fitness Lessons From My Father

When I was a little kid, my dad would toss me onto his shoulders, and we would adventure to the park near our home. I can remember sitting on top of his shoulders and feeling as if I could see the entire world. He is over six feet tall, and I still remember thinking, “wow, my dad is a giant.” 

Every weekend he would spend hours doing yard work in the same old white t-shirt, sweaty pair of jeans, and grass-stained New Balance. He would chug a glass of lemonade, look at me and ruffle my hair, and then go back outside. He did this until my parents got a divorce when I was 13.   

My father is an incredibly complicated individual who has dealt with alcoholism most of his life. I remember thinking he was a superhero. He never seemed tired and never cried when he got hurt.  

I now live hundreds of miles away from my father and see him once or twice a year. I have tried to reconnect during my sobriety, and we speak on the phone daily. 

During a recent visit, I watched him sit with my 2-year-old and felt an ache in my heart. My father is 70 and looks like he is in his 80’s. The man, who once stood as a towering figure, struggles to get up from a chair. The burly arms that tossed me around now work to steady a glass of water. He has never held my son because he is unsure of his abilities to manage a squirming child.  

When we hugged goodbye, I held on a little longer than usual, and he got uncomfortable and pushed away. We don’t share our feelings very often, and I don’t blame him for his discomfort.  

My relationship with my dad has impacted my own family, career, and wellness, thanks to the one lesson he taught me about health and fitness. 

My Father’s Fitness 

In middle school, I was bullied by kids who were bigger than me. I was always small for my age, and my love of musical theatre put a target on my back. 

After a particularly rough day, I told my dad I was tired of being weaker than everyone. That afternoon we stood in the garage, and he taught me how to throw a punch. I specifically remember him telling me that if I was going to hit someone, I needed to keep going until the fight was over.   

I wanted to be able to defend myself, but the thought of hitting someone and not stopping scared me. So, I never brought up being bullied again and learned how to use humor to de-escalate challenging situations.  

My parents bought me a weight set the following Christmas, and I was a little confused because I didn’t ask for one. Also, I had never seen anyone in my house do anything closely related to exercise. 

I was further surprised by the Rocky boxing gym replica my dad created in the basement. There, he sat me down and began to explain how to bench press, perform curls, and stay hydrated.  

Two

That is the number of times my dad tried to train me. He worked a lot of overtime and…the drinking. I tried to work out on my own, but without help, I was pretty unmotivated, and I was 11 years old. 

I let the weight set collect dust and watched my dad drink.   

Lesson #1: When you get sad or angry, mask it, drink, or do anything other than deal with the feelings.   

It was the biggest lesson I learned during that brief fitness period in my childhood. I watched my dad drink, over-eat, and argue with my mom until the day she served him with divorce papers. 

Eat A Vegetable

By the time I got to college, I was a mess. My mom was battling cancer; my dad’s drinking was out of control, and I tasted beer for the first time.  

I was sad and angry & found that drinking made things more manageable. 

I regret many of the choices I made while drinking, and talking about it in therapy and AA has changed my life. But that’s a different story for another day. 

When I was a freshman, I decided to eat vegetables.  

The first time I ate a salad was in an NYU dining hall during my first week of college. Growing up, I refused to eat vegetables, and salad wasn’t something we ate.  

If I had to venture a guess, I think I chose to eat vegetables because I didn’t want to be like my dad.   

He was overweight and drank like a fish. I was already drinking, so I decided 1 out of 2 wasn’t too shabby. And just like that, I started to eat from the salad bar. It’s a habit that eventually led to learning more about cooking.  

“Fitness Is My Therapy” 

During my sophomore year of college, I was cast in a musical that required me to bulk up, and with the help of my best friend, Tim, I began working out consistently. 

Did I enjoy it? No. 

I was so sore after my first session I didn’t go back for two weeks. Eventually, what convinced go back was how “good” I felt.  

Physically I was sore, but mentally I felt lighter after a hard training session. 

