How To Mentally Master Any and Every WOD
It's no secret our mental state dictates our performance, yet we hear so much conflicting advice: get angry, get sad, be calm, think of your dream goal, remember your 'why', breath, focus, distract yourself...
All of these hold an element of truth to them. Yet all of them conflict each other to some degree.
I remember battling with this in training and competition; getting it wrong and ending up performing well below par more often than not. Until the answer hit me in a ‘Eureka!’ moment.
The answer as always, is more nuanced than we first expect.
The first thing to note, is that not only is each WOD different, but that each of us - each athlete - is different. In short, one-size-fits-one. We must first understand ourselves before deciding which techniques to use.
We must trial arousal control, breath work, mental phrasing and much more to assess what works for us. The foundation of a Champ's Mindset is the Self-Knowledge.
Considering one-size-fits-one in terms of WODs though... imagine turning up to an Ironman after 5 scoops of pre-workout and a quad espresso, thinking nothing but “HULK SMASH!”... chances are, this will prove catastrophic when you still have 2.3 miles left to swim, 112 miles to cycle and a marathon to run. We know we should adopt a calmer mindset for this event.
Similarly, trying to hit a PR power snatch immediately after an hour of tantric sex and watching Schindler’s List (not at the same time obviously, that would be disgusting) would be incredibly difficult. You just wouldn't be in the right state.
As ridiculous as that sounds, many of us do a similar thing, hoping that our mental state just happens to fit with performance. We all too often arrive to the box with our mindset fixed a certain way and hope the WOD suits us when in reality we should be adapting our mindset to suit the task at hand.
What's more, WODs - being so varied and with unlimited complexities - prove to be a challenge for mental strategies. Different movements, time domains and a host of other factors mean we need a process we can mould to fit the day's objective.
It's time to take control of our mindset and our performance.
Introducing the Arch
What I teach my athletes in the Digital Mindset Gym is the concept of the Performance Arch. The concept of arches in training has been made popular by Julien Pineau, but here's a quick description.
An arch is the strongest shape in nature, if the pressure is balanced from both sides equally. If the pressure sits too far on one side or the other, the arch will collapse. To prevent it collapsing, we would have to brace out against the arch with extra support. That 'brace' is your mindset.
We can view workouts through the arch analogy. On one side of the arch, we have powerful, less technical movements such as throwing a sandbag as high over your head as possible. On the other side, we have highly technical movements with a lower power output. The most extreme example of this is something like kundalini yoga.
When it comes to functional fitness, we can curtail the edges of this arch to leave us with a spectrum ranging from a power clean on the left hand side to a Long Slow Duration recovery session on the right.
When we know where your WOD lays on the arch, we can push back out with our mindset 'brace' to reinforce it. The more we cultivate a Champ’s Mindset, the stronger our brace is.
Where Does Your WOD Lay?
As I mentioned above, different WODs require different approaches. We must first understand what our WOD really is. We do this by placing the WOD on the arch. Once we understand where the WOD sits, we can see exactly where our brace should be placed.
To plot our WOD on the arch, we must understand 8 things:
Skill Demand: how much skill does it take to complete your task?
Weightbearing: How much weight is your body supporting?
Power Output: How much power per second is needed to complete the task? No need to be precise, you get a feel for these things.
Familiarity: Consider the environment, the equipment, the movement, the level of competition, the culture you are training in and the time domain.
Torque Chain: Check out Julien Pineau's/StrongFit's work for a more accurate description here. In short, if the movement mainly uses lats, glute med, quad lateralis, internal obliques (such as a snatch), you're using your external torque chain. If it uses pec major, external obliques, inner hamstrings, glute max (such as running) it's internal torque chain. As I said, check out the StrongFit resources for more information on this – it’s gold.
Eccentric Loading: The eccentric portion of a movement is where the muscle lengthens under tension. So the lowering phase of a squat, returning a deadlift bar to the floor, descending from a pull up and lowering yourself to the floor in a handstand press ups are all eccentric. Pressing the barbell off your chest in bench press, putting a bar onto your shoulders in a clean, curling a dumbbell to your collar bone is the opposite; the concentric phase.
Stakes: what have you got to lose and to win? Is this the pinnacle of your athletic career with everything you've ever worked towards to lose and fulfilment, glory and a place on a podium to win? Or is it just another training session to put in the books?
Ability: How good are you at the task? World champion level or absolute beginner? Has your ability been affected by fatigue, sleep deprivation or similar?
