The Citizen, the Challenger, and the Fighter
Part 1: The Three Archetypes of the Fitness Society
In the society of the fitness world, three groups prevail. To identify these groups is not to evaluate or rank them, nor to imply any intrinsic hierarchy of value or moral power, but rather to assist the individual in understanding their own mind and by extension their fitness goals. A fitness goal is nothing but a marriage of the mind’s desire with the body’s ability. Rarely is the marriage effortless; sometimes, it is a "shotgun wedding." For any chance of success, however, it must be viewed as one thing: permanent. Not unchanging, but permanent.
We all have some of each archetype inside us, and yet succeeding as one or moving between them depends on being able to identify each one's unique characteristics and navigate them such that they don't conflict with each other and result in failure, perplexity, and shame. Careful and sober consideration allows one to realistically understand the nature of one's passions and what stands the greatest chance of either dousing or igniting them.
The Citizen is the first group in the Fitness Society. They should be the largest, but their numbers are frustratingly few. The Citizen’s main concern is to exercise the Freedoms to which they are entitled as a result of being willing to participate and live in the Fitness Society: freedom of movement, of ability, of physical independence, freedom from pain and stiffness, freedom to enjoy life and even occasionally overindulge without feeling guilt, pain, or discomfort.
Freedom from discomfort is important to the Citizen, and understandably so. Discomfort is unpleasant, and brings with it unpleasant feelings. But the Citizen understands that some discomfort is a part of life. The Citizen views the temporary discomfort that exercise itself brings as a worthwhile cost to ward off the often-permanent physical and emotional discomfort that regrettably accompanies poor health.
These freedoms, and others, are all the Citizen requires to feel that they are receiving the full benefits of living in the Fitness Society. They want to be free to carry their own burdens, to climb their own stairs, to walk, run, jog, or cycle their own roads. These benefits, and not the experience of “doing fitness” itself, is what they seek. They want to feel their heart beating at an appropriate pace, and to see the results of their most recent blood-work outdoing those of the last.
They want longevity and they also want independence, since the pursuit of longevity for its own sake holds limited appeal if one is infirm. What good is life if one cannot use it?
Whether this question is fair or not is beside the point. This is the nature of the freedoms that the Citizen seeks, and seeks to preserve, in order to enjoy life as a whole.
If the Citizen seeks general freedoms, the next group in the Fitness Society seeks something more specific. As implied by their name, Challengers seek Challenges.
The Challenger is the most commonplace of the three categories in the Fitness Society. They are the ones you most often see in the gym. For a Challenger, it is fine, but not enough, to seek mere ability. Challenges—such as more muscle, a stronger deadlift, a faster sprint or marathon, or a longer boxing bout than before—allow them to feel free, not only free from incidental aches and pains, or free from high blood pressure, but free from the minimum. To a Challenger, the minimum is the enemy.
It is the minimum that Challengers find repressive. A freedom is not a freedom unless it is used to the fullest, or at least more than the minimum. Freedoms unapplied have no purpose in their minds, and no reality, or perhaps that purpose exists only as potential. To exist at the minimum—filled with unrecognized human potential, as they see it—is unacceptable to the Challenger. Freedom for the Challenger comes from exploring that potential and testing that freedom by challenging it.
Otherwise, does the freedom really exist? Does the ability? “Am I free? Am I able?” This is not to be taken on faith; it is to be tested.
These are the questions that the Challenger seeks to answer in the affirmative. The freedoms must be used for a purpose beyond themselves or they are mere promises, postures, ideas without substance. They must exist beyond the abstract, beyond the hypothetical.
So not merely “to move,” “to walk,” “to run,” “to lift,” “to look good,” but “to move dexterously,” “to walk two miles a day,” “to run an 8-minute mile,” “to lift twice my bodyweight,” “to look my best.”
Put differently, the Challenger is allowed to define their own freedom, or level of freedom, and to expand on that definition at will.
