There is not One Right Way: Acknowledge Your Influences and Appreciate that Yours is but One Perspective.

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Yesterday I was driving our daughters to a rehearsal, and the word “irony” came up.  Our nine-year-old wanted a refresher on the meaning of that word, which we’d discussed before.  This led to a conversation about genetics and the nature / nurture conundrum.  Beefy stuff.   It was one of those conversations that left me fully in awe of my role as parent, one of the times when I realized that my daughters’ world view–their understanding of critical concepts, their opinions about social/cultural phenomena, and their belief systems in general–are all informed first and foremost by mine and my husband’s points of view.  Teachers, grandparents, friends, coaches, and others will all have an impact, but the reality is that our lens as parents has a profound and lasting impact on the worldview of our children.

My job as a psychologist for many years was conducting assessments of children, adolescents, and young adults who were struggling in some way.  Not surprisingly, in most cases the difficulties in the presenting client were embedded in a family in which others also struggled. Day in and day out, I was privy to the significant and immeasurable effects of parenting on children.  The point wasn’t (and isn’t) to blame parents; rather the idea was to appreciate the enormity of the job and the myriad ways things could go wrong and lead a child astray in some important psychological way.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  I’m not a big bumper sticker lover, but this one always makes me pause and read it twice.  I like the message.  It’s a good reminder to acknowledge that our belief systems–our opinions and perspectives—are just that: OURS. They are not facts or truths, even if we tell ourselves they are.  They are the outcome of a number of influences, starting with the perspective and psychological standing of our parents and earliest caregivers. Having a stance and firm beliefs is important, and developing a point of view is one of the great gifts of the human experience.  However, it is important to keep in mind the subjectivity of our lens and view, lest we convince ourselves (and our children) that our opinions and ways of seeing and doing things are the only true and final ones.

As I’ve written before, it is important to be able to sift through the many influences available to us in order to come to an informed decision that works for us.  Choosing anything–from a workout program or specific methodology for learning a new skill, to a school for our children, to a healthcare provider–is a critical undertaking that forces us to call upon our own convictions in conjunction with the opinions and influences of those around us. And once we make such choices, we invite the influence of these providers (our kids’ teachers, our coaches, our doctors, the news reporters we watch) who will contribute to the way we view the world and the choices we will make in the future.

As you arrive at the big, tough decisions, it’s always a good idea to check in with yourself and acknowledge the long and winding road that has led to where you are. Don’t get trapped into accepting the advice of an “expert” without stepping back and evaluating the decision-making process. There is almost always not just one answer to a question, one definition of a word, one theory to espouse, or one way of training for your sport of choice. Appreciate the in-between: hang out there long enough to come out the other side with a course of action that works for YOU, for now. There will always be time to revisit your choices with new information and experience—and, in fact, it behooves you to do so lest your beliefs become your dogma.

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The Downsides of Performance Goals (or Why Letting Go Sometimes Leads to the Greatest Gains).

 

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I received a message on Facebook this week from a psychologywod reader who often responds with great ideas of his own.  This time, Fred Callori wrote,

I have become aware in myself and from observing others that there is this tendency to perform beyond our own personal expectations right after we decide that “we just don’t care anymore.”

How counter-intuitive does this seem? We stop caring, and we start meeting expectations that, just days ago, had seemed unattainable, despite our great focus and desire.  Anecdotally, though, this is a phenomenon that rings true.  I often work with people who are determined to reach certain fitness or physical goals, doing everything they are “supposed to do,” including caring a whole lot about the outcome.  But sometimes people get in their own way; investing so much of themselves in the desired objective may, in fact, prevent them from putting forth their best effort.  It’s as if the caring and obsessive focus on the goal makes people so anxious or afraid that they are unable to follow through.

We hear time and again that declaring a goal publicly is the first step in ensuring that we will stick with it.  We are told to share with friends and family our New Year’s resolutions: something about the act of telling other people leads to an accountability we might not otherwise capture. However, I do believe there’s another side to this approach; declaring goals out loud to others and professing that we will reach them can lead to a certain type of backlash.  So much unconscious material can become infused into our goals, especially when they involve our bodies—whether for esthetic change or for performance improvement.  As I’ve written about before here and here, we often project our past psychology into our physical selves in ways that are confusing, complicated, and difficult to unravel.  Our physical goals may then become more challenging than we ever imagined.

After all, for most of us, it’s no mystery how to lose a few pounds or run a faster mile at the track. It’s no mystery how to go from lifting 150 pounds off the floor to 175 pounds over the course of several months with regular, guided training sessions.  It’s not rocket science to follow a thoughtful mobility or yoga program and improve flexibility. And yet, so many of us set goals like these and fail to reach them. Until that magic moment when we decide to stop caring.

Admittedly this phenomenon doesn’t happen in a single moment, but it sometimes can occur pretty quickly.  You see, when we set goals, make them known to others (coaches, friends, family members), and enlist their help and support, we set in motion a wide range of interpersonal and psychological events, most of which are not consciously recognized.  We may, for example, replay an early relationship with our father, whose expectations could never be met.  We may recall feelings of envy for our middle-school friend who always beat us on the timed mile, no matter how hard we tried. On the other hand, we may be reminded of the envy felt by our best friend in high school when we made the varsity football team and he played on the freshman squad.  All sorts of internal material can be thrown into the mix when we care deeply about a performance goal and can’t quite seem to reach it, taking into account not only our own hopes and dreams, but the perceptions and judgments of others. Often these are projections of our own insecurities.

Sometimes the letting go of the goal and of the desire to perform allows us to shake off those demons, release ourselves from the intensity of the pursuit, and remove the relational and psychological implications of it all. With this release comes the possibility for our bodies to do what they have been striving for all along.

Makes sense, right?  Stop the madness of caring (and looping in all of those complex issues that make us human), and let your body do its thing.  I know it’s not always this simple, but then, sometimes it really is.  You can fight hard and persist to obtain a skill, lift a weight, run a certain amount in a certain time, lose pounds, achieve a muscle-up, win a tennis match, earn a handicap on the golf course.  But until you let go of all the loaded meaning that success and failure hold for you and your relationships, you may struggle in vain. This is what we mean when we say things like, “It’s all mental” or “If only my head didn’t get in the way.”

Let it go, People!  Sometimes you need to allow yourself the freedom from caring too much. Just get out there, relax, tone down the effort, enjoy your physical self, and you’re likely to make gains that were so elusive when you were trying too hard.

Post-Open Blues? Time for Some Good Old-Fashioned Introspection.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote last year at this time.  Endings are always complicated.  Learning and growth happen with reflection before moving on to the next best thing.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

The CrossFit Open 2013 is over.  Thousands of CrossFitters around the world can breathe a collective sigh of relief, enjoy some rest and recovery, and find other things to do with their down time besides check the leaderboard and read coaching tips about workouts.  They can let the tips on their hands heal and relax those aching shoulders.  They can hang out with their children, free from the distractions of 13-point-something and can revel in the thought of going to the gym with a more relaxed mindset.