On the left of the arch, we have WODs and exercises which are:
Low Weightbearing (no weight resting on your body)
High Power Output
External Torque Chain
Low Eccentric Loading
On the right, we have:
Low Power Output
Internal Torque Chain
High Eccentric Loading
It's worth reminding you that these are relative to you, not human kind. One size fits one.
Once we understand the concept of the arch, we can begin to plot the points on the arch and assess the WOD.
For example, imagine you’re Russian world champion weightlifter, Dmitry Klokov and Vladimir Putin has forced you into an Olympic comeback. You’re back on the weightlifting platform and your familiarity, ability, power output and stakes are all going to residing almost exclusively on the left hand side of the arch. Skill is also going to be relatively low for you as you've practised the movement hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times.
If you plot all the points out on the arch and estimate an average pressure point, it will probably sit at around 5-10 degrees from the furthest left point on the arch.
Now consider that, in an unprecedented move, Putin has created a top down order for a highly elaborate and sophisticated, state sponsored drug doping program, run by head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov. Where corruption, extortion and murder are all used liberally (just suppose for a moment that the Russian government would be willing to do something as abhorrent as that (and yes, I have been watching Icarus)).
A surprising end result of the doping is that not only do you (Dmitry Klokov) have a real shot at a world record snatch and clean and jerk, but somehow your Vo2 max has increased beyond what was previously considered humanly possible and you’ve dropped 40kg. Because of this, your supreme leader, Putin also orders you to be put forward as Russia's marathon runner for the same Olympics.
Oh, and if you don’t win, heads will roll.
Whilst your (Dmitry’s) new aerobic capacity means your ability has taken a gigantic leap forwards, your lack of skill and familiarity combined with a low power output, Internal Torque dominant movement and high eccentric loading means the points would average out way over to the right hand side of the arch.
Russian doping scandals aside, we now have a way to see what our WOD is actually comprised of. Below are some examples which don't involve Russian scandals, but do involve me.
Bracing the Arch
So, we've located the pressure point. The next step is to brace against it. We do this by using the controllable elements of mindset. It's important to note, if you're trying to implement this without first practising changing your mental state, you are going to have some, but limited success.
We have 4 malleable mental areas to focus on during WODs/training sessions.
1. Macro goals vs. Micro goals.
This is the simplest to implement and reaps great rewards for even the unpractised mental athlete. You may already be utilising it to some degree. If we come back to the example of Klokov running the marathon, if he sets off from the start line thinking '26.2 miles... 26.19999 miles... 26.19998 miles...' it's going to be exhausting for him. He will be overwhelmed by the task at hand and will lose intensity. As he's on the far right side of the arch, I would suggest mentally breaking it into sets of 10. So, he would think about running 10 lots of 2.62 miles. By focusing on one at a time, we can maintain the appropriate intensity.
When he's on the weightlifting platform though, I wouldn't want my favourite weightlifter to be thinking 'set up, first pull, second pull, third pull, EXPLODE, quick turnover, stabilise, stand up, demonstrate control...'. His expertise as well as the other demands of the movement will mean he should be thinking about completing the whole movement, with maybe one cue in his mind.
So, we can view the task at hand as one big goal, or lots of little ones. One the left lies marco goals, the right, micro.
2. Assertiveness Vs. Passivity
In Dmitry's snatch, I want him to be assertive and aggressive in completing his task. This will help create a higher state of arousal. In this article, Brent Fikowski talked to me about his phrase for heavy lifts – “I'm the man" he would say to himself... “I'm too strong” would be another. Note the extreme confidence and how Brent is asserting himself over the situation and not letting the uncontrollables control him.
If you've ever spoken to a world class endurance athlete though, you'll know their approach is very different. It comes down to relaxing into the situation. Can you imagine how mentally fatiguing it would be for Dmitry to spend the (hopefully less than) 2 hours of marathon running thinking 'I'm going to crush this... I'm the best at this... no one is better... FOR PUTIN AND FOR GLORY!'
Yeah, exhausting... so on the right hand side of the arch, we have passive emotional control. On the left, we have assertiveness.
*It's important to note assertiveness is not anger. Anger is uncontrollable and misguided. It leads to mistakes and demonstrates a lack of control. Aggression and assertiveness are controlled, direct and are executed from a calm, present mind. Think of Special Forces soldiers: those who have met them know them to be, for the most part, calm and controlled human beings. Those who haven't met Special Forces soldiers expect the opposite; anger and rage. Neither of which are helpful to a highly trained solider doing their job.
3. Unforgiving Vs. Forgiving
When we are on the far, far left of the arch, we cannot cut ourselves any slack. We must be hard with ourselves, not nasty, but hard. Mistakes are not to be tolerated. Bare in mind, you will rarely, if ever, be truly on the left hand side.
