By: Mike Visscher
My hour-long KPP instructor test was a powerful experience that taught me about myself and instantly changed me. It signified the completion of a mission and it happened at a turbulent time in my life.
The path will be different for anyone who aspires to complete the test, but it will leave an impression not to be forgotten. This challenge is a unique mix of mental and physical work. It’s a strength and endurance event, with no room for complacency. I’ll talk about my thinking process during and through the hour, but let me first back up a few years.
I met Michael Castrogiovanni in 2007, at a MMA Expo where he was promoting kettlebells and kettlebell lifting. I’d earned my degree in sports science a few years earlier and was trying to find my niche as a trainer. I had an affiliation with my friend’s martial arts gym and had trained some fighters, and had recently become interested in training with kettlebells and Pavel Tsatsouline’s RKC certification.
I had seen Michael on a kettlebell instructional DVD and was excited to see him in person. A year later in 2008, I became certified as a RKC instructor. I did not see Michael again until 10 years later in 2017. I had arrived in Los Angeles at a Strongfirst certification workshop where I was assisting and recognized him as he drove in. This community of exercise professionals seems a small one and I recall having wondered a time or two what might have become of him. I was very happy to reconnect with him and was surprised that he remembered me.
Two weeks later, I attended a workshop he conducted as I was curious about Kettlebell Partner Passing. The other attendees were different than I expected. Not all athletes or lifters, but everyone was excited about it. They reminded me of the novice enthusiasm I’d felt at other seminars I’d attended in the past.
The workshop took place in the sand and the benefits and necessity for this were easy to see. Swinging, releasing, watching. I was an athlete and had pictured something more challenging or maybe that there might have been heavier weights there. I don’t think we had anything more than 20 kilos (44 lbs). What I did notice, however, was that everyone effectively used their hips to propel/pass a kettlebell... which was what it’s about; passing a kettlebell back and forth.
Because of the notion I’d led with, though, I kept thinking about when it would get “harder.” This wasn’t competitive and it went against the grain of why I thought I was there. Everyone took turns passing to each other and some of the folks had a kind of hippie vibe I thought. One of them was Tony. I mean Tone. I mean Antonious. I mean Tone. It seemed to me that he didn’t blink. The eye contact rubbed me the wrong way at first. Tone and I are friends now. Another story. But there was enough that day to make me curious about whether this “system” indexed deeper.
It did. There was a lot. It was divine in its simplicity. I attended a second workshop and then a private session with Michael. It was an honor to pass with someone who I had looked up to and was supremely calm in his role as a teacher, while, as I could readily see, was a very skilled athlete and owned a deep mastery of moving these tools that had become a part of my training identity.
I then attended a second private lesson, as Michael was only near my area for a short time. He suggested to me that I could become a part of this system which was finding its way to more people. I loved it. Michael was a selling point for me because I felt a kinship with him and had much respect for his knowledge and seniority as a coach.
Through the proceeding months and year, I practiced with my clients that which I knew of Kettlebell Partner Passing and I formed a close friendship with Michael. He has been a great blessing in my life and I place great trust in him. I also became friends with others in the “tribe,” and I built a distinctly closer rapport with the clients and friends of mine with whom I passed.
After attending another workshop and then assisting as a teacher at a hometown event, I jumped at the opportunity to formally become a KPP Instructor in this system. The hour-long passing test was the rite of passage.
The intended training protocol for this test is a 90-day period, through which the candidate passes/practices 3-4 times per week. I was slated to partner through the 90 days and the test with Dennis, a friend and client who had a shared enthusiasm for KPP. Dennis is bigger than me but he agreed to help me prepare and to travel the road to and through my test.
He unfortunately sustained an unrelated injury. Dennis is not a quitter and he would have pushed through the pain for my sake. Nonetheless, we decided to modify the approach and that I would fulfill the completion of my practice with another partner. I had two others in mind but too many obstacles left me with only a rough testing date to prepare for, and Michael offered to stand across from me for the test.
We were aiming for January of 2019. Michael informed me that he was going to host a workshop during that month and asked if I would like to assist. I agreed and flew to Albuquerque to teach with him.
The event went well and the day ended with a bicycle ride in the nearby hills that were scattered with snow. It was a long day. There was no mention of the test; my purpose there was for the workshop. I had decided to spend the full weekend there and it was not til the next day that Michael brought up the topic of the test. He hadn’t forgotten, and until that time I’d been keeping up my practice with various people. He said, “you know, we could do your test today.” I felt ready and said yes. It hadn’t occurred to me but the elevation in Albuquerque is north of 5000 feet. I think he was allowing the possibility that I would prefer to test elsewhere.
My hour started out just like any other time I’d passed, communicating and adjusting to find the right groove. The first 10 minutes happen, then another ten minutes go by, then it’s been 30... and before you know it, you’ve passed for a total of only 13 minutes. The little cartoon devil and angel were getting loud. At one point I thought, “if I stopped I could just go to sleep.” We didn’t ask to know the time until 43 minutes had passed; but after that, time seemed to slow down even more. When we asked again, I thought for sure that We were inside the last 5 minutes. Nope. 11 minutes left.
