Want to Make Your Athletes Fit, Healthy, and Well? Your online habits need to change

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kenny Kane

Kenny Kane holds multiple certifications and is a graduate of SealFit’s Kokoro Camp. The practical and spiritual teachings from Kenny’s diverse athletic training have culminated in his context-driven coaching methodology where body, mind, and heart are given equal weight in the portrait of good health. Kenny has implemented his mind-body training protocol whilst coaching Olympians, NBA players, Premiere League soccer players, A-list celebrities, CrossFit Games athletes, and nine-to- fivers alike. He has also developed and directed several fitness programs for kids, coached an adaptive athlete to compete alongside able-bodied competitors, and continues to contribute to broader philosophical discussions concerning public health in podcasts and other forums with elite athletes, movement and human bioenergetics specialists, and thought leaders from around the world. He is the owner of and head coach at Oak Park, home of CrossFit Los Angeles.

Last summer I was talking with Phil White, co-author of The 17 Hour Fast, about the role of social media and how it relates to my business and vocation as a coach. As we combined anecdotal observations, with more objective analysis, it became clear that this wasn’t a simple topic and that we’d need to go much further, both for the sake of furthering our own understanding and, even more significantly, for the good of the athletes and coaches I serve. 

Eventually, we got to the point of needing to challenge our assumption that social media was detracting from helping people achieve the positive changes they’re asking me and our team at Oak Park (home of CrossFit Los Angeles) to guide them to. So we used the apps Moment, Freedom and RescueTime (irony noted – using tech to assess a tech problem) and found that we were both spending around 45 minutes on social media daily. The next step was to do what author Cal Newport would propose in his book Digital Minimalism – a 30-day social media fast, during and after which we’d note the changes in how we apportioned our time and attention.

I’ll describe these results – and the decisions they helped inform – during forthcoming posts. But in summary, I’m staying off socials because of the time, attention, and energy drain they create, and how they contradict the core tenets that my fellow coaches and I have based our craft upon. First, I want to outline some of philosophical, scientific, and ethical points that will form the bedrock of the rest of this article series. This logical progression starts with attempting to answer a simple question:

Are social media platforms supporting or undermining people’s efforts to become more fit, healthy, and well?

// Human vs. Technological Goals

In Stand Out of Our Light, Silicon Valley engineer turned Oxford University ethicist James Williams comments on the contrast between what we want for ourselves and what those behind attention-grabbing gadgets and platforms desire for us. The former are, “Probably goals like ‘learn how to play piano,’ ‘spend more time with family,’ ‘plan that trip I’ve been meaning to take,’ and so on. These are real goals, human goals,” Williams writes. He goes on to contrast such aims with what the Silicon Valley attention merchants desire for our lives, which include, “Maximizing the amount of time you spend with their product, keeping you tapping or scrolling as much as possible, or showing you as many pages of ads as they can…these ‘engagement’ goals are petty, subhuman goals. No one wakes up in the morning and asks, ‘How much time can I possibly spend using social media today?’” 

On the next page, Williams asserts: “There’s a deep misalignment between the goals we have for ourselves and the goals our technologies have for us.” This is particularly and pointedly true when one of the things you’re pursuing is greater fitness, health, and wellness. As Cal Newport put it during a March 2019 newsletter in which he commented on pro athletes’ addiction to social media, “Most coaches would never tolerate a habit that was clearly harming their players’ physical fitness, regardless of how popular it was in the general public. The same standards should hold for their players’ cognitive fitness.”

// Playing the Brain Game

By design, Facebook/Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube reward the emotional fight, freeze, or flight parts of our brain, while simultaneously preventing other regions like the prefrontal cortex (PFC) from making executive decisions, like turning off the platform to do something else with your time and attention in the first place. While staring at our screens, the experience feels important, urgent, and even good (due to the rush of dopamine and other neurotransmitters). As Adam Alter writes in Irresistible, the technology is designed to tap into our basic emotions and survival mechanisms and keep us there in behavioral loops rather than encouraging us to reflect and chose behaviors with greater intent. 

Nobody wakes up intending to spend two plus hours a day on socials. Yet that is our reality. The PCF, on the other hand, makes bigger life decisions via intentional awareness, extends our attention span, enables us to contemplate possibilities and plan around them, and makes it easier to stick to said plans with great focus. Sound like a 45 minute YouTube bender watching Fire Marshall Bill? Not so much. 

