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.

calenNCM12

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.

Advertisements

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

Lylerackposition_Fotor

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!

baddayphoto_Fotor

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

HOllismedball_Fotor

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! 

allisonmunyjuly2012

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.

 lisaboxjump1

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.

lisaboxjump2

Psychologywod’s Crash Course in Competition Prep

psychologywod-logo-wordpress-3.jpg

Next week marks the beginning of the CrossFit Open 2014.  For those of you who don’t do CrossFit and may not know, the Open is an international competition in which athletes will do a set of five workouts (one each week) and submit scores via an online forum.  This is the first stage of qualification for the CrossFit Games, to be held in July.  The majority of the thousands of people who will complete the Open workouts have no intention of qualifying or actually competing—they are simply taking the opportunity to test their fitness relative to their own performance in the past, or relative to others in their age group.  Or, they may be participating in order to be a part of a fun community event.

Given the number of articles I have written on competition and the mental game since starting this blog one year ago, I thought this week would be a good time to provide links to the articles that relate most to competition, preparation, mental toughness, and general psychological and emotional aspects of putting ourselves on the line in some kind of competitive endeavor.  Keep in mind that each article addresses more than just athletic pursuits; the applications to life off the field are critical and always covered.  Indeed, they are why I was inspired to start this blog in the first place!  We all have so much to learn from applying the mental game of sport to the mental game of life.

Here’s my top ten for competition-related content (in no particular order):

1.  Threat vs Challenge: Do you experience competitive scenarios or other performance opportunities as a threat (risk of failure) or a challenge (chance to shine)?  Read more about the implications of each way of framing your endeavors:

2. Responding to cues mid-workout:  How skilled are you at listening to your body during a workout or competition?  How able are you to adapt to your audience in the middle of a presentation at work?  Read more here:

3.  Fear of Negative Evaluation:  Learn more about how anxiety affects performance and how you can develop performing-enhancing states of mind, for sport and life:

4.  Overthinking:  Read about the differences between accessing cognitive processes for learning new skills and allowing your body to do its thing once you are no longer a novice:

5.  How do you move on from a less-than-stellar performance?

6.  Understanding the value of visualizing just after you’ve conquered a physical challenge.

7.  Injured and unable to participate in the Open or other competition or challenge?  Feeling left out and blue?  Read more here about the psychological aspects of injury.

8.  The holy grail of “mental toughness.”  What the heck does it really include?

9.  How important is a competition or other physical pursuit, any way? Read here for some thoughts on finding perspective.

10.  The importance of evaluating the effect of your pursuit on your life.  After all, it might be time for a break!