One of the traits associated with a type-A personality is a fear of wasting time. People in this category tend to work with a sense of urgency, and they love to accomplish their goals.
As a coach, I work primarily with goal-driven, achievement-oriented people, and over the years I have observed that this personality type is more susceptible to burn out. They also can become frustrated, angry, and hostile when faced with obstacles.
I have a little saying I trot out when one of my type-A clients is becoming frustrated: “First sharpen. Then cut.” To be honest, nobody gets this at first, which is the point. It’s a kōan that is meant to make you stop and think.
The Meaning of “First Sharpen. Then Cut.”
Here’s how it works. Everybody has 24 hours in a day. You can spend some of your time sharpening your sword and some of your time cutting. Most of your time should be spent sharpening so when you enter battle or the field of play, your cuts are deadly efficient.
The problem is most people spend all their time cutting and never stop to sharpen their swords. At first this approach may be effective. Heads roll. You feel great. But over time, your sword dulls and you find it more and more difficult to make an impact. Rather than incisive, surgical cuts, you start to batter your target. If you succeed, it’s through sheer force of will. You start to win dumb, rather than win smart. Then you just stop winning.
All the coaches reading this are nodding their heads, but for the rest of you, here are some concrete examples of the “first sharpen, then cut” principle:
Think of lifting weights over 90% of your one-rep max as the battlefield. Inevitably type-As spend way too much time chasing personal records in the +90% zone. Missing lifts in this zone is incredibly costly, both mentally and physically. You get dinged up. You become demoralized. Your central nervous system is beaten to a pulp. Your sword becomes dull.
Training around 65-85% is how you sharpen your sword. You can accumulate a huge volume of technically sound reps with minimal risk of injury. You amass many small victories that keep you engaged and moralized. And you engrain the right motor patterns so you can access them when you really need your cuts to land – in competition.
When was the last time you walked into a CrossFit gym and did not see someone foam-rolling an aching body part? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if CrossFitters spent more time working on basic skills and movement competence, they wouldn’t have to spend so much time foam rolling. Gasp!
Type-As are uniquely susceptible to the competitive allure of CrossFit, and oh how they love a good metcon. But inevitably, type-As cut corners on technique. A little slop once in a while isn’t a big deal, but day after day, it starts to show. The slop movements you use when you’re under time pressure become your default. Your sword is now dull. You can’t sharpen it with a foam roller.
But seriously, a great way to sharpen the sword is the EMOM (every minute on the minute). With an EMOM, you get a couple of perfect reps every minute and then plenty of time to rest and deliberate. When you are fresh for every rep, your sword becomes very sharp very quickly. If you’re concerned about conditioning, just go nuts on a fan bike a couple times a week. You don’t need skill on a fan bike.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
BJJ is unique among the martial arts in that you can safely spar at full contact. However, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I have a theory that it takes so long to earn a black belt in BJJ (ten years for most) because many academies spend too much time sparring and not enough time drilling. To put it another way, they spend too much time cutting and not enough time sharpening. No wonder it takes so long to get good! Most jiu-jitsokas are cutting with dull swords.
The problem with drilling is there is no clear winner, which is why many type-A grapplers see drilling as a waste of time. When people resist drilling, I like to remind them that in the current IBJJF rankings, three of the top five male black belts are products of Cicero Costha’s academy in Sao Paolo. At Costha’s academy, students drill a single technique for a solid hour every day. When they step onto the mats, their swords are razor sharp.
So where does the “first sharpen, then cut” principle leave us? I’d like to challenge you to think about life in a different way. Remember that everyone gets the same number of days in a year. Some days, you will be sharpening your sword. Other days, you will be cutting with it. Think of the Whole Life Challenge as an opportunity to step back, take a breath, and sharpen your sword.
The skills you hone, the perspectives you develop, and the relationships you build will make you more prepared for the little challenges you face in daily life. Prepare for the field of play called life. Sharpen your sword. Fear nothing.