The managing of my attention span was a thing. When I started thinking about fatigue, I would make the conscious shift into body mechanics. I had been a swinger of kettlebells for a while, so I was able to exploit any part of my range of motion to produce power, but I knew my negative tendencies. When my back started feeling the work, I hinged more and bounced out of my hamstrings. As a way of checking my hands, I slightly scooped my knees to slow the movement down. Slowing down meant hundredths of seconds but it was enough. Michael could probably see it.
This is a small part of that internal conversation, which was only one of 3 that were alternating and overlapping in my brain. The action of the feet, angles of force to the ground, breath timing, sweat, visual target, hooking the kettlebell and releasing, and elbow flexion are a few more that belong.
Things become simple as the clock ticks toward the end. After thinking about a thing for so long or so much, you arrive at a place where the image of it has been distilled and has left a visual imprint on your mind. I was tapping into the script of internal conversations that I had following a turning point in my life, which I'd had reached in the months prior. I was looking hard at myself and stretching to grow in a hurry.
I had been frustrated and angry. Anger, restraint, love, patience and transparency all seemed to blend together for me. Life was valuable but I walked the line of feeling like there was nothing to lose. Nonetheless I sought to be simple. Lynrd Skynrd simple. I wanted to own every part of my existence, and this made me grateful; here I was, now at a place where I could prove I was a finisher, and I had chosen this challenge.
Thank you Gina and Marcus for reminding me recently that I still had these words in me. Gina and Marcus are both candidates to test. I was reminded of the following after passing kettlebells with them.
This is what I recall of the dialogue in my head through the test:
“Why are you here? To pass this test? Is it pass/fail? Yes. Do you intend to fail? No. Shut up about failing. Think about how to pass. AND SHUT UP and catch this pass right now. Any miss can fail you. You just thought about missing again. You just checked yourself a second time to stop thinking negatively.”
I think negatively more often than I should. And excuses really are like... ask me in person.
“you intend to pass this. Can you? (Say yes.) ‘Yes.’ Then is there a good reason that you won’t? (Say no.) ‘No.’ so should you pass? Yes. So DO IT.”
And right back into my head creeps the clock and the silly discomforts like my running nose.....
“but does that have to affect you? How much does that matter? Can you do anything about it?” Simplicity again. “Has it been done? Yes. Actually that doesn’t matter. Look across from you. He’s doing it too. He’s doing this WITH YOU and FOR YOU. And you’re doing this for yourself. Are you going to stop? You would let him down too. You will edify your friend by earning a victory for yourself. Are you going to make an error? STAY AWAKE AND STAY HERE.”
I was ready to keep digging....And then, “Set the bell down. You’re done.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was ready to keep going. I had checked my resolve and it was real. I was ecstatic that we had finished.
My feet were so frozen in place that my toes had gone a little numb. The mental pressure had kept me from breaking the most familiar parts of the movement and my stance as we had neared the end. I was so happy to move. I thanked Michael and started walking around to shake it off. I rolled onto the floor and lied on my back, making a momentary “dream” come true as I had thought for an instant about lying on the floor and sleeping. (This is hilarious to me).
I stood back up and was bouncing around. fast and loose. I went and checked my hands; they weren’t bad. I had a small blood blister and a lot of wear on the sides of my ring fingers.. 1400+ reps will reveal things that you will not see in practice. I drank some water and splashed my face off, but still felt like I had a tomato for a head. Yes, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
I walked back to where Michael was with the ladies who had timed us. He had worn a heart rate monitor so they were checking numbers. I floated away a little and again dropped onto the floor. Michael came over and said something to me. I had sat up and was thinking about the test and about life and what had happened. I started sobbing. I dropped back into my back and just cried. Nothing held back.
The test had opened a window that showed me inside myself. It felt like something that had been long written down but had been covered by the dust of time and then unearthed again. There was an immediate certainty that I realized I had forgotten. I was releasing poison that I’d held on to and there was a powerful shift and exchange of forces that happened in that moment.
A month after I completed my test, I went to support another candidate. He made it to 31 minutes and couldn’t continue, but it was a good decision for him to stop. His hands wouldn’t have made the hour. It was a powerful experience for all of us.
I remain the only one for a short window. Michael has now added a whole lot of meat to the KPP solo training program, to be released soon, to help people train on their own to prepare for the rigors of Kettlebell Partner Passing. As I write this, it’s January again and we are setting dates for workshops in 2020.
I have made KPP a common practice with many of my clients, and have been surprised at how strong my legs and hands stay while in the absence of another training plan. The transfer to other skills, the interactive nature of passing and the inherently acknowledged risk cultivate a reverence for the weight, which lends closely to concepts I would teach in other conditions.
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Mike training one of his clients in Kettlebell Partner Passing.