Sport Psychology and the Open
I’ve been fortunate throughout my life and athletic career to have exposure to people who understand thought and perception. My father, being a professor of cognitive psychology had a profound impact on the way that I perceived and experienced sport as a child. His advice and encouragement was different than what other kids received. Instead of telling me to focus on competing or my opponents, he always encouraged me to bring my focus internally and to focus on the process. I vividly remember him telling me “practice doesn’t make perfect, PERFECT practice makes perfect”. It wasn’t until later in my athletic career that I finally understood the impact that advice had on my athletic performance.
Thanks to my father I began to understand the influence that our thought process could have on athletic performance. Throughout the remainder of my athletic career I have sought out people who were able to help me develop my own “athlete’s mind-state” including sport psychologists, visualization specialists, and coaches (like Max) who understand the importance of the psyche to performance. Most recently I’ve had the opportunity to work with Dr. Brian Monteleone, a Sport Psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. Working with Dr. Monteleone I’ve been able to really hone in on what mind-state allows me to perform optimally and to identify the “distractors” that sabotage my performance. I want to share some of the tools and techniques that I’ve learned throughout my career that you might be able to implement them in your own performances.
In a sport like CrossFit™, we generally perform our best when we turn our focus inward and are mindful of our movements and the process. Anytime our attention drifts from the task at hand, performance inevitably suffers. Furthermore, the greater the intensity that is required of us, the more our attention is demanded. The influence of attention/distraction on performance can be seen most easily during a hard effort row or airdyne. The monitors provide instantaneous “intensity” feedback allowing us to easily see the drop in power output when we become distracted.
The impact of this distraction however is far more devastating to mixed modal CrossFit testers than simple cyclical tests. The movements prescribed in the CrossFit Open demand far greater attention than rowing or cycling (think about how much more complex a Thruster or Muscle-up is than riding a stationary bike). This means that smaller disturbances in attention can lead to greater decreases in power output…even forcing you to rest unnecessarily. The structure of most workouts is such that these unplanned rest breaks can quickly add up to eat away at valuable work time (simply watch your video in any of the Open workouts so far and add up your total rest time).
It should be clear now that maintaining your focus and attention inward is critical to elite level athletic performance. Some athletes have described it as “being in the zone”. Frequently, when legendary athletes are interviewed by sport psychologists they all report similarly that nothing could drag their attention away from their goals. Developing this level of elite mindfulness takes years of practice and detailed attention to your mind-state.
However this doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to utilize attention control as a tool in your performance toolbox. To begin you have to identify what it is that distracts you in training and competition. One of the best ways to start this is to keep detailed training and competition logs that include notes about your mental performance. Overtime you’ll begin to see trends in the things that affect your performance positively and negatively. You can then address these distractions with alternative behaviors. For example if you find that you tend to shut down your performance when a certain person is beating you training you can adopt an alternative strategy: when you get behind you immediately increase your effort level for one minute. This change in behavior in response to a distractive stimulus will eventually lead to your natural response being an increase in effort versus shutting down your performance.
Having competed in elite athletics in two different sports and worked with dozens of athletes in performance sports I have seen a huge variety of distractors that lead to compromised performance. However there are a number of common “mistakes” that athletes in CrossFit make in both training and competition.
(1) Paying attention to other athletes instead of yourself -
If you’re paying enough attention to know where another athlete is relative to you (for example: they are 6 reps ahead…shit -OR- I’m 10 reps ahead…I can relax) you are not maintaining an internal focus. If we think of attention as a finite thing (like you have 100 attention units) then focusing on another athlete is essentially guaranteeing that you’re underperforming relative to your potential. The only exception to this would be in the unique situation of the CrossFit Regional or CrossFit Games where you may need to alter pacing strategy or effort level relative to the field. This would make sense in an event like the Triple Threes from the CrossFit Games in 2014 where a quick adjustment to your effort level would be needed in order to stay competitive with the field. Even in a situation like this, you would want to devote as few “attention units” to the other athletes as are needed to determine the appropriate adjustments to your pacing. Personally I believe that this requires a higher level of attention control that would require practiced repetition to execute correctly.
