Improvement Through Competition by max el-hag

It’s often said that competition brings out the best in people. I think it is true that competitions have the potential to bring out great performances and positive displays of character. I also think that it often brings out the worst in people and can create feelings of insecurity, fear, victimization, jealousy, anger, and childlike management of emotions. During The CrossFit Games Open season this year, like all years, I have observed a lot of emotional volatility. I’ve seen the bliss that some athletes are experiencing from optimal training years and good tests for their physiologies, and negative emotions experienced as a result of disappointing outcomes. As I watch these things taking place, I realize that competition is extremely important to growth. The positive feelings reinforce our motivation and justify our willingness to strive, and our negative experiences often come from the destructive unrealistic expectations about how we “should” perform. Real objective data is much more important in the life of someone who is striving to achieve something, because the scoreboard doesn’t care what you ‘should have’ scored or how hard you ‘tried’ to accomplish something. What it represents is the actual reality of that moment in time.

Unfortunately this year, I’ve seen a negative theme in some athletes. I think this theme is due to the sport of CrossFit™ being so new. There is not yet depth at the highest level, and people can attain that level quickly without experiencing the adversity more mature sports force you to go through. For example, people can make The CrossFit Games in 2-3 years whereas that is not usually possible in other professional sports that require 10-20 years of development. Athletes transferring into this sport from high-level athletics may have already developed the necessary mental-emotional attributes that lead to success, humility, and emotional awareness. Unfortunately, this year more than any other, I’ve seen so many people acting as if they have no control over their behaviors, and childishly acting out in ways not representative of a true athlete. To me, someone who genuinely desires to be an athlete must spend time developing their mental and emotional capabilities in parallel with their physical abilities. If not, the ‘mind’ will ultimately be the major limitation in moving forward as an athlete. Training, therefore, acts as a mirror to your own life, behaviors, inner world, and will ultimately be magnified under the pressure of competition or adversity.

This year, under that pressure of competition, I’ve seen so many people who haven’t actually earned the “right” to feel the negative emotions they are experiencing. I understand that feelings aren’t rational and they can’t be controlled, but generally they are a reflection of how we are thinking about certain situations. From my perspective, you can only be upset with the outcome of a competition if you have CONTINUALLY made all the choices required excel. In CrossFit™, we cannot control the selection of the tests, we cannot control how resilient other athletes are, and we cannot control our life circumstances. But, we can control our behaviors, our response to our feelings, and carry ourselves with grace and a perspective that pushes us in the direction of progress.

Through my extensive reading, talking with successful athletes, entrepreneurs, artistic performers, etc., I’ve found that the people who succeed are the ones who continually make the choices that support their long-term vision of success. Some motivational speakers or coaches call these choices ‘sacrifices.’ I don’t use that term because I find that making those choices are the necessary prerequisite to outcomes that people want. “Success” by definition is an experience for the minority. It is an experience that is about continually making choices and decisions that other people aren’t willing to make. For me, people who have made those choices should be the only people claiming to feel true disappointment. But, often times we think we are making the sacrifices required to get to the next level, when in fact we are just doing what is comfortable to us. If you are not necessarily continuing to strive to be as good as you want to be, then you need to change your behavior to see if you can attain whatever it is you desire. In an effort to get people thinking about why their open results may not be where they want them to be, I am going to pose some questions and comments to guide your reflection about how you and your athletes performed…

  • Have you learned to develop self-awareness in a competitive setting to understand how to deal with your excitement, nervousness, anxiety, and game day strategy?

Often times, it’s not your training, your workout partners, the workouts, or the pain, these just become an excuse for a bad performance. There may be an inability to manage and control the range of emotions you’re experiencing before a competition event. The more time you invest into a craft and the higher the expectations you have for yourself, generally the larger these become which seems counterintuitive because we expect competing to become easier over time. You must understand yourself and your thoughts if you want to succeed.

  • When you go home at night do you spend time reviewing your training footage, studying the best in the sport, refining your skills, actively trying to optimize your mobility, organizing your life to limit stress, or do you just watch Netflix and chill?

Details matter. Pacing, the fatigue resistance of your technique, joint positions to avoid tweaks during the open, proper warm ups, strategy, etc. If you’re not paying attention to details and think that your ‘training’ ends in the gym, you are setting yourself up for failure because someone out there is working harder and smarter than you.

  • Did you take vacation time that could have been better used for training?

“Enjoying your life” is important. If you enjoy down time and it makes you emotionally better, then you should do that. But remember every week you spend not getting better is ~2% of your training year. The emotional benefit of the trip must be greater than the opportunity cost of lost training time. I also have found that champions would prefer to train to get better because they love that more than they need to “disconnect from the grind.” If you want it badly enough, improving when other people are ‘relaxing’ is imperative. That improvement doesn’t necessarily need to come from hard or haphazard training, but it must be time spent on your craft somehow.

  • Have you been refining your food choices, finding what you are sensitive to, weighing and measuring your intake, supplementing pre/post-workout, and optimizing your body’s fueling?

If your bodyweight is higher than year round training, your strength is lower than your recent bests, your energy levels are flat, etc then you should be using one of your most powerful tools for recovery (food) to your advantage. If you are not and you are not aware of what works optimally for you, then you should be thinking about how to improve this ASAP.

  • Have you spent extra hours throughout the week working on your technique, body lines, adding in specific skill work, finding specific technical coaches, learning new skills, and becoming more precise?

