I assume you’ve heard of Michael Phelps—U.S. swimmer and most decorated Olympian of all time 22 medals. Of course you have. The reason I bring up Mr. Phelps is to give context to an important skill that you should develop in training and life: your frame of reference.
When Phelps would train for upcoming races, his coach, Bob Bowman, would (on the odd occasion) purposefully step on his goggles and crack them without him knowing. Phelps would have to swim “blind”, with water filling his goggles and the chlorine stinging his eyes. Why would Bowman do this? Was it a cruel joke or unconventional training method? The reality is that Bowman knew that such a scenario could occur during competition, and he wanted his athlete to be ready for all possibilities. This proved to be a masterstroke of coaching, as at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Phelps’ goggles broke during a race. Rather than panic, Phelps was able to refer to his “blind” training. In his head, he counted the number of strokes he needed to get to the end of the pool, and he ended up winning gold in the event. Bowman had successfully managed to change Phelps’ frame of reference.
Your frame of reference
Your frame of reference refers to the situations and environments that you are used to and are comfortable with. The experiences you have in training and in life dictate your frame of reference, and thus are directly linked to how you perform in certain situations—such as competing, as the story of Phelps and his goggles show.
Spartan Race co-founder and CEO Joe Desena provides another great example with regards to frame of reference and work ethic. In one podcast discussion, he explains how when he started his first business, he hired several Eastern Europeans to work for him. “When I first started, I went through hundreds and hundreds of employees, but then I landed some Eastern Europeans. And I couldn’t believe what happened—they worked harder than I did, I couldn’t keep up with them! But what I realized is that they came from an environment that was much tougher than what I was thrown into, so the work was easy for them.”
Changing your frame of reference
So, how does frame of reference relate to YOU and your training at the box? Well, every time you hit a workout, you have a choice. A choice of keeping things comfortable and easy—the way you’re used to doing them—or purposefully making them harder—or at least not avoiding difficult situations when they arise. Why? Because you can’t control the situations that crop up in competition . Things will go wrong, and you need to be able to refer back to situations in which you’ve faced similar—if not the same—challenges.
There’s another great story of Tiger Woods as a young golfer heading to the course to practice his swing with his dad. Tiger dropped a bunch of balls out of his bag and spread them around on the green in preparation for some drives. But at that moment, his father stopped him and walked over to each ball, planting his foot on each one and pressing it firmly into the earth. There weren’t going to be any lies for Tiger to hit that day. The lesson? If Tiger ever had to hit a ball in competition that was stuck in the ground, he would know what to do.
You have to utilize the same approach in your training. Change your frame of reference by embracing the obstacles and challenges that pop up in your workouts—as well as actively forcing them upon yourself.
Ask yourself, what would you do if your hands ripped in competition? If your wrist wraps came off, your shoelaces became untied, if chalk and sweat obscured your vision, if a movement you had never practiced was featured? What frame of reference would you have to fall back on?
Of course, we’re not saying that you should go into the box tonight and look to tear your hands apart like some cannibalistic psychopath. Rather, if the aforementioned situations do happen (or any other roadblock that may crop up), don’t shy away from them or quit mid-WOD. Embrace them as best you can; they are golden opportunities to change your frame of reference. If 15.1 has a ton of pull-ups in them and you do happen to tear, you can say to yourself, “it’s ok, I’m not going to panic, but I’m not going to stop either. This has happened before and I made it work then, so I can make it work now.”
Even if you’re not looking to compete, you can still change your frame of reference by going past your comfort zone in workouts. Whenever you have a thought of dropping the bar to catch your breath, look to go two or three reps deeper. You have the ability to go a ‘dark place’ with your fitness, where you push harder than you thought you ever could. It’s not a nice experience, which is why athletes usually don’t take themselves there very often. But if you’re ever in a workout and you want to PR or take down your rival, you need to be prepared to go beyond your perceived limits. If you have the experience—the frame of reference—of going past those limits and recovering from the inevitable pain and discomfort that follows, you’re far more likely to succeed.
In the end, changing your frame of reference has value both in training and in life. We all need to experience challenges in life in order to learn how to overcome them, so that we are better prepared to handle future obstacles that may arise. Sometimes that means seeking them out—so don’t be afraid to step on your goggles once in a while.
Pictured: Emily Friedman during the 2013 CrossFit Games