(2) Having preconceived expectations about how the workout will “FEEL” instead of how you plan to PERFORM -
This is very common during the Open, Dave Castro announces the workout then immediately you decide right then and there if the test is a “good one” or a “bad one” for you (this itself is a mistake!). This inevitably leads to you deciding how you SHOULD feel during the test. One round in you either feel way better or way worse than you expected, and either way you begin to become distracted with thoughts like “is my pacing structure wrong”, “am I going to be able to finish this”, “why does this hurt so bad”, “this feels easy”, etc. Regardless of how it feels relative to what you expect your attention should be focused inward on executing your plan to the best of you ability not on whether you accurately predicted how you would feel. Another issue with our expectations of our performance is that we are generally poor predictors of our own abilities. It is common for us as athletes to overestimate what we are capable of until we are tested, and only then are we able to create reasonable workout strategies and pacing structures. I believe that this is a major contributing factor in the repeat-improvement effect we see during the CrossFit Open.
(3) Falling off of your pacing plan / watching the clock (“I’m behind my pace - shit!”) -
This has happened to nearly everyone who has repeated a workout more than once. After reviewing your video from your previous attempt you’ve determined that you need to be done with the second round at 7 minutes. At the 7 minute mark you’re 10 reps away from finishing your second round. In this situation you have two choices: focus on what you can control and increase effort to bring you back to your desired pace (turn it up) -OR- stay distracted by the clock and focus on how far off your pace you are now and shut down (turn it off). Sports Psychology research shows that high-achieving athletes tend to increase effort when faced with a situation which they perceive as having a 50:50 chance for success. The opposite has also been found, that lower-performing athletes tend to decrease effort in the face of similar odds. The act of winning or performing well it would seem is a practiced discipline that requires the athlete to make a conscious (or sometimes subconscious) decision as to whether the positive outcome of a successful performance is worth the effort.
(4) Fear that you won’t be able to match your previous performance -
I think this was probably a major issue for people repeating Open 15.1a this year. During their first attempt they hit a Clean & Jerk that they perceive as a great lift. After they decided to repeat the workout they began to question whether they would be able to match that lift again on their repeat performance. When they got to the barbell to match their previous Clean & Jerk they were focused on the previous attempt and how it felt versus focusing on executing the lift right in front of them and miss the lift. The better way to approach this would have been to frame the second attempt as an “opportunity” to get a better score and look at the previous lift as a “stepping stone” to their next barbell. This simple shift in mind-state encourages you to stay in the moment and carry the confidence from the previous attempt into the second.
Tools for controlling distractions
There are a variety of techniques utilized by Sport Psychologists to help their athletes perform on game day. I have been fortunate enough to experience a number of these throughout my career and can attest to their utility. Some of these require specialized training for the practitioner or years of experience for the athlete, however there are a number that are easy to use and implement immediately.
(1) Mantras -
A simple technique that can help bring you back to the moment after being distracted is to develop and practice using a mantra. This can be as simple as telling yourself to “stay here” when you notice that your attention is wavering or having a particular phrase that reminds you of your “why” when you’re struggling.
(2) Movement cues -
Often movement quality begins to deteriorate with fatigue. By using cue words that you’ve practiced in training you can emphasize particular parts of a movement that help you execute under exhaustion. Some examples that I’ve found particularly useful: PUNCH! for the lockout of jerks when I’m tired and SNAP! for the transition on muscle-ups. Obviously these cues will be individual and relative to each athletes’ understanding of the movement.
(3) Visualization -
Using mental imagery to enhance physical performance is not a new concept. Sport Psychologists have been researching and implementing visualization techniques for over 60 years. The idea is simple, get yourself into a relaxed state and watch yourself perform your event. There is debate about the effectiveness of first person (watching through your own eyes) versus third person (watching yourself on TV) visualization however there is no debate that mental rehearsal of movements and events will lead to better performance.
For the majority of you reading this blog, your “competitive season” in the sport of CrossFit is approaching its end. You have the opportunity to objectively look back at this season and put the things that you learned into practice for the future. I would be willing to guess that most athletes on the “bubble” have not spent much time developing the mental skills that are necessary for successful competition in sport, and are not even aware that it is something that they should be developing. As a result when their performance doesn’t meet their expectations they look to blame others and point the finger at their training, programming, or physical preparation. Accepting that there is more to sport than the body and that there is more to mental preparation than “mental toughness” and “dealing with pain” is crucial for these athletes who want to take their performances to the next level.
The reality of sport is that it is easier to just quit or give up - because this is easier than facing and accepting our own failures. A far more appropriate and constructive response is to face our failures and learn from them - to do everything in our power to perform optimally given any circumstances. I believe it is the constant pursuit of excellence that defines a champion. With three weeks left, I hope everyone finishes the Open strong and remembers to give as much care to your mind as you do your body.