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Playing the Infinite Game

Personal Training

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Health and Fitness have been sold to us as a game of perfection. A pursuit which we can easily find ourselves trapped between fleeting victories and looming voids. A never-ending race where the finish line keeps moving further away.

“I’ve completed that 5km, now it’s got to be 10km next…”

“That’s 20lbs of weight loss, I’m a failure if I don’t get that last 5lbs in time…”

But what if we stopped running a race that we can’t win and instead entered into a lifelong journey, a trip with no endpoint, where the real victory lies not in the destination, but the voyage itself?

Health and Fitness aren’t confined to the boundaries of a finite game.

Your health doesn’t need to be characterised by rigid rules and transient triumphs.

The goal is not to “win” at getting healthy or fitter.

We can make a perspective shift when we consider that our health and fitness constantly evolve, adapting over time as we age, and as life events and circumstances change.

This is a game in which there are no losers, only learners; no endpoint, only progress to be made.

We can make health and fitness an infinite game, a pursuit of well-being that can be a lifelong process that doesn’t require a fixed goal or timescale outside of a consistent and constant attempt at making progress along the way.

This is a personal experience I’ve had myself in my development as a coach over the past few years.

I vividly remember a “Performance Board” within the first gym that I worked in that ranked individuals across a series of metrics, from below-average through to excellent. The goal being to move upwards through this rank with clearly defined boundaries and timescales.

“What’s your 5km time?”

“How much can you bench?”

“What event are you training for? Nothing? Come join this…”

This was a mentality as a coach that I pushed at the time, and something that was reflected in my own health and fitness pursuits. It was solely numbers, performance metrics and just outcome driven.

Similarly with my initial clientele, the aim would be to have these predetermined outcomes that we would be looking to achieve. It was again numbers driven, performance focused and purely about the outcome, all wrapped up in a nice time-constraint to keep things on track.

Yet I’d run into the same question from clients as I’d be asking myself once we’d achieve a goal or reach the end of a training block.

“Now what…?”

The concept of finite vs infinite games is taken from the work of Simon Sinek, author of “The Infinite Game”.

In it, he describes a finite game as having fixed rules, fixed players, fixed objectives, with clear winners and losers based on agreed parameters. Sport being one of the easiest examples of a finite game, with a sport such as Football having a clear rulebook, a referee to oversee that rule enforcement, 11 vs 11 players, with the most goals scored in 90mins winning the overall game.

An infinite game by comparison, has flexible rules and a structure that’s dynamic and evolving over time, winning is not possible, there is no defined end-point to an infinite game.

Sinek often gives business as an example of an infinite game.

You don’t “win” at business. There is no end-point. You can of course have successes and failures along the way, but there is no ultimate “win” in the way there may be with a 5km race or Strength-Sport competition, as there is always something more to achieve.

“How can you be the best in a game which has no finish line.” – Simon Sinek

In the 10 years since I graduated from University and began working as a Strength and Conditioning Coach, my perspective has heavily shifted as time has passed. Some of this has been imposed by decision I’ve made from the type of impact I’d like to make with the field of work I’m in, some I’d attribute purely to gaining experience working with a large variety of clients over the years, but mostly it’s been through my own personal development and appreciation for health and fitness as infinite and not finite.

Becoming self-employed challenged me to evaluate where I placed my time and resources. For every decision I made to apply my time and effort into one area, I’d need to take from another (an infinite game with finite resources…).

Having clients start from 6am with some days not finishing till 9pm, it became impossible to follow the “perfect” training programme that I’d developed for myself at the time, one that I knew in a perfect word would get me high marks back in University. Great on paper, improbable in reality.

The naivety of inexperience and youth.

Becoming a father also meant that I couldn’t commit to 6 days of 90mins+ in the gym as I’d had been for the past 5 or so years, knowing now that I may only get 30mins whilst a baby naps to get some type of workout in.

Becoming a husband likewise made me revaluate the balance between work and home life. How do I factor in my own training, nutrition and wellbeing alongside the other responsibilities associated with being someones partner and all that entails?

These were my perspective shifting moments. More will undoubtably follow, not only for myself but with client interactions over the coming months and years.

For a long period of time, the most challenging clients I’d personally found to work with, were those in which there was no clear intended outcome. There was no event coming up, no real goal that was looking to be achieved, no target amount for weight loss, or desire for muscle gain.

It would frustrate me from a programming perspective having to take such a broad approach without a seemingly clear direction to move towards. No finite rules in play, and no definitive outcome to reach.

Yet what took me a while to consider was that individuals like this weren’t looking at health and fitness in the same way I was, through the blinkers of my biased definition.

They knew they needed to exercise, they knew that as a a result of exercise they’d likely get fitter, and as a result become healthier in time, and that was enough of a motivator.

What they didn’t have currently was the knowledge or accumulated experience to help themselves on a longer-term journey in terms of direction. That was where I was most needed for these types of clients.

I’d been trying to apply methods and timescales that had no value to the individual. As a result it meant having to use unsustainable approaches to achieve that goal.

As I’d experience with my own training, once a goal had been achieved, it was the inevitable void of “so what next?…”.

In the past week, two examples of an infinite game mentality towards health and fitness evolved from conversations I’d had with clients.

One of which I’d shared to Instagram of a client who’d sent me a photo of a pile of clothes on the floor that he’d bought only a year previous, each of which no longer fit him due to the muscle mass he’d gained the past 12 months.

Yet if you were to ask him how the past year of training had been, it would be easy to mention the times in which he had to work around small niggles, missed sessions, ended blocks of training early due to professional workload, taken entire weeks off due to a lack of motivation.

But over the course of a year, his behaviours and habits have kept him coming back and starting again. The processes of which resulted in him putting on an undeniable amount of muscle mass that’s left him needing a new wardrobe.

That is win in every aspect of the term.

The second happened the very morning of writing this article.

A client, who I’d not seen for the past two weeks due to work commitments disrupting the ability to attend in-person sessions, came in with some “exciting news!”, a recent health check up had shown he’d lost 10kg over the course of the past year since his last visit.

Yet at no point have we put a target on a weight-loss goal, nor had we even used a scale to monitor. Even in conversations between us as client and coach regarding weight-loss, we’d only discussed maintaining adherence to our sessions, keeping up with step counts and daily movement, and with the help of other healthcare individuals, a developing mindfulness around eating habits.

If you were to ask him how successful he’d been over the past year with training, it would again be easy to look at possible missed sessions, days in which step-count may have dropped, or other barriers that may have been in place along the way.

But whether he’d lost 5kg, 10kg or 30kg, once the outcome was achieved, he’d still have to maintain these processes, habits and behaviours that got him there if he wanted to “win” at the infinite game.

So why not take a process-first approach and allow the outcome to be as a result of these behaviours being developed, as opposed to the outcome being the only thing that matters?

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t known metrics of health and fitness. We know medically what is considered a high blood pressure, and we know the markers that indicate when blood sugar is unregulated. Equally we know to some extent what the minimum requirements we need for cardiovascular fitness, strength, and lean muscle mass as an individual ages.

But health and fitness are infinite games, ones which we will likely have to play forever to some extent.

So the question becomes, will you join me in working to reframe our perspectives for what health and fitness mean across the lifespan and make your health and fitness an infinite game?

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