Heidi Fish and the 'Fitness Club'

2011 CrossFit Games

Heidi Fish on Separating Competition from Training

Looking Beyond the Whiteboard

Heidi Fish works as a fishery biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service (a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, NOAA) in Santa Cruz, California. With a name like hers, she muses that she may have been destined to work with fish. Her job involves a lot of fieldwork, taking her out to the small coastal streams where she presses her snorkeled head below the cool water in search of salmonids.

The lab time has allowed her to set up a lunchtime CrossFit program in one of the fishery service’s warehouses. A CrossFit Level 1 trainer comes in three days a week and leads the group through the WOD. Scientists from different projects that would normally never interact come together for workouts, and according to Fish, “they get to know each other on a personal level that only enhances the professional relationship.”

They have just the basic equipment, “nothing fancy,” Fish notes. And unlike other CrossFit boxes there is less emphasis on PRs and competition between the people working out. “Everyone gets their name on the PR/benchmark board in no particular order” says Fish.

Heidi has never cared for the practice of ranking scores. She is naturally driven to strive for her best, and she has learned from an unfortunate experience in her first box that getting competitive with her fellow CrossFitters can detract from her personal well-being, and even hurt relationships.

In our conversation we went through all the usual topics, but her reluctance to go for PRs or compete with others in the gym were the most compelling. What, after all, should a trainer know about the people who don’t respond well to emphasizing competition? Particularly when that person is an exceptional athlete, like Heidi.

Fish was willing to open up and share her ‘dark side’ with the community, offering the words of Theodor Seuss Geisel “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

I was a founding member at a start-up CrossFit gym and by virtue of already kind of knowing what I was doing compared to the rest of the novice crowd, I had the dubious distinction of having my name on the top of the benchmark record board.  As everyone else naturally improved over time, I found myself slipping from the rankings and the first thing I'd do when stepping in the gym was to look up at the board to see if my name had moved down.   We had a super-star women join our group and the attention I used to get from my coach shifted away from me toward her.  I was a hamster in a spinning wheel trying to catch up, but going nowhere and very unhappy with myself and no fun for others around me!  It ultimately led to the demise of the relationship with my coach as a coach and a friend and I still feel badly about it to this day.  This is an extreme (and unflattering!) example of how competitiveness can have detrimental consequences.  My type-A personality didn't help, but no excuses; I have only myself to blame. 

She has learned ways to push hard in the gym, but not let the perfectionist’s voice inside her wreak havoc on her personal wellbeing and relationships.

One way I help myself stay on track and positive (mentally and physically) is to keep a workout journal.  There are more narrative entries than numbers and I find it cathartic to write down what I'm feeling (good or bad) and make sure there is a positive spin on things.  I sometimes include inspirational quotes.  Here are some that I like: 

Eleanor Roosevelt:  "Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission."  

Roderick Thorp:  "We have to learn to be our own best friends because we fall too easily into the trap of being our own worst enemies."

As she sees it, the community is an essential part of pushing oneself to the fullest—even if the competitive aspect is removed. Part of removing the competition may come from one’s box, like the one at the fishery that doesn’t rank athletes, but the other part must come from redirecting the sights of one’s inner competitor. Take a moment, and see that everyone in CrossFit--even Mikko and Graham--varies at what they're exceptionally good at. 

Reality is there is no way you can do a "Fran" or push your hardest in any WOD for that matter on your own (not me anyways), so it really is helpful to have others around you when working out.  I also learn a great deal from watching others (I'm developing my own coach's eye even though I'm not a coach).  Everyone's got something they're good at and it's just the luck of the draw if you come out on top or not in a WOD on any particular day, so what does it matter? 

The majority of CrossFitters are just trying to be as fit as possible in the good company of other like-minded people and have some fun while they're at it.  A very small percentage competes at the CrossFit Games, and I'd venture to say the benefit of CrossFit for the masses has nothing to do with a killer Fran time.  Personal records are just that: personal.  My worth as a person has no correlation to fast benchmarks.  I just have to keep reminding myself of that.  

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5 comments on this entry

1. Wendy wrote...

Heidi-Thanks for sharing your trials and successes! What you said about being competive is right on target with my own personal struggles. I want to perform well in the daily WOD and I do look at how I compare to others as the day goes on. I like your idea of briefly journaling how you felt after the WOD. I think it's important to keep the focus on oneself and not lose sight of the ultimate goal---me. :)

2. Matt S wrote...

Great interview Heidi. Glad to hear you share your personal journey in such an honest way.

3. Kate 'killer' Rawlings wrote...

Thanks so much for touching on a subject that happens all to often. It's important as trainers and mentors that we celebrate success without losing the focus....health and self improvement.

4. Mark B wrote...

As a coach and crossfitter for nearly three years I have seen athletes rise and fall in certain performances, even in my own travels. It's real important to understand this other dynamic in our boxes. I try to manage this buy giving each client attention; for example, asking them how the WOD went for them, how's their family, what's on the menu for lunch or dinner. I think by just providing them tactful personal attention will alleviate the loss of communication between coach and client.

My .02 :)

5. jan wrote...

Thanks Heidi, i found everything you said was spot on for me on how i look at things, i admire you for your openess and honesty, you have given me possitive aspects to work on.. As for Mark B i like your approach as a coach, and hope that other coaches use comments as examples to communicating with their clients

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