Or can they?

It is important to recognize that, alongside the highs, there may also be a collective sigh of regret, a sense of confusion and malaise, a feeling of things left undone.  There may be people feeling unsettled, unsure where to focus their energy, and confused about why they feel disconnected in some ways.

There is a small percentage of athletes for whom the Open turned out extraordinarily well, who will advance to the next phase of competition at Regionals or, for Masters athletes, head directly to the CrossFit Games.  For these individuals, there may be a larger sense of relief mixed with excitement and anticipation, as well as an invigorated outlook (even if sprinkled with a good dose of pressure and fatigue).  But for the majority of people who competed, this is the end of the road as far as the competition year goes, and endings and transitions are often rich with psychological fodder.  I’ll dare say there may even be a small percentage of participants who will experience some form of emotional “blues” or even a mild depression in the wake of having thrown much of themselves, both physically and mentally, into the five-week event.

This may sound hyperbolic to some readers–perhaps I’m just too much of a shrink and too ready to go to the dark side.  But I think there is much to be learned in that underbelly of human experience.  In talking with many CrossFit Open participants over the past three years, I’ve come to take seriously the effects that participation has on one’s psyche.  There are stories of elation and triumph from having overcome obstacles, having hit personal records in lifts, and having mastered skills in the heat of the workout battles.  There are stories rich with human connection, of people finding new friends and becoming closer to each other through the trials and tribulations of competition.  There are stories of spouses finally understanding the athlete’s investment in their workouts and their lifestyle.  And yet, I’m proposing that, much like the condition of postpartum depression after pregnancy, there may be a “condition” involving depressive symptoms in the days and weeks after a consuming event such as the CrossFit Open.

Hang with me here.  Have any of you been married?  Have any of you put your heart and soul and childhood dreams into your wedding day?  Have any of you felt a sense of void after your honeymoon was over?  How about those of you who have worked tirelessly as an event planner at work, riding high for weeks and months on the feeling of focus and import that can come with planning a big event and being in charge of numerous people and pieces coming together?  Despite the stress involved in such an effort, have you ever felt empty or sad or derailed in some way after it ended, perhaps taking with it a bit of your sense of self worth?  Anyone ever have a hard time in the days and weeks after graduating from high school or college?  Any triathletes or ultra-marathoners out there ever experience a dip in mood and/or an experience of being wayward in the weeks after crossing the finish line?  If none of you say yes to this, some of you are lying.

You’ve probably heard of postpartum depression (PPD), and some of you may have even suffered from it.  According to the DSM IV-TR (the handbook of psychiatric/psychological diagnoses used by mental-health professionals), PPD occurs within four weeks of delivery and lasts for at least two weeks.  Diagnostic criteria include symptoms associated with a major depressive episode, with impairment of functioning lasting at least as long as two weeks.

Without getting too deep into the literature on PPD, there are some interesting risk factors associated with it, which, in my mind, may have implications for our feelings of dejection, loss, irritability, etc. after a major event other than pregnancy that has occupied us for some time.  For example, women who report symptoms of depression and anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to suffer from PPD, and women with a history of depression are more likely to experience PPD.1  Those with limited social support are also more vulnerable; having strong social connections appears to mitigate susceptibility to PPD.1  That whole social connectedness/community topic runs deep (see my book if you’re interested in this topic).  Another important finding is that a large percentage of women experience some sort of low-grade depression after delivering a baby, even though symptoms do not meet diagnostic thresholds.2

What I’m getting at is that there may be a similar pattern of emotional blues that exists after the completion of a significant and exciting event like the CrossFit Open, and how you went into the event likely affects how you will come out of it.  Those of you with a history of depression might be more prone to feeling depressed and sad after the Open.  Those of you who are prone to anxiety might feel especially confused and unsettled about where to focus your resources now, and you may feel irritable because of your lack of direction.  Those with tentative social connections might feel particularly uneasy at the thought of leaving behind the special vibe you have shared with gym members through the Open.  Those of you who were totally jazzed and wide-eyed can probably take a positive spin on even the hardest parts of the Open.  You may not have as strong a reaction as others, but you can still learn from this time of transition.

When I sat down to write this article, I was curious to see what I could find in looking into the concept of post-event blues.  What I found online were numerous personal stories of people who have experienced a significant letdown after an important event or endeavor.  Some people even called it “Post-Event Depression,” which is the search term I had used.  Much like PPD, I’d say there is a wide range of severity and symptomatology that can occur after the passage of a big event, ranging from no issues at all to a whole slew of issues that impair functioning for a given time period.  A certain percentage of CrossFitters will surely experience some kind of blues in the next couple of weeks.  They may question why they ever cared about the Open in the first place, and they may struggle to find a reason to continue training at the level to which they are accustomed.  They may wonder what the purpose of it all is, and they may have a hard time defining another goal that seems worthwhile.  Some might have difficulty letting go of images of workouts, no-reps, unfinished business.  They might be bitterly questioning the fairness of the Open model, with varying degrees of judging standards withheld across the world.  They may feel let down by a coach, a gym’s programming, or their own deficiencies in skills.  Again, I realize this is only part of the story.  For every athlete who is dejected in some way, there are plenty of others who are on cloud nine–loving the rush of having competed, having lived outside of their comfort zone, and having exceeded all expectations of themselves.

The Open is but one example of a physical endeavor that, once over, might have significant repercussions for one’s state of mind.  Marathons, adventure races, adult sports leagues, and other physical outlets requiring time, focus, and energy can also lead to a postpartum experience that is not all peaches and cream.  Once again, this doesn’t mean there isn’t also elation, a sense of accomplishment, joy, inspiration, and motivation.  But those are the easy and fun parts.  The big picture is about the totality of our experience, and if we only focus on the upsides, we sell ourselves short and ignore an opportunity for self-reflection and growth that might reap great rewards as we approach our next venture.  The same is true for non-sport events—those that absorb much of our time and energy in the realm of our work lives, our social lives, or our spiritual lives.  We can learn a lot from the post-event roller coaster if we pay attention while we’re on the ride.

So what can we do?  Below are some suggestions that can help guide you in the wake of a big event.  For those continuing on to the next phase of competition, most of these tips are less applicable than they are to those who are done.  However, reflecting on the process after each step of the way (E.g., Open, Regionals, Games) is probably a good idea for everyone.

Track Your Experiences

Journaling can be a great way to document and learn from our experiences. If you’ve been keeping a journal throughout the Open (or other big event), that’s great.  Don’t stop now.  You should continue with it during the days and weeks that follow the event’s closure.  If you haven’t been writing, it’s never too late to start.  Jot down your thoughts when your mind wanders to the event.  Reflect on what your goals were going into the event (E.g., a certain ranking in the Open, a certain number of clients added to your sales profile at work, a certain kind of emotional presence at a social event).  Write down how you fared at meeting those goals.  Write down what you did well and would like to repeat in the future, as well as what needs to be altered.  For the Open, you could focus on various aspects, including physical self-care (sleep, nutrition, training), mental preparation (visualization, relaxation exercises, journaling), and management of the extras (time spent on the leaderboard, handling disappointing workouts, etc.).  The more you can put in writing, the more solid a record you will have for your future, and the better your guide for next time will be.