When the PCF is stressed or anxious, it doesn’t work well. We tend to express things like laziness, lethargy, and apathy. My guess is that if you’re a coach, having people stick to your plan while keeping their goals in mind is different than working with somebody that is distracted, uninspired, and stressed out all the time. If we’re coaching to the best of our abilities, we need people to preserve the capacity to tap into the part of their noodle that gets stuff done over time. And social media is de-emphasizing this. 

I’m writing this piece for coaches, trainers and those on the front lines working with people physically. All of us must ask a fundamental question: IF my job is to help improve quality of life by enhancing fitness, performance, health, and wellness, WHY would I send the people who I lead to an environment that is fundamentally toxic and misaligned with this purpose?

// Core Values as Rational Decision-Making Tools

Perhaps you’re a coach, who’s now thinking, “Yeah, but I don’t hurt people with the things I share. I post about people making a personal best, community events, and inspirational and aspirational qualities.” Fair enough. Yet intention and outcome are at odds here. Therefore, it’s critical to point out the role of reason in all of this. If we concede that your intent is greater than the net power of the medium itself, then we wholly dismiss the bigger point that time spent on socials typically makes people worse off. 

Williams points out that this is like paint some decades ago. Everyone can agree that painting a home is great. Doing it with lead is not. Did the families with beautifully painted homes know that their kids were getting sick because of it? Not immediately. Yet after a while, the world recognized the dangers, the market shifted to lead-free paint, and human health improved. Similarly, the “paint” of our technological landscape may help us to “Share, connect, expand, inspire etc.,” but it is lead-filled. Our intent as coaches is to improve quality of life, and “leaded” technology compromises this.  

Before I can expound more on the misalignment that Williams is writing about and why I believe social media is causing so many people to miss the mark, I think it’d serve us well to take a look at what exactly we’re aiming for here at Oak Park as a team of coaches committed to building a thriving community that’s bought into intentional sustainable growth. To this end, we use five core tenets to help us reflect and make decisions:

Our purpose at Oak Park is to support intentional, sustainable growth for those we serve. We achieve this through training that improves quality of life through an iterative growth process. This takes significant effort from coaches and athletes alike to align on the purpose to train in the first place. We relentlessly endeavor to make the connection between purposeful training and the broader context of life itself. Clarity here requires time, attention, and energy.

Time

Socials compete for our time. Two plus hours a day per “engaged” human, and growing. When goal setting with your athletes, do you mandate this? Probably not. Fundamentally when helping someone orient towards a goal, a typical and helpful conversation would be about where and how time is allocated, given its finite nature.

If we can assume that positive psychology is beneficial here, we understand that humans want autonomy, mastery, and purpose. As we’ve already identified and will continue to explore, the amount of time spent on socials increases negative emotions like anxiety, depression, social isolationism, narcissism, and decreases the capability to self-regulate – none of which facilitates confidence or competence on the ground floor of human development. 

The net cost of time spent on these mediums only serves to distance ourselves from our bigger purposes. As a coach, it’s just common sense that when one is distant from purpose, excuses and reasons not to train and adhere to a program are ample.

Attention

Information abundance creates attention scarcity. As Daniel Pink shares in his book When, the human brain can only focus deeply for a few hours a day. Tristan Harris points out that these technologies are designed to increase your arousal state so you pay attention. Silicon Valley attributes value to attention by adding time spent on a platform to “engagement” (likes, comments, shares, etc.). By design they feel urgent, that if you’re not part of it, you’re missing out. 

This returns us to the math problem we’re reckoning with: a couple of hours a day of feeling urgency and constantly getting metaphorically picked for a kickball team (or not) continually and deliberately pricks your sympathetic nervous system. In the moment, this satisfies the urgency and deep desire to group with others. But in doing so, it subtracts from the limited amount of focus we have to attribute each day. And, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, impairs recovery from physiological stress.  

And what about the long-term consequences? Generally speaking, if we are habituating information overload in a decontextualized way, we are likely depleting our brain’s resources to do something meaningful that requires attention – like learn a new physical skill. If you’re a coach who teaches a movement of any kind, this is an important consideration.

Energy

Energy flows where attention goes. If we’re redirecting attention to something that depletes humans, we shouldn’t expect an energetic return from them in real time during real human-to-human interactions. These technologies fuel and get energy from our attention. The reverse is not true, despite it feeling so in the moment. Dopamine is combustible. So is anxiousness. So is feeling socially isolated. 