That summer, I learned a lot while training in my friend’s hot basement with cat hair on the floor, and I never imagined I would have a 10+ year coaching career. 

I discovered that if I was angry or sad, I could go workout. Gradually I recognized that my big emotions got smaller if I exercised. 

Remember my father’s lesson? 

Lesson #1: When you get sad or angry, mask it, drink, or do anything other than deal with the feelings.   

I had a winning combination because I would drink and workout. Of course, training and throwing up because I had “one too many” the night before got played out pretty quickly.  

So, I cut back on my drinking and focused on training. 

I would cycle between being sober and training for most of my 20s until I hit rock bottom. 

If It Barks Like A Dog, Then It’s A Dog

By the fall of 2017, I was married and had a family of my own. I was drinking to deal with my feelings and suffered from panic attacks. 

I recommend watching the video to learn a little about depression, anxiety, and the power of therapy.  

I spent so much time trying to shove my feelings down, resulting in panic attacks and mood swings. I guess the only lesson my father unintentionally taught me about fitness had backfired. 

You can only ignore your feelings for so long.  

If it sounds like depression, the chance of it being depression is pretty darn high. 

The topic of training as an escape comes up often. I find myself carefully searching for the right words, and if I can use my experience as a teachable moment, I would say, “fitness is only a bandaid for your trauma.”

My most “fit” periods were the moments when I was the most depressed, exhausted, ashamed, angry, and confused.

You see, as a man, it is easy to think that working out is an escape or the gym is your “therapy,” and it can be, but in reality, it is a coping mechanism that doesn’t truly solve the problem(s).

Along the way, masculine got lumped in with suffering in silence. 

Nutrition and fitness are excellent and can help, but they aren’t magic, and unless you begin to unpack the stuff under the surface, you will always find yourself chasing something you can’t quite reach.

 Yes, you can be strong, and you can also be gentle. You might find that you do less escaping and more embracing.

Be The Example

In the fall of 2018, I got sober, and my son was born in April of 2020.

I still remember having him in his bassinet while I worked out in our home gym. He would lay there and laugh as I tried to do kettlebell snatches or handstands.   

There is such an innocence to him. 

It was strange to be in the basement working out 20 years after my dad tried to get me to workout.  

Here are a few lessons I have learned and will share with my son. 

#1. Playing around is just as important as having a program to follow. I love dropping down on the ground and playing with my son. This is what he will remember, not how many kettlebell swings I did in ten minutes. 

#2. Bodyweight exercises are a great place to start. Learning how to listen to your body begins with learning how to move your body. I’ll teach my son how to perform basic calisthenics if he shows an interest. There’s no pressure, and we should be able to laugh while training. 

#3. Strength training is terrific and won’t stunt your growth. This is a big misconception and why many parents don’t let their kids lift weights. I won’t force him to workout, but I will workout in front of him.  

#4. Cardio is not overrated, and walking counts. I want to go on walks and talk with my son. This is something my dad and I never did, but walking has given me so much, and I want to share that with my son.  

#5. When you get sad or angry, don’t mask it. Honestly, the hardest lesson of them all, and I am working on it every damn day.  

When dealing with an immense feeling, I let my son know what I feel and why. You see, my dad didn’t do that, and I thought it was normal to be angry all the time.  

Anger is one of many emotions that exist, and we each will experience it. You and I are more complicated than we give ourselves credit for, and anger is one shade of many different emotions.  

As woo-woo as it might sound, telling my son that I am feeling a bit sad, why I’m feeling this way, and how I am choosing to deal with it is the right thing to do. 

My son is growing up knowing that he isn’t alone and that you need to ride the emotional wave. 

My wife and I are trying to teach our son that you can’t control your emotions, but you can control your actions. 

For the Dads out there, take a moment and think about the example you are setting for your kids.  

They are watching everything you do. 

You’re human, and you will make a shit ton of mistakes along the way. 

Notice the mistakes and learn from them. That’s what your kids will remember. 

That’s why I love my dad even though I don’t like him all the time. 

Love is important. 

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