How To Steal Brent Fikowski's Mindset
Note: these techniques were all extracted in my Mindset RX'd Podcast with Brent. You can listen in here:
There are certain rules you must follow to podium at The CrossFit Games.
Brent Fikowski broke most of them.
I've never really been a good sports fan. Even with my beloved Chelsea FC, I feel a traitor as I'm rarely up to date with the newest signings, fixture lists or gossip. It's an abmormality for me to watch a game live and listening to any football "banter" is enough for me to to pray for an AI apocalypse.
Over the past four days though, I've become captivated by this year's CrossFit Games to the point of choking on my protein shake and repeatedly ignoring my soul mate (sorry Harriet), as I cheered on my favourite athlete.
From the moment I began talking to Brent Fikowski (on this podcast episode), it became obvious he had the Champ's mindset. The perfect blend of self-knowledge, perspective, an obsession with the process, presence and fun: the building blocks of any truly successful athlete. During our podcast, I jotted down a note:
"Brent = Champ's Mindset!"
Whilst everyone is talking about Fraser (and for good reason), I want to direct your attention to the man who isn't the perfect build for CrossFit. The man who holds down a full-time job and has what appears to be a very loving relationship too. I want to show you the man who is a cerebral as he is athletic; the man who is both the brain and the brawn.
Fikowski's success is an example of mindset triumphing over genetics. Standing 5 inches (12.7cm) higher and 19lbs (9kg) heavier than the average CrossFit Games athlete, Fikowski certainly doesn't fit the mould Froning and Fraser have cast. CrossFit isn't made for the ectomorphic, yet Fikowski dominated a number of events in both the 2016 and 2017 Games.
What's more, before CrossFit, Fikowski's experience in the gym was nothing like Fraser's Oly-Lifting, Froning's gym obsession or even Khalipa's globo-gym past. 'The Prof' spent the majority of his athletic youth swimming and playing volleyball.
What first appears as an obstacle though, is a huge part of Fikowski's 2nd place finish this year. Through swimming, he learned focus and discipline. Through Volleyball, he was gifted a coaching team who showed him the techniques to master his mindset.
Fikowski's Champ's Mindset
The Champ's Mindset Model has 5 components, the first of which is Self-Knowledge. Throughout my podcast interview with him, the overwhelming feeling I got from him, was a quiet confidence and certainty. Those two come from knowing yourself; knowing what you want to achieve and knowing what makes you perform at your best. In short, knowing who you are and who you want to be (check out my Goal Setting Guide For Functional Athletes if you want more clarity on this)
On a side note, this was about as far away from arrogance as is possible. There is almost no ego here.
How To Develop Self-Knowledge: Learn what self-talk is best for your performance, know which mindset model you reside in, learn the beliefs you hold about your potential.
The second layer is Perspective. Perspective means you are seeing the situation clearly and without unhelpful biases. In other words, seeing things as they are. The phrase Fikowski referred to most often in the interview was "controlling the controllables". Essentially he knows that everything external is outside of his influence. He can only affect his actions. Because of his perspective, he is able to choose the actions which logically serve his progress, not those which are emotionally determined.
What's more, Fikowski's life is overflowing with experiences outside of fitness which give even more height to his perspective: he's engaged and he has a career with a lot of potential. He is even a big advocate of float tanks.
Float tanks, or sensory deprivation tanks, are giant capsules which allow no light or sound in. You are suspended in salt water which is at your body temperature so you have almost no stimuli. They allow you to switch off all external happenings and focus on your thoughts or visualise. Fikowski uses both visualisation and deep focus.
How To Develop Perspective: Take some time out from training to invest in mindfulness practise. I recommend the App, Calm. This will help you to learn to observe your own thoughts and emotions. When you are able to do this, emotions will not be able to influence your actions as easily.
Being Process-Driven is the middle tier of the Champ's Mindset. What I mean by this, is that the best athletes are OBSESSED with the process of improvement. What can they do to perform better? The unsuccessful athletes are focused exclusively on whether or not they're achieving their outcome. This leads to a constant comparison of where they are and where they "should be". By focusing on growth instead of comparison to the end goal, the end goal will ironically appear quicker.