Do Some Research

Consider your options for next steps carefully.  It may or may not be best to jump right into your next CrossFit goal, scanning the Internet for upcoming competitions in your area.  Maybe it’s time to try something new and test your training in a new forum.  Maybe there’s a basketball league or a mountain-bike race you might want to try.  There is room for more than one endeavor in our lives, and if you’ve put a lot of yourself into the Open, it might be a good time to find another outlet while you continue with CrossFit in a less competitive or intense way for the moment.  There is huge value in competition, but there are also other avenues you might want to explore.

Set Some Goals

During the days and weeks after your event, with your research behind you, you might take some time to set some goals for what’s next in your life.  Try to create short-term goals (maybe just the next few weeks), mid-term goals (6 months out), and long-term goals (1-2 years).  During the first couple of weeks after a big event isn’t the best time to make hard and fast decisions about what you will choose to focus on.  However, people often find it helpful and grounding to look to the future and start to create a plan.  Just be careful not to let your planning prevent you from feeling what you’re feeling; rigorous planning for the next big thing can become a defensive maneuver if you’re really disappointed in the last big thing.

Connect with Others  

Don’t underestimate the importance of staying connected during your post-event experience.  Research is unambiguous about the effects of social connection, especially during times when you are at risk of even the slightest duress.3  Be sure to find time and ways to connect with friends—those who are CrossFitters and can relate to the Open as wells as those who aren’t and can’t.  Both are important; it’s the connecting that is critical.

Find ways to Relax

You probably know what works for you: massage, visualization, meditation, hiking, and reading, are some examples.  Make sure you find some down time while you’re less occupied with your training.  It might even be the perfect time for that weekend away or full-blown vacation you’ve been putting off because of your training requirements.

Celebrate!        

This is just a little reminder to celebrate your victories and the fact that you put yourself out there, competed in the Open (or put on a big event or ran a long race), and came out the other side in one piece.  There is much to celebrate in this, even if you are one of the people feeling blue.  Having some kind of celebration, however small, is a great way to mark an ending and move on.  If you’re not able to do this at all and are really struggling, it’s probably time to talk to a counselor or therapist.

Notes:

1. Robertson, E., Grace S., Wallington, T., and Stewart, D.E. (2004). Antenatal risk factors for postpartum depression: a synthesis of recent literature.  General Hospital Psychiatry, 26, 289-295.

2. Bennett, S.S & Indman, P. (2006).  Beyond the Blues:  A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression.  Moodswings Press.

3.  Belger, A. (2012).  The Power of Community: CrossFit and the Force of Human Connection.  Victory Belt Publishing.

The Psychology of CrossFit Open Workout 14.5….and The Bigger Picture to Boot!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

Perhaps stating the obvious, 14.5 is a grinder of a workout.  It will test the mental toughness and fortitude of even the world’s fittest and most talented athletes.  My thoughts here are geared more towards the non-elite among you–my assumption is that the elite athletes will simply gut this one out, with unbroken thrusters and a solid pace on the burpees.

While it’s tempting to become consumed by how physically challenging this workout will be and how uncomfortable you will need to get in order to complete it, I’ll advocate for a different approach.  Given the task-priority format of 14.5 (which will allow far more people to finish the workout than would finish if it were a time-priority workout), many of you will wrap up the 2014 Open with a fully completed workout.   You will, therefore, experience a different sense of accomplishment from what you may have experienced in previous years and/or in previous workouts this year, when the clock determined when your workout ended.

Globally, then, as you prepare for this workout, be sure to take some time to appreciate the task you’re about to accomplish—not just by doing the workout, but also by finishing the Open altogether.  Take time to be thankful for the opportunity you have had (and will have in 14.5) to push your body to its limits and to test your fitness and your mental strength in the company of a worldwide community.  Regardless of your rankings, you will have finished what you started, and that is cause for celebration.

Is it premature to focus on the accomplishment prior to the final buzzer? I don’t think so.  The idea is to fuel your effort in 14. 5 with the positive fire that should come from knowing that you’ve made it this far and are fighting for the finish line with every thruster and burpee you complete.   In other words, access the mental positives of making it this far, so you can drive through the inevitable physical pain you will experience is you push yourself during 14.5.  Let go, now, of any what-if scenarios and any regrets about past performances.  Focus on what you’ve done, rather than on what you wish you could have done.  Your mantra this week could be something like, “I’ve made it this far. I can do a little more,” or “The end is near. I’m lucky to be here.”  Perhaps this sounds trite or conceived with an overly positive spin.  That’s your call. But when the going gets tough, and you’re sucking wind and staring at that barbell, I bet you’ll pick it up sooner if your thoughts are positive and driven by gratitude than if they are negative, self-defeating, and driven by regrets of perceived failures along the way.

I get it that some of you have reason to be legitimately disappointed. Maybe you suffered an injury during the course of the Open, or maybe you know that your goal of making it to Regionals is no longer possible.  Maybe you wanted to finally, after all of these years, successfully complete a single muscle-up in the Open, and that didn’t happen for you last week.  Maybe you are reckoning with some personal demons or life’s curve balls that have interfered with the optimization of your fitness.  These are all reasons to be glum and all warrant your focus at some time.  That time, in my opinion, is not while you complete 14.5.  Leave all of that for a later date, and tackle 14.5 as though it’s actually 14.1.

14.5 is also a time to make use of some of the mental strategies you’ve learned in the previous 4 workouts. As in 14.1, you’ll need to find a reason to care when the pain sets in; keep your mental eye on whatever the “prize” is for you.  As in 14.2, you’ll want to have the discipline to break up reps earlier than you think you might need to, in order to avoid burning out too quickly.  As in 14.3, you’ll want to be able to find a way to breathe and “rest” during one movement or the other (whichever one is the smoother and less daunting one for you). As in 14.4, you’ll want to be prepared for the barbell to feel heavier than it is, and you’ll want to focus on each set of reps as you tackle it–don’t allow yourself to be caught up in all that lies ahead.  You’ve accomplished a lot and learned some strategies. Now is as good a time as any to use them!  If you’re a Gamer, you will likely enter the workout with your rep scheme planned.  Be ready to count yourself back into the workout with every rest you take.  3, 2, 1, pick up the bar.  3, 2, 1, get down on the floor.  Don’t let yourself rest for too long–your competitors won’t be resting, but you can’t see them passing you.

