.

I am doing something wrong. First, the expectation of equanimity is bullshit, at least for now. Second, what’s creating the base conflict is an uncertainty surrounding what I’ll be doing after graduation. Third, fueling the base conflict is a reflexive checking with the voices in my head for direction. They are not helpful, and never have been. I should fire them. A few quiet moments to check in with a good friend is what was desperately needed, and wasn’t happening. These last two weeks are filled with other people’s business. Class is for professors. Field is for patients. Home is for homework. The garage is for me and I couldn’t keep the barbarians out. My coach is not my therapist. We have a relationship, but not that kind of relationship, and my barbarians are my business.

What did we learn? We confirmed performance is linked more to joy than to sleep. I’ve staggered into Saturday mornings, happy to be there, on four hours of sleep and a previous day’s diet I wouldn’t confess to my macro counter, and lifted well and easily. Yesterday’s shit show followed three straight nights with seven hours of sleep and good nutrition. It’s all about me and my head space.

Self-compassion is the way out. It’s understandable to feel angry right now, and I’m sorry I’m going through this. It’s hard and it sucks. I’m good at what I do, what I have to offer is valuable. I don’t have to be at the top of my game everyday and I’m proud of myself for sticking with it, loading the bar and working through what I could.

The barbarians can suck it.

Ready Player One.

Read the book last year, saw the movie tonight. I found the movie to be a disappointment for a variety of reasons and combined with a reflection on Molly Ringwald’s piece on the drive home, realized the Cool Kids still only pretend to understand and like us. Molly Ringwald doesn’t realize she was not the innocent hero in Breakfast Club, her character deserved to be called names and her job was to realize she wasn’t any better than the other kids. The audience understood.

I was never a gamer, and quit playing my one MMORPG before starting grad school. There were, however, years when slipping on the headphones and sliding into my online persona felt more real than my life. A gamer friend pointed me toward the William Gibson book, Neuromancer, because he said I reminded him of the main character. “You aren’t playing the same game the rest of us are.”

Tonight in the theater, the audience laughed at the fat woman dancing on a pole in her VR universe. Alone in her trailer, she wore hot pink velour and danced for an unseen audience who appreciated what she had to offer. Somewhere, she was desirable, and people in the theater found the notion preposterous, as intended, and laughed. The movie played lip service to the tragedy with a voice-over by the main character, explaining how people could be anyone in the Oasis. The book was much more direct, showing as the economy moved from real life to virtual life, real life ceased to exist except for the people who operated the online universe and its requisite real life infrastructure. There should have been no people on the streets in the movie. Everyone is at home, imprisoned by rigs which allow them to pretend to escape their imprisonment, receiving deliveries from drones, isolated from other people. Only the very poor and very rich still are outside.

The appearance of the Molly Ringwald piece was coincidental,  but the leader of the corporatist scum of IOI was styled to resemble the vice principal from Breakfast Club, Richard Vernon. Do you remember when the Internet was the opposite of corporatist? When it was going to free us, connect us, and let us wander the world of ideas? Now you’re imprisoned by your Facebook advertiser profile and aggregate activity, with Twitter and Google deciding what you may see and read and watch. We accept the deliveries from search bots as if they were all the world had to offer, and remain isolated from people who don’t think as we do.

The amount of time and effort it takes to master game content is staggering, and the high-end gamers I knew would shrug it off as inconsequential. It was possible to spend thirty or forty hours a week playing the game and still not reach the highest levels of play. Excellent play required research, preparation, and social capital inside the game. Moving to higher levels of play involved remembering incredible minutia, e.g. running into the walls of an elevator while it descends in a particular quest allows the player to drop through the floor and reach the bottom a split-second earlier. Only noobs ride it all the way down. Someone had to find that hole, reproduce it, and transmit the knowledge through their social network. The movie invented an impossible first stage to the easter egg hunt. It is inconceivable that an entire player base of expert VR gamers didn’t turn around to find the back way to the solution and the first key. Only noobs run the actual quest. The key to winning is in the metagame, which the book illustrated again and again. The movie missed the mark by trying to make a movie which appeals to the masses, who, like Molly Ringwald, don’t realize they aren’t one of us.