Throughout the podcast, Brent mentioned phrases like "I'm just enjoying the journey" which are indicative of a Champ's Mindset Model. The phrase that stuck with me most from the interview is "release yourself from the outcome". Those words are incredibly liberating for any athlete. Placing your focus on what is controllable right now is taking a weight off your shoulders. 'The Prof's' final piece of advice from the show sits nicely in the process-driven category too:
"Do the right thing for a very long time" - the perfect anti-hack.
Fikowski's appreciation and dedication towards hard work is second to none. For example, most of his training is done in solitude. Training alone means you cannot "game" the WOD. You have no idea if someone is going faster than you. Instead of options including "stay just behind X", "make sure you stay ahead of Y" or "overtake Z on the last few reps", you have just three options when training alone:
Stay The Same
When training alone, you are trading discipline for the freedom to be truly dedicated to the process.
How To Develop A Process-Driven Focus: Mind The Gap - instead of focusing on the gap between where you are and where you want to be, become fascinated by the way you improve. What can you learn right now to become a better athlete?
Brent's "mental reset button" is something I've coached all our Digital Mindset Gym athletes to help them maintain the fourth level of the Champ's Mindset, Presence. Presence is being in the moment, maintaining a flow state, ignoring the irrelevant and focusing on now. When an athlete is present, Intensity Tolerance is more manageable, doubt is more easily eradicated and technique is easier to maintain.
Distraction, on the other hand, is a shortcut to diminished performance. The answer is in practising the skill of regaining presence. Fikowski has done this through a form of mindfulness practise where you associate a tactile, audible or mental cue with the refocusing of attention. Practised enough, this skill is powerful to turn a disastrous mistake into the smallest of blips on the competition floor.
He has also worked on developing focus through the well-known mindfulness exercise of imagining writing out the alphabet on a chalkboard without losing focus. From what we spoke about in the podcast, this translates to a present and focused training session which is practise for doing exactly the same under the competition pressure.
How To Become More Present: First, know that the present moment is all you can influence. The past and the future are both out of your reach. Next, spend 5 minutes a day in a mindfulness practise. I like to use the warm up in my training to see how intently I can focus on my breath or another physical stimulus.
"Happy, Relaxed and Confident" - The Prof's three part recipe for performance perfection. Another word for that is the final piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the most underrated: Fun.
The best athletes are always having fun. Let me clarify something here. They're not having fun just because they're winning, but they are winning because they're having fun. No amount of "don't be a dick" self-talk is going to help you perform any better.
In Brent's words, "you want to be free to perform at your best". Attacking WODs with a sense of fun is a legal PED.
How To Have More Fun: Stop telling yourself "this is going to hurt", begin telling yourself "I'm here because I get to be. This will be great."
Fikowski has adopted the Champ's Mindset Model with methods you can easily use yourself:
First, hear the phrases you tell yourself. Know when you perform at your best and worst.
Next, understand that the only thing you control is your own actions. Harness experiences outside of the functional fitness world and find a way of switching off from constant distraction.
Third on your agenda is to become obsessed with the process instead of comparing yourself to the finished article. Remember, progress over perfection.
Realise that the present moment is all you can influence and learn to ignore what's irrelevant in the moment. Train your mind through mindfulness or other techniques to focus intently.
Finally, remember it's only sport. You've chosen to be there. Have FUN!
The Fantastic Four
There are four other areas Fikowski demonstrated extreme proficiency of in our talk. First of those is goal-setting.
Whilst most athletes are still stuck in the only marginally effective 'SMART' goal setting technique, 'The Prof' uses a much saner and effective method: creating an overarching concept of who he wants to be. More specifically, he's putting the outcome (winning The Games) to one side and placing his focus on developing the skill set and mindset necessary to win. Although the difference is subtle, it means that achieving the goals he wants to achieve is entirely within his control.
As he put it, "Pat [Vellner] may just end up a better CrossFitter than me and beat me... I don't want to set a goal I have no control over." Fikowski's approach to goal setting, is an all encompassing one: his career and his relationship are intertwined with becoming a great athlete which leads to not only a more balanced athlete, but a more balanced human being too.
In CrossFit, his goal is to "maximise [his] potential". There's no "win the CrossFit Games" in sight, just to do the best he possibly can.
You know that phrase "you can't out-train a shit nutrition plan"? Well here's my less eloquent mindset version:
You can't out mindset shit physical health.
No matter how many wins you count, how good a morning routine you have or how effective your visualisation technique is, if you are missing sleep, not recovering properly or eating crap, you're screwed.
