In sport, what separates the elite from the best? Those athletes who rise to the top have many high quality physical and technical attributes that enable them to excel at their profession. But when you pick out those individuals who will be remembered long after they retire, there is one attribute that stands out. Mental fortitude. The relentless work ethic, the ability to push through physical discomfort, tell your mind and body that you will not give up. Call it what you will, but it is a quality that is shared by the greats of many sports-and it is especially true in CrossFit.
Ask any coach who trains CrossFit Games athletes, and they will tell you the same thing. To be good you need to have virtuosity, to be skilled in many areas, but to be great, you need that most precious attribute-mental fortitude. Fortunately, this is something you can earn, if you train hard enough, and suffer enough, over time.
James ‘OPT’ Fitzgerald, the first man to win the CrossFit Games in 2007, calls it resiliency, and believes that it can be quantified as a fitness attribute that separates those who make it to the Games from those who qualify for Regionals.
“Resiliency is not just physical resiliency, its spiritual, emotional, mental and physical combined. It can be built through good training practices, but there’s always an emotional component, a mental component that goes with that. It’s combined in numerous different ways, but to give you an analogy around it-the better athletes are the ones that think less and do more.”
So, how does one exactly do that? As it turns out, there are quite a few techniques (as well as coaches) that competitive CrossFit athletes employ prior to, during and following workouts. To take one example, Mark Divine is a former US Navy SEAL, owner of US CrossFit and founder of SEALFIT-a program that mimics the training that candidates for the SEALs would receive. Prior to the 2013 CrossFit Games, several Games athletes, including Lindsey Valenzuela and Team Hacks Pack UTE trained with Divine to develop their mental fortitude-the ‘warrior mind’, as he calls it.
As part of Divine’s training, he preaches utilizing certain skills to improve mental strength (these skills and many others can be found in Divine’s upcoming new book, 8 Weeks to SEALFIT¬, which is set to be released on April 1st). These include positive internal dialogue-essentially overriding negative thoughts with positive ones. Doug Chapman, owner and head coach at HyperFit USA and CrossFit Ann Arbor, is also coach to a number of Games athletes, including Julie Foucher. He emphasizes the importance of instilling confidence and positive thinking within his athletes.
“ A lot of athletes are self-defeating, and I try to get them to re-think how they talk to themselves, even how they walk. Even if they don’t feel it, I try to get them to smile, to walk with confidence and good posture so that every day they are building a base of confidence.”
The varied programming of CrossFit guarantees that there will be workouts and exercises that you will have trouble with. Just look at Rich Froning, who was the back to back champ coming into the 2013 CrossFit Games. The very first event was 10 rounds for time of a 25 meter swim in a pool, jumping out, doing 3 bar muscle-ups before returning in the water to swim another 25 yards. Froning finished in 30th place in that event, but rather than dwell on the result, refocused on his strengths and ended up winning the Games for the third year in a row. A key part in his shift in focus had been influenced by his wife, who reminded him that he was supposed to have fun with the competition. When you are struggling in a workout, do not get frustrated with yourself. Remind yourself of how far you have come, what you can do well, and above all else, try to enjoy yourself and know that in time you will be able to handle that WOD with ease.
Visualization is another important technique that can have a profound impact on your performance. During the Open last year, Jason Khalipa shared his thoughts on how he battled through tough patches in WODS. He summarized that he visualized how he would coach one of his athletes in his gym, instructing them on proper technique, then applied that same instruction to himself, visualizing himself as the “student”. This is a great tip as it essentially combines internal dialogue with visualization. Box breathing is another useful skill that you can develop with practice. The concept is to take control of your breathing in order to control fear and stress later on, and maintain a calm body and mind. The SEALs refer to this as arousal control. Box breathing is done by exhaling completely, then breathing in slowly for a count of 4. Hold that breath for a count of 4, then exhale again to a count of 4, expelling all the air at the end. To finish, hold your empty lungs for another four seconds. The 4-count formula is a box, hence the name of the exercise. Try practicing this before you workout for at least 5 minutes.
These are just a few of the methods that you can develop in order to build a tough, resilient mind-one that will endure longer than your body might and enable you to crank out a few more reps before you take your rest. There are many more that are easily accessible online or in sport psychology literature. Pick a few that stand out to you, practice them, and train your mind to become comfortable with the uncomfortable-your body will follow suit.