Sometimes I miss being able to sit down with a glass of iced tea, a sandwich, and tirelessly roam lush landscapes with my great sword in hand. I miss all the people and the laughter and the sense of accomplishment. There is a line in the movie, uttered by the female lead, Art3mis, to Perzival  “You don’t know me. You only see what I allow you to see,” as if this were some sort of revelation on the nature of online life and not the human condition.

It is difficult to “be” IRL. It is difficult to “be” in-game. The pressures are similar, other people have expectations, needs, and wants. They make demands on your time, energy, and resources. The persona in-game doesn’t have to worry about endless laundry or paying bills and can log out when the grind is all too much. Maybe the checking in and checking out is what prevents us from mastering either world. The difficulty lies in remaining present to experience, to the Self, and answering the great questions –

  • Who am I?
  • What’s important to me?
  • What am I willing to trade?
  • What’s non-negotiable?

Tomorrow is squat day.


Decisional Balance

WordPress wants to correct “Decisional” to “Delusional,” and that’s pretty funny. Decisional balance is ambivalence jiu-jitsu. Again, from Motivational Interviewing, when a client is struggling to resolve ambivalence and you’ve reflected and summarized and done your Fiddler on the Roof routine

there is Decisional Balance.


it’s time to walk the client through the 2×2, starting with No Change X Advantages, then moving through No Change X Disadvantages, Disadvantages X Change, and finally Change X Advantages. The order is important because the last taste in the clients mouth needs to be the sweetness of possibility in the thing they are afraid to do. The balance acknowledges there are reasons to change and reasons to not change, has the advantage of transparency, and allows the client to talk himself into change.

“Has anyone done a decisional balance with you yet?” asked a friend after class today. This woman is so clinical, so curious about other people’s experiences, she puts me to shame and I’m happy to know her.


“Let’s do it. It’ll only take about 15 minutes.”

Fifteen minutes to change your life, or not.

The Miracle Question

It seems fitting to be pondering the Miracle Question at Easter.

If a miracle occurred, when you woke up tomorrow your life was exactly as you wanted, how would you know? What would you be doing?

I like the doing question variation. The Miracle Question is a part of Brief, Solution-Focused Therapy and it provides a quick focus on positive changes to behavior. When I applied to the MSW program, my plan was to improve my clinical skills, gain a significant credential, and return to a coaching/teaching space working in health and well-being. The program changed my perspective and made me question my priorities. Am I using my powers for good? Is what I do enough in the world?

My conceptualization of the work I prefer to do resembles an old-school number line, with executive functioning at the zero-point. My population hovers in a range from around values clarification and values-based decision-making at 5, down to acceptance of inherent worth at -10. To paraphrase Brene Brown, I don’t hang out with those people who function above a 5.


There are people in this world who can go to a Franklin-Covey seminar and walk out with a new binder and the revolutionary idea of a priority-ordered to-do list and be fine. A priority-ordered to-do list never occurred to them, they were trying to organize their lives in other ways and this is the ticket. Those for whom the binder is another frustrating tool they can’t get a grip on, we back up and move to fundamental ideas of the self-constructs and how those influence the way we relate to the world. If examining the self-constructs isn’t enough, then we have to back up to the absolute beginning and our right to a place in the world.

My preferred populations are the novice and the lost. Novices and lost people are found everywhere. They tend to wander. We tend to wander. Right now, I’m lost.

If I woke up tomorrow and my miracle occurred, I would have what I came here for, a business providing a peaceful, supportive, challenging place for health and well-being. I would work out and learn and talk to people and listen and write. There would be plants and chair swings and quiet places to be and soothing sounds like the dropping of weights and laughter and water.

Halfway. Checkpoint.

stairs-1888232_640 Now that you’re half-way, how do you feel about your progress?

Today was the official half-way point, the end of month 3. In three months I missed 2 workouts, added more than 10 pounds of muscle, dropped x inches, added at least 10 pounds to my bench, 30 pounds to my deadlift, and constructed a passable squat. I also have perplexed and aggravated my coach at least once.

It makes me happy to drive him to think.

The question on the table is how do I feel?

