In search of a culture of integrity!

Posted by Christie Johnson on

Photos courtesy Frankie Lee Matthews Photography

The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home - Confucius

Thanks to the recent Rio Olympics, cheating is making news once again. Between the allegations of state-sponsored cheating by Russia, the flood of positive retests by past Olympic medallists, and the undercover footage of a Kenyan official offering advance warning of drug tests in exchange for bribes, it’s easy to be pessimistic about the state of Sport in 2016. While I believe the headlines paint an overly bleak picture (see my previous article), I do think they remind us why we, as a community, need to be ever vigilant, and do everything we can to discourage this damaging and insidious practice.

Obviously there is a role for an institutional response. CrossFit HQ still has a way to go to convince the public that it is serious about drug testing (signing up to the WADA code might be a start). There is also a conversation to be had around judging standards, particularly at major competitions. However, these issues are beyond the scope of this article. CrossFit, as a sport, is still in its infancy, and I’d like to hope that some of these questions will be answered over time.

Building integrity from the ground up

Confucius famously wrote: “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home”. This principle could conceivably be reworded for our purposes as: “The strength of the CrossFit community derives from the integrity of the box”. It is at a local level that the greatest potential exists for a cultural shift towards a passionate commitment to integrity. Therefore, in this article I’d like to focus on what we, as a community, can do to discourage cheating. In my opinion there are two main areas we should focus on. The first is encouraging integrity in the coaching realm, and the second is developing a culture of positive peer pressure among athletes. The two are obviously related, but I’d like to treat them separately for the purposes of this piece.

Let’s start with the coaches, as studies show that coaches are very often an athlete’s main influence and source of information when it comes to cheating, especially doping. It is therefore imperative that coaches take seriously their responsibility to encourage integrity in all aspects of their sport. This starts with the little things, as we have already established that it’s the small shortcuts that generally start an athlete down the slippery slope to more significant rule violations.

Some coaches may be afraid of alienating their clients if they are tough when it comes to policing standards.

Policing standards

I would love to see coaches have the confidence to call out their athletes any time their movement becomes substandard, or even borderline suspect. Not only would this save their athletes from any nasty surprises in competition, but it would be the first step in creating a culture of uncompromising integrity in their box. Some coaches may be afraid of alienating their clients if they are tough when it comes to policing standards. However I assure you that those of us who CrossFit want to do it properly, and will respect a coach that insists on excellence in all things. Just as we rely on our coach to teach us to move safely, we also rely on our coach to teach us to move properly, and this can only be ingrained by constant vigilance on the part of both the athlete and the coach.

Assessing client ambitions

I would also love to see coaches guiding their athletes to set goals that are related to personal improvement rather than competitive success. In my last article I mentioned that cheaters tend to be motivated by extrinsic factors, such as financial or athletic success, or number of Instagram followers. Honest athletes, however, tend to be more focused on personal development or mastery goals. If coaches can encourage the second mindset among their clients, this could go a long way towards discouraging the “win at all costs” mentality that so often leads to cheating. A side benefit would be a cohort of athletes dedicated to pursuing true mastery of their sport, rather than chasing the quick win.

I’m not a coach, but I’d like to throw out some thoughts about how this might be achieved. Firstly, athletes should be actively encouraged to set goals and, importantly, to share these goals with their coaches. This would give the coach the opportunity to assess their clients’ ambitions and if necessary encourage them towards intrinsic motivations. Secondly coaches need to avoid giving the appearance of valuing competitive success over personal development. I have reservations about boxes with dedicated “competition” streams or squads or classes. In my opinion this runs the risk of making competition a goal in itself, rather than simply a way to test an athlete’s current level of development. If I have to have a certain level of ability in order to join a “competition” class, this suggests an attitude in which it’s only worth competing if I am good enough to do well. I would rather see coaches encouraging all athletes to compete (if they so desire) simply to have fun and test themselves, rather than giving the impression that competition is only for the “elite”, because they’re the only ones with a chance of winning. If boxes really wish to segregate their athletes based on ability or goals, I would encourage them to think carefully about the way in which they do this, and the message they are sending to their clients.