Visualize aggressively between now and when you do this workout.  Envision yourself finishing the workout, yelling “Time,” and finding strange pleasure in the discomfort in your quads, the shortness of your breath, and the pump in your forearms.   Imagine yourself lying on the ground or hunched over your knees in recovery.  See yourself racing for the door to get some fresh air and catch your breath.  Anticipate that feeling you crave—that feeling of having accomplished something you knew would be difficult.  Know that you will probably talk about it far too often with far too many people, but that you will have earned the right to revel in your glory.

One parting thought:  For a small percentage of you reading this article, you will now focus on your training for Regionals and the Games.  For most of you, though, 14.5 will mark the end of your annual competitive season, and you may be surprised by the void you feel.  After last year’s Open, I wrote an article called “Post-Open Blues? Time for Some Good Old Fashioned Introspection.”  I’ll be reposting that next week, and I encourage you to read it and spend some time taking seriously the impact of this ending and what it might mean for your next steps—not just in your training, but in your life outside the gym.  You do have one, right?

 

 

Had a Bad Day? Now What?

Originally posted in March, 2013, this article’s topic is timeless. Never stop examining your response to real limitations and less-than-perfect outcomes. Personal growth happens here!

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I’ve always marveled at Olympic athletes. Beyond the amazing talent, drive, discipline, and dedication that impress us all, what has always had me most mystified is the fact that many of them train for their entire lives and have only seconds to execute their craft.  The Olympic record for the women’s 50-meter freestyle swim? 24.05 seconds.  The amount of time it takes for a vault in gymnastics?  In the neighborhood of six seconds.  Sure, marathons take a relative while, but still it comes down to a single performance on a single day after literally hundreds or thousands of days spent preparing.  I’ve always wondered how these athletes deal with chance in this setup–the chance they get sick, the chance they get hurt, the chance they could simply have a bad day when it matters most.

One might argue that the best athletes and performers are defined by simply not having bad days.  Or maybe it’s not that they don’t have bad days; rather it’s their capacity to manage themselves despite having a bad day, their ability to dig down and perform when their bodies aren’t quite right, that makes them special.  But I think this is old news.

My focus here is not on what elite athletes–whose lives have been devoted to training and performance when it matters–do to rise above a bad day, but what the rest of us do–not so much during a bad day, but in its aftermath.  I’m interested here in how we handle the disappointments of a competition, a workout, a race, an event when things don’t go our way.  How do we process our failures?  Where do our thoughts go, why do they go there, and how does this affect our functioning in the future?

The CrossFit Open is a forum ripe with people experiencing all sorts of highs and lows, based on performances week to week and year to year.  My thoughts for this article were spurred on by a post on our TJ’s Gym discussion board by a long-time member whose performance on workout 13.3 was far worse than his performance on the same workout a year ago, despite consistent effort and training in the interim.  He was understandably frustrated, and I dare say he will obsess about this for at least a few days.

His post, combined with many conversations I’ve had with other people, got me thinking about why it is so difficult for us to acknowledge when a less-than-optimal performance can be chalked up not to poor preparation, or mediocre effort, or declining prowess, but to the simple fact that we have bad days.  Sometimes things just don’t go the way we have planned.  Sometimes our systems aren’t fired up on days when a competition or game is scheduled.  Sometimes our hormones are out of whack, our spouses are upset with us, our kids are sick.  Sometimes we just don’t have that spark, and try as we might, we can’t light the fires.  What’s worse is that we may not even realize when our bodies are having a bad day, if our minds are having a good one.  We may feel mentally excited, prepared, rearing and ready to go, while our bodies hold the secret of another fate.  This disconnect can be especially frustrating, because the lackluster performance comes as an unpleasant surprise and unexpected disappointment.

So what do we do when the stars don’t align, and our bodies, our brains, and our psyches don’t cooperate to allow us to put our best foot forward?  We don’t get a hall pass.  The competition for which we’ve registered doesn’t get postponed, just because we don’t feel particularly jazzy.  The 10k race we finally had the guts to enter will go on as planned, despite our malaise.

Are we able to give it our best for the day and move on?  Can we accept a bad day and recognize that it’s part of being human?  Can we let go of the “what if’s” and focus on the “what next’s?”  Or do we obsess for days, unable to let things go, torturing ourselves because we didn’t perform how we wanted?  Most importantly, do we generalize from the experience and let it suddenly and irrationally define who we are as an athlete?  Do we convince ourselves that we simply are no longer up to snuff and must be losing ground in our sport, or can we find the perspective that, plainly and simply, we’ve had a bad day?

I realize that blaming all failures or sub-optimal performances on a bad day is unproductive and unlikely to lead to growth.  It is absolutely important for us to learn from errors and evaluate our preparation and training, in order to make changes and engender progress.  But, on the flip side, if we torture ourselves every time we don’t perform as well as we’d hoped, development is also unlikely to unfold.  Take the guy from our gym who, at least momentarily, interpreted his performance as an indication that he is less fit and skilled than he was a year ago, despite his training efforts.  If he were to allow himself to get stuck there, he might become less and less likely to train hard.  Why?  Because what’s the point of training hard when the results are crap?  What’s the point of going to the gym week after week, when it’s apparent that fitness and competencies have declined?  We can see how becoming too invested in the big meaning of a single failure is a slippery slope to throwing in the proverbial towel.  On the other hand, accepting the reality of bad days would allow this athlete to let it go, have faith in his training, reclaim rational thinking and acknowledge that he is fitter, more skilled, and more energetic than he was a year ago when he probably tested his fitness on a “good” day.

The CrossFit Open is unique and intriguing on a number of levels.  One of its most captivating features is that elite, increasingly professional athletes do the same workouts as regular, everyday CrossFitters.  But let’s not forget that part of the “job” of an elite athlete is to overcome and perform, regardless of internal and external circumstances, while part of the “job” of the other thousands of participants is to fit the Open workouts into everyday life, with all of its demands and curve balls, and to be able to leave it behind and continue with the business of the rest of life, generally unfettered by the “what if’s” of a single workout on a single bad day.  Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that competition is trivial, and we should just let it go, not a care in the world about our results.  Rather, the point is to acknowledge the reality of its import and significance and not let a single instance carry too much weight or define too much about who you are and how you see yourself as an athlete, much less as a person.  If your life is not bigger than a single performance, a single workout, well then, we’ve got a larger set of problems to address in another post.

Invest yourself in your training and your goals, for sure, but don’t over-indulge in the process.  Bad days happen, but so do good ones.  You may even have an awesome day (or ten) if you don’t get bogged down in the bad ones.

Tips on the Mental Game for CrossFit Open Workout 14.4

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By Dr. Allison Belger

For CrossFit athletes facing Open Workout 14.4, here are my thoughts on the mental game and how you can control your inner monologue in ways that will help you get through this workout:

This one is all about being prepared—prepared to accept the fact that movements you normally move through easily will be challenging from jumpstreet.

