What you Should Really be Focusing on if You are a Competitive CrossFit Athlete

What separates the top CrossFit athletes from everyone else?  Why do the top level athletes make it to the Games year after year?  There is a prevalent idea being pushed throughout the world of CrossFit that it's the program.  If you could only find the perfect program then you would be able to achieve all of your goals. In this article I want to talk about why this is not the case (the different programs followed by CrossFit games athletes are about as varied as it gets) and what you should actually be focusing on.  What you do inside the gym is not nearly as important as what you do outside of it, and what you do is not nearly as important as how you do it.  If you truly want to reach your full potential then you would be much better off spending the time and energy on the things that ALL Games athletes have in common.  I want to show you what I talk about with our athletes and what they should be focusing on and give you some ideas on how to improve these areas so as to achieve your goals.

So what does the industry tell you to focus on if you want to go to the CrossFit Games?  The program!  And why do you think that is?  Because they are trying to sell you their program!  They want you to follow their blog, or hire them as a coach, and give them a shoutout on your social media so that more people will follow their program.  The programing for competitive CrossFit athletes industry is growing at an incredible rate and it is fueled by thousands of athletes who think they will make the games if they just find the right program to follow.  Organizations are constantly talking about how their training program is the "smart" way to do it, or that they know more than the other guy, or that they have had x amount of CrossFit Games athletes, or regional athletes follow their program.  Let's address each of these.  First, at this point all of the competitive programs online are good.  There's a wide variety of programs to choose from and they all are solid.  Some might be a little better than others but for the most part you will get results if you follow one consistently.  The idea that the average athlete needs an individual program is just an elaborate sales job because most athletes need to get better at everything (compared to CrossFit Games athletes every one of our skills are weaknesses).  Now their is a time and a place for a coach and for a specific program but it is not the end all be all.  It is not going to make you or break you.  Once you have mastered the six things that I talk about in this article then getting a specific program and coach can be very beneficial, but until then it is not worth it in my opinion. Another sales pitch is that some organizations will promote how many athletes they had make it to regionals, or the games, etc., and people will flock to them because of the sheer number of qualifiers.  No one ever asks, however, what percentage of athletes who follow their program actually qualified for regionals.  If they have 20,000 people following their program and 10 make it to regionals that might look good on the surface, but it's actually only .05%! That's not a very good percentage if you ask me.  Another flaw with this is that these companies will claim so and so athlete, when they only followed their program for their regional prep (1 month) or switched over recently from another program.  Who's to say that most of their progress was not made on the previous program?  Or because of the 15 year of gymnastics that they did prior to starting CrossFit?  I'm not saying that these companies are bad; all that I'm saying is that they aren't as influential to the success of their athletes as they would have you believe.  The worst thing that an athlete can do is to think that they are following a "smarter" or "better" program and that the program alone will take them to the next level.  This type of thinking will leave them stagnate and probably end up making them worse.  Putting the results of your efforts solely at the feet of the coach or the program takes the responsibility of success off of you, which is where it should actually be.  Whether you succeed is up to you, not your coach or your program. So what should an athlete do?  I'm glad you asked.

If the program is not the magic ticket to elite level abilities then what is?  I have spent a ton of time examining the highest performers in CrossFit, as well as the highest performers in other industries.  Contrary to popular belief the common characteristics of success are the same across all fields.  Much can be learned from top performers in all industries.  What we do with our athletes is talk about the most important things for them to be focusing on.  Yea they need to be putting in the work in the gym, but for the most improvement they need to be focusing on these things.  I will list them all and then talk a little about each. Without further ado here are the things that I separate the men from the boys, so to speak.

1. Mindset

If you don't have the right mindset then you can stop reading right now.  You will never reach your full potential.  Mindset is the single most important thing for success, not matter what the field.  You can have all the talent in the world but if you don't have a growth mindset it won't matter.  As soon as adversity comes along you will fold like a cheap lawn chair.  So many CrossFit athletes (I know because I used to fall into this category) have some success early and hold onto that success.  They identify with it and become scared to put themselves out there because they don't want to lose.  They are terrified of looking bad in front of other people or losing a workout and so they hide out in their gyms and tell themselves that they are just going to keep grinding and something good will happen.  The problem is that they don't ever get out of their comfort zones, and we know that the only way to grow is to get out of your comfort zone.  When it's time to actually compete they haven't put themselves out there and have no idea how they stack up compared to the competition.  They might see that they aren't ready and come down with some type of "injury", or they might doubt themselves and underperform.  Deep down they don't really believe that they have what it takes because they haven't developed the hard earned confidence that comes from getting knocked down over and over and getting back up stronger every time.  So what can you do to improve your mindset?  First decide that you will do whatever it takes to achieve your goals, no matter what short term pain, embarrassment, or loss you will undergo.  Once you have made this decision then you will immediately start to find avenues to improve.  The more times you can get out of your comfort zone the better.  High level performers have the strongest minds and mindsets and this is not developed in one day.  It takes constant work every single day to develop it.  By the time game day comes it will be easy because of all of the work you have put in.

