I can remember being on summer vacation with my family during one of the Olympics in 1976. We would watch our favorite events at night, and my parents would educate me and my brother about the events, the sports, the countries–the whole shebang. Much like they are now, back then two of my favorite sports to watch were women’s gymnastics and swimming. 1976 was the year fourteen-year-old Nadia Comanici earned several scores of a perfect ten. It was then that I learned about subjectivity in sport–how some sports rely on judges to decide which performances are best. I’m not sure if it’s my adult brain projecting onto my child mind, but I feel like I can recall being perplexed by the fact that it was up to a group of judges to decide whose physical performance was best. It seemed that there should be clear, objective standards on which results are based, especially when the stakes are as high as they are at the level of the Olympics. You perform, you get a time or an objectively generated score, you are ranked, and you discover where you stand. Once I got wind of the international politics of it all, the situation became increasingly murky and that much more unsettling. I just wanted it all to be fair and clear. The best athletes with the best performances should be the ones wearing those shiny medals. Events like swimming and track and field were less stressful to watch, because they seemed unfettered by subjectivity and political whim and thus more pure in my mind.
Fairness is critical to kids. We want to believe that life is fair. A great summary of our desire for fairness comes from J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan:
Every child is affected…the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but he will never afterwards be quite the same boy. No one ever gets over the first unfairness…p. 96
As a child who played soccer and other field sports, and later as a collegiate athlete, I knew firsthand the effects of subjective influences on sport. I can remember one of my most embarrassing moments on the soccer field in high school when my father, our team doctor who was usually composed and supportive, blurted out after a bad call by the referee, “Oh come on. Get some glasses, will you?” Clever and creative, right? In my heart I agreed with my dad, but we were always taught to keep such sentiments to ourselves. Bad refereeing was always a bummer, but that was part of playing the game. You had to have faith that, for the most part, things worked out evenly in the end.
The CrossFit Open depends on the adherence to movement standards and fair and consistent judging by thousands of amateur judges judging thousands of mostly amateur athletes around the world. Since its inception in 2011, complaints have abounded about the lack of fairness of it all, the lack of consistency in movements by athletes from gym to gym and garage to garage, and the inability to truly enforce standards when all that is required for a score to count is that a CrossFit gym owner gives his or her stamp of approval with the click of a mouse.
Let me be very clear: I have no desire to start a conversation about the validity of the CrossFit Open or the fairness of the model. Instead, I am hoping to encourage some meaningful reflection on the management of subjectivity, fairness, judging, and being judged–more importantly than just in the Open–in life lived outside of CrossFit competition.
One of the richest elements of judging in the Open is that of peers judging each other. For many, this brings up the “Who am I to judge?” feeling. It is a reluctance to evaluate someone else’s movements when that person is working hard to complete a workout. It is often rooted in a recognition that one’s own movements are often not always perfect or to standard, and thus it feels hypocritical to tell a friend who is busting his/her ass that his/her effort is not up to par. This can be exacerbated by a feeling that one has not been fully trained to assess range of motion and is thus being given a job for which he/she is not fully qualified.
From the athlete’s perspective, there can be a reciprocal feeling of “Who are you to judge me?” Of course this is often couched in the pleasantries of community and camaraderie, but there can be an unspoken feeling that one is being judged by a peer who has no business having an athlete’s fate in his/her hands. In the heat of the moment when the clock is ticking, the heart is racing, and the muscles are cramping, social graces and rational thinking don’t always prevail, and lurid thoughts can surface.
What is it about judging others that is so uncomfortable? I am suggesting that much of our reluctance to judge others and have their fates in our hands comes from our discomfort with being judged BY others. For every time we shout “No rep” at an athlete, we imagine someone judging us—not just in a workout, but in life.
As human beings, we make judgments about each other constantly, often immediately and unconsciously. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, is a great read about the value of our capacity for instantaneous judgment and decision-making. He demonstrates mostly the upsides, but also the potential downsides, of our hardwired ability to make snap assessments.
We are told in grade school not to judge a book by its cover, but the reality is that many hard and fast judgments are based on first impressions. Adolescence is all about navigating judgments; indeed part of the rite of passage into young adulthood is to be able to form our own opinions and perceptions, taking in the perspectives of parents and peers but being able to integrate them into the creation of our own. When we are adults, we are presumably far more adept at doing so, and we are also supposed to be more mature with our judgments of other people. We are supposed to be less fearful and more accepting of people who differ from us. We are supposed to be more understanding about the richness of human experience and less likely to judge others just because they are not like us.
Truth is, we judge others and fear the judgments of others all too often. Even those of us who appear to be self-confident and impenetrable by the opinions of others are, I’d argue, affected somewhere in our beings by what other people think. We judge each other for the way we look, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the way we rear our children. We make assessments of people’s intellect based on where they attended college. We assume certain things about people based on what job they have or where they grew up. Skin color, accents, number of piercings, choice of life partner. You name it—it’s all fodder for judgment.
The other day, shortly after I had received an email suggesting that I write about this topic, I was doing one of my favorite workouts: running a set of stairs near my home. Knowing the value of intensity and combined with the fact that I love running, I was pushing hard. By my seventh round of stairs, I was panting and grunting at the top, and I even let a few spits fly along the way. At some point my mind landed on the topic of judgments. I thought about the two other women who were also at the stairs. They were dressed in super-cute exercise outfits, smelled of perfume, and had on a decent amount of makeup. Their pace was much slower than mine, and I didn’t see them froth at the mouth or let fly a spit a single time. For a second, I thought of how I might judge them—thoughts like “What’s the point of going so slowly?” or “How could you possibly be so perfectly coiffed for your stroll today” passed through my mind. Then I imagined how they might judge me, with thoughts like, “That whole spitting thing is pretty gross,” or “Did it occur to you that grunting is kind of excessive?”
The point is, we are all potential fodder for judgments. Negative judgments of others are often based on our own insecurities. The whole judging component of the CrossFit Open absolutely brings up issues for people along these lines, and it’s a great opportunity to reflect on how we judge others, how we judge ourselves, and how we might make better judgments in both veins if we were to commit to having adequate information about ourselves and each other before coming to any decisions. Better yet, perhaps we will become so comfortable with ourselves that we won’t find a need to make judgments of others with such regularity and immediacy. The current Supreme Court decision-making regarding whether or not gay marriage should be legitimized via the law of our land is a solid kick in the pants for us all to do some good old-fashioned soul searching about who and what we think is our realm to judge.
Barrie, J.M. (1991). Peter Pan. Viking Penguin Group: USA.
Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Back Bay Books/Little Brown Publishers: USA.
*Thanks to Cynthia J., one of my blog readers, for suggesting this topic.