Starting the workout with a relatively fast 60-calorie row will set you up for earlier-than-normal fatigue on subsequent movements.  While this makes sense intellectually and on paper, make sure you remember this seemingly obvious tidbit as you begin each of the movements in the chipper.  Being prepared means both having a plan of breaking up movements AND having a plan of dealing with, and controlling, your internal self-talk.  You are likely to be surprised by how hard your first few toes-to-bar feel after the row.  You are likely to get fewer wallballs in a row than you anticipate.  You will almost certainly find that the barbell feels heavier to you than a 135/95 pound bar normally feels (note: Josh Bridges and Scott Panchik were doing single reps).    And then, of course, come the muscle-ups.  These will be HARD, even for those of you who normally do well with muscle ups.  Other coaches will address the physical aspects; as usual, I’ll focus on the psychological.

In order to develop the mental fortitude to persevere through this chipper when the going gets tough (again, this will be sooner than later), if you have time and can tackle this workout some time on Saturday-Monday, it’s a good idea to do a mini-version of the workout a day or two before.  Ideally you’ll have a chance to practice just enough to get a feel for what it’s like to transition from one movement to the next.  Getting a solid feeling for how your body responds to the transitions will arm you with experience, thereby reducing the shock factor of the discomfort and fatigue you will feel when you give the full workout a go for real.   For example, experiencing the forearm pump on your first clean in practice will alleviate some of the anxiety you might feel when your arms threaten to fail you during the full effort.  It’s not that practicing will make you any better at the cleans, of course, but you will be mentally prepared for the level of difficulty that might otherwise surprise and unnerve you.

Perhaps it’s analogous to the difference between doing a bunch of math problems at home, with no distractions, and doing them in a testing situation in a room filled with people with all sorts of noises in the background.  If you practice in the noisy room, you’re less likely to become emotionally unraveled when you can’t focus as well as you’d like during the real testing scenario.  The basic idea is that you need to practice feeling less adept than normal, so that you can keep your wits about you when the going gets tough. 

Your mantra this week might be something like, “This is supposed to be hard.  This is supposed to be hard.”  Or, “I knew this would feel different. I’m right where I should be.  I knew this would feel different.  I’m right where I should be.”  The idea is to fight thoughts akin to, “I can’t believe this hurts already, and I still have 30 more reps. I’m screwed.”  You can only be conscious of one thought at a time; make it something soothing and optimistic. 

Focus on one movement at a time.  Don’t allow yourself to dread the cleans when you’re still working through the wallballs.  Stay in the moment. Break up your sets.  Chip away, keep up the positive self-talk, and think of this as a set of mini-workouts, rather than a monstrosity you need to tackle all at once.

One final note this week: many of you will get to the rings and fail to get a muscle-up.  This will be true even for some of you who “have” muscle-ups.  For the sake of the overall picture–the grand scheme–do yourself a favor and resist judging yourself, your fitness, your success, your value in the world, based on whether or not you get a muscle up in 14.4.  Life is bigger.  Maintain perspective.  It’s ok if it matters to you, and it’s ok to be disappointed.  Just be sure your own personal big picture remains intact, even if you don’t get over the rings…this time!

The Psychology of Muscle-Ups (Repost of a Repost in Honor of 14.4).

By Dr. Allison Belger

This is the third time of publication for this article.  Given Open workout 14.4, I’m putting it out into the world one more time, for those of you preparing to get on top of the rings after all that other work.  Enjoy!

(From March, 2013):

My article below was first published in WODTalk Magazine a few months ago.  Given the announcement of the CrossFit Open workout for this week, I was asked by some readers to post it again here.  The photo below is of me in the summer of 2010 while on a family vacation in my home town in New York, at my elementary school playground.  I had dragged rings across the country to be sure I could practice my muscle-ups, for fear of “losing” them while I was away.  Yes, I can laugh about this scenario–could then and DEFINITELY can now! 

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In elite gymnastics, the muscle up is basically a way for an athlete to get up on the rings so he can do the real work of the apparatus.

For CrossFitters, the muscle up has become something far more significant, some kind of stock-taking, measuring device to assess one’s worth.  For many elite CrossFit athletes, the muscle up, like most skills, is but a new trick to learn and with which to seek relative mastery.  We all recall Annie Thorisdottir fighting to get her first muscle ups at the 2009 CrossFit Games in Aromas.  It doesn’t hurt that she was gymnast prior to starting CrossFit, but she is not alone among elite CrossFitters in their capacity to pick up the movement and incorporate it into their bag of tricks, right alongside movements like the snatch and the pistol, despite a lack of familiarity with them for most of their lives.

While relative mastery of the muscle up is not reserved only for the elite among us, and there is certainly a large crew of athletes who are fairly competent with the movement, for most of us, achieving our first muscle up takes hard work and plenty of time spent imagining what that first time will feel like.  In many cases, athletes develop some sort of low-grade preoccupation at best, and full-fledged obsession at worst, with the goal of muscle-upping.  I’ve heard from stock market traders who’ve stolen time away from their desks to watch muscle up videos on their iPhones between transactions.  I’ve heard from a nanny who did the same during naptime for the kids in her care.  I’ve fielded emails from many a mom in her 40′s, desperate to get pointers on ways to train to increase her chances of attaining the ultimate skill.  I’ve experienced the allure of the muscle up, myself, and while it’s been just over three years since I attained the tenuous standing of muscle-upper, that pesky movement still looms large in my psyche from time to time, despite the hard fact that most of my life is lived and enjoyed outside the realm of rings hanging from the ceiling.

My own intermittent preoccupation with my muscle-up skills has left me wondering what it is about the muscle up that has captivated, intrigued, and flat-out tormented so many CrossFitters since the inception of the CrossFit movement.  We all hone in on certain skills from time to time, and we sometimes obsess about our performance with other movements, as well. Indeed, a quick glance through the Facebook news feed of a CrossFitter reveals much about our intense focus on performance and skill attainment. But there’s something especially loaded about the muscle up.

My husband, TJ, and I have two daughters, ages eight and ten.  Through the years of their early childhood, we’ve watched as they, like so many kids around the world, find their place on the playground, navigating the world of body weight movements unfettered by instruction and coaching or any formal education in gymnastics.  The monkey bars can be a powerful thing, bestowing ranking on unassuming youngsters with a significance similar to that of wearing the right clothes in high school.  There are kids who master the monkey-bar traverse with relative ease in preschool or kindergarten, while others work tirelessly to gain membership into the monkey-bar club throughout first grade and beyond, for those unlucky few. There are the kids who skip one, two, even three bars at a time, despite the occasional arm break that occurs in playgrounds across the country.  There are the kids who can kip up on top of the bars, perching themselves victorious, the reigning kings and queens of the recess kingdoms.  And of course there are all sorts of variations on the task, from the spinning circular bars that require a whole other level of competency, to the speed with which one can move, to the ability to stop on a dime and go backwards.