Today I felt complicated. A conversation with my dad yesterday set up an awful night’s half-sleep after a blech-effort workout. I will no longer be talking to my dad on lifting days. I feel like I should be getting better, faster. Like I’m not bringing everything to bear on the lifts, cheating myself by slacking, cheating myself by talking too much, not doing more weight, all the exercises, better quality reps. Today was a stop thinking or cry kind of day. I started to cry a few times but it didn’t work out. Stepping into the garage has to be like stepping onto my mat, a space where everything stops and my energy creates a bubble of protection. My safe place.

There’s just too much going on. Too many transitions and terminations. What kind of job do I want? What population? What do I want to do? What am I going to do? Am I enough? Who is going to want me? My current half-joke is I can always go back to teaching swim lessons and my dad said “We would think we would want more after all this,” which always pisses me off. Teaching swim lessons involves teaching a complex set of skill progressions at developmentally appropriate levels in a hazardous environment. It’s not my fault the world thinks any half-baked sixteen-year-old can do it well and be happy making $8.25 an hour. Goodness knows, I’ve made a thousand grievous errors while teaching and by the grace of God no one has died.

But that was not really the question.

Maybe it was just a polite, non-question, like “What are your plans for the weekend?”

I feel fine. The plan is solid. We will execute on the plan, check, and adjust.



If I have to tell you…

Is such a chick thing. Quite by accident, today we touched on game-day mental skills. What do you need from me? Are you going to be serious? What are you going to be like? Super relevant questions, certainly worth asking and worth asking now.

I’m so glad you asked.

A performance plan begins months before actual competition. I have two events, bench press and deadlift, at this first meet. Each event has its own goal. The plates will be color-coded.


This means I know what my final bars will look like. Those are the bars to plan for. The bench press goal is 125. That’s 45 pounds of bar + 2(yellow + black). That’s why you take Algebraic Systems, so you can do math without numbers. My coach thinks bar + 2(blue) would be cool. 115 isn’t bad, especially considering last spring my left shoulder was a hot mess. However, let’s be positive here. The visualization has to include as much sensation as possible. I have to see the bar, see the plates, feel the bench on my back, smell that gym smell of plates and sweat, hear noise, listen to the official’s instruction, set my shoulders, count the bar off, feel the inhale, then the eccentric motion, listen for “up!”, and feel my chest, shelf, and core engage and watch the bar lift effortlessly through my exhale and then rack the weight. I love that thunk.

The next questions are what happened in the 5, 10, 15, 30 minutes before the lift? Make the plan, practice the plan, execute the plan.

The deadlift goal is 240, which works out to 45 pounds of bar +2(red + blue + green + change). Same process. Make the movie of the successful lift and decide what leads up to the successful lift.

I’ve had a bunch of coaches, some good, some bad. No one has ever asked what I needed to perform. Ever. It’s been a very long time since I executed an athletic performance. Best performances come from a place of laughter and stillness, just hanging out in the garage.

How will I be? The same way I’m lifting every day, Pinky. Thanks for asking.

Talk to me about it


Today I asked my coach to talk to me about weight manipulation, “cutting”. Talk to me about it.

Remembering the Trans-Theoretical model, there are stages of change.

  1. Pre-contemplative
  2. Contemplative
  3. Action
  4. Relapse
  5. Maintenance

People move back and forth among the stages as we work toward change. The process is hardly linear and is usually depicted as a circle. I’ve been bouncing between contemplative and pre-contemplative about dropping weight for nearly a year. Graduate school has consumed every available ounce of will, and when I realized this had to wait, I took my first action step by pushing the whole project off until graduation.

Looking back at old blog entries, there is a tidy plan from two Decembers ago, which would have led to a desired outcome. It was fabulous! So SMART. Like I’ve done this before… a billion times. I can operationalize your ass in a heartbeat.

Today’s discussion was fairly technical. From his side of the house, there are three types of goals to work toward. First, there could be an aesthetic goal, or striving to achieve a certain look. Second, a body-fat goal, trying to achieve leanness, as measured by the percentage of body weight that is fat. Third, a weight goal. The third one is off the table. The body-fat goal makes the most sense. I’m far away from any kind of “look” and done chasing a number on a scale. Body fat percentage can be estimated by bioimpedance (BIA), calipers,  or a measuring tape. Everyone is graduating, which is good, but it also takes away our access to the medical-grade BIA equipment at the school’s fitness center. No one owns calipers. I have measuring tape and a helpful spouse. Done.

