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Crossfiteira: Training as a Foreign Athlete

Crossfit Sant Martí

As a frequent traveler and a Crossfit athlete, I often find myself in Crossfit boxes where I’m training in my non-native language. In fact, I’ve done most of my Crossfit training in Brazil, so hearing instructions in Portuguese is essentially my default. That also means I’ve developed quite a few skills for learning how to deal with training in a language where I may not be 100% fluent. Or, worse yet, where my fluency goes down the more my central nervous system is taxed. (Don’t talk to me in Portuguese after heavy deadlifts – it just won’t work!) 

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Crossfit in Barcelona, Spain
Who’s stronger, the WOD or you? at Crossfit Sant Martí in Barcelona, Spain

1. Reach out ahead of time.
I believe it’s important to reach out to a box ahead of time any time you plan to drop-in. It helps the coaches and owners prepare for any extra students, including saving a space for you if needed. It also allows them to be aware of your needs. After all, training a new Crossfitter is very different than a competitive athlete with their own programming. All of those details help them to better plan and prepare for their classes.

As a foreign student, coaches need to be aware of how much extra attention you may need. If you mostly speak their language, they can treat you just like any other student. If your language skills are limited, they may want to plan for extra time to physically show you what to do to ensure your safety.

By reaching out ahead of time, you both have the opportunity to use Google Translate to your heart’s desire and figure out a good way to move forward when it’s time for your drop-in.

2. Learn some basics.
Everyone benefits from learning a foreign language. Anything that helps us to better connect in our global, and often divisive, world is a good thing.

Of course, it’s not feasible to learn any and every language. (Though that would be a pretty amazing skill!) With any form of communication, intention is at the heart of meaning. Even without a common language, it is possible to get your point across through body language and intonation.

However, taking the time to learn just a few words – namely, hello, thank you, and please – goes a long way. Showing that your interest in someone else’s culture is always a meaningful exercise. Even if you say “hello” with the most intense American accent in the world, your coach and classmates will appreciate the effort and likely offer the same sort of kindness in return.

3. Watch carefully.
Cues are an integral part of learning any Crossfit movement. “Fast elbows” on the clean, “tight back” on the deadlift, and “punch the ceiling” on a jerk can help students fix small errors in their movement patterns. For foreign students, it’s not possible to receive those instructions when you’re training in a different or unfamiliar language. So what to do?

Pay attention. When giving cues, coaches often point to and demonstrate what the different parts of your body should be doing in a given movement. When demonstrating squats, it’s common for coaches to point to their bellies to engage their core and trunk and point to their knees to indicate where they should be tracking on the descent and ascent. Use these visual cues to replace the verbal cues that you may be used to in your home box.

4. Ask for feedback, even if it’s just with body language.
For a successful class abroad, it’s important for you, and for your coach, to feel you’re engaged. If you check out from the class, the coach may feel like they’re not able to reach you. It’s difficult to keep someone safe, and to help them progress, if you feel they’re not listening. Culturally, engagement may look different depending on where you are, so it’s important to be mindful of where you’re placing your attention. Asking for help is a good way to indicate you’re invested in the class.

As you go through the different movements and workouts, ask for feedback. Even if you can’t communicate verbally, it’s possible to indicate – through the universal language of hand motions – you need help. Waving the coach over, showing your movement and pausing where something feels wrong, lets them know where you’re looking for assistance. On the flip side, they can then observe your movement pattern and mimic a visual cue to help you progress. You never know what you’ll learn.

5. Practice your focus.
Hearing a foreign language can be distracting, especially when performing a challenging workout. It’s easy for your brain to go into overdrive, trying to translate at the same time that you’re just trying to get through the WOD.

With any WOD, focus is a skill. Whether it’s a long EMOM or a quick, explosive workout, focusing wholly on the task at hand is a mental challenge. When you throw a foreign language into the mix, it’s one more barrier to jump over. Rather than getting caught up on what people might be saying to you or whether or not you’re fully understanding what’s going on around you, turn inward. Ask yourself how you’re feeling, what’s coming up next, and how you can mentally prepare. In the end, you’ll find your focus to be that much stronger.

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It took me a long time to get used to training outside of my comfort zone – specifically, my primary language. At times, it’s overwhelming to receive so much input that your brain doesn’t know how to process. Even in terms of the different training styles that exist in different parts of the world, it’s hard feeling out of your element.

That said, I’ve often had my most fun and interesting training experiences when I’m outside of the US. Meeting new people, learning new tactics, understanding challenges in different parts of the world puts my training at home into perspective. The beauty of Crossfit is that it’s global, so why not take the fullest advantage of that fact?

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