Again, details matter. Every single aspect of your performance should be as precise as you possibly can make it. Spending too much time theorizing the nuances that define 'perfect' can be detrimental. You have to go through the learning curve of attaining perfection over time, which will require constant refinement and individualization. If you haven’t put in the time, you shouldn’t allow yourself to feel disappointed with the results for long and instead you should get to work.

  • Are all your relationships in support of your long-term goals and vision of success?

Mental and emotional well-being is largely related to your most intimate relationships. Your coaches, your training partners, and most importantly your significant others/family members must be places of both challenge and comfort. They must provide you with the necessary environment for growth in your goals. If they don’t, you need to communicate to fix that as soon as possible or make peace with the fact that a fractured mind is going to lead to poor performance from your body. You can try to remove your life stress from your performance results, but for most people the deterioration of your body will not be offset by your ‘will’ to perform.

  • When you have a bad workout or a bad competition are you making excuses as if you are entitled to a good performance instead of figuring out what specifically you need to work on to improve?

In wrestling camp as a kid they made us continually repeat the mantra: “excuses are tools for the incompetent, they build bridges to nowhere and monuments to no one.” While that may be a little harsh, it is true that blaming anything is a sign that you are not making peace with reality. If you say “I didn’t win BECAUSE…,” that sentence should end before because OR whatever follows it should be something that you are actively working to improve so that it never happens again. If you are trying to convince other people that you deserved to win, then you don’t deserve to be a winner. The leaderboard doesn’t allow caveats. It is a representation of what is, and the sooner you can make peace with that, the sooner you can get to making progress to improve your place on it the following year.

  • Are you seeking out the best expertise to help you understand your body’s physiology, energy systems, mobility, limitations, required level of training volume for your goal, etc?

Preparation matters. You can only rely on good training partners, ‘hard work,’ excessive levels of volume, and luck for so long. You will never be able to optimally prepare for unknown events, but you can have more optimal protocols to keep you healthy, improve your movement, progress all of your physical characteristics, and statistically optimize your likelihood of success. If you are not seeking the best sources of information and constantly learning, then how can you expect to be the best you can be?

  • Are your expectations about your performance based on actual training data and knowing what you are capable of OR instead based on your fantasies?

I’ve heard people before say “I know I’m better than this” or “I should be performing better than this” or “it should feel better than this” too many times to count. If you have training data to support this, then you can address why you cannot express your training results in a competitive setting, but most of the time people are just unable to reconcile the fact that the world isn’t the fantasy they want it to be. They don’t want to accept that they aren’t as good as they think they are or aren’t as good as they want to be, and instead continue to cling to the fantasy instead of just accepting that they are where they are, and if they want to be better have to work for it.

  • Have you been willing to ask yourself hard questions about your priorities in life and whether or not you will be able to make the choices necessary to get to the level that you “want” to be performing?

Every choice comes with both a give and a take. Making more time for training means less time for other things. Weighing and measuring your food, for example, means less spontaneity with the social aspect of your food. Learning to control your focus and attention might mean less time messing around on social media. Spending more family time might make you happier, but less fit. No choices are better or worse choices in life unless YOU decide they are, but each one will definitely have an impact on your results. If you want to attain your highest level of performance, you must have performance as the highest priority on your list. “Balance” is still necessary, but that really means finding the maximum amount of discipline and single mindedness you can possibly maintain while continuing to progress long term. If you ‘burn out,’ it means that you weren’t able to maintain that level of singular focus/intensity and need to back off to the maximum amount you can take and still enjoy yourself. If you have other priorities, then you must take pressure off yourself to perform because other people will have their performance as a higher priority in their life than you, and will progress at greater rates and for longer than you.

  • Have you been prioritizing sleeping 9+ hours a night, getting body work done multiple times a week, taking care of your emotional state, meditating, practicing visualization, and learning to prioritize recovery as aggressively as you prioritize your pain training?

Your body and mind require long-term care. You can’t expect to perform under high levels of stress if you are not taking care of yourself. During competitions, especially The Open which lasts five weeks, I see many people staying up late to watch technique videos, stalk the leaderboard, watch the update shows, and neglect their bodies. If you want to perform you must constantly emphasize recovery. If you don’t, then you are turning yourself into more of a fan and less of an athlete. Recovery allows for more training and practice and it should be a year round choice.

Life is not ‘fair’ in the way we want it to be. It would be so nice to be able to eat excessive amounts of pizza and brownies every night, train at a moderate intensity to avoid pain, relax and seek comfort all the time, take vacations, and still enjoy the sweet taste of victory with a shredded, healthy, vibrant body. But, that is not reality. Some elite athletes might make it look like they do the same thing as you, but often that is because you are looking to support your behaviors instead of challenging yourself to get better. Competition is a great wake up call for people. I have many athletes who are getting woken up to the realization of how good they are. They get to see how “worth it” their decisions, which other people framed as sacrifices, can make you feel when you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. But this article is written to the people who are getting a wake up call to see the sum total of their work and their genetics not meeting their expectations. If you are ever feeling negative about your results and you reflect upon all the above questions and have done your absolute best, then there is nothing to feel bad about. All that is left is learning to make peace with the fact that your best isn’t good enough for your chosen goals and finding new goals to pursue. If you figure out that you weren’t doing everything possible to attain your goals, it’s time to get to work!

~ Max

Created By
Max El-Hag


Buckethead Media

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