The dark side of the Challenger is not to be overlooked. Despite pursuing Challenges that are often quite conventional, some Challengers view themselves as “going against the grain” of the Fitness Society, willing to put in more work than most, and in many ways, superior to any Citizen and many other Challengers. Such Challengers may find themselves resenting the apparent simplicity of the Citizen and the Citizen’s life: that it is evaluated based on outcomes not directly related to fitness, and that fitness is only a small part of a larger, outside-of-the-gym existence.
But a good and healthy Challenger does not feel this way towards the Citizen, and is not generally preoccupied with them on practically any level. Those that do (since there are exceptions to every rule) are at least willing to recognize that perhaps there is some envy in this momentary resentful or scornful reaction, some insecurity, which their own pursuit for Challenges is used to offset, nobly, willingly, and even at times, joyously.
And when Challengers see themselves improve, palpably and incontrovertibly excelling within their chosen Challenge, they feel a sense of accomplishment come across them that they know with certainty a Citizen could never feel, because such feelings are the result of seeking more than the minimum, more than an absence of discomfort, but rather the presence of personal glory.
And perhaps, when the Citizen sees the Challenger complete their chosen Challenge, the Citizen takes a deep breath and says, “Wow. I could never do that.” And at this moment in time, it is neither good nor bad, but simply true.
Even less concerned with the Citizen, and often equally unaware of the Challenger, is the Fighter. The Fighter seeks neither Freedoms nor Challenges as ends unto themselves, but rather as means towards preparing for and reaching one single thing: the field of Battle.
Battles embody the use of Freedoms for the pursuit of something more than singular, often arbitrary Challenges. In the Fighter’s mind, Challenges are fine, but inadequate in the same way that Freedoms are inadequate to the Challenger. But what distinguishes a Battle from a Challenge?
The answer is simple: risk.
It is not the physical risk that is of primary importance, although it plays a part. Rather, the type of risk that the Fighter relies on is mental or emotional. Specifically, the risk is to the ego. Not just to its well-being, but to its existence.
The ego is what keeps most people from pursuing greatness out of fear of failure. Such failure is believed to be beyond what the ego can handle. The ego tries to weigh gains and losses to minimize the risk of failure. It tries to evaluate levels of risk and analyze potential outcomes. It looks for the easiest way towards some form of success, perhaps with some component of social validation to give it even more supposed value.
Hence, egoistic (or “ego-driven”) activities compel us to remain within the "reasonable" sphere of human endeavor, even if our ambitions speak to us from—and push us towards—an unreasonable place.
This risk to the ego separates a Battle from a Challenge, and the need for it separates a Fighter from a Challenger.
Put differently, a Challenge is largely an egoistic pursuit; its purpose is the fulfillment of the ego. The Challenger uses Challenges—specialized, specific pursuits with criteria of success that they, themselves, define—to feel good about herself, or to feel a sense of personal value. Which is, of course, very important.
On the other hand, specialization in one or two arbitrary, self-selected Challenges does not produce success in a Battle. Success on the Battlefield requires holistic superiority within the chosen activity or sport, and measures of success are more often decided by judges, not by you.
Hence, the Fighter does not prepare for and enter a Battle in order to satisfy her ego; she does it to get away from her ego altogether. In a way, loss of the ego is the essence of the Fighter.
And yet, she must not think poorly of herself. She must believe in her ability to succeed, in the processes that she has undertaken, and in her guides and support systems. She must look at the positive, be able to navigate doubt and failure, and perhaps even fill in gaps in her fortress of certainty with something resembling raw faith. Otherwise, the Spirit of the Negative Novice (to be discussed in Part Two) can rear its ugly head and undermine her chances.
In other words, she can have an ego; she simply chooses not to be governed by it. It is not the ego that pushes her forward. It is something else, some inner need.
If there is no danger or risk of this sort (to the ego), then the goal has no substance, no vitality. It is random and forgettable, as the Freedoms are to the Challenger, because their level of existence is inadequate. The code of the Fighter is simple: “If it can’t hurt me, it doesn’t exist,” whether for good or ill. It may be glory that the Fighter seeks, or adrenaline, or a heightened sense of fulfillment, purpose, and self. Or simply to “be the best.” But regardless, the Fighter must face the threat of danger in order to feel truly free.
