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I recently started CrossFit training at my son’s Tae-Kwon-Do Dojang. I needed a regular exercise program to maintain fitness, especially for my core. CrossFit consists of many exercises such as lifting weights, doing sit-ups, push-ups, squats, and running. It’s an intense training program.

I was becoming very exhausted during a seven-minute CrossFit session yesterday, alternating between sit-ups, squats, and push-ups. Six minutes into the workout, the student next to me could see I was struggling so he encouraged me by saying: “You’re almost there.”

I’ve observed people using this expression at climbing gyms or during any stressful activity. Saying “You’re almost there” is almost as ubiquitous as “You’ve got it.” I’m always curious about the language we use and what motivates it. I also like to take a literal approach to language so I can speak intentionally. Many figures-of-speech, or expressions such as “You’re almost there,” are shortcuts and substitutes for speaking precisely and objectively.

What does “You’re almost there” really mean? We use this expression when we see someone else in a stressful situation. It’s a way of reminding others that they’ll soon be in their comfort zones and able to relax. “You’re almost there” undervalues stress; the motivation derives from a desire for being comfortable. Since learning occurs in stress, using such expressions devalues stress and the learning process.

Energy follows the path of least resistance. This is a universal law of physics. We align with this law by avoiding stress and seeking what is easiest and most comfortable. There isn’t anything wrong with being aligned with this law; it’s inevitable. But, we need to be conscious as we act out this law. When we choose to engage a stressful situation, we choose to learn. “You’re almost there” is an unconscious habit that distracts attention and interferes with learning.

Learning requires our attention to be present, focused on the task. Using expressions like “You’re almost there” distracts our attention toward the comfortable future instead of dealing with the stressful present. These expressions cause our attention to be “almost here” because we are being encouraged toward being “almost there.” To be effective, we need our attention to be “totally here,” in the moment.

I’ll be most effective in my CrossFit workout if I keep my attention on doing the exercises with quality. I chose to do CrossFit so I need to value the stress of doing it. We need to encourage each other in ways that help us focus attention in the moment to process stress, not toward the future where we’ll be comfortable.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Donna Champagne

    Very interesting. I see the connection between the phrase “you’re almost there”, and the desire to get out of an uncomfortable situation. What I find interesting is that when you know you are almost done, it seems like you can push a lot harder for those last few seconds, implying that maybe you weren’t that uncomfortable after all!

  2. Kerry

    It’s interesting that the Harvard Business Review magazine includes a similar thought in this month’s issue: “If you want to motivate someone, shut up already.” http://hbr.org/2013/07/if-you-want-to-motivate-someone-shut-up-already/ar/1

    “The finding: Words of encouragement do not inspire people to perform better during a workout.”

    They indicated that a silent partner is more motivating, which may be serving the purpose you suggest of helping with focus to process stress.

    As I reflect back on my experience this weekend when I took my 13 year old nephew climbing outdoors for the first time, I think I used a lot of “good job” words when he made a move that was stressful for him (Solid, B! Nice move!), and tried to shut my mouth as he was working (sometimes successful, sometimes not!). If he got stuck, I would ask him to describe what he saw, to help him think aloud about what he was dealing with, rather than point out that he could do it. That seemed to help. I tried to save words for the after action, and did my best to channel my Warrior’s Way lessons. “Remember how you said you couldn’t do it, and then you did? Well, when you climb again, the only thing you need to do is second guess yourself when think you can’t do it.”

  3. Josh Gold

    I am coaching in Crossfit, and I usually when things get difficult I tell the athlete(s): “One rep at a time!”

    The large number of reps/time remaining can be overwhelming. A single rep is usually not terribly overwhelming. Either you make that rep or you don’t.

    Also remember that you always want to do the reps with excellent technique. A halfway/so-so rep is worth zero. Better to take a few deep breaths before continuing than to do a poor rep.

    In climbing, I find the people who do best in difficult situations are focused on the technical details of the climb at that moment: Go right / crimp there / high step / move your left foot three inches up , etc. Saying “You can do it!” is not necessarily helpful, but giving exact info on how andwhere to move is obviously very helpful.

  4. Diane Driscoll

    I am definately a ‘quiet’ coach and the best advise I give is “Relax, breath”, however if I do find myself in a stressful climb that I am pushing for at the edge of my energy/stress/strength level – at that moment – words of encouragement – “You’ve got it”, “almost there” etc (though I clearly don’t have it and I’m not ‘there’) – These words are possitive and do help me relax into the stress and move past the event. I would never discourage someone from coaching me with these expressions.
    But I do agree with you, as always excellent points to take into practice. Thanks!

  5. Sandy

    I’ll never forget the day I was struggling up a particularly challenging overhanging finger crack, just working out one move at a time at the limits of my ability, when my excellent belayer lost his mind and called out, “You can do it!” I imploded under the sudden pressure of having to “do it” and popped off the route. “Shut up!!” I hollered in frustration, now dangling on the rope. Then, “Please.” His reply, “But you’ve got it. You can do it.” I retorted, “I don’t know if I got it. That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

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