While this all may sound a little melodramatic, the truth is that there’s a whole lot of social jockeying that goes on at playground time.  Psychologists and teachers have known for decades that recess time, with its lack of structure and inherent physical activity, can be a breeding ground for social anxiety and requires a great deal of self-preservation on the part of the tiny people forced to engage.  For the ones who possess a natural capacity for movement and basic gymnastics competency, self-confidence can come in large doses, via the “oohs” and “aahs” of playground bystanders.  This soon can be seen in games and sports, including four-square and kickball, where the studs of the games tend to become the social elite.  Those with wheels also do well early on, as tag holds great import, especially for cross-gender relating.

So what does this have to do with adult CrossFitters obsessing over muscle ups?  I’m suggesting that our pursuit of excellence–heck even mediocrity—with regard to this elusive gymnastic movement harkens back to those playground experiences, where we all knew, whether consciously or not, that our skills were placing us on some kind of continuum of capacity that had simultaneously nothing and everything to do with our social standing.  While we know as adults that it doesn’t really matter in any deep way to our friends and fellow gym members whether or not we can muscle up– at least as far as assessment of our overall character and personality go– there is still something super cool for people about being able to do muscle ups in a group.  Somehow, we feel we have arrived and have a ticket to the exclusive muscle-up ball.

Kelly Starrett, founder of San Francisco CrossFit and mobilitywod.com, aptly describes something about this social phenomenon: “With muscle ups there’s a party-trick element.” He explains how cool it is to watch someone do a strict muscle up on demand, as though it’s “no big thing.”  But as Starrett points out, “the reality is that very few people can ever do that without trying really hard,” meaning that people are driven to be able to perform that party trick at just the right time.  Starrett goes on to point out the irony in the social appreciation of the trick. “Very few naive bystanders would watch in awe as someone does a much more technically challenging movement like a heavy snatch balance,” but it’s the muscle up that holds the social cache and has become the spectacle of choice.

Perhaps it’s because, as Starrett notes, “It’s entirely one or zero.  You may complete it with horrific form, but it’s unambiguous: one or zero.  There is no scaled muscle up.  You can either do it, or you can’t.”  This instantly categorizes us as being a person who can do muscle ups or a person who can’t. And for all of human history, we’ve been a species who likes to categorize.  We feel more organized, grounded, and sure of ourselves when we can put people into groups.  Plus, it makes us strive to be in the preferred category, in this case a person who can muscle up rather than one who can’t.  As Starrett has seen far too many times, “people are willing to throw tissue safety and technique out the window” to join the club. Somewhere in our psyches, the social stakes are high, and we are social creatures.

The flip side of the ‘cha-ching’ moment of being able to do a muscle up in a crowd is the dreaded moment of trying and failing to do one while others are watching.  This may prevent people from getting the coaching or practice they need in order to develop the skill, just like they would with other, less loaded movements.  Megan Kaden, a TJ’s Gym coach who also has a life coaching practice, recently did her first muscle up.  She explains something about how loaded the muscle up was for her in terms of fear of failure and holding herself back.  On the heels of her successful and fun participation in a small throwdown, Kaden wrote the following:

My recent experience competing reminded me that if I don’t take the risk that I will fail, I have no potential to grow. And so today, I attempted to do a muscle up. After a couple attempts with my coach/boyfriend/biggest supporter as a spotter, I got some confidence under my belt to try unassisted. Then, much to my surprise, there I was, on top of the rings. I kipped out the dip and done: my first muscle up. The buildup to this moment has been huge. The truth is a good part of me knew I had a real shot at getting one, which is probably why I let myself try publicly today.  Although I haven’t practiced this skill much out of fear of the discomfort of failing, it has been a gnawing awareness in the back of my mind: I need to practice my muscle ups. And now, the gnawing awareness will change: I need to let myself fail. I must practice things at which I am likely to fail, so that I can practice tolerating the feeling. That is where growth, as an athlete and as a person, becomes possible.

Kaden also acknowledges the effect of that all-or-nothing quality of muscle ups, which also made practicing them so unappealing: “Everything else was about improving, while this was about simply achieving…Plateaus at a skill I can already do at least made me feel like I was doing something.  With the muscle up, it was all-or-nothing, and every time before the day I got them it was just nothing.  I felt like nothing got accomplished when I practiced.”

Happily now, Kaden joins the ranks of thousands of other CrossFitters who “have muscle ups.” Unfortunately for her and for all of us, the muscle up is typically not a faithful companion, always there when we need or want it. It is a high-maintenance partner requiring all kinds of nurturance and dedication, and sometimes just the right environment and conditions to make its presence known.

According to Starrett, it is this uncertainty that fuels our fires and makes us want our muscle ups even more. I agree.  I suppose it’s like the allure of the ‘bad boy’ as the boyfriend for the ‘good girl.’  I got him, but will he be there next time, when there are other girls around or when his friends are watching?  Or perhaps it’s like the complex math problem you finally figure out with your parents at home, but can you pull it off under the pressure of the timed test when your teacher is roaming the rows of desks and the cutest girl in school is sitting next to you?  And maybe you’re sweating, so your hand is slippery on your pencil.

In fact, it’s the moments when the fittest CrossFitters fail to achieve a muscle up in the heat of a competition that bring up the potency and mystique of the movement for Craig Howard, co-owner of Diablo CrossFit.  He calls this “the worst moment in competition for a CrossFit athlete–when the muscle ups go away and the spectators and fellow competitors gather round to cheer him/her while making suggestions.”  Howard goes on to note:

Muscle ups have been the pinnacle of gymnastic achievements in CrossFit since the first post of thirty muscle ups for time.  Of course, the “Nasty Girls” fueled the muscle-up hype and reinforced the belief that you’re not a legitimate CrossFit athlete unless you can muscle up.  Almost anyone can deadlift, squat, clean, overhead squat or snatch.  But even some of the fittest athletes in the world have failed to achieve muscle ups.  So, when an athlete hits his/her first muscle up,  we cheer, celebrate and post it on the whiteboard and Facebook.  And the hype – along with the pressure – is passed on to the next generation of CrossFitters.

For TJ Belger, owner of TJ’s Gyms, this hype is instilled early on for most CrossFitters:  “When you walk into a CrossFit gym, you will see many movements that your ego tells you are doable.  Lifting, jumping, squatting. Then you see the muscle up and your heart sinks. It looks impossible. You soon realize that only the top ten percent of athletes in your gym can do it, and your ego suffers a crushing blow. Is a 500-pound back squat or a sub-five-minute mile any less of an accomplishment?  Of course not, but we also don’t care, because we tell ourselves that those are meant for specialists. But muscle ups are for everyone. Why?  Because everyone has the hanging-off-a-cliff dream. The problem is, that is a dream and the muscle up might not be your reality.”

It is probably true that the muscle up holds a place in our collective CrossFit psyche for a large host of reasons, different for each of us. Whatever the underpinnings, the muscle up’s uncanny hold on us seems to penetrate deeply, and it makes our first one a cause for celebration.  Starrett jokes, “Nobody remembers the first time they deadlifted, but everyone knows where and when they got their first muscle up.”

