by Ryan Atkins
As I rounded the corner, I was almost knocked flat on my ass. An exuberant student was bolting around the corner of one of the meandering hallways of MacDowell Montessori School. It was entirely my fault. I knew I was on my way towards the workout area of the school and that kids would be warming up for their class. Despite this knowledge, I had become THAT guy – the one with his attention lost in his phone, checking a text message, oblivious to his surroundings. I probably had my head out of alignment with my spine and likely had positioned my shoulders in severe internal shoulder rotation (aka “douchebag shoulders” a term popularized by mobility guru Kelley Starrett). In short, I DESERVED to get knocked on my ass, EVEN IF the text was coming from one of my former clients (and current coach at Badger CrossFit) Eric Neitman who was informing me that there was a Starbuck’s in the Milwaukee area (West Allis, specifically) that now serves bulletproof coffee.
The student was on his warm-up run and getting ready for one of the CrossFit classes that teacher and coach Chip Johnston offers, free of charge to students and teachers of Milwaukee Public Schools out of a gym at the school where he also teaches at. Minutes before our hallway journey, we had spent some time in the classroom Chip teaches out of at the school, going over a little bit about Chip’s history as well as that of the program he created. Before a superintendent ordered restructuring/merger of the school last year, the school was completely teacher-led. As certain changes were being made, it came to Chip’s attention that a certain grant application concerning physical fitness was now his responsibility to finish. Although Chip was swamped at the time, he was informed that the money had already been set aside and it was essential that the paperwork get finished. His hand forced, Chip looked over the grant application and realized it wouldn’t take much to revamp it and implement it as a non-profit based CrossFit affiliate. He had already realized great results using CrossFit, having been directed towards it by a trainer after hearing Chip’s frustration about gaining weight once his days as a collegiate level athlete were at an end. More details about Chip’s background and his motivation to start this endeavor are found in his affiliation essay and in a CrossFit Journal article published once his application was approved.
Part of the reason for our visit was to see what has progressed since his CF journal article and a local news story had been published. In September of last year, CrossFit MPS was granted affiliate status. The months that followed their affiliation proved to be among their busiest, averaging about 15-20 kids per class with the adult class netting about 10-15. Most of the participants in the kids class are the senior high level students, but there has been an uptick in interest from the 6th – 8th grade range. Adults participating in classes consist mostly of teachers from the school and range in age from their early twenties to over sixty. Complementing this group are other members of MPS – some teachers from other schools, but most coming from recreation department.
The program has a lot of unique elements that likely aren’t found at other gyms. One is that Amanda has started to incorporate the training into the regular PE program for the school. Chip explains that it’s one reason they haven’t seen a significant increase in attendance for their after school classes. Many of the students are able to get their workout in within the context of the school day. Once per week the youngest members of the school, ages 3-5 have opportunities to participate in some of the training too. Because of the young age, Chip informs me that most of their activities consist of games. Some of the older students help to lead the activities for the youngsters, providing opportunities for the elders to not only share what they’ve learned but develop interpersonal and leadership skills while developing the sense of community that has shown to be so important in successful fitness projects.
Besides imparting fitness knowledge to the people involved in the program, Chip and the other coaches strive to improve nutritional habits.
“We generally can’t proscribe diets that would be a sudden dramatic shift from what our clients are already doing, or successfully implement strategies that involve a lot of intricate tracking or measuring. But what we can do is to steer the students in the right general direction and make them more aware of the food choices they make.”
In addition to writing about nutrition, Chip stresses the importance of conveying general nutritional concepts for a period of time, maybe a month or two, before switching topics. It could be as simple continually reminding his students to drink more water or to focus on eating more real, unprocessed foods. Although he doesn’t force compliance levels or measure intake amounts, surveys used in conjunction with his program indicate that his students are consciously thinking more about what they put in their mouths and checking out nutritional labels with increasing frequency.
In order to drive the point home, members of CrossFit MPS are able to benefit from the experience of Jill Hurst, a 53 year-old staff member of the school. A recovering smoker, Jill goes to 2-3 classes per week, making it a point to attend the children’s class. One class time a month she uses as an opportunity to cook a meal for the students. It might not necessarily be strict paleo or anything similar, but it accomplishes the goal of showing the students first hand how real foods can be used in the preparation of a meal far more nutritious than anything processed coming out of a bag or box.
It’s from these beginnings that Chip sees the program’s potential for growth. Down the road, he hopes to get more
involvement from more teachers from the MPS community at large. When he affiliated, he made it a point that the affiliation wouldn’t be associated with any particular building, but the district as a whole. He hopes to see other MPS employees volunteer to start up classes at other schools within MPS. He hopes to use the classes and the program as a whole as a means to reach out to students and get them involved in physical activities where traditional sports programs may have failed to do so. Also, he is working to see his program become involved in helping to condition those students already involved in interscholastic sports. Lastly, Chip feels that programs like the Firefighter Cadet and the Explorer programs can refer their members to the free services being offered by his non-profit organization Given these ambitions, it’s easy for me to visualize other potential visitors to other schools in the Milwaukee are potentially getting knocked on their butts because they weren’t paying attention to what was going on around them as some student eagerly finishes off their warm-up run through a hallway with periodic pieces of paper hanging from the walls to indicate the distance they’ve covered from the workout area. It’s time to put away the cell phones, Folks and start to pay attention to what Chip and his staff have going on here. There’s some exciting times in store for Milwaukee area youth.
Contact information for CrossFit MPS can be found here. In a future article, we’ll go into detail about the class structure and experience during my visit to Chip’s school.
About the author – Ryan Atkins has been involved in coaching in some way, shape or form since he was 18, when he taught martial arts classes. From his karate beginnings he would branch out during his college years, eventually focusing his efforts on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai and other elements contributing towards Mixed Martial Arts, which he competed in with a winning record from 1997-2001 (when fighters didn’t get paid jack, and got to fight multiple times in one day). In 2003, he found about Olympic Weightlifting and via Google searches on that subject, CrossFit. Some of his writings have been published in CrossFit Kids Magazine and the Performance Menu. He coaches via multiple venues as a CrossFit affiliate owner, the Strength and Conditioning Coach at Dominican High School, a contractor to the Fire Science Dept at WCTC and other gigs. He continues to harness his efforts on a daily basis to improving his knowledge base in regards to training and aspires to spread tidbits of information to the fitness/performance world.