My first ever CrossFit workout at a real CrossFit gym was anything but positive. It was the hardest workout I’d ever done. I felt like a baby deer using its legs for the first time. All wobbly and weak. I’d been working out at a regular gym for years, following workout programs by body builders, and sitting on my a** with lots of machine work. Then, in walks semi over-confident Noelle to her first ever CrossFit class where I couldn’t have been more out of shape. There were people twice, even three-times, my age running circles around me. The coach had me significantly modify the workout and even still, I came in dead last. Talk about humiliating. My pride was definitely hurt. I think the workout was something like double unders, calories on the assault bike, and pull-ups. Modified to singles, a few calories on the bike, and jumping pull-ups. All those assisted pull-ups and hours spent walking at an incline on the treadmill prepared me for nothing. But, most of all, I mentally destroyed myself. How could my inner voice be so mean?
Ego aside, I quickly realized that I couldn’t keep training the way I was before. It clearly did nothing for me functionally or mentally. So, I committed to CrossFit and haven’t turned back since. CrossFit has transformed my physique and athletic ability in ways I never would have imagined. My first six months taught me a lesson I didn’t know had to be learned. You cannot get the body you want without first changing your mindset. Don’t worry. It’s not something you have to intentionally change. The physical demand and pressure on your body will provoke you to come face-to-face with your inner demons. My inner voice was not a nice lady. I had to develop, what we call, mental toughness.
What exactly is “mental toughness”?
I like to think of mental toughness as the ability to forge through the path ahead in a way that aligns with your values despite the negative thoughts and emotions fighting to pull you off course.
Since we were kids, we were taught that if we have a problem, we should just quit and get rid of what’s causing the problem. Don’t like soccer? Quit and find something else you like. Don’t like veggies? You can have chicken nuggets. Don’t want to play outside? Play video games.
Skip forward to what it’s like in the adult world. Don’t like your job? Find a new one. Don’t like your spouse? Get a divorce. Depressed? Take antidepressants. Have anxiety? Take a sedative or try CBD/THC. Negative thoughts? Replace them with positive thoughts.
I’ve had clients tell me that they’ve tried to overcome anxiety and depression by changing their thoughts and feelings to better ones. But then, when they get into a difficult situation that provokes anxiety, they can’t control the anxiety. Notice the issue? If anxiety isn’t considered normal, she could get anxious just from feeling anxious and start to avoid situations that provoke anxious thoughts and feelings. What makes you anxious? Do you avoid doing those things because you know they’ll make you uncomfortable? Unfortunately, avoidance only perpetuates your negative thoughts and feelings. Therefore, just removing negative thoughts or situations do not help your mental state for the long term.
While in college at Western Carolina University, I got my degree in Psychology and learned a thing or two about mental fatigue and attention. It’s one thing to learn and study mental toughness. It’s another to experience fatigue and apply strategies to achieve mental toughness. Out of all the lectures in my behavior modifications class, one really stuck out to me and I haven’t forgotten it eight years later. Thoughts and emotions are NORMAL. Your feelings are NORMAL. You cannot live life in a bubble and avoid all uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and emotions. That’s not living. That’s the grave. Instead, you have to build up a tolerance. Get mentally tough.
How do we get mentally tough?
First, we have to realize that our thoughts are simply words or pictures. They are not action or reality. If you can take a second to recognize that your thoughts are not WHO YOU ARE, but HOW YOU PERCEIVE THEM, you will regain control of your mind.
“When we are stuck to our thoughts, attitudes, or beliefs, we lose touch with ‘the world of direct experience.’ Instead, we are lost in the world of language. So lost in the thoughts and images running through our minds that we forget to bring our focus back to the present unfolding moment of the world of direct experience.” 1Laura K. Schenck, PhD, LPC
Dr. John Demartini is a world renowned specialist in human behavior with a specific focus on human values. If you haven’t heard of him or haven’t spent time exploring your true values, I highly recommend visiting his website https://drdemartini.com/values/ to find out what really matters to you. I promise, it’s worth an hour of your time. Everybody’s values are different. Mine heavily revolve around health and fitness because they’re things I spend every waking moment thinking about and surrounding myself with. I understand that not everyone spends this much time thinking about the mechanics of the deadlift or meticulously adjusting macros each day to achieve a certain level of performance for a client. For others, their highest value is providing for their children or finding a cure for cancer. The point is, everyone values something.