If we imagine the far right hand side of the arch, in a 20k row for example, one poor stroke isn't going to derail your whole event, so it's wise to forgive yourself and work on what's in your control instead of what has passed. Events on the right of the arch demand you being kind to yourself in the moment.
If you screw up in an event which lasts 2 minutes or less though, kind isn't going to cut it if you want to improve your performance right now. Sometimes a firm kick up the arse is what you need to give yourself.
All the above being said, after the event, being unforgiving and unkind is a useless exercise and results in some of the worst mindset habits out there. After the event, kindness is paramount.
4. Association Vs. Disassociation
If you've heard me interview any CrossFit Games athletes or athletes outside of functional fitness where we've discussed their approaches to longer events, you'll find that most of them end up doing some kind of maths along the way. Something like "I've got 1 mile left and I hit the last 2 miles in 14 minutes, so to finish in under 30 minutes, I'll have to up my pace by 10 seconds per mile" is common.
The reason why is that we have a lot of time to think in an event like that. This time can be great as we can fill our minds with thoughts which we know will spur us on… Or we can spend an hour self-sabotaging and limiting our progress or performance. When we are performing slow, long efforts, our mental objective should be to disassociate from any discomfort. As a side note, this is where meditation or mindfulness can come in helpful for athletes.
When on the extreme left hand side of the arch, our focus now turns to being fully in the contractions of that movement, to feel every fibre squeeze and fire in sequence and to feel the bar gripped tight in our hands. We want to be entirely present and in the moment.
This is why when doing very short, sharp efforts such as 30 seconds on the assault bike, our objective should be to actively seek as much discomfort as possible.
Speaking the Language of Intensity
When learning a language, you usually use a physical phrase book with words and phrases you refer to. Initially, you will have a set list to work from and try and squeeze them into any scenario. When learning French, I used "d'accord, mais, bon, oui, je voux, je cerche" etc. for almost everything. I then progressed to "merde, putain, connard, branleur" and other pieces of offensive language.
What they have in common is that they can be used in a variety of situations and by changing the way I said them, I could alter their effects in a conversation. As I developed a modicum of ability, I was able to create more complex sentences and phrases which allowed for me to achieve the result I was looking for with more ease (usually looking for the best snow or beer on a mountain).
Your mindset is the language you learn to converse with intensity. The bigger your vocabulary, the better your conversations.
Once you've begun applying these principles, you will notice particular thoughts help generate intensity in some areas whilst diminishing intensity in others. This will fit in with the arch. I divide my arch into 8 segments. Each segment has its own phrases and imagery in it. They follow similar principles, but are unique to the segment. My segments are, from left to right:
1. Power Movements - anything with next to no technique but with full explosiveness such as throwing a sandbag into the air. This barely ever gets used as technique (skill) is always in my mind to some degree.
2. 1RM Attempts - as it sounds, but includes 2s and 3s as well.
3. Heavy work - sets of 1-6 reps.
4. Lactate threshold - sled sprints, shorter rows, Fran, Grace etc.
5. Short WODs and Accessory Work - WODs between 3 and 9 minutes generally. As well as all the curls.
6. Longer WODs - 10 minutes to 20 minutes.
7. Murph etc. - longer but still with changing movements, higher skill and lower weightbearing which take them away from the final category
8. LSD (Long Slow Duration, not Lysergic acid diethylamide - the psychoactive compound) - monostructural events lasting 30 minutes or more.
As I've become more familiar with these segments, my 'vocabulary' has expanded for each one. I've built out a list of phrases which work well dependent on the segment and I advise you do the same.
This is a hint of what I teach in my Digital Mindset Gym. The DMG is an online group program which teaches the fundamentals of mindset mastery to functional athletes. In short, it's the quickest way to create the thought processes which will in turn create the athletic outcome you dream of.
If that's something which interests you, check out what these athletes have to say about the Digital Mindset Gym and read some more details.
P.s. I'm not an idiot I don't want to die from a 'heart attack' aged 25, so Mr Putin if you’re reading, please understand that the above claim has no proof or context.
P.p.s. To the rest of you, have you seen Icarus? There’s so much proof it’s almost laughable! I'd recommend checking it out on Netflix
P.p.p.s. Check out the Digital Mindset Gym, you may be intrigued.
P.p.p.p.s. If you want to grow your mindset in a general sense, we have created a 21 Day Challenge - the first portion of the training is entirely free. Click here to subscribe to this.