How Sports Allowed Me to Deal with Complex Trauma

Written by: Kevin Cann

I was originally going to write about selecting appropriate volume, both exercises and number of sets and reps, but I feel that just gets lost in the noise of the internet.  People only want to read what matches their bias and argue about the things that don’t.  Not many are really trying to learn.

I love when coaches will share a picture of their “big” athletes to show everyone why their way is superior.  Lifters that were strong before they even came to those coaches, and some that haven’t even done a meet with them, but hey they tag them in their Instagram posts and that is all that matters.  Most of these coaches would put on muscle mass from looking at a weight, that is how inexperienced they are.  But hey, they train this really strong lifter for free, or even pay them so that they say they coach them and get more lifters, or they got lucky, and a freak walked in one day.

Sports is much bigger than this bullshit.  It has become much more about which program is best and which federation is best.  Gear is cheating, raw is stupid (which is it).  Who fucking cares?  This sport is such a small corner of the niche world that exists mostly on the internet with less than mediocre coaches and lifters.

We have lost sight of what this is all about.  Very few people will ever be national or world champions.  With greater exposure for the sport, we are getting more and more freaks that are coming into it.  If you aren’t a freak, you aren’t winning shit, especially in raw lifting.  You just hoping to one day finish 50th at raw nationals and walk away smiling with your participation trophy?  I doubt that sounds very appealing.  If it is what you want, well good for you, way to aim high.

I am purposely writing with this asshole tone so that it gets my point across.  Sports offers an arena for us to grow as people.  Powerlifting shouldn’t just be about growing totals, but instead character traits that we can take with us off the platform that can make out lives better.  If you are only improving on an 8-foot by 8-foot piece of plywood, is this all worth it?

I shared a story of my personal history on Instagram the other day about my violent past.  I said that sports have helped me overcome some difficulties in my life.  Most comments were positive, but I did get some that were negative.  This is where we have come as a society, shitting on people for being vulnerable and expressing their self-improvement.  People like the ones making these comments are why people do not tell their stories and end up inflicting harm upon themselves or others.

One of these idiots had torn his ACL at one point.  Through rehabilitation he was able to heal from the injury and come back and compete.  I am sure that strength training was a part of that rehabilitation process.  We don’t only suffer from physical wounds, but experiences can have a much larger impact on us than that.

For over 20 years of my life, I lived in an environment that inflicted complex trauma upon me.  I was physically abused as well as verbally assaulted daily.  Imagine what being called a “pussy” as your dad was throwing you around does for a kid’s self-worth.  

Imagine what it was like to go to bed only to be woken a few hours later when your dad got home from work by him dragging you through the house, hitting you, calling you names, because your chores weren’t done to an impossible standard.  You wouldn’t get to go back to sleep for a bit because the police were surely going to be called so you would have to deal with that.  Then you would have to get up early for school to catch the bus as the first pickup and try to stay awake in class.

That was my life for 20 years.  The wounds that those experiences inflicted can’t be seen by anyone.  People just assume I am an asshole, which I certainly can be, and that is fine, but believe me it could have been worse and was for a period.

Complex trauma is a term used for those that experienced prolonged exposure to stressful events.  Instead of flashbacks to specific events, we get “feelings” that remind us.  These feelings are triggered by things that may seem very miniscule to others.  In many cases there will even be repressed memories of the events, but the “feelings” remain.

Without sports I would have most certainly been in jail.  Many people fall onto drugs and alcohol and suicide risk goes up exponentially.  The risk of perpetuation of violence is increased in this population and I fell victim to that.  Not making excuses for what I did as it was terrible and wrong, and all I can do is try to be better.

Sports gave me an arena to work my shit out.  I am always “on”, and this is known as hypervigilance.  It gave me a place to direct that energy in a healthy manner. It gave me groups of like-minded friends.  My avoidance behavior makes me obsessive about the things that I do.  This includes reading and learning (I read about 3 books per week these days), but also in trying to be my best and understand the sport.

Many people that suffered complex trauma use drugs and alcohol as their avoidance strategy, but sports gave me something else.  Sports will also teach you how to create space between thoughts and reactions.  I am sure everyone has felt their heart race and palms sweat when they see a heavy weight on a squat bar.  That is how I live life in many cases.  The physiological response to anger, excitedness, fear, they are all the same.  Sports gave me tools to help me create space and control my thoughts in those situations.

Sports helped improve my self-worth and helped me develop more productive self-talk.  Sports taught me that if I work hard, I will be rewarded for that hard work no matter what.  Sports taught me to compete.  I was always taught to play to the final whistle and this a motto for my life.

If I am still in the game, I have a chance.  Sports taught me how to compete in life.  I had a lot of cards stacked against me growing up.  It was not an easy path, and it sure as shit was not a linear path, but I received multiple degrees, have a business that was strong enough to survive a pandemic, and have an ever-improving relationship with my wife (this is not easy as attachment issues are a result from childhood abuse).

None of those things would have been possible without the lessons that sports have taught me.  The bottom of the PPS Pyramid of Greatness is the foundational aspects to building success.  “Integrity” is one of these pieces.  Integrity is individualized and is the values that each individual holds in importance.  Once we identify those values, we make sure we are reflecting enough to be sure that we are living by those values and if we are not than we make the necessary adjustments.

For example, commitment is often a value people identify as is honesty.  We might ask ourselves if we are truly committing to the training process?  This isn’t just showing up but showing up and giving our all each and every day.  Not surfing the internet or texting, but in the moment and present training.  Then are we being honest with ourselves (and our coach) to this commitment.  We practice this commitment and honesty in sports, it becomes part of our identity in life.

I hold authenticity as a value to myself and I feel sharing my stories and experiences will help me live by that value.

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