What is the primary danger? Is it physical? Perhaps. But more likely, it is a mental injury rather than a physical one that Fighters fear. The greatest mental danger in the mind and life of the Fighter is the feeling of not having really tried to the absolute maximum. To do what? To transcend the ordinary, to be the best not only in one specific Challenging area but in a general sense: the BEST bodybuilder, the BEST cyclist, the BEST marathon runner, the BEST powerlifter. Or, the absolute best version of themselves (a pursuit which can require a staggering amount of self-reflection). This is the only true success that exists for the Fighter.
And if there was no honest and wholehearted try, then there was never a chance to succeed in the Battle, if that moment ever came.
And if there was never a chance, then the Fighter has failed at their one purpose: to create that chance, through ceaseless exhaustion of every possible option, weapon, tool, and advantage.
If there was ever a step untaken, a stone unturned, a rough road untrod in shoeless feet, the Fighter knows they have failed, and they may doubt themselves as a Fighter. The ultimate goal, whatever it is, was never truly within reach because the Fighter never made it to the battlefield.
Doubts are inevitable, but for a true Fighter, their inevitability gives them less meaning, not more.
For the Fighter, there is no freedom without sacrifice, without pain, without fear. In fact, to the Fighter, one is most free when one is most afraid. The Fighter views fear as the instinct that tells them what they need to overcome, at least in the realm of physical activity. Contrast this with the Citizen, to whom simple experiences of freedom, simple movements and actions, and an apparent lack of non-freedom, is sufficient to meet their needs.
Further, contrast this mentality of the Fighter with that of the Challenger, for whom the needs of a single Challenge may prove adequate motivation. But if they were to ask themselves, “Would I sacrifice my single Challenge to work even harder to be even better than that single goal, and greatly increase the risk of failure without reward or recognition, and lose myself in the process, perhaps lose friends, miss family events, lose out on immeasurable earthly pleasures, only to be able to say that I really tried when success may never even have been possible to begin with?”
And the answer is generally “no,” because their single chosen Challenge (or two), and the part of their ego that it represents, is too important to them, too dear to their sense of themselves. Were they to lose that Challenge, they fear they would lose what makes them special.
Which is understandable, for life is short and pleasures must be pursued where they are found. But for a Fighter, there is no other pleasure.
In the Fighter’s mind, the Challenger's concern is folly. You don’t “lose yourself” by sacrificing that which is most important to you; you find yourself. Even if you lose comfort, leisure, quiet time (other than what is required to be ready for Battle), simplicity, even your life itself, figuratively speaking—all of the things that the Citizen most seeks to preserve in their fitness pursuits—this sacrifice is the nature of being a Fighter.
Where do Battles take place? Most Battles are on the stages and in the fields or courts. But the main Battle—the main war—happens inside the Fighter’s head. The Fighter spends 99% of the year competing against themselves and 1% of the year—the time on stage or the racetrack or tennis court—actually competing directly against others, if at all. The spirit of the Fighter must be constantly redirected away from the Fighter themselves and towards the pursuit of victory, lest uncertainty, fear, doubt, inadequacy, and fatalism take root in their minds. For if it does, the other Fighters—the ones who have won the exact same war against themselves—have already triumphed; the fleeting moment of possible victory was lost.
But there are some Battles that involve no other Fighters. How is this possible? These Battles are not won against other Fighters, but only against the self. To be better than others is not necessary to feel complete; only “better than oneself” is required. The best version of oneself.
Mind, over matter. Goals over appetites. Superiority over adequacy. Pain over pleasure, or rather, pleasure found in discipline and self-belief. Glory over ego. And the ultimate pleasure—greater than any single instant, transient, or otherwise earthly delight—comes from the fruits of that success: the ability to say, “I obeyed my heart, no matter the cost.”
End of Part One of Three. Here is Part Two.
Part Two covers the subjects of: A Fourth Group, the "Negative Novice," and Moving Between Groups
Learn more about the author—a NASM-certified personal trainer and business owner—at www.resistancequest.com