Mental Toughness for CrossFit: A Primer

Mental Toughness for CrossFit: A Primer

By Ryan Burns

Every time I begin a workout at CrossFit Full Circle, I enter two intense battles. The first battle is physical. Grip the bar. Move the weight. Push, pull, toss, throw, lift, drop, repeat. My body is under attack. There is always pain.

Then the second (harder) battle begins. The enemy moves in slowly at first, but before I know it, the siege is under way. The battle is in my mind and the enemy is the relentless voice in my head shouting over and over again, “You’ll never be able to do this. Quit now and end this senseless misery.”

If you’ve ever done even one CrossFit workout, I’d wager that you, too, have engaged in battle with this merciless enemy. For me, I encounter him every time the clock beeps.

This repetitive battle in my mind has led me on a quest to find the right weapons to engage and defeat my enemy. In my searching, one theme comes back again and again: Mental Toughness.

Mental toughness is, to some degree, an abstract concept and you’ll find it defined in a number of ways. For me, the most helpful definition I’ve found was in Lars Draeger’s book, “Navy Seals Training Guide: Mental Toughness.” One of the people Draeger interviewed for the book defined mental toughness as, “Man’s ability to defeat the voice in his mind telling him to quit.”

[Tweet “Mental Toughness is a man’s ability to defeat the voice in his mind telling him to quit.”]

That is it for me. That is exactly what I am searching for. The voice is saying quit, but how do I defeat it?

There have been a few books that have been been particularly helpful to me in answering that question. One is Draeger’s book mentioned above. However, Draeger’s book is about as easy to find as a unicorn (currently for sale on Amazon for over $3,000, and I’ve only found 3 libraries in the U.S. that carry it.) I was lucky enough to have a friend loan me a copy. Two other books that are very much in line with Draeger’s approach are Mark Divine’s The Way of the Seal and 8 Weeks to SEALFIT.

(Note: For the rest of this article I will primarily be using Draeger’s terminology, though Divine’s thinking is very much in line.)

Draeger lays out four basic pillars that anyone can use to build mental toughness. The pillars are goal setting, mental imagery, self talk, and arousal control.

Goal Setting

goalsWhile you are probably familiar with goal setting, and perhaps even familiar with SMART goals, I’ve found that the most helpful tool in developing mental toughness (defeating the voice in your mind telling you to quit) is having what Draeger refers to as micro-goals.

When you’re faced with a long and grinding workout, it is essential to your mental battle that you not focus entirely on the macro-goal of finishing or hitting a specific time. Rather, break your challenge into micro-goals.

So, if your workout is a 20-minute 5, 10, 15 AMRAP of pull ups, push ups, and squats (aka: Cindy), it is easy to get mentally worn out about five minutes in. So, instead of thinking about “how in the world can I keep this pace up for another 15 minutes?” focus on setting a micro-goal like “Ok, I’m going to do 2 quick sets of 5 perfect push ups.” Or, “I’m going to do 15 steady squats and immediately hit the bar for 3 unbroken pullups.” Then, focus intensely on completing the micro-goal in front of you.

When you complete a micro-goal, celebrate the victory and move to the next micro-goal. It is like eating an elephant; you do it one bite at a time.

Mental Imagery

10-14 muscle upUndoubtedly you have been like me at some point and, after looking at the day’s workout, said something like, “Oh, that doesn’t look too bad.”

This, of course, is a sure sign that the pain train is entering the station.

In the battle against the voice in your head telling you to quit, the paintbrush of your mind is a powerful weapon.

The concept of mental imagery is allowing yourself to go through the workout in your mind prior to “3,2,1.” Once you’re in the heat of battle, the voice in your mind will attempt to paint a picture of your failure: you crumpling under the weight, getting called on a no-rep, struggling to make that last pull. The images will be powerful.

So, before the workout begins, paint the picture in your mind of what is possible. See yourself approaching the bar with perfect form. See yourself halfway through the workout with a smile on your face. See the sandbag move fluidly from ground to overhead. Look at your form in your mind and see yourself performing at peak capacity.

Along with visualizing a successful workout, begin to mentally envision how the workout will go. Create a mental plan and see yourself executing it with eminent success. How will you break up the movements? What weights will you use? Where are the potential breakdowns and what is your backup plan? Now visualize yourself executing the plan perfectly.

Self Talk

painSometimes the best way to defeat the voice in your head telling you to quit is to use the actual voice in your mouth to tell it to shut the hell up. Well, sort of.

The reality is that there is a lot of power in our words when we actually get them to come out of our mouth. In the midst of your grueling workout, the voice in your head is no doubt relentless in its cries of “you can’t do it” and “just go ahead and quit.” Here, a little self talk can be like a stun gun shot right at the voice.

