CrossFit Mental Training

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Great athletes and champions are often hailed as having outstanding mental toughness, inside or outside of the box, on or off the field of play. The good news is that you do not have to be born this way; you can develop and improve your own level of mental toughness. In our article on athlete self talkPart 1 of this 3-part series on the mental side of CrossFit, we identified ways to prep mentally before a workout – that is, applying a foam roller (or a lacrosse ball, if you prefer) to the brain.

Here in Part 2, consider some practical advice about how to get through a difficult workout once it is under way. While it all sounds relatively simple, it still takes effort to apply under stress, so plan ahead. Next time you PR or find yourself truly embracing the next challenge, you’ll be more than happy you did.

Yes, You Really Can

Make a plan: Choose a go-to word or phrase that will motivate you before and/or during a workout to prevent negative thinking.
CrossFit Lisbeth is a blog, not a box, where the author shares her inspirational Words of the Day – her original style of WOD. She believes in mind over matter, as she writes in a recent post:

This bar is light.

That’s what I tell myself every single time, no matter what the lift is, no matter how many plates are on the bar.

This bar is light.

It can be a snatch, a thruster, a front squat, or a deadlift. There can be 85 lbs on it or 225 lbs. It can be a practice jerk with PVC pipe or it can be a 10lb PR on a 1RM back squat.

Still, this bar is light.

It might sound stupid. Okay, not “might” — it is stupid. But it works, for me. Because if I approach that bar with the idea that the weight is heavy, then it will feel heavy. And my chances of making that lift go way down if my mind is weighed down.

Establish the go-to motivational phrase that you will use the next time you approach the bar or see what’s on the whiteboard. It makes a difference — self-defeating language can only hurt your ability to stay focused. Find the words that will keep you fired up when the going gets tough.

Think Small to Tackle Big WODs

A veteran of CrossFit and CrossFit competitions, Josh Bridges of CrossFit Invictus echoes the sentiment of having a positive mantra. His wrestling coach encouraged him with “Break through that wall” during strenuous matches to help him maintain a strong mind over a tiring body.

One step at a time: Besides working to stay in the present moment, set manageable mini-goals and celebrate as you complete them.
If you can’t think of anything positive to tell yourself, or perhaps you forgot to make a plan before the workout started that day, Dawn Fletcher suggests replacing harmful cues with counting reps, counting breaths, or using key words for particular movements (i.e. “shrug hard,” “hip extension”).

Upon feeling or hearing a negative thought creeping in, stave it off by completing one more rep. Getting into the habit of overcoming self-defeating thoughts gets easier the more often you can do this.

During a longer WOD – say at minute 12 or 13 of Cindy – it’s easy to start “future-gazing.” Same thing happens when you are starting round three of a 5-round workout and thinking, “I am so far from finishing.” Besides working to stay in the present moment, set manageable mini-goals and celebrate as you complete them. A trainer at CrossFit Redondo writes:

Let’s say you are doing the “Lumberjack 20” which consists of seven 400m runs and seven difficult movements each with 20 repetitions. After finishing the first run and movement, instead of thinking “Oh Geez, I’m only 1/7 of the way done” think “I rocked that first round; I’m going to push it on this next run.”

Be Self-Centered

Just breathe: “When the Breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Instead of constantly checking the clock or staring wistfully at the people going slower or faster than you, save those quick glances for going between movements or sets, or when there is a designated break in a workout, like Fight Gone Bad.

You can also focus solely on your own technique, as highlighted in the Podium Sports Journal. Bobby McGee, an expert running coach, writes, “Concentrating on your form is the purest form of concentration.”

When things get especially rugged, focus entirely on what you are doing.  For one minute at a time, observe a specific element of your running form:

  • the 90 degree bend in your elbow
  • peppy cadence
  • stacking your shoulders over your hips
  • your proper forward lean from your ankles up
  • refocusing  your gaze 35 feet out
  • relaxing your shoulders and dropping your chest.

This ability to engage in each movement — rather than disconnect from it — allows you to stay present in each moment of the workout. Be conscious about the way your body moves and strive for virtuosity. Good, technically-sound movement is often efficient movement.

By embracing the process of the workout, as opposed to focusing on the outcome, you can achieve better results.

Say Cheese!

Annie Thorisdottir – now two-time women’s CrossFit Games champion for 2011 and 2012 — and Annie Sakamoto, both fierce CF Games competitors, smile even in the midst of battle. In her observations of the 2011 CrossFit Games, Dawn Fletcher had the following notes from the grueling beach WOD:

Annie T. flashed at least 8 smiles during the workout and ran THROUGH the finish line pumping her fist. You have a CHOICE how you finish a WOD… before the line, at the line, or through the line….shaking your head in disappointment or with a grin on your face. Always imagine the finish line is 10 feet further than it is; hold your head up high at the end of a WOD.

Smiling not only helps you maintain a positive mindset, but scientists have noted that smiling lowers blood pressure and releases endorphins and serotonin, both known to produce feelings of well-being.

A Final Thought

“Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.”
-Bill Russell
Experienced CrossFitters know that the mental benefits — and challenges — of CrossFit can far exceed the physical ones. Train your brain to be your best ally.

Tabata Tidbits: Extra Mental Training Resources

8 Components of a Powerful Mindset: Dawn Fletcher lists — alongside the ten components of physical fitness — the necessary traits of a mentally prepared athlete. To lack in one’s mental preparedness means that you are holding yourself back from reaching your highest physical potential.

CrossFit Goal Setting: Do you want to learn from the original firebreather himself – Greg Amundson? He offers up daily wisdom about mentally training for CrossFit at and also offers a CrossFit Goal Setting specialty course.





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