“Vulnerability is the birthplace of courage.” Dr. Brene Brown”
As coaches at CFLA we continually ask ourselves: “How can we coach better into the mental aspects of our student’s athletic experience?” This is certainly a priority for me as a coach. Can I help create a deeper experience? Do I express enough empathy to make this a safe place to thrive, to fail, to do things a student has never done before? By empathy I don’t mean letting someone off the hook, I mean guiding them through the vulnerability that often confronts us when things get hard.
At CFLA, we already understand that this mental/emotional work is far deeper and far more effective than simply shoving ourselves through a “suck it up” model that many ordinary gyms/coaches have. That model is usually driven by ego – the coach’s and student’s. Or it means that a coach or student simply don’t know how to navigate through that territory, which is understandable – this is deep and complex stuff. But I think we’re evolved enough here to know that a surface, suck-it-up practice is not particularly sustainable. We are looking for longevity in our fitness journey, not a crash and burn experience, physically or mentally. But what we may lack is a framework to help deal with emotions and negative thoughts if and when they come up in a workout.
Scott Jurek has a check list of steps he goes through when shit hits the fan for him in a race. Jurek is an American ultramarathoner who has been one of the most dominant in the world, winning many of the sport’s most prestigious races multiple times in the 50 mile to 153 mile formats. Many of his times still stand as world records. When I read his four steps in his book Eat and Run, I related to them highly in my own humble way, definitely connecting most to the mentally and emotional work needed to feel best no matter what level I train. Though the outline of his steps resonate with me, I realized that his explanation of the steps were very specific to his own experience, and do not delve too deeply into a more universal experience. Though the steps are his, I’ve connected them to a CFLA context, and a context I’ve spent years developing with my own students, private and otherwise.
We have some tough workouts coming up in test week and in Cycle 12 in general. These steps could be very useful when workouts are especially hard on test, competition, or mental toughness days:
- “Allow yourself to feel pain” (or whatever feelings come up during a workout.) Often we don’t want to acknowledge feelings that come up when working out. We may feel that it’s “weak” to acknowledge any issue or doubt. Not acknowledging emotional stuff or even physical discomfort may feed more power than necessary into that looming feeling. Often we try to shove them back down or avoid them, which ends up inhibiting us more than we probably know. We can feel pain, exhaustion, fear, panic and even unexpected exhilaration – and still keep going. Those feelings do not mean the death of performance. When we acknowledge them as they come up, and compartmentalize the thought as just a “feeling,” this acknowledgement can often disempower the negative thought. “My lungs are burning.” “I don’t know if I’ll make the cut off.” “I’m going to finish last, again.” Matter-of-factly acknowledge whatever comes up as just a thought, just a feeling not the definition of your workout or performance (or character) as a whole.
- “Take Stock” Once you acknowledge and compartmentalize things that come up, you can then “take stock.” Are you going to pass out? Are you actually injured? Are you really weak and lame like you’re telling yourself? Will you be exposed as a fraud? As worthless? As not enough? Most likely not. These are fears that we put upon ourselves that get magnified and fester in our minds. And it takes a good amount of bravery to face these deeper things that make us feel vulnerable. Exerting ourselves physically can leave us raw emotionally, and very vulnerable. Vulnerability doesn’t mean weakness as maybe we were taught to feel, but if handled well vulnerability can mean tremendous opportunity. Our fears do not come from nothing – whether childhood stuff, a lifetime of self-deprecation or abuse, etc. – but the most relevant, current question we can ask ourselves when feeling vulnerable and bombarded with negative thoughts is: Is that true? Are you really going to pass out or injure yourself? If that is true, then stop! But if not – which is usually the case – then you’ve got it. Keep going. Are you a fraud? Not worthy of being in the same class with these people because you didn’t finish at a certain time? Are you really weak and lame? The answer is usually no, absolutely not. The truth behind the issues and discomfort will allow an athlete’s ability to shine more. Bravery balloons during the disempowerment of false information we’ve told ourselves for too long. And the willingness to confront those feelings and answer truthfully takes courage and a ton of vulnerability. As Dr. Brown said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of courage.” And with courage and empowerment of a truer story, you can go for anything.