Jump Smarter. Live Better.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

*I originally posted this article in March, 2013. It’s relevant all over again this week!*

LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP…  (Samuel Butler)

 HE WHO HESITATES IS LOST   (Joseph Addison)

 Above we have two competing proverbs.  So what are we to do?  Take our time, do a quick risk assessment, and fully prepare ourselves?  Or will we lose out, get left behind, and miss opportunities if we look before leaping?

This dilemma occurred to me the other day after I coached a class at one of our gyms.  The programmed workout of the day included box jumps.  For my non-CrossFit audience, this involves jumping from two feet onto a box, standing on the box, and then jumping or stepping down.  In a typical class, boxes range in height from 12 inches to 30 inches, though some people use weight plates stacked to six inches, while others add to the thirty.  Ever watch a group of adults try to jump onto something?  If you have, you know that it is as much a psychological endeavor as a physical one.

The ability to jump with both feet off the ground over an object typically develops around age four or five.  There is a lifetime’s worth of analysis and metaphorical pondering one can do with regards to the process of jumping with both feet off the ground, as opposed to leading with one foot.  Try it for yourself and feel the difference.  Jumping with both feet requires more faith that you will again find your bearings and a stable place to land.  One foot at a time is less of a commitment.

Each athlete has his/her own style of jumping.  Those who jump with abandon and a complete lack of caution often get burned.  Those who are so paralyzed by fear that they either don’t jump at all or only jump a few inches tend to be unscathed but also unsatisfied.  And then there are those who seem to have figured out some kind of balance between fear and abandon, able to jump more gracefully and more efficiently with each workout, no mishaps along the way but plenty a feeling of accomplishment.

This past week, one of our gyms’ teen phenoms wrote about his second run-in with a box:

I woke up happy and ready to conquer….Desiring to push 100% for new records and new satisfaction. Lacking a fear of the box. And It was exactly this mentality that got me into trouble. I was happy-go-lucky as some say. Just going for it, head to head with [my buddy]. Enjoying the burn in my legs as I rode the Airdyne, and the confidence of my shoulders as they locked out a push press. Not pausing for a second to consider my mental state, or lack of, even after I saw [my buddy] go down. I was 100% body, feeling it, not thinking it.  So it was no wonder when I “bit the box.”  My feet left the ground, but my mind stayed. It did not move with me to the box, it did not do even as much as register a jump. Clumsily I hit the box.  First my feet, then my shins, brought by my momentum. This collision brought about the peak of my jump, causing my to return to the ground, grinding my shins the entire way. I landed and my mind came back, back with a single thought, “not again.”

We can blame this on the invincible attitude of youth, on this kid’s desire to beat his buddy in their friendly competition–on his tunnel-vision that day.  But the truth is, this happens all too often.  Whether you think the box jump has a place in fitness development and competitive exercising is not the question I’m going for here, and that can be argued elsewhere.  What I’m getting at is what happens in us moments before we jump.  What goes through our minds in those seconds, even milliseconds?  How do we prepare ourselves so that both feet can leave the ground, clear the edge of the box, and land fully planted?  There’s a whole lot of synaptic firing going on, and I’m arguing that much of it is psychological.  It’s like when you get a massage and the therapist says, “Wow, you hold a lot of tension in your shoulders.”  There’s a lot of life, fear, confidence, ambivalence, courage, boldness being expressed when you jump.

Kelly Starrrett of MobilityWOD talks about getting yourself physically “organized” before you take on a barbell.  He speaks of getting your core aligned and tight, your breathing controlled, your body fierce in preparation to lift heavy stuff.  The same goes for the box: get yourself together before you jump.

So what’s the big deal about box jumps?  Ah, another metaphor for life, of course.  Do we think before we leap and analyze the situation, or will we miss the moment and be left wondering?  But if we jump too quickly, before we have gotten our psychological selves organized, aren’t we risking getting burned?

In the field of psychodynamic psychology (specifically Object Relations Theory for those who like to know such things), there is a concept called “Potential Space,” created years ago by a really cool Pediatrician/child psychoanalyst in Britain named Donald Winnicott.  His idea, in broad and very watered-down strokes, was that the psychological space that develops between the mother and the infant during “good-enough” relating becomes the place where subjectivity is formed, creativity can be expressed, and playfulness can exist.

I would argue that there is “potential space,” a psychological and functional in-between, lying somewhere between the extremes of excessive caution (never jumping) on the one hand, and not enough caution (jumping with abandon and a lack of organization) on the other.  In the case of the person who never jumps, or perhaps jumps forever with one foot at a time, so much of life will be missed.  There will only be zones of comfort, smooth skin, and predictable outcomes.  In the case of the person who jumps with abandon and fails to organize, there may only be jazzy moments filled with adrenaline rushes, quick fixes, and fly-by-night relationships.  Scars are cool, but not so much when they pile together and create thick, unwelcoming barriers.

Maybe the parting thought here is something about how to get yourself together–get your ducks in a row–just enough to take on that metaphorical jump quickly enough to not be left in the dust, but slowly enough to avoid being banged up.  If you take a few deep breaths before you jump, you’re likely to do a quick, perhaps unconscious assessment of your relationship in space to the top of that box, and you’re likely to clear it without a problem.  If you gather your limbs and get your parts moving together, all should go well.  Metaphorically speaking, if you take enough moments to assess nuances of situations, read people’s body language, listen to your gut, check in with yourself and how you’re feeling (think: what would I tell a teenager to do at a rowdy party?), your “jumps” will lead to positive outcomes. On the flip side, if you haphazardly and consistently “jump right in,” you will eventually get screwed.  Without organizing your emotional self prior to making decisions or taking risks, without first assessing yourself in relation to others, without taking stock of the pros and cons of engagement, you are setting yourself up for problems down the road, even if there is a short-term win.

So get yourself together, stare down the boxes in your life, and find that tricky balance (call it potential space if you want to sound smarter) between not looking at all before you leap and hesitating so long that you’re late to the party.  This sounds like such hard work, but if you dial in when and how to jump, you might just get there, and the view from the top of the box will be awesome, not just today, but in ten years.

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What Proper Nutrition, Mobilizing, and Cheering on Athletes Doing the CrossFit Open Have in Common

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By Dr. Allison Belger

We are now in the second week of the CrossFit Open 2014.  In addition to being the first step in the qualification process for the international CrossFit Games, this is a huge community event, connecting athletes within and among gyms around the globe via fitness efforts, cheering, and a little shared suffering to boot.

In 2012, I wrote a book called The Power of Community, which documents, among other things, the importance of meaningful social connections for our psychological and physical health.  The topic of community and the benefits of social interaction on our overall wellbeing have been widely discussed in both scientific literature and popular culture. Recently, Oprah started a campaign called “Just Say Hello,” which is meant to encourage people to connect with others, with as easy and simple an act as making eye contact and saying hello.