I’ve undergone this process a billion times since I was seven years old, but never in the context of powerlifting, so how do they do it? It’s calorie deficit. Simple enough. My coach says the usual process is to figure out what my estimated maintenance calorie count is, and every week for a set of weeks drop the calorie consumption to 80% of the previous week. How long did I want to cut? Twelve weeks. Okay. He also recommended some periodization, some weeks on and a de-load week. I think he wants to live. Really, if I think about the calendar, cutting in two phases until early July and then de-loading for the meet makes sense. The macro split also has to be calculated. My preferred split is 40-30-30. It’s been a very long time since I watched my macro splits.

What prompted the post today was reflecting on something I remember from Motivational Interviewing. Miller observed their early substance misuse patients,  wait-listed for treatment, who were given a handout on reducing alcohol use began changing without treatment. Curious about the phenomenon, they began looking at what happens if you make people wait to change when they are ready. Strangely enough, those relapse rates are higher than for folks who started the process while waiting for official treatment. In this instance, as I’ve felt better, I’ve made better choices and tried to move those “big rocks” of weight loss without accounting for any failed attempts. After all, this effort isn’t “on the clock”. Today, I turned down an enormous cinnamon roll because I didn’t want it without feeling the pressure to not eat it.

The math is strong in the exercise science folks. There’s a spreadsheet for everything. It’s all concrete, no woo-woo. Talking about weight loss with athletes is always a difficult conversation, suited to my side of the house. The emotional and social components are huge, as is the foundational idea this is not a diet for a short-term result but a change in my relationship with food. I don’t want a relationship with food! Can’t we just date casually? Yes, yes we can. In order to date casually, I’ve had to let go of my death grip on the damn stuff. There have been some seriously dysfunctional relationships in my life, but this one takes the cake. Maybe that’s how I should recast my affection for Love the Way you Lie.

This is my coach’s first time introducing an athlete to powerlifting and pursuing long-term goals. My job is to be a guinea pig, to show up and follow the plan. Healing occurs in relationship. In this relationship I’ll trust what he thinks he knows and count my macros. After April 28. Because that’s the plan.

Do not do.


We are almost there. Five weeks left of graduate school. This week the dumpster fire flared. Thursday I came home and sat on the porch and did nothing.

For at least 90 seconds, I sat quietly without the expectation I should be doing something else. It’s been two years since I was able to come home and not have some impending obligation. Even time taken “off,” isn’t anything but shoving assignments to the side of the desk for the night. There has been no “off.” Those 90 seconds were exhilarating until the running to-do list sensed the open space and “off” ended. It was just as well. In the next hour, the clutch would go out on the car while my son was out picking up his birthday pizza and arrangements for transport of dead car, live son, and paid-for-pizza would need to be made.

In this interview, John McGinley talks about people who share their dumpster fires, he says they are being like the Peanuts character, Pigpen. When we talk about our dumpster fires, we think we are excusing poor behavior or communicating how busy and important we are. Nah, we just sound ridiculous. Some people walk into a room spreading what he termed “Elvis Dust”. Elvis Dust is that aura of preparation and appropriateness some people wear like a perfectly tailored coat. There is something defensive in wandering the world like Pigpen. No one expects anything of Pigpen, he isn’t threatening, no one cares, no one notices.

The bulk of my work for the semester is done. There are two large projects left to finish up or push to a intermediate rest point. The trouble is letting go of this oppressive sense of busy-ness whose time has passed. The dumpster fire doesn’t exist anymore. There is no good reason life doesn’t resemble life in the gym, no good reason to not have those moments of “off”. The trouble is with me and my aversion to letting go. It’s time to suck it up, finish this off and move on. This is a termination issue and terminations aren’t my strong suit. By maintaining the dumpster fire talk and running to-do list, I maintain the illusion graduate school lasts forever.

In five weeks, it’s over. Licensure. Employment. Nap. Evenings. Play.

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