Fikowski's daily physical priming begins the night before with breathing techniques, an eye mask, ear plugs, unwinding and removing blue light. It is continued the next day with a focus on recovery and health as well as performance.
Whether you know it or not, you're using your imagination to affect your performance already. Most people are misusing their most powerful tool, accidentally imagining missed lifts or failed technical skills.
Whilst in his float tank and before bed, Fikowski is running through "the best possible scenario" of each and every event. Giving attention to what could go wrong, correcting it in his mind and adjusting the ideal outcome as he goes. This not only removes and potential game-day glitches but primes the subconscious for success.
Today's language (internal or external) becomes tomorrow's beliefs which become next week's failures or successes.
Self-Talk of a Champ
Fikowski knows how to manipulate his self-talk to boost his performance better than any other athlete I have interviewed on the podcast. Most have a good idea, but Brent's application of the different types of self-talk is exceptional.
Whilst talking about his heavy lift attempts such as a 1RM snatch, he knows how to balance self-confidence with focus. He doesn't veer into aggression which would mean over-arousal. On the other hand, he's hyped up enough to maximise neuronal recruitment (meaning more muscle fibres contract and therefore a more powerful lift). A perfect example of this are his phrases "I'm the man" and "I'm too strong".
When approaching lactate threshold training (2-3 minute all out bursts of pure suffer-fest), Brent will keep his cues simple and focused on small actions such as "knees to my chest" when sprinting with a sled. You'll notice how it's not focused on the outcome but what he can do right now.
When approaching aerobic activities such as the 7k trail run at the 2016 CrossFit Games, Fikowski is able to use his background in endurance sports to set appropriate micro goals to focus on so he doesn't become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead. He also is able to perform what I call "disassociation" in these situations too: taking your mind away from the discomfort.
Brent mentioned he performed calculations about his speed, the distance covered and the like which is a great way to stay on track with pacing without becoming overwhelmed by discomfort. He also focuses on his breath which has the added benefit of keeping things sympathetic (the side of your nervous system which is more chilled).
What Brent Fikowski has proved is that although genetics and uncontrollables play an enourmous part in achievement, what really matters is your mindset; the thoughts you choose to have, the tools you use.
Because without it, fuck all else matters.
Fikowski's 3- Techniques You Can Use Straight Away For BrainGainz
1. The Mental Reset Button
When shit happens - as it inevitably will in both training and competition - your ability to quickly learn from it and carry on with new momentum is paramount. By learning to "reset" your mind, you will be able to attack the WOD with fresh vigour and tenacity.
I recommend getting an app such as Calm and learning to practise mindfulness. Whenever you lose concentration and have to bring your focus back to your breath, perform a physical action such as touching the side of your head or clicking your fingers whilst saying a phrase inside your head such as "fresh" or "reset".
Soon, the act of touching your head and repeating your phrase will be enough to trigger refound clarity and presence.
There are two types of visualisation I use with my athletes; macro and micro. Both are important, but before we get into them, I want to clear something up. 'Visualisation' is a phrase which is slightly misleading as the goal isn't to only see success, but to immerse yourself in the emotions and create a full sensory experience. Use all 5 senses.
On the macro side, we focus on the dream goal - the bigger the better. Bring up those future successes and feel them with every sinew in your body. Live that moment right now. What does it feel like? What are the emotions brimming to the top? What can you hear, see, smell, touch and even taste? By consistently placing the objective in front of us, our subconscious is reminded of our destination. Our subconscious is easily manipulated and will begin to see opportunities arising in front of you.
When it comes to the micro, we focus on the building blocks of success; individual WODs, competitions or even individual reps. We can burn into our mind's eye what it feels like to execute a perfect muscle up and improve our technique without even standing up. There's been studies where participants were asked to try an improve their three-pointers in basketball. One group practised shooting three-pointers once a day. One group only visualised the throws - they did no physical practise. One did nothing.
The visualisation group improved almost as much as group who physically practised.
3. Win Counting
We are hard-wired to be negative. Overcoming millions of years of evolution is possible though. It begins with reminding yourself of everything you have done today to take you closer to becoming who you want to be. List as many things as you can.
This keeps your mind focused on what you have achieved, not what you didn't do. Write them down too and make sure they're plentiful.
Fikowski mentioned he occasionally lists everything he does in a day and sees if it's in line with who he wants to be.