- “What Can I Do to Remedy or Improve the Situation” We’ve acknowledged, we’ve compartmentalized, we’ve asked if the thoughts are really true. Now what? How do we further quell panic or make thoughts even more manageable or, better yet, feel in control and better during the workout? Breathe – We talk about this a lot already, but now we can put it more into a framework. Clear your mind with breath. Control your breath and your mind will follow. Get back to basics of form and technique – When the mind starts to wander or flood with thoughts that are not helpful, breath then trust your strength, and the technique we’ve been working on during practice days. Clear the mind except for points of technique. Strong back, fast hips, fast elbows, etc. After acknowledging thoughts, technical points are great for replacing useless thoughts that are getting in the way of good performance. Have or stick to a strategy – A workout will be much more manageable mentally and physically when we have a strategy. Breaking it up into bite-size pieces will seem much more doable than the overwhelming workout as a whole. One small set at a time, one rep or step at a time while help you stay on top of the workout. And again, concentrating on form should always be part of the strategy. Rely on classmates – When you’re feeling shitty, mostly likely others are feeling shitty, too. Giving encouragement will make you feel better. When you encourage someone else, you are instantly learning toward and on others. Your energetic support will only be mirrored back to you. Knowing you’re in this together is a relief. Come to terms with finishing last – or scale better This is a big one that almost every athlete has experienced: finishing last. In the moment, this may feel embarrassing, but is it really? Is the fact that you are strong and willing and gave 110% and yet weren’t faster by a few minutes a true source of shame? You wouldn’t say that about a teammate who finished last so I imagine it’s not fair to think it about yourself. I personally am an “ok” CrossFitter, not great, not terrible. I am by far not the strongest woman at the gym and new people beat me all the time. I really had to come to terms with this especially as a coach. Do I still love the workouts? Do I still love the community? Am I still a good coach? Is it all still fun? Absolutely. Letting go of the need to live up to a false expectation was liberating – and keeps the workouts fun. I also learned to scale more to the exact context of the workout and man, is that more fun, too.
- “Separate Negative Feelings from the Issue at Hand” Distressed thoughts are going to come up whether they are relative to the now: “How am I going to finish this workout?” or they are lingering, deep-seeded emotional stuff: “I don’t belong here.” The best way to separate these feelings in the heat of the workout is to focus on the exact task at hand and the benefits of the situation, even if you’re having a hard time with it. Get back to the simplicity of one foot in front of the other. An example of recognizing the benefits in a tough situation would be recognizing that you are improving strength and fitness no matter how hard it is. You are improving mentally and physically. You are learning that you really are stronger than you thought you were. You are learning that you are a fighter and a good teammate/classmate. You are learning that you have heart. This is all invaluable and important stuff. Realize again that your momentary negative feelings have little to do with reality. But the lessons and the triumph of continuing and finishing is real and important.
During Cycle 12 the coaches are going to (gently) speak into this stuff a little more. We understand that not every workout will dredge up emotional stuff. We know there are many times that you feel (rightfully) like a bad ass. We also understand that many of you keep your emotional cards close to the vest — and we respect that. But we also want to start acknowledging and bringing awareness to the fact that as everyday athletes there are plenty of times where our mind trips us up and keeps us from our full potential in the gym — and possibly outside the gym. If you can, stay open and willing to this approach to a deeper athletic experience. It can only make your fitness journey that much more significant and meaningful.
0:00 – 15:00
1-step MB Chest toss (20/14)
15:00 – 18:00
18:00 – 43:00
2RM Front Squat
3 20ft Balancing foot hand crawls
9 Squat snatches (135/95)
27 Handstand pushups
2 20ft Balancing foot hand crawls
6 Squat snatches (135/95)
18 Handstand pushups
1 20ft Balancing foot hand crawls
3 Squat snatches (135/95)
9 Handstand pushups