CrossFit Psychology: Training For The Unknown

CrossFit is the ultimate test of an athlete’s physical, technical and mental abilities.

CrossFit Psychology: It’s Mentally Brutal!

It has been incredible to watch the progression of CrossFit over the past twenty years or so. From its humble beginnings as a young, modern, up-and-coming form of fitness training to its recent status as a globally recognised competitive sport. CrossFit or Cross-Discipline Fitness has become an incredibly popular form of training for individuals of all fitness levels, and a versatile competitive sporting avenue for those wanting to push themselves beyond what they know they’re capable of. 

What draws many people to CrossFit is its brutal nature. It incorporates virtually every form of training that you can imagine. CrossFit athletes have an incredible level of athleticism, discrediting the idea of “Jack of all trades, Master of None” through training to compete at the highest level they can in as many styles of training as possible. Swimmers swim, runners run, cyclists cycle – CrossFitters do it all and more.

It’s clear that CrossFitters need an extreme level of mental toughness to compete in such a physically demanding and versatile sport. In what other sport can you be asked to perform absolutely anything from gymnastics to swimming, plyometrics to powerlifting, high-intensity interval training to distance running and everything in-between? What other sport assesses virtually every physical capacity humans are capable of training, including strength, power, flexibility, coordination, endurance, agility, speed, accuracy and balance? Very few other sports have such element of the unknown as to what physical capacities you’ll be asked to demonstrate on competition day

CrossFit is Uniquely Challenging

CrossFit is uniquely challenging in terms of its variety and unpredictability. For athletes competing at qualifying rounds for the CrossFit Games (World Championships), competition workouts are gradually revealed in the weeks leading up to the event. The final workout is often revealed as little as a week before the event, allowing athletes only a limited amount of time to prepare for the specific workouts they’ll be asked to do. Athletes who then qualify to compete at the CrossFit Games are tasked with the challenge of rocking up to the competition venue having no idea what they’ll be asked to do. 

Every year the workouts are different, and arguably more challenging than the last. So for CrossFitters wanting to improve their mental toughness a lot of this boils down to knowing how to answer this simple question; how do you mentally prepare for the unknown?

Welcoming Discomfort with Open Arms 

The first thing to acknowledge about preparing for the unknown is that we are hardwired to mentally thrive in settings of certainty and predictability. This often works against athletes in competition settings, particularly for CrossFitters due to the uncertain nature of competition. Going into an event pre-empting the rollercoaster of emotions you’re likely to feel is the first step in being able to manage them. Take some time to think about how you’re likely to be feeling on competition day:

  • What sort of emotions do you expect to experience – Nerves? Worry? Excitement? Fear? 
  • When are these emotions likely to kick in – the morning of? The day before? The week before? 
  • Are these emotions likely to become more apparent and harder to ignore the close you get to the start time?

After taking some time to predict the rollercoaster of emotions you’re likely to feel, it’s important to have a think about how you would like to physically respond to these emotions. If I followed you around with a video camera the morning of competition right up until start time:

  • What would your body language suggest to me about how you’re feeling?
  • What would you like your body language to suggest about how you’re feeling? 
  • How would you like this to be different to the last time you competed?

Accept The Emotions, Don’t Fight With Them

Finally, it’s important to preempt our subsequent emotional response to these normal competition day emotions. Athletes often get caught up in the amount of worry they are experiencing on competition day. Due to the inbuilt fight and flight response feeling such as worry generally are uncomfortable. Rather than focusing on the competition itself, they find themselves worrying about their emotions.

Predicting ahead of time when you expect to feel certain emotions heighten our ability to notice them on competition day, and empowers us to reduce their impact on our actions or behaviour. When we acknowledge that competition day is full of emotions and learn to embrace them with open arms rather than wrestling with them on competition day, they often seem a lot less threatening. 

In 2021 Tia-Clair Toomey (blue shirt) made history as the most dominant CrossFit athlete to date with five consecutive championships to her name.

CrossFit Psychology: Setting Expectations

It’s important for CrossFitters to think about what kind of training and performance expectations they set for themselves. More importantly, for these to align with their actual competence, that is, their physical capabilities as measured through objective and reliable forms of measurement. CrossFit takes place mainly in a group setting which has the potential to foster an environment of comparison, making it very easy for individuals to compare themselves to others. For beginners or those working their way to the elite level, it’s easy to compare your abilities against those who have been training for much longer. For those coming back from injury, it is easy to compare yourself to where you were pre-injury, or to those uninjured athletes around you. In terms of prolonged motivation and athlete mental wellbeing, establishing a helpful point of reference becomes really important. 

A helpful point of reference is one that is recent and is a comparison to something that we have influence over. For example, an unhelpful point of reference for an injured athlete could be what they were pre-injury, as to reach that level took many months or even years of training. A more helpful point of reference would be anything post-injury. For example, “I can lift X amount of weight since I returned to training”, rather than “I can lift X amount of weight now, but this isn’t as much as Y which I could lift before my injury”. It’s important to recognise any progress no matter how small after an injury, in light of what you have been able to do since the injury rather than comparing this to what you were about to do pre-injury. 

Data Destroys Doubt

Sport Psychologist Harley de Vos brilliantly explains the concept of tracking progress in his article Confidence Before Competence. There is a certain level of trust we need to place in our training program, but by measuring and tracking progress athletes are able to see their physical gains through an objective lens. Measuring competence is essential in prolonging motivation, particularly in an environment where comparisons are so easy to make. Come competition day, rather than relying on how confident we feel in our ability to perform certain workouts (as this is subjective and unreliable), we can instead rely on what we know we can do

Take It One Workout At A Time

For CrossFitters wanting to improve their mental performance, my advice would be to embrace discomfort and learn to preempt and welcome it, and set realistic expectations and recognise any improvements made. In the world of CrossFit athletes often look at the end product and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they’ll have to do to get there, often making it even more difficult to start. However, we don’t get results without taking each of the small steps required to get there. A great way to think about the journey is like crossing a river; with each workout, we jump across to the next stepping stone. Only through taking it one workout at a time will you be able to see what you’re truly capable of.  

If reading this article has piqued your interest in terms of improving the mental aspects of what you do then get in touch with us now so we can send you some detailed information about our sport/performance psychology services. If you are just curious but would like to find out more before making an official enquiry then we suggest you browse the answers to our frequently asked questions.

Author: Madalyn Incognito

Madalyn spent most of her teenage years training and competing at the national level in swimming. After committing to the sport at the age of 12, she spent the next few years competing all around the country in her main events, which included 50m/100m/200m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m/200m butterfly. She has also been heavily involved in the Martial Arts sphere from a young age, training, competing and teaching various styles including Karate and Han Mu Do, as well as Muay Thai which she currently practises. Madalyn is passionate about improving sporting performance through psychological practice and research and she was ultimately motivated to pursue a career in performance psychology as a result of her own experiences growing up as an athlete, where her eyes were opened to the ways in which one’s mental state can impact on their performance, and how psychology can be utilised to improve performance across a range of competitive settings. Madalyn’s first-hand experience inside the pressure cooker of High-Performance Sport combined with ongoing learning and practice as a provisionally registered psychologist means that she was the obvious choice to join the Condor Performance team at the start of 2021.