Is CrossFit Stressing You Out?

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Dawn Fletcher has her MA in Kinesiology, with a specialization in Sport & Exercise Psychology. She has worked with top CrossFit athletes Miranda Oldroyd and Katie Hogan in helping them achieve higher levels of performance through improvement of their mental training. Read more of her blog posts and learn more about her coaching on her website.
The ‘Stress Family’ is not a fun one. This family consists of anxiety, fear, pressure, nervousness and panic. Each one of these components can negatively affect your CrossFit Performance. There are numerous theories (Drive Theory, Inverted-U Hypothesis, Catastrophe Theory, Individualized Zones of Optimal Functioning Theory) that attempt to describe how stress affects performance. The bottom line is that every individual has a unique experience to stress. It is likely that small amounts of stress may help your performance, but larger amounts of stress will negatively affect your ability to perform at high levels. Let’s take a deeper look at the components of stress and the mental skills you can practice to help negate any decreases in performance outcomes.

How Much Stress is Acceptable?

By any other name…

Although the stress mechanism may be very different (ex. A challenging day at work vs. seeing “Fran” as the WOD), the somatic and/or cognitive stress response may be exactly the same (ex. Inability to focus on task at hand).

Literature in the field of sport psychology commonly expresses that a certain amount of stress is necessary for performance. Our bodies initially respond to stressors by releasing hormones that prepare our bodies to respond, known as the “flight or fight” response. These hormonal and physiological changes provide an increase in energy and awareness, and therefore can have a [positive effect] on our ability to perform. As all CrossFitters know, there is only a certain amount of stress that we can handle. When any member of the ‘Stress Family’ becomes chronic and/or increased, the stress-response is no longer beneficial.

Some commonly noted somatic (pertaining to the body) and cognitive (pertaining to the mind) signs of increased stress are:

  • cold and clammy hands
  • constant need to urinate
  • profuse sweating
  • negative thoughts and self-talk
  • inability to focus
  • headaches
  • butterflies or nausea
  • increased muscle tension or pain
  • difficulties sleeping
  • energy loss & burnout

These signs can be brought on by stress at work, home, or even training stress from CrossFit. Although the stress mechanism may be very different (ex. A challenging day at work vs. seeing “Fran” as the WOD), the somatic and/or cognitive stress response may be exactly the same (ex. Inability to focus on task at hand).  As one can see, any aspect of life that becomes stressful may lead to negative responses that can decrease CrossFit Performance.

Mental performance training is necessary in order to halt or negate the negative impacts of stress on performance.
Many CrossFit Movements require composure, finesse and absolute concentration. It is easy to see how each of these symptoms may negatively affect your performance. Most athletes are able to cope with one or two of these signs of increased stress and may not sense any threat to performance. A culmination of these symptoms, however, may lead to an excessive amount of stress; over time that may have a detrimental influence on many areas of function, performance and health. As these symptoms accumulate, athletes have a very hard time regulating and controlling their negative effects.

Mental Performance Training

3 Steps to Improving Mental Performance:

  1. Develop awareness of your mental processes.
  2. Develop skills to manage performance stress.
  3. Apply strategies during performance and/or competition.
Psychology has been studied and used in sport performance scenarios to describe, explain and predict behaviors. Mental performance training is necessary in order to halt or negate the negative impacts of stress on performance. I have simply broken down mental performance training into three segments that are expressed as a simple continuum. Developing AWARENESS—>  Developing SKILLS —>  APPLYING Awareness & Skills (in performance setting) <—-  continuing back to awareness    <——- This basically means to become aware of the thoughts in your mind (or your mental processes), develop and learn skills to improve control of your mental processes, and then the application of those skills during performance situations. Then you can continue this spectrum in a continuous manner. CrossFit Athletes should constantly tune into their mental state, and continue to find ways to improve on their mental control under during pressure and/or performance scenarios.

Step 1: Developing Awareness

Until you are very aware and accepting of your mental processes, you cannot begin to take proper steps in ensuring that you gain control of them.
The first step of mental performance training is developing awareness of your mental processes. When dealing with the stress family, it is important to become very aware of what is causing you any negative thoughts or emotions and how exactly they may be affecting your performance. As an athlete, you must become aware of the direction of your stress. Is it facilitative (benefitting your performance by increasing your arousal levels) or debilitative (hindering your performance)? There are some very simple steps to becoming more aware of your excessive life stressors.

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