Mental Toughness by kyle ruth

A case study of masters athlete - Wendy Shafranski

Being Tough

Wendy and her husband Rob came on board Training Think Tank as some of my first remote clients in mid 2013. At that time, Wendy was 39 years old and had qualified for the 4 previous Regionals but had just missed qualifying for the 2013 Regional. I got the sense from our initial consult that she was frustrated that she didn’t qualify and she seemed eager to make one more run before she became a Masters athlete. It didn’t take me long to realize what had made it possible for her to compete with top athletes who were 10-15 years younger. Wendy had a well developed aerobic capacity and had an uncanny ability to reframe everything into a positive light. After a tough season of training focused on refining her biggest weaknesses (gymnastics and Olympic lifting mechanics), Wendy went on to qualify for the 2014 South East Regional as well as becoming the oldest athlete in her region to do so.

One of the things that impressed me so much about Wendy was the way that she handled my programming that continually hammered on the things she struggled the most with - day in and day out. She was able to take a step back and see the minute changes that manifest from the daily grind AND see where they will take her in 3 weeks, 3 months, and 3 years. We are now two seasons in and I can say with certainty that working with Wendy has reshaped my understanding of the definition of mental toughness. I think traditionally that “mental toughness” is conflated with something like your ability to withstand pain or discomfort. I would argue that the most mentally tough people are those who have successful coping strategies for the roadblocks (injury, illness, family issues, work stress, etc) that are encountered during their journey. I don’t think this comes from being able to withstand the most pain, or subjecting yourself to the most brutal training methodologies. I think this comes from developing practical strategies to keep your vision long-term and having the ability to put everything into perspective. Wendy clearly has refined this set of skills to a far greater degree than most athletes and so it is apparent in her actions daily.

Training Differently

I train Wendy quite differently than I do younger athletes. We’ve both come to understand that she cannot tolerate the same volume of barbell work that she was used to. We have shifted her focus toward submaximal Weightlifting “repeatability” as this has allowed her to make the most progress from a technical standpoint while minimizing the impact on joints/muscles/tendons. From an absolute strength standpoint we have put a premium on improving movement. The result is slower progress in terms of 1RM’s but her rate of adaptation is steady and much more long-term than it would be compared to a higher-volume or higher-intensity strength program.

One of Wendy’s biggest struggles when we first started working together was gymnastics. Wendy struggled with both the upper-body gymnastics strength that was required as well as lacked some of the refined skill/movement patterns required for women to compete at the highest levels of the sport. Following the 2014 season, Wendy and I sat down to formulate a plan to address this for 2015. The plan included weekly one-on-one gymnastics sessions with a local gymnastics coach as well as “reinforcement” sessions throughout the week that were designed to lock-in some of the skill elements that Wendy was developing during those sessions. I think this work has been instrumental in her progress of the past year. As a coach, I clearly recognize the limitations of remote coaching. I’m not there to provide immediate feedback and make the small adjustments to body line that are critical to success in advanced gymnastics. This is something that Wendy will continue throughout the 2016 season as well, as we have really seen the value in these sessions.

From an energy-system standpoint Wendy had a well developed cardiorespiratory capacity as well as relatively good aerobic capacity. We have further refined this system by implementing more low-impact cyclical work to allow an increase in overall training duration (hours/week) without adding significant joint loading. Again this differs from what I would be doing with a 25 year-old version of Wendy in that we might see greater rates of adaptation from higher-volume mixed-modal training but the trade off would be an increased risk of soft-tissue injury in older, masters athletes.

Weekly Training Structure

Wendy’s design is structured to allow for the greatest degree of adaptation with the least impact. I’ve laid out her basic templates to alternate days of high and low loading, and we’ve been quick to make adjustments on the fly based on how she feels on a given day. This is a system that I’d like to continue to refine for the 2016 season with Wendy as I think adjusting training load based on training readiness is the key to long-term success in a sport as demanding as CrossFit.

Basic Mid-season 2014/2015 Template

Mental Edge

Wendy was also the first remote-coaching client with whom that I implemented any “mental training” strategies. I laid out a number of these in my previous TTT blog FOCUS - 2015 Open, however Wendy has embraced the use of visualization and mantras to a far greater degree than anyone else that I work with. I believe that for Wendy the combination of having well developed stress coping strategies coupled with practiced mental training has allowed her to excel through setbacks that would have sidelined other athletes.

This ties into something that Max and I have talked about frequently - that COMPETING WELL is a skill, one that can be consciously developed. Working with athletes like Wendy who are “good at competing” has given us the opportunity to find commonalities with the mind-states of other good competitors. We’re now working on a series of TTT camps that are focused on developing better ATHLETES from both a mental and physical standpoint.

The Future

While the 2015 season didn’t culminate exactly how Wendy had hoped that it would (she fell just short of qualifying for the Masters CrossFit ™ Games), the lessons learned will inevitably bring her back stronger and more prepared for the 2016 season. One of the great things about coaching masters athletes is that people on the outside don’t really expect them to progress as quickly as younger athletes so the expectations are low. However its been my experience that given the right set of tools (“better” training design for the individual, more emphasis on recovery quality, developing mind-state and true “mental toughness”) older athletes progress as fast if not faster than younger athletes who tend to take their youthfulness for granted. With all of these tools in place, I’m excited to see what Wendy will do with a full year to implement the things we’ve learned over the past two seasons. On to greatness!

~ Kyle

Created By
Kyle Ruth
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