Mental Toughness, and the CrossFit Northeast Sectionals

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I just got back from two days of the most intense physical and mental challenges of my life, the CrossFit Northeast Sectionals, the first step on the road to the 2010 CrossFit games, the winners of which are considered the fittest man and woman on Earth.

I'm too tired right now to write a detailed play-by-play, so right now, I just want to share some thoughts.

I was certainly one of the smaller guys going into this competition, and I have only been CrossFitting for a little over a year. My final placement was 32nd of 150 men (top 30 go to the regional semi-finals). I'm really proud of that, especially considering my relative strength and size.

The layout was 4 workouts, the last one requiring qualification by being in the top 50 competitors. I managed to get into the 4th workout, thanks largely to a great performance in the second workout, which took me from 69th to 22nd place. This workout favored me because it was mostly bodyweight exercises (I'm light) and required a huge amount of mental toughness (not that the others didn't, but the longer workouts tend to test it). The last workout was similar, requiring you to maintain composure during a long, grueling, heavy complex of overhead squats, heavy deadlifts, stone lifts, sandbag runs, and burpees.

I can't help but think that so much of my success comes from a willingness to push myself to the absolute edge of my limitations. Every CrossFitter does, and a lot of what I lack in strength is made up for by the mental toughness I have been able to utilize. I found this list on a CrossFit website: the 7 elements of mental toughness:

7 Characteristics of Mental Toughness
1. Competitive – Seek out (don’t pull back from) challenging circumstances and drive yourself hard to meet the challenge.
2. Confidence – Believe you have what it takes can handle whatever comes your way.
3. Control – Learn poise, concentration, and emotional control under pressure and challenge.
4. Committed - Focus your time and energy towards your goals and dreams.
5. Composure – Stay focused in spite of adversity or things not going your way.
6. Courage – Take a risk.
7. Consistency – Don’t make excuses.

Paraphrased from “Mind Gym – An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence” by Gary Mack with David Casstevens.

One thing I've been able to do is to maintain my composure (most of the time). Between sets, I'll stumble a bit, but during the movement, I am as meticulous as possible about form, and after the workout, I refuse to spend much time on the floor. Not because it sends a message to other athletes, but because it sends the message to myself that I'm always good to go. As crushing as these workouts are, I don't want to get in the habit of thinking that they will leave me on the ground for very long. I have developed the ability to ignore that wave of doubt that hits me during the hardest workouts, that says 'just lie down and pass out, just stop'. It always comes at the worst times, but it is just a voice that has no bearing on what I'm doing, and I hear it, but start moving anyway. At the worst moments, when there is a complete disconnect between mind and body, I have learned to rely on a well-trained movement pattern and move simply by initiating the movement and letting habit take over (often with my eyes closed).

Most of all, so much of my mental toughness and my ability to push myself so far beyond my limits comes from my CrossFit Stamford family, and my parents when they came out. Knowing that I'm fighting not just for myself, but also for Andy, Kristie, Nick, Kevin, and all the rest of them helped me go beyond what I'd be willing to do for my own satisfaction, in order to make them proud. There were moments at the last workout when I simply gave my body over to their projected will, moving when they said to, rather than when my mind wanted to. The honor of my gym in the CrossFit community was worth more to me than my personal comfort.

More to come later...