Competition and cheating go hand in hand

Similarly I would like to encourage coaches to give serious thought to the culture of competitiveness that they create in their box. Writing times or reps on a whiteboard, or logging them online, is a common practice in CrossFit boxes, and many athletes enjoy the element of competition and accountability that this provides. However, research suggests that there is a positive relationship between the competitiveness of an environment and the amount of cheating that goes on, and coaches need to consider carefully the implications of their methods. Private recording of times etc is certainly to be encouraged, so that personal development and improvement can be appreciated, but is it necessary to make public comparison of results a daily occurrence? Is this encouraging an extrinsic focus? Perhaps a conscious effort to reduce (although probably not eliminate entirely) the competitive atmosphere within the box may help to develop a culture of integrity?

Instilling confidence

Another way in which coaches can help to minimise cheating is to instil confidence in their athletes that their goals can be achieved by working hard. Studies into academic dishonesty have established that cheating rates are higher when students have poor expectations of their ability to achieve their goals through personal effort. One would expect similar attitudes in the world of sport – if an athlete feels that their goal is beyond their ability to achieve honestly they are more likely to turn to dishonest practices. So it is important that coaches understand their clients’ goals, and show that they are programming in a way that will allow those goals to be reached if the athlete puts in the requisite effort. This will give the athlete confidence, and reduce the risk that they will feel the need to resort to cheating.

This also ties in with our previous discussion about ability theory. If coaches can encourage their athletes to be incremental theorists – that is, to view ability as something that can be increased through effort rather than a genetically determined degree of talent – then they are more likely to believe that they can reach their goals honestly. It is important that coaches are incremental theorists themselves, as studies have shown that teachers who believe they can have a significant impact on their students’ abilities have more positive outcomes than those who believe their students’ abilities are fixed. The most basic way in which coaches can encourage their clients to become incremental theorists is to focus their praise on effort rather than results. Athletes should be praised for their endeavour, e.g. training regularly and hard, being willing to take on new challenges, putting in specific effort to master a particular skill etc. PRs should be celebrated as indications that ability is increasing as a result of hard work. Strong competition results should be framed as a reward for effort, not a demonstration of talent. Coaches can also make a point of explaining that not only do muscles grow and develop as a result of training, but the brain can also adapt and form new connections as new skills are learned.

What about the rest of us?

So it’s obvious that coaches can play a huge role in helping to develop a culture of integrity in their boxes, and by extension the community at large. But what can the rest of us contribute? The answer is: a great deal. To start with, many of the points above can equally be applied to the experienced athletes in each box - the “leadership group,” if you will. If the star athletes are talking about their mastery goals, holding themselves to strict movement standards, attributing their successes to effort rather than talent, forbearing to constantly compare their performance in the daily WOD, and making a point of entering competitions that they know they won’t dominate (just for fun), then those attitudes will percolate through the rest of the box community. But there’s more that each of us can do to build a culture of integrity, at least in our own backyard.

Social pressure is an important factor to deterring cheating

Social pressure is a powerful motivator

A good starting point is to harness the power of peer pressure. The more we refer to cheating as an unequivocal abomination, the more social pressure we exert on people to resist the temptation. I have noticed a dangerous tendency for people to temper their disapproval with a smattering of rationalisation. “Of course I wouldn’t do it, but it’s really to be expected in a competitive environment...” Every time we make excuses for cheaters we reduce the social pressure that may be preventing others from following their example. I was heartened by the comments made by some athletes during the Olympics, calling for zero tolerance for drug cheats. Equally I did not mind the hostile attitude of the crowd towards athletes suspected of doping. It may sound harsh, but the threat of being despised by your community is a powerful motivator. In the absence of stronger institutional disincentives, the threat of social rejection may be our strongest weapon in the fight for a clean sport.

Social pressure is not only an excellent disincentive to cheat, but it is also a positive influence. Research shows that most people would be content not to cheat if they could be assured that nobody else was cheating either. So the more of us who demonstrate, through our words and our actions, that we intend to hold ourselves to a high standard of integrity, the more confident others will be to adopt a similar attitude. Too many people are seduced by the false consensus effect - the assertion that “everyone is doing it”. Let us do our best to disabuse them of these misapprehensions.

Finally, a discussion of social pressure would be incomplete without some reference to social media. Never has there been such constant pressure to perform. It is no longer good enough to perform at an elite level once or twice a year. The insatiable appetite of social media for regular PRs, not to mention more and more spectacular videos with which to gain followers, only adds to the temptation to resort to cheating to meet or exceed expectations. On the other hand, social media gives each of us a platform through which we can share our ideas and values with more people than ever before. We need to be mindful of this, and think carefully about the message we are sending by our choice of which posts to like and share.

