Men head to gyms every day in the hopes of improving themselves. But it turns out you don’t need a gym to improve both yourself and others.
That’s what a group of men discovered in Charlotte, N.C., a decade ago, when they started a free workout group that met in a city park. As friendships among the men blossomed, so did leadership skills. And F3 Nation (for “fitness, fellowship, and faith”), which now counts about 45,000 members across the country, has become a venue for men to both organize community improvement projects and support each other through the frustrations and crises that are often a part of middle age.
F3’s president, Frank Schwartz—or “Dark Helmet,” as he is known within the nickname-friendly organization—says that while physical fitness is the “magnet,” the sense of fellowship is the “glue” that keeps men coming back. And the ultimate goal, beyond losing a few pounds or developing six-pack abs, is to help men rediscover a sense of purpose at a time in their lives when it can be sorely lacking.
Earlier in life, Schwartz explains, “it was easy to chase a job, chase a salary, but stuff starts getting real complicated real fast.” And while some men deal with those complications by having a stereotypical midlife crisis—sports car, too-flashy wardrobe, too-young girlfriend—others backslide into meek acceptance. “I think the majority just get stuck—they go, ‘Well, this is it.’ And they grind out the rest of their lives with no purpose.
“By putting men on a mission again, the vast majority I believe will find it, and will begin to ask those tough questions: OK, why am I here? What is it that I’m here to do so that I live out the best life I possibly can?”
A little over 10 years ago there were a couple guys who started a group that was kind of doing F3-ish stuff here in Charlotte, juts some guys who had decided they could work out for free in a park rather than go to a gym. The two founders of F3 were part of that group, and they saw, hey, this is actually making a big difference in guys’ lives. This group is getting too big, what if we started another one on the other side of town?
And guys just kept coming, and it kept growing. And we started noticing how every time we get all these guys together, they start making friends. That sort of led to guys saying, “We hang out a lot, we could go build a Habitat house or go work in a food pantry or something like that.” It just kept evolving, bringing men together and teaching them leadership principles through the way we work out. And here we are 10 years later, just over 2,800 weekly workouts going on across the lower 48 and a few international locations as well.
And society doesn’t really build a place for it. You end up finding that any friends you do have are either your wives’ friends’ husbands or a guy you run into at Little League with your kids, or maybe you find a couple guys at church you’re friendly with, but deep genuine male relationships where guys are really supporting each other, there just aren’t a lot of places where that kind of thing is built and celebrated. By coming together through a free workout, they begin to develop these kinds of relationships. We literally get calls and e-mails on a weekly basis where guys are saying, “I was at the end of my rope, I didn’t know what I was going to do, and then I found F3, and here we are. My marriage is good again, my job is good again.”
The guy who founded F3, Dave Redding, probably one of the smartest guys I know, kind of codified it this way. The fitness itself is the magnet, that’s the thing that draws guys in. It’s an easy sell, it’s a free workout. You get them in with the magnet of the fitness, and the glue that keeps them there is the fellowship—you get these deep, friendly male relationships, guys you can count on, guys you can trust. The old joke, it’s 2 a.m. and you’re in jail, who are you gonna call? Those guys. Men who are striving to be better fathers, better husbands, you bring those guys together and before long they start thinking, hey, the world is bigger than just me, and we could actually do some good around here. The mission is to plant, grow, and serve small men’s workout groups with the purpose of invigorating male community leadership.
We call it “Sad Clown Syndrome.” They’ve been pretending on the outside that they’re happy, and on the inside they’re dying. The fact of the matter is, every man is going to face that at some time in his life, and it’s around that late 30s/early 40s midlife crisis time. We don’t have close friends, we don’t have guys we can confide in, and life gets a lot tougher from here. Up to now it was easy to chase a job, chase a salary, but stuff starts getting real complicated real fast. Some guys lose their minds, cheat on their wives, get tattoos they end up regretting; some guys, I think the majority, just get stuck—they go, “Well, this is it.” And they grind out the rest of their lives with no purpose.
I believe a man must live with purpose in his heart, he must look forward and realize he is here to conquer something. I believe we’re wired that way, that we are here to accomplish things. Men are doers. We lead. We strengthen communities. We strengthen families. We work alongside our wives to raise children. We’re not just here to be a money creation machine. But that’s how society often treats us: Shut up, go to your job, bring a paycheck home, sit on your couch, watch some TV, and drink some beer. We don’t need you for anything else.
If at bare minimum you lose some weight, you’re gonna be around a little longer for your family, you’re not losing your breath as you go up the steps. If that’s all you get out of it, awesome. If you get a little more fit and you happen to realize “I’m mentally more tough than I was a year ago when I started this, and now I feel like I can do X, Y, or Z,” even better. The problem is this: Men are designed to want more. We want continuous improvement. That’s built into us. Unfortunately we’ve been chasing it at our jobs for so long that we’ve forgotten those will go away, and the place where it actually matters, the place where it can make a real impact, is in our families and our communities. By putting men on a mission again, the vast majority I believe will find it, and will begin to ask those tough questions: OK, why am I here? What is it that I’m here to do so that I live out the best life I possibly can?
We find a lot of times when a guy gets into his late 30s or early 40s, two promotions, he’s got two or three kids under the age of 10, he’s got some of the things he’s been chasing and chasing and chasing, and now he’s like a dog that chases cars: He’s caught the car and now he’s like, “What am I supposed to do with this?” He starts looking around and going, “Is this it? Is this all I was made for? They told me when I got here that there would be more, that I would have something.” We’re chasing purpose, we’re chasing why we were put here and what God wants us to do. We chase and chase and chase because we think we’re headed for the top of the mountain, and then we realize there’s only bigger mountains.
The Circle of Trust is there because in order for us to have that depth of intimacy, you need to stand in a circle of men, look into the eyes of your brothers, and tell them what’s in your heart. You’ve got to be vulnerable. It’s a little different everywhere; some groups pray, some groups just offer kind of a general thought. But it gives some finality to it, so you’re not just aimlessly drifting off at the end of the workout.
We have men who say, “Look, I’m a recovering alcoholic and all I’ve been doing lately is dreaming of women and brown liquor and I don’t know what to do.” You walk up to that dude afterward and you say, “What time of day is worst for you?” He says noon. So I’m going to text him every day at 11:59 and ask him how he’s doing. And after about 30 days, that guy says, “Hey, man, thanks. I’m not dreaming of brown liquor and women. My head is successfully extracted from my rear end.” That’s the kind of intimacy we’re striving for.
Who was the last guy who looked deep into your heart and soul, and you looked him in the face and told him something like that, and he said, “Man, I’m with you, I got your back, we’ll get through this together”? That’s why it’s important. That’s the magic to me—that’s the third F, the dynamite that really explodes this into action. Because when you get to that acknowledgement and that depth, where you feel supported and loved and understood, there’s so much safety in that.
Restoration, to me, is bringing something back to an original state. Think of a 1960-something car, the paint’s a little chipped, the seats are a little ripped. When we put that back into what we would perceive to be an original condition, it’s not a replacement, it’s a restoration.
My personal belief is that we came from somewhere, and that we are going to continue after this. And this little blip in time that we’re here is its own restorative time, because we’re trying to learn and understand the things we’re supposed to do so that we can provide the greatest possible good for others.
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