Today’s digital version of “keeping up with the Joneses” takes a lot of energy. The question is, “Does this energy expenditure line up with my larger purposes – like training consistently so I can be strong as a grandparent, get a contract extension, or run my fastest 5K?” The current narrative is that there are many good things on socials to help with all of this. But just 10 years ago, senior citizens were training, professional athletes were getting extensions, and people were PRing 5ks. If our energy is more appropriately placed, we are more likely to sync up with such greater purposes. Whereas if it’s turned towards constant checking, liking, and commenting, we’re less likely to have sufficient energy left to learn, perform, and recover.

Leading the growth of our population at Oak Park (both physically and as a people) requires four key things:

As we point out when onboarding new people, the growth one seeks is most likely to occur if: 

1) You have a purpose for your training (ideally tethered to something meaningful)

2) Your behaviors match your intentions and goals (train, fuel, rest/recovery, reflect) consistently

3) Those you surround yourself with, particularly your coaches, can offer the value of knowledge and experience to support your purpose and keep you behaviorally accountable, and…

4) The environment as a whole (the people in it, the systems that govern it, and the location/space) naturally supports your deeper purpose, behavioral consistency, and quality human relationships.  

When all of these things are in line, sustainable growth is likely the outcome.

All of this is fueled by willpower. As the “Ego Depletion” hypothesis James Williams introduces on page 25 of Stand Out of Our Light suggests, our self-control and willpower is a finite resource. And we’ve already made the broad case that socials drain the behavioral fuel of self-reflection. Practically speaking, adherence and consistency are very unlikely if one doesn’t have much left in the will power tank. Yet, as Dr. Andy Galpin, my cohost on The Body of Knowledge routinely points out, “The number one predictor of any nutrition or exercise program is adherence and consistency.” Related to social media, this is where the whole thing gets off kilter.  

As coaches know, keeping people consistent is where the magic happens. Yet sticking to a plan can be very challenging when you’re competing against a Tetris-like matrix that is designed to keep you concerned about what others are doing, saying, and claiming at all times. In other words, making you hypervigilant at all times. And like all coaches (and even Yoda) knows, if your mind is somewhere else it cannot also be here doing the work of being present and committed to the plans you’ve laid out.

Socials chew time, combust available attention, deplete both energy and self-regulation, and naturally confuse one’s ability to understand something deeply enough to adhere to it. As a coach of any kind, you’re trying to reinforce the opposite of all these things. The continual bombardment of rapidly changing and never-ending posts, likes, comments, and so on manipulates behavior into ever-shorter and more reactive cycles with stimuli that never make it to the “slow thinking” parts of our brains (see Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow for more on this). As a result, we condition distraction so much that we never engage deeply enough to deploy a growth mindset or maintain consistent follow-through.

Ideas might well be able to scale, but human-to-human experiences do not. That’s why at Oak Park, we’ve decided to make a large impact on 100 to 200 people over the long haul, rather than staying in the shallows with a bigger online audience in the moment. For years, I’ve had people telling me, “You’ve got to be on social media to grow your business,” but this is a faulty assumption for us. As a leader, I want to point our team and those we lead to watering holes we know fuel and refresh the human experience. And we know that socials create anxiety, depression, isolation, that further drain our emotional well.

Additionally, addictive online platforms actually decrease one’s capacity for empathy, according to research cited by Lanier and Williams. As our job is a human-to-human one, this is a serious problem. Not one of our team members or anybody I know who has used socials to promote their coaching, their gym, or their brand has willingly done so to hurt anybody. All of us want to help people. That’s the human part of coaching that keeps us all doing it. BUT what we ARE pointing out is that socials actually disconnect the very humanity we are trying to inspire.

Furthermore, Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, has clearly demonstrated that the human brain can only sustain meaningful contact with a maximum of 150 people, which validates our approach. And contrary to devoting mere milliseconds to fleeting interactions on social feeds, Dunbar told Scientific American that “The time you spend is crucial” when it comes to nurturing these 150 (or so) relationships. And we’re not trying to scale our human connectedness, we’re trying to deepen it.

