7/30/2015 - "What Makes An Athlete Tick?"

by Coach Adam

So with the 2015 CrossFit Games coming to a close I find myself sitting here watching in awe, the work capacity that these athletes all have. Though many athletes have some kind of sports background, they all have varied experiences with the sport of CrossFit. So what sets them apart?

Take Ben Smith for instance; Ben had been a baseball player growing up and began to CrossFit in 2008, where he worked on his own out of his garage. Ben has made 7 appearances at the Games and won the title of the 2015 World’s Fittest Man.

On the other hand, you have Sara Sigmundsdottir who was an on and off swimmer, began taking boot camps at her local globogym, and then jumped into her first CrossFit competition in 2012. Not knowing ANYTHING about CrossFit. She was noticed by a CrossFit coach, who invited her to participate in the open in 2012, where she broke her wrist. After healing she officially began her Crossfit career in 2013.

So with these two different backgrounds, how is it that these two athletes are SO good at what they do? Yes, they are both strong athletes. Yes, they are both explosive lifters. Yes, they both have incredible endurance. But when it comes to all of these games level athletes, what separates them from the rest of the crowd? Mental Toughness.

What is Mental Toughness?

Mental toughness is the mind set which separates the average Joe from the elite athlete. It is the mindset that will determine whether or not we will continue. It plays a role in everything we do. Arnold Schwarzenegger explained it as “You just go on and on and say I don’t care what’s going to happen.” Simply put, mental toughness is that decision we all have… Do I continue or stop here?

For individuals who have an athletic background, you will see mental toughness comes easier for them being they have experience with coaches pushing them past that wall. However, for individuals who have no athletic background, we may find it is much more difficult to break through that mental block. Most of the time we just pass it off as “They are stronger than me; they are faster than me; they have been doing this longer than me.” Though this may play a minor role, is their experience REALLY the reason we are struggling with our workouts? Is their experience REALLY the reason we struggle with our diet? Is their experience REALLY the reason we haven’t hit a PR in a while? Probably not.

How do I build Mental Toughness?

So with all that being said, how do you build mental toughness? How can I be better prepared in order to obtain my goals? It all starts with motivation and habit building. There are two different mindsets when it comes to mental toughness. Both lie in every person; however we may find that we depend on one more than the other.

One mind set is the “motivation to succeed”. These are the athletes who look at each challenge with the mindset that this is a great opportunity for them to be successful. I’m sitting here looking at today’s WOD and I see it’s a couplet with two movements that I am just awesome at. So I feel good going in, I know I’m going to crush it and can’t wait to see how well I do. These are athletes like Rich Froning. Though he may not be the BEST at everything, he doesn’t SUCK at anything and believes that if he works as hard as he can that he will be successful.

The other mind set is the “motivation to avoid failure”. These are the athletes that will work as hard as they can, thinking that if they fail it’s going to hurt their ego. THIS is the mindset that tends to drive most people. This is the “I’m going to prove you wrong” mindset. As you can see, this is dangerous for any athlete because if we see a WOD that looks fun…. we WILL be there…. BUT should that WOD look just a little too hard… the athlete is actually more likely to just skip it.

Everyone possesses both these mindsets, though we can all relate to one more often than the other. Here is a list of some strategies to build more mental toughness:

  • ● Find your “zone”- Essentially find your “Happy Place”. In the middle of the workout we are all fired up, energy is high, adrenaline is kicking in, and we need to find that relaxed zone so we don’t go into panic mode.
  • ● Be Positive- “I can’t” should NEVER be part of your vocabulary. The moment you say “I can’t do that”, you will absolutely NOT accomplish your goal. Instead, approach with a good reason as to why you need to finish. This will drive you to a better mindset where you WILL finish.
  • ● Focus on You- Though many of us feel the need to ask for other’s opinions, we should always focus on ourselves. How do YOU feel? Should someone tell us our goal is unrealistic, that may be true… for them… but if you stay focused on yourself then there is NO reason YOU can’t obtain your goal.
  • ● Visualize- See yourself getting done. See yourself at the end and how good it will feel when you aren’t hitting the workout any more.
  • ● Be Prepared- When it comes to a competition we want to be ready for the unknown. If I KNOW what it feels like to be out of breath, if I KNOW what it feels like to run after squatting, if I KNOW what it feels like to do pull ups after any barbell movement, I will be better prepared for that situation in the future.
  • ● Start SMALL- We will NEVER be able to make a complete 180 when it comes to our habits. We need to start with SMALL changes. This is really good for diet and nutrition. The reason we tend to fail with any diet is because we try to change EVERYTHING and it will last a couple days to a week before old cravings kick back in. Start with SMALL CHANGES.
  • ● Stick to the Schedule- Don’t get caught up on immediate results. We are not going to get a PR every time we workout and we need to realize this. Trust the programming and stick to a schedule and you will see results.

In closing, mental toughness is just like any other muscle that we must work on. For some people, mental toughness comes naturally, while others need to dig deeper. Mental toughness is what will push you past the barrier that is holding you back. Find what will get you to the next level.


“Mental Toughness Training” by Sean Hyson

“The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life” by James Clear

“A Day with Ben Smith” by Crossfit HQ

“Meet Sara Sigmundsdottir the Girl who is Currently Sitting 6th Worldwide” by RXDaily

- Coach Adam.