Let’s use Coty for an example. Coty values a healthy lifestyle. The behavior associated with that value is exercising. Coty has decided he’s going to workout Monday through Friday. On Thursday, Coty gets done with work and feels tired and hungry and seriously contemplates skipping his workout. He starts thinking, “I’m too tired,” “I can workout tomorrow,” “I already worked out three days in a row, I deserve a day off,” “It won’t even be a good workout because I’m too tired.” This is the time when Coty needs to STOP. Recognize these thoughts as a normal consequence of working seven straight hours and missing his pre-workout snack. And, most of all, that this is the time for ACTION. He needs to fortify the behavior of acting in accordance with his value of living a healthy lifestyle. He’s likely to be perfectly fine once he starts the workout and forgets about all the excuses he had leading up to it.
Many people believe that they need to feel like doing an activity for it to go well. Sound familiar? “I just have no motivation today,” “I can’t seem to motivate myself to go to the gym,” “I just don’t feel like it.” True change comes when you finally learn that ACTION precedes MOTIVATION. To consistently act in line with your values will build tolerance and toughness. The opposite effect is shame. When we don’t act the way we think we should, we feel ashamed of ourselves for not being strong enough to overcome. This leads us down a vicious cycle of shame, anxiety, depression, and consistent negative thoughts. You have to break the cycle! You have to act even when you don’t feel like it. Feeling depressed? Think back to a time when you experienced happiness and true meaning. DO THAT. Even if you don’t feel like it.
How will CrossFit make me mentally tough?
I cannot tell you how many times I hear, “Oh I could never do CrossFit. It’s too hard.” Damn right it’s hard! It’s uncomfortable. It’s challenging. It’s scientifically proven to be biologically difficult. CrossFit’s methodology places the body under stress in aerobic and anaerobic energy systems at high intensity. We spend most of our lives never using our energy systems to their fullest potential. Creating an easy, comfortable atmosphere of laziness. Yet, the world is not kind and you are sure to be faced with some level of stress and pressure on a daily basis. If you do not train your body to be tolerant of day-to-day stress, it will quite literally kill you. Add an unhealthy diet to the mix and you’re a ticking time bomb. Those who say CrossFit is too hard have likely experienced situations in life that now perpetuate a mental cycle of hopelessness and giving up when things get hard. Ever catch yourself thinking, “I’ll just change the workout or lower the reps, sets, weight, distance or stop early or make an excuse that I’m just not feeling it today”?
In CrossFit workouts, you’re guaranteed to be presented with the opportunity to have these negative thoughts pop into your head. The upside? You have the chance to be AWARE of these thoughts in the moment, surrounded by other people battling the same mental anguish, and coaches who are professionally trained to coach you through these tough thoughts. You’re in an environment where you are forced to overcome the negative thought cycle. You have no other option but to FINISH. How many times in your life can you say you fought through mental and physical pain to get to the finish line where you didn’t have to do it alone?
Let’s say you come to CrossFit 4 days a week. That’s 208 opportunities in a year to overcome the negative thoughts. 208 hours of mental toughness practice. What about the other hours of the day? I’m glad you asked! Those who actively practice overcoming difficult challenges in the gym are more likely to overcome uncomfortable situations in the real world. Want a hard working, solution-driven employee who is humble and a team player? Hire a CrossFitter. They respect a leader whose motive is to coach and educate. They know what it takes to start at the bottom and progress to the top and understand that time, practice, patience, and humility will get them there.
Here are a few strategies to a tougher mind:
- Humble yourself to be okay with where you’re at. If you’re a beginner, be a beginner. Scale appropriately and set yourself up for success to win at the basics. You need a few wins in the beginning to build up confidence for when things start to get hard along the way. Trust me, there’s no way to avoid the hard stuff as you progress. If you push past where you are and try to do the workout RX or do not modify appropriately, you risk injury, failure, and frustration.
- Progress when it’s time to progress. Do not hold yourself back by sticking with the basics forever. Push yourself to the next level, listen to your coach, add more weight, try that new gymnastics movement. Your coach will know when you’re ready. Set yourself up for the next challenge. And when you fail, get back up and try it again.
- Stick with the plan! Strategize prior to the start of the workout and then execute. 3.2.1.GO! The more consistent you are with completing your workout as planned, the tougher you will become. If you consistently quit or change your plan mid-workout, you will get mentally weaker and start to rationalize excuses.
- Recognize, but do not act on your thoughts. If you find yourself saying things like, “Three rounds is enough,” “If I shave five reps off each set, nobody will notice,” or “This sucks, I’m not cut out for this,” recognize that these thoughts are entering your mind. Then, remind yourself that these are only words! You know now that you have more control over action than thoughts. So just do it. Finish.