While I don’t understand why it works, something happens when you’re in the midst of a tough workout and you muster the strength to mutter any sort of encouragement. It is like the mind, for a moment, can’t figure out how your mouth was able to say something positive when all it was feeding you was a heaping helping of quit.

Mark Divine recounts his most common self talk during the grueling trials of Navy Seal Hell Week was, “Lookin’ good. Feelin’ Good. Shoulda been in Hollywood.” If you know anything about Hell Week, you know that Divine was neither looking good or feeling good. Yet, despite what the voice in his mind was saying, his mouth managed to spit out something entirely different.

For me, I usually go with a simple “I got this” as I approach my next micro-goal. Sometimes I’ll throw in a “piece of cake” or “oh, this should be easy” or “sunshine and pancakes.” Usually, it is difficult to even muster the strength to say any words. But even when I just rally the strength to whisper one or two words to myself, it inevitably pushes back the voice, if only for a little bit.

Arousal Control

7-28 WOD FranThe voice telling you to quit is part of your body. The more you can control the impact of a stressful situation you have entered, the more your body believes everything is going to be ok. One of the best ways to control the impact of stress is your breathing.

Both Divine and Draeger talk a good deal about the science of breathing and its impact on athletes. My summation is that controlled, purposeful breathing results in reduction of anxiety, clarity of focus, and control of one’s mental arousal. Both Divine and Draeger recommend the use of “box breathing.”

Box breathing is done prior to your activity and is essentially sitting down for at least 1 minute and breathing a deep breath in through your nose to the count of 4, holding the breath to the count of 4, exhaling through your nose to the count of 4, and and holding it to the count of 4. Repeat for 1-4 minutes.

Doing this allows all kinds of science (that I don’t thoroughly understand) to happen in your body and mind, calming and focusing it, preparing you for the battle ahead. It is also gives you an excellent opportunity to engage in your mental imagery.

Of course, you aren’t going to be doing box breathing while you’re in the middle of a workout, but breathing is no less important. Attempting to breathe in and out of your nose as you work helps bring a sense of normalcy to your body (we naturally breathe through our nose when we aren’t working out.) So, breathing through the nose while working out sends signals to your body that, in many ways, are opposite of the signals you send when you’re panting like a dog. Attempting to control your breathing will go a long way in defeating that voice telling you to quit.

Bonus: Do Hard Things

12033019_10102767847463546_9056689297388779984_nThe four pillars above are sound structures to help you increase your mental toughness. With them you’ll have a good foundation for defeating the voice that tells you to quit. But, I would add one more thing to the list: Do Hard Things.

Draeger puts it this way, “I believe that mental toughness is based on confidence, and that confidence stems from a person’s unshakable faith in his or her ability to perform a skill or task. Obviously, such ability or competence in a skill or  task is attained though training and practice.”

The reality is that developing mental toughness doesn’t happen from reading a blog post or book. And to some degree it doesn’t happen by doing the same WOD you’ve been doing for the past two years. It is only truly developed in the fires of adversity. As both Divine and Draeger point out, if you ask any Navy Seal he will tell you that Hell Week was probably the hardest thing he’s ever done. After Hell Week, a Navy Seal has something to look back on and say, “Well I made it though that… I can make it through this little thing.” Our mental perspective shifts when we push ourselves to do hard things.

That’s why I started a class at Full Circle called “Saturday is for Suffering.” It is a class designed to put you out of your comfort zone, doing things you probably don’t do all the time, and pushing you to enter that place of engaging mental toughness to complete the sometimes crazy mission. If you’re interested in giving the class a try, it is free and open to anyone who shows up. We have one coming up THIS SATURDAY (Feb 6th). In the future you can see when our next event is by checking out the Facebook page:Saturday is for Suffering (Full Circle members can also see it on the MindBody schedule).

Along with that, a handful of folks from Full Circle are going to be doing a GORUCK Challenge in RVA this March. It is an unbelievably difficult experience (one of the hardest I’ve ever done) and requires your physical strength and a healthy heaping of mental toughness. If you’re looking for an opportunity to “do hard things” and develop (or test) your mental toughness, then join us for either the Tough or Light. Most of us are doing both. Also, ask myself or Coach Matt and we can get you a discount code for 25% off your registration.

Whether you sign up for Saturday is for Suffering, join us for the RVA GORUCK, or just keep doing what you’re doing, investing in the development of your mental toughness can begin to pay dividends in your CrossFit pursuits and even beyond the gym.

If you’re interested in learning more about the GORUCK event we’re doing, here’s a quick video. Looks fun, right? Join us! Remember, we’ve got a coupon code for registration. Just ask.

Want to develop mental toughness? We can help. Get started today!

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