Big-picture thinking

Another way to help minimise cheating is to consciously adopt a long-term, big-picture perspective of your training, and to encourage others to do the same. A psychological characteristic of cheaters is that they tend to be focused on short-term gains, with little regard paid to the price that may be paid in the long term. They will skip reps or truncate movements to gain a short term advantage on the whiteboard, not caring that substandard training will cost them in competition. They will take performance enhancing substances to make quick gains, ignoring the health dangers, or the  potential for their reputation to be destroyed if they test positive. If we can make a conscious effort to take a long-term perspective on our training, this can help avoid the temptation to take short-cuts that will cost us down the road.

Thinking about the big picture helps to avoid the temptation for short term goals

Life's not fair

We can also make a conscious decision not to fall into the trap of focusing on perceived inequities. This is a recipe for being tempted to cheat in order to compensate for whatever unfairness we feel we are suffering from - to level the playing field. However we teach our children from an early age that “life isn’t fair”, and sometimes we need a reminder ourselves. The beauty of CrossFit is that it encompasses a vast number of activities and exercises, some of which will suit us, and some will not. Hopefully this will even out over time, but even if it doesn’t, it’s no excuse for cheating. Brent Fikowski, fourth at the 2016 CrossFit Games, was the tallest man in the field - excessive height generally being considered a disadvantage in competitive CrossFit. When asked what advice he would give taller athletes he said “never use it as an excuse. Just get better”. That is the right attitude. There are no excuses. There is no level playing field. Just work hard and get better.

Create resolutions and stick with them

While we are on the subject of mindset, it is important that we try to develop the self awareness to note the situations in which we are commonly in danger of being tempted to cheat, and take preventative measures. For example, research shows that cheating is more likely when a person is exhausted, or has to make a quick decision. It also shows that when decision making abilities are impaired we tend to default to the the path of least resistance - ie the situation that requires the fewest decisions to be made. If we have made a similar decision earlier we often tend to stick to it, to save making a new one. Otherwise we will just “go with the flow” and bow to whatever pressure is being exerted on us. When applied to CrossFit, this suggests that if we firmly decide before our workout that we are not going to cheat then when we are exhausted mid-workout our default will be to stick to that resolution.

Surround yourself with people who bring out your best

Similarly, if we find ourselves in a group which does not value integrity in sport, we are much more likely to be tempted to cheat ourselves. “Do not be deceived,” the proverb warns us, “bad company ruins good morals”. Leaving a friendship group can be a social and emotional challenge, and is never without pain. But you deserve people around you who will encourage and inspire you to be the best version of yourself. It is likely that there are boxes out there in which cheating is more prevalent, if not actively encouraged. Imagine if all their members had the courage to leave, as a statement of integrity. Cheating would become not only be unethical, but bad for business. Another blow for truth, justice and the CrossFit way!

Honour and integrity above all else

Aspire to honour above all else

Finally, the general community can help minimise cheating by actively promoting a culture in which honour and dignity are more important than external success. Honour is a rather outdated notion these days. We have replaced social honour with rule of law, and personal honour with conscience. But in the case of cheating the law has proved ineffective, and conscience too easily appeased. One area where honour is still alive and well is in the military. In the heat of combat honour is earned by keeping your word to stand and fight in the face of overwhelming fear. By prioritising the needs of your friends, your service, and your country, ahead of your own personal desires. For those of us who will never see battle, the sporting arena is the closest we ever come. I dream of a day when honour is earned by keeping your word to compete honestly in the face of overwhelming fear of failure. When protecting the reputation of your friends, your box, and the whole CrossFit community is prioritised above the personal desire for glory. When the Spirit of the Games trophy is the most prestigious award on offer. The more of us who pledge allegiance to this unwritten CrossFit code of honour, the closer we will come to the ideal.

In the words of John W Gardner: “Men [and women] of integrity, by their very existence, rekindle the belief that as a people we can live above the level of moral squalor. We need that belief; a cynical community is a corrupt community.” Let us be a community that seeks to bring out the best in ourselves, and each other - not just athletically, but in every way!

Cheating CrossFit Integrity Social Pressure

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