Oprah’s website provides some interesting information about both the importance of human connection in the prevention of loneliness, and the harmful effects of social isolation and lack of friendships.  While we often associate sadness and other emotional melancholy with being lonely, what we may not realize is that loneliness also has a powerful and direct negative impact on our physical health.  If you’re interested in further reading on the subject, my book discusses it in detail, and there’s also an easily digestible article on Oprah’s site By Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

One of the more fascinating findings Dr. Gupta highlights is that social isolation and loneliness actually register in our brains in the same way as physical pain.  With a historical overview, Dr. Gupta explains, From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense; our prehistoric ancestors relied on social groups not just for companionship, but for survival. Staying close to the tribe brought access to shelter, food, and protection. Separation from the group, on the other hand, meant danger. Today when we feel left out, our bodies may sense a threat to survival, and some of the same pain signals that would engage if we were in real physical danger are flipped on.

Along these lines, last year I had posted a link to a psychology journal article, which documented the perception of social isolation as physical pain. It’s fascinating stuff about how an emotional experience can register in our brains as something physical.

For those of us who are concerned about our health and wellness and are doing what we can to keep our physical selves healthy, Oprah’s campaign is a good reminder that we must also attend to our social lives and emotional wellbeing. In our efforts to keep our bodies strong and fit, we of course need to focus on our training, our nutrition, our lifestyle choices, our efforts at mobility–all of it.  But we need to pay as much attention to ourselves as social beings, and in particular how we are connected to others.  As Dr. Kelly Starrett said when reviewing my book, we need to “create opportunities for people to matter to each other.”  The incentive is twofold: we will be emotionally more content and happy, and our physical health will be better, as well.

One of my favorite quotations comes from political scientist, Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone.  After reviewing the vast landscape of literature on the topic, Putnam writes:

The bottom line from this multitude of studies: As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half (emphasis in original). If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”

This week’s message, then, is to take advantage of opportunities to connect with others.  Following Oprah’s initiative, smile at a stranger — you just might make someone’s day and improve someone’s health.  Call old friends, make plans with people you enjoy, join a book club, volunteer for a local cause, find your own path for sharing experiences.  And remember, the CrossFit Open is a great way to bring people together. If you’re not competing, you can still show up, cheer, and make connections.  It just might be as good for your physical health as doing the workouts you’re watching!

The Mental Game and Open Workout 14.2

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By Dr. Allison Belger

For those of you tackling the CrossFit Open workout 14.2, here are some pointers on how to keep your mental focus throughout the fun (also published as part of the Tabata Times Coaching Roundtable) .  If you’re not a CrossFit athlete, you may still enjoy some of these tips for competition prep and your own mental game.

We say it all the time: “This one’s going to be a mental battle,” or “This one’s going to come down to who is more mentally tough.”  For some workouts, those statements are more true than for others.  This is one of them.

The thing about the time domain design of this workout is that, for strong competitors, there will be significant rest periods. Having rest periods can be nice, but it also means having plenty of time to be left alone in one’s head with one’s thoughts.  Typically, the pre-workout period marks the time for focused, deliberate mental concentration and internal chatter.  Once go-time happens, the mental chatter usually takes place in the background of the physical activity.  This time, during those rest periods, athletes should be ready to attack the mental game with a plan and with poise, because the mental game will now be in the
foreground.  Just as rep-scheme plans will be critical, mental strategy will likely play a significant role in the outcome of 14.2.

I often recommend that novice competitors create a warm-up for themselves to use on Game Day in typical competitions.  In the heat of the moment, athletes who are accustomed to having a coach guide their warm-up often become paralyzed, unsure of how to prepare their bodies for the workout.  There will surely be plenty of information swirling around the internet on this topic, with suggestions for mobility and pre-workout prep.  Less experienced athletes should be sure to put those into a clear guide or script.  It will be extremely reassuring to have a written plan of attack when your nerves creep in.

Experienced competitors will know how to warm up and also tend to have a transition routine that allows them to move from their warm-up mindset to their performance mindset.  This transition signal can be a simple ritualized routine (e.g., 5 arm swings, 5 foot stomps, 5 deep breaths and a quiet utterance of a cue phrase, such as “Go time” or “I’ve got this”).  For 14.2, it may be particularly useful to create an additional quick transition cue/routine for subsequent restarts–there are a whole lot of “3,2,1..GO’s” in this workout, and that can be a mind game if you’re not prepared.  Be ready with a go-to transition for the ten-second period before each three-minute set.  This might be one or two big, deep breaths, followed by a mental image of being done with the set successfully.

This is not a workout into which you want to go with the attitude of “If it doesn’t go well, I can always do it again.”  If there is even a glimmer of possibility of a repeat, it will likely be difficult to go to the very uncomfortable place you will need to visit if you are hoping to be a competitor.  Don’t give yourself an out; your hands may be too torn up or vulnerable after your first attempt, and you may struggle to harness the intensity you’ll need the second time around.  I say give yourself one shot on this one, and make it count.  Try to fight the urge to conjure when you might be able to fit in a second try.  Visualize yourself inputting the score you want.  Act like there’s no tomorrow, and give it everything you’ve got.  Thinking about going again can be a crutch and a flee from intensity.  Hang in there with the challenge, rise to the occasion, push through the fatigue, and don’t give yourself an out.

Another unique aspect of this workout is that the difference between finishing the given reps in a three-minute window and not finishing them can end up meaning huge differences on the leaderboard.  Even if you are behind someone by just one rep, if that person finishes a round and you don’t, you will end up many places behind him or her.  Those last few reps in what will be your last full round are gold; fight like crazy to get them, so you can buy yourself the opportunity to continue.  Center yourself as I discussed last week—use a cue word to remind yourself why the discomfort is worth it.  It could get ugly for some of you, and you’ll need a mantra to keep yourself focused!

Last week’s mental slip warning was a tangled rope. This week it might be getting no-reps on the overhead squats.  Force yourself to exaggerate your depth at the bottom and hip opening at the top.  If you do get a no-rep, register it as a signal to do better, and keep moving.  Getting caught up in the potential unfairness of it all is foolish.

One final note for this week is on checking in with yourself and monitoring your system throughout the workout.  Ripping your hands badly could mean as much as a week off from training hard with grip-demanding movements.  Unless you are in a position where you might be fighting for your athletic life to qualify for Regionals or for the next step as a Masters athlete, I’m not sure those setbacks are worthwhile.  Certainly if you’re taking on the Open with more of a “weekend warrior” mentality, do yourself a favor and make part of your goal coming out of the workout with your skin intact.  I know this can be a controversial topic, but I generally advise athletes to err on the side of not ripping their hands and protecting their bodies.  There is a time and place to put it ALL out there and literally leave skin in the game; be honest with yourself in assessing whether or not this workout qualifies as one of those times for YOU.