I think what people have been trying to tell me is, “Hey, you need to market yourself to get the word out.” I agree with that. But social media isn’t the only way to approach marketing. Whether you are spending time cultivating the perfect post or focusing on referrals only is up to your company. Reflecting your values in your actions matters here. And at Oak Park, human connection is central to everything we do. Scaling that part of our value proposition doesn’t work anthropologically.

We got this core tenet from Legacy, James Kerr’s book about the culture of the New Zealand All Blacks. One of the principles that incoming players must subscribe to is the desire to leave the jersey better off than they found it. Why would we direct people’s limited time, attention and energy to an environment that depletes their resources at the cost of cognitive fitness, which although complicated, has everything to do with physical fitness? And if part of being an Oak Park coach is to leave those whom we lead better off, then why wouldn’t we tackle this question head on? We have to make the hard choice, the one that isn’t convenient and is likely antagonistic to the current consensus about how to, “reach people where they are at.”

This is a moment when we must challenge the assumptions that if left unchecked will undoubtedly make the situation worse. When faced with all of the available evidence, posting positive things to counteract all the bad stuff or using socials to tell others how to limit their time on their such platforms is not dancing with the devil as a “necessary evil” – it’s actually proliferating its offspring at the expense of our own. When we post, we fuel algorithms that quietly diminish our free will and capacity to self-regulate. In these windows of engagement, narcissism spikes, sometimes to the point of pathology, according to Sam Vaknin’s scathing assessment of social media’s toxicity.

Related to this point is the fact that although the stated intent of these platforms is to connect people, it’s actually disconnecting us. When we prioritize fragmented and abbreviated online communication over extended, in-person conversation, we begin to function “Alone, together,” as MIT professor Sherry Turkle terms it. If you’re trying to “build a community,” would you intentionally fertilize it with narcissism, social isolation, and a loss of empathy?

What is valuable to humans? Time, attention, and energy. Socials don’t add value here. In fact, they subtract from it.

What else? Experience and wisdom. For thousands of years, people have been paying others to provide experiences and offer meaningful knowledge. At Oak Park, we extensively, rigorously develop coaches to offer human-to-human experiences that reflect purpose, the capacity to lead others to the growth they seek, and establish and enrich human interactions in a communal environment absent of anonymity.

We’re pursuing a high-touch, relational model of human improvement through exemplary, deeply involved coaching. Going back to Robin Dunbar, he shares a telling phrase in his TED Talk: “relationships are expensive.” In other words, our connections with other people are built on an investment model. Each interaction costs us time but is crucial to building and perpetuating the bonds on which real community is founded. “The strength of that relationship, the sense of emotional closeness, is determined by how much time you invest in your individual friendships,” Dunbar says. And just like your retirement account, your eventual payoff is largely dependent on your ongoing contributions over a long period of time. 

That’s why we will continue to put our time into interactive, two-way coaching/learning experiences rather than posting on extractive platforms. Getting a few hundred likes, a dozen retweets, and a handful of comments isn’t the “engagement,” we are seeking, and would in fact mean misalignment with our leadership tenets and tools for making hard decisions. This doesn’t mean that we won’t use technology to capture or share all of our awesomeness. It does mean that we will reflect on how well we’re thinking, doing, and being the values we profess.

Time to Act

It’s not just a question of whether social media is good, bad, or indifferent for society as a whole. Or whether it either supports or undermines the goals and core values of Oak Park (though I firmly believe it’s the latter). As a leader who wants to set a positive example, I also had to ask myself a far more personal question: Am I being the person and doings the things I’m asking others to be and do, or not? A rigorous period of self-examination led me to the conclusion that while I was still using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I was not being true to myself or the people I have pledged to lead. This meant there was an unacceptable misalignment and, when it comes down to it, a lack of integrity between what I preached and what I practiced. And the deeper I dived into my research, the more I came to see that there was also a contradiction between the use of these platforms and the aim of improving physical, social, and emotional vitality. So I decided to take decisive action and realign my life and business. 

“Whatever the things we’d like to achieve, the goals of the attention merchants are generally at odds with ours,” Tim Wu writes in the aptly titled book The Attention Merchants. “We must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.” For me, responding to Wu’s rallying cry has meant getting off the platforms that divert my focus away from making myself more fit, healthy, and way and prevent those I serve from doing the same. In the end it’s not really about what I’m taking away from my life, but rather the steps I’m taking to make me, my fellow coaches, and my mission more coherent, authentic, and whole. That’s how trust is built. That’s how positive change is made.

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