Mikko Salo at the 2009 CrossFit Games

2010 CrossFit Games Finals

Mental Toughness

Sherwood speaks to the intangible elements that set athletes apart

CrossFit athlete and HQ trainer Pat Sherwood will be joining the broadcast crew next month at the HDC to act as a guide throughout the weekend broadcast. Pat offers a unique perspective on the Games as he was a competitor in Aromas in 2009. He offered some thoughts on the role of mental fortitude in competition.

All the athletes showing up to the Home Depot Center in LA to compete in the CrossFit Games will be supremely fit. On this point there is virtually no debate. So what aspects, aside from fitness, will determine why one athlete outperforms another? This debate is one that I hear whereever CrossFitters gather to exchange opinions, points of view, and anecdotal theories of what separates the best of the best.

We have all looked at a workout and immediately felt that perhaps it favored a particular type of athlete. I remember when the events for the 2009 CF games were announced. The first event was a 7k hill run. The general consensus was it was a “little guy” event. What was the outcome? Chris Spealler won the race. The second event was a series of dead lifts set to a particular time interval and constantly increasing in weight. To no one’s surprise, the larger athletes generally out performed the smaller ones. This same discussion occurs for every WOD that comes out of the hopper. We can even dissect individual movements in a WOD and cast our vote on which they favor. For example, Diane has dead lifts (a big guy move) paired with handstand push-ups (a little guy move). Of course, the CF community is filled with athletes that blur the big guy vs. little guy line. These athletes appear to have capacity everywhere. These will be the monster performers putting on amazing performances at this year’s CF Games.

There is another area of being an elite athlete that will play a huge role in who comes out on top in LA. Mental toughness. This is a challenging topic to discuss because it is not easily quantifiable. It is hard to put your finger on it, but you know it the moment you see it in an athlete. I know that if I’m truly honest with myself when I finish most of my WODs, I would have to admit that I pushed myself hard, but not 100%. I try to hit all my WODs with high intensity, but I know that I rarely “go there”. The “there” that I speak of is a level of mental toughness to push through pain and expand the threshold for enduring misery that makes 99.9% of us put the bar down, slow down our run pace, or hop off the pull-up bar. Elite athletes can endure suffering, and an elite few thrive on it.

Through my job with CrossFit Head Quarters I have been blessed with literally seeing thousands of CrossFitters hitting workouts hard. I have coached these athletes through WODs like Fran over and over again. I have gotten pretty good at looking into the eyes of an athlete when the going gets tough and assessing their tolerance for pain and discomfort. Every CrossFitter pushes themselves hard, no question. However, many, many people I observe do the very same thing I do many times; they drop the barbell when they “want to”, not when they “have to”. Occasionally I see a Level 1 participant or an athlete at an affiliate reach that point of discomfort that is easy for me to read on their face. Then, when I expect to see the barbell hit the floor on the next rep so they can rest, something occurs…they dig deep, I mean real deep, they “go there” and suffer through agony for 1, 2, or 3 more reps. Mental toughness like that is not common.

I have also been lucky enough to workout with amazing athletes that also happen to be trainers we have on staff, such as Chris Spealler, Matt Chan, Heather Keenan-Bergeron, and Mike G, just to name a few. I am routinely beaten any time I get the opportunity to work out with these animals. I’m impressed again and again by their ability to suffer, to endure, and to push. Sure, they are physically fit, but the world has plenty of athletes who are physically fit, but will never be champions.

When all other factors are equal, what will separate the best of the best is the athlete’s ability to ignore every signal their body is sending them, every signal to their brain that says this hurts too much, every signal that says you can’t breath, every signal that screams STOP!

I can’t wait to watch these amazing men and women battle for title of the Fittest Man and Woman in the World. Every athlete there has my respect. Good luck!
 

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6 comments on this entry

1. Jake Trahan wrote...

well said, i wanna go there lol TODAY! hahaha ya right i wish.

2. Miranda wrote...

Pat Sherwood......who doesn't want to hear what he has to say? I know I always do.

3. Glide wrote...

Interesting.... However, as an endurance athlete one learns that sometimes you have to 'back off' or give the body a moment of rest, to pace yourself, so that the overall workout can be accomplished and completed. I understand the concept of 'pushing it' and enduring pain thresh holds (I agree), but I think the objective in any workout or competition is to win and winning requires strategy and adjustments in intensity does it not? Anyway, I have a problem with mindless balls to the wall pushing because when you do that you run the chance of burning up and cracking. Try that full throttle approach in a triathlon, a 10k, a three day tennis tournament or any multi-day event and you're not going to make it. My overall point is that it is wise to understand that you need to finish the workout and that coming out of the gate like a maniac on crack with the idea of pushing as hard as you can might not get the job done. Thoughts?

4. Travis wrote...

Glide-
The events surrounding the Games are not workouts tailored to help athletes get a goal level of fitness in a couple of days. The Games are to prove that your training has set you apart as 'fit' or, in the winners case 'the fittest.' If your argument is saying that in this competition you shouldn't be going "balls to wall" as you put it because you might not finish; I think that is flawed thinking. If you look at the competition from only the endurance athlete perspective, then you thinking is definately flawed. The Games are not a test of endurance only. 'Fit' by CF standards, is testing/proving in many different modalities. By not coming out with a great amount of intensity more than likely you will lose many CF competitions. At this point in the Games most any athlete with a DNF is as a result of injury, just quitting not because someone failed to game the workout correctly. Also, as far as the strategy goes, if listen to any of the pre- or post WOD interviews most every athlete has a plan for that specific event and usually the plan is made around just accomplishing the WOD but actually performing optimally or winning.
In the end you are correct about the 'full throttle approach' it won't work in every measureable, testable event, but the often times only thing coming out of the CF gate too paced will get you, is defeated.

5. Mike McGoldrick wrote...

What I love about Crossfitters is that most of us are not afraid to "go there." Where the difference lies is that it takes some a little longer to reach that point. You know, the edge of the cliff where you just have to say "F@#% it" and jump.

Great article Pat. I've never had the pleasure of meeting you, but all of your fellow trainers have nothing but the best things to say.

6. JESUS wrote...

Does anyone know if Commando Steve is competing in the games?

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