6 Ways Farming Shaped My Athletic Career
Growing up and working on a farm is hands down the most influential aspect of my upbringing that led to my success as an athlete. Most people would assume a “farm boy” to be naturally strong, but although I believe that played a part, most of the advantages I gained as far as training is concerned are on the mental side.
My parents own a 110 acre grass-fed beef farm where they raise cattle and sell the beef directly from the farm. As I grew up I would help with everything from stacking hay bales, splitting wood, sorting cattle, to ordinary yard and garden work. For 5 years I also owned full responsibility of raising about 500 broiler chickens per summer and selling them for meat. In high school I worked on a nearby hay farm where I threw more hay bales than I could possibly count. Through all these years of farm work I learned a ton about running a business, sustainability and living healthy, responsibility in school and in my job, and the following attributes that helped me become a successful athlete.
Early Functional Strength Development
One of the invaluable physical attributes I had access to was strength development at an early age. There are so many people critical of kids lifting at too young of an age, but they never consider what farm kids have done since the beginning of time. I still remember times when I was probably 5 or 6 being upset that I wasn’t any help to my older brother, dad, and grandpa while unloading hay wagons. What I did was climb to the top of the stack and try to roll the bales down so they were closer to be carried away. A hay bale is probably 30-40lbs on average, but I would use my feet, back, shoulder, or any way possible to dislodge them and roll them down. As I got older and grew strong enough to carry and throw them, I always looked from new techniques to throw them further or be able to carry them for longer. In addition to hay bales, as a 10 year old I knew how to efficiently swing a sledge hammer and axe. I absolutely love splitting wood by hand, but that all started when I was a kid and had to figure out how to do it effectively. When splitting wood you can’t just aimlessly hit the log and expect it to split. It needs to be hit with precision and with the greatest amount of force applied at the point of impact. Having the goal of splitting an entire stack of logs forced me to learn how to apply force more efficiently by altering my technique and giving maximum effort. This concept is very different to many exercises kids do that don’t have an all or nothing, success or failure, goal achieving aspect to them. Throwing hay bales, splitting wood, carrying feed bags and 5 gallon buckets of water not only developed strength, but toned my ability to alter forces and movements to become more efficient and successful at those tasks. Athleticism is often said to be natural, but it goes beyond hand-eye coordination. Having the understanding that your movement can become more efficient and having the drive to make it more efficient will improve your athletic ability. However if you are not doing exercises that have a success or failure aspect to them, it is impossible for your body to make those miniscule alterations. If you don’t have the opportunity to split wood, the olympic lifts provide the best all or nothing type of exercise to train both strength and athletic development.
Immunity and Gut Health
That last of the physical attributes I’ll mention is a lack of stomach sickness. I have thrown up a total of 4 times in my life, and one of those times is from trying to drink a gallon of chocolate milk (a story for another time). I associate almost never have a stomach sickness to growing up on a farm. I was constantly around animals, constantly getting dirty, and through farming my parents valued healthy foods that are rich in probiotics. Avoiding sickness played a huge part in my athletic career. We mention a lot that it is good to train even if you are sick, but obviously you can train at a higher level more often if you are healthy. It may just be that I got lucky with my genetics on this one, but there is research out there that supports young exposure to animals to greater immunity, and I believe growing up on a farm played a big role in that.
This is kind of the obvious one, but either through my competitiveness or lack of patience I turned the term “working hard” more into “working intensely”. I am a very goal driven person, and find it difficult to just work sometimes without having a goal in sight. The best example I can give is when I worked on the hay farm. Every two weeks we loaded a tractor trailer bed with 750 bales of hay. The farmer would drop loads of bales on the truck and I would stack them. It typically took about 2.5 to 3 hours, but I began timing myself to see how quickly I could get it done, and eventually was able to finish the load in two hours. There were little things as well when I was younger that I believe shaped my work ethic in training. I remember every time I needed to carry water out to the chickens, I would have a 5 gallon bucket of water in each hand and I wouldn’t let myself set them down until I got the whole way into the field. My forearms and legs would be burning, and I often soaked myself from the water splashing, but I felt accomplished that I could do it. It is that kind of working hard that translated the most to my training because it didn’t matter if people were watching me or not, I needed to prove to myself more than anyone that I was giving my full effort to feel successful.
Work pays off
One of the great things about having a small farm business is that you can see the journey of your food from the time it is born until it is on your plate. In addition to learning sustainability through this process, I was able to clearly see how the work we put in on the farm paid off in the end. I wasn’t just working to get a paycheck. I was stacking hay bales so that the cattle had food to eat in the winter, so they could keep growing and be fat and ready to butcher the next year. We sold the chickens I raised by the pound. If I got lazy and didn’t move them to new grass often enough or didn’t give them enough feed, they wouldn’t weigh as much and I wouldn’t make as much profit. Not working for instant gratification but seeing the benefits of your efforts materialize over a period of time directly applied to being confident in the process of training as well.
The ability for an athlete to deal with being uncomfortable and being in pain plays a huge role in whether they will be successful or not. Usually this attribute has to be trained at some point in someone’s life. Most athletes learn to handle pain well after a couple years of consistent training, but there are a lot of kids that come in to the gym that have never dealt with uncomfortable feelings in their lives before and it delays their development as an athlete. Growing up on a farm gave me the advantage of getting over this problem at an early age. I can’t say I never complained that something was too hard or that it was too hot or too cold out, but my tolerance grew a little higher each time I had to deal with an extreme working condition. Probably the most extreme example I can give are the hay making days in the middle of June. Thankfully the farmer got a bunch of boys out to help for these days so we had some comradery in the work, but on some days when it was over 90 degrees out it got pretty bad. We would be stacking bales in an unventilated barn for 8-10 straight hours. When the hay stack was getting high, and we were almost at the roof, the temperature rose to well over 100 degrees, the air was thick with dust, and there was very little time for breaks. Luckily there were only 3 or 4 of those days per year, but I know learning how to deal with that work helped me train harder as as athlete.
Critical Thinking, Efficiency, and Experimentation
The idea that systems can always be improved and that a person can change the way they do things to reach a better result is an attribute the many athletes struggle with. Part of the problem can exist if an athlete relies too heavily on someone else for their success or if they don’t accept any responsibility of failure for themselves. However, often athletes get in a rut because they do the same things over and over again, blindly accept the things they are told to do, and never critically think through the reasons why they are doing the things they are doing. Now I’m not suggesting athletes should argue with their coaches if they don’t like something they said in the middle of practice, but should learn why the coach might have them do certain things, or intentionally look for ways to be more efficient at the objectives the coach provides. Critical thinking can be developed a ton of different ways, but for me the farm provided a bit of a sandbox with challenges that I could experiment with solutions to. I mentioned before how I would often look for ways to make my work more efficient so that I could complete it faster and have fun while doing it, but there were many opportunities to problem solve as well.
My upbringing on the farm is something I would never trade away as I know how crucial it was to shaping me as a person. Unfortunately most people do not have that opportunity. However none of the attributes I listed can only be learned on a farm. Learning to train at a young age, finding friends to be competitive with, and certainly finding a job as soon as possible are great ways to initiate athletic development, work ethic, critical thinking, and the ability to deal with uncomfortable situations.