2. Consistency

You can have the best program in the world and it won't matter at all if you aren't consistent.  But consistency doesn't mean just showing up and doing the work every day.  Anyone can do that.  What separates the world class from everyone else is the attention to detail.  They attack everything with a sense of purpose. The thing that stands out to me the most from being around Games athletes at competitions is how they attack their warmups.  Every rep is perfect.  They are focused on their mobility.  They don't skip reps because they "feel good today."  They have a plan and they attack it relentlessly.  Consistency means showing up every day and doing everything in your power to get better.  From the mobility work, to the warmup, to the workout, to the cool down, it means completing it with INTENTION.  Not just going through the motions.  Consistency is even more important outside the gym.  It means making the right choices and doing the right things every single day.  It means making the right food choices when you go out to eat with friends (or bringing your own food or eating before you go).  It means going to bed on time every single night.  It means attacking your life with a purpose.  If you truly want to be world class then every single moment needs to be in line with this.  You will never achieve anything worth achieving without consistency.

3. Effort/Training Environment

Effort is a tricky beast.  You can work out by yourself and feel like you gave it every single thing you had.  Then you could repeat the same exact workout the next day with two buddies who you want to beat and go a lot faster.  Why is this?  In the book "How Bad do you Want It" by Matt Fitzgerald (a book I highly recommend to anyone wanting to be elite in the sport of fitness) he talks about something called perceived exertion, amount many other things.  The basic premise is that if we are only focused on our suffering in the moment then we will be limited by how hard we can go.  If we can focus on something else (beating our buddy next to us, the crowd in the stands, our judge, etc.) we can push ourselves harder.  That's why people generally have better times at competitions than on their own.  They are focused on the crowd, the guys next to them, the announcer, their judge, etc. which takes their mind off of the pain they are in.  If we can push ourselves harder, even just 1%, by training with someone else then why wouldn't we?  There is one downfall with training with others, and that is if you only train with people that you can beat.  If you always win every workout then you will get a false sense of security that you are better than you are and you will end up doing just enough to win.  You won't push yourself that extra bit that can make the difference between progress and stagnation.  So what can we do to maximize our effort?  Their is a principal talked about in all kinds of personal development books that says, basically, if you want to be better at something surround yourself with people who are better than you in that area.  Check your ego at the door and learn from them.  Not only will they give you the extra push in a workout but you can model their consistency, mindset, attitude, etc.  You can see what it really takes to compete at the highest level.  If you want to be the best then find the best in the sport and spend as much time with them as you can.  If you are isolated (as we are in Mississippi) then find a way to get the best in the area together as often as possible.  The more times you can train with people equal or better than you the better you will ultimately be.

4. Recovery

The first three principals are consistent across the board, no matter the pursuit, but these next three are more sport specific.  Recovery is incredibly important.  You will only make progress from the training that you can recover from.  If you can't recover from the training then you won't get better, you will get worse.  If you aren't making progress in the gym then take a look at your recovery first, before anything else.  Rich Froning slept at least 10 hours a night when he was training to compete as an individual.  You need to be getting at least 9 hours every single night if you are training hard.  You also need to be thinking about recovery in between sessions.  As soon as you finish a session your top priority needs to be recovering for the next session.  Things like naps, saunas, massage, chiropractic work, contrast baths, float tanks, acupuncture, MarcPro, stretching, soft tissue work, etc. are all things that can help you recover.  Do as much of this as you can with your time and budget.  If you truly want to be world class then you need to treat recovery as your full time job.  The world class in our sport are the ones who take their recovery the most serious.

5. Diet

Greg Glassman said that diet is the base of the health and fitness pyramid.  Diet is incredibly important, and something that many competitors do not spend enough time focused on.  The most important thing that you need to be focused on quantity wise is that you are getting enough to eat.  You need to be eating enough calories and enough protein and carbs to support your work.  If you need to lose weight then quantity becomes a little more important as you need to walk the fine line between training at a calorie deficit and making sure that you are recovering.  When it comes to food quality I would highly recommend figuring out what foods you don't digest well.  If you don't digest foods well it will cause inflammation in your gut.  I have written previously about the importance of gut health (if you want to learn more go check out that article) but we will suffice it to say that it is very important.  You need to be eating high quality foods that you digest well every single meal.  Every time that you eat poor quality foods it is slowing down your recovery and hurting your performance.  The sooner that you start looking at your food as fuel the better.  Make nutrition a priority.

6. Mobility 

Mobility is a base prerequisite for being world class in CrossFit.  If you don't have elite mobility (notice I didn't say good or great) then you aren't going to make it to the Games.  Period.  The field is too good at this point to get by without being able to get into positions with ease.  You will be forced to compensate and overuse certain muscles, leading to poorer performance during workouts, inefficiency, and overuse injuries.  If your mobility isn't world class then you need to be spending more time on that than you do training.  Until you get your mobility where it needs to be then you will be running into a glass ceiling with your performance.  Once you get it where it needs to be then you will make progress much faster as well.  Mat Fraser spends an entire day on his off day doing mobility work on the floor of his house.  And by an entire day I mean literally 5-9 hours.  There's a reason that he wins every year.  He is willing to do the work that no one else will.

I hope I have showed you what you should really be focusing on if you want to be an elite level CrossFit athlete.  If you become world class at these six things then it won't matter what program you follow.  You will be elite.  On the contrary if you follow a world class program and don't have these six things on point then it won't matter.  You will never reach your potential.  Stop wasting your time and money looking up the best way to train or paying for a coach and instead focus on these things.  If you can do both then great, but if not and you can only focus on one or the other then focus on these things.  Develop the characteristics of an elite athlete and you will become one.  It really is that simple.  Now get to work!