Focus on the Process: How an Evolution in Mindset Changed the Way I Compete
By Whitney Hubbard
The CrossFit Open season is an incredible time of year. As a coach, I’m pretty much guaranteed weekly goosebumps watching athletes completely outperform their expectations or achieve something they previously thought impossible. Just as often, I’m inspired by watching members lift each other up, cheer each other on, and push each other outside their comfort zone. And as an athlete in Open season, I get to participate in the test. Has the year of training paid off? Will the hours of work translate into results? Am I better than I was a year ago, two years ago? Have my weaknesses improved? Do I have new skills, and can I express them when the challenge arises?
But there’s another series of questions I’ve also asked myself. And maybe you have, too. They’re less about my personal progress and more about the competition. Where do I stand? Did I beat so-and-so? Who am I behind on the leaderboard now? What place am I in? Why did they do better than me? (Also, why do I still suck at Thrusters!?)
In CrossFit, though surrounded by other athletes, we are essentially on our own. It’s us, the barbell, the jump rope, and the clock. It’s us versus our best. That’s really all there is. But when you’re left alone with yourself, you might find there’s a web of thoughts to confront and a few stories to unravel along the way.
My own thoughts and stories became apparent as I got more outwardly competitive a few years ago. I considered myself decently fit and pretty “good” at CrossFit. I had developed some skills with the help of my coaches over time—Kipping Pull-Ups, consistent Double-Unders, heavier Snatches. But I had also noticed I could “beat” other athletes in workouts. After four or five years of doing this stuff, I felt excited to consider myself someone who could “hold her own,” could compete, and maybe win from time to time. I decided I was ready for the next level: CFSBK Competition Team.
Spinning Stories -- a.k.a. “How to make yourself feel like total crap when you’re already endeavoring to do something very challenging”
The days of Comp Team were fun, demanding, frustrating at times, and definitely a big push. But heading home at the end of a long Saturday, it often felt like I was running myself into a brick wall. Our group would hit a killer three or four part training session, ending with some soul-crushingly hard conditioning workout, probably in 90 degree humid heat with the door open. And somehow the 400m run on Degraw Street was now uphill in both directions. But not for everyone, mind you—just for poor little me, if you catch my drift. And I would simply feel like not enough.
Everything about me was less than or worse than. I took longer to warm up because of some injury I was nursing. I had less weight on my barbell. And I wouldn’t, just couldn’t, keep up on that conditioning. Sooner or later, I’d be lagging behind, watching the other athletes -- especially the women -- pass me. Or lap me. I finished a lot of workouts last. Or I scaled when others didn’t and then beat myself up for it the whole time. It was important to me to be at this level, to work alongside others that I considered incredibly strong, powerful, fast, and fit. There’s got to be an adage here that fits. Little fish, big pond. Only as good as the company you keep. Yada yada yada. More often than not, though, the result of these sessions was not lifting myself up to their level but rather mentally pushing myself down. I rarely ever “won.” And if I did, it never lasted. Or never meant much because I must have just gotten lucky that day or it was something I was naturally good at, so it didn’t really count. Coach Brett and I won a local CrossFit team competition with another male athlete in October that year. I was so happy to be on top of a podium. But I was also sure it was only because of those two guys on my team, and I was simply tagging along.
What a load of shit.
All Slump, No Pump
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mindset was a big part of my problem. I constantly externalized and compared myself to others’ efforts and performance—things I had absolutely no control over. I saw myself as less than, and I expected to have that outcome proved over and over again. I was born with hemihyperplasia (formerly hemihypertrophy), which means one side of the body grows more than the other due to an increased production of cells. So, I have one leg and arm shorter/smaller than the other, and a lot of structural imbalances inherent in my body because of the condition. That’s my reality, but it doesn’t need to define me. I’ve mostly tried to deal with the logistics of it but ignore its implications.
Even still, I figured I was just intrinsically “less fit” than some other athlete I admired. When faced with obstacles and challenges I gave up easily, talked myself out of things, or worked with even less effort. Because what was the point if I wasn’t going to beat him or her anyway? Even if only subconsciously, I was more focused on avoiding failure than I was on doing my best. If you’re familiar with Carol Dweck and her research on achievement and success, it seems clear that I was operating with a Fixed Mindset. I was in a self-defeating cycle and had all these inspiring individuals around me with which to threaten myself on a weekly basis. Needless to say, it was frustrating and pretty dark. Add to that a few recurring injuries, and I had a tasty recipe for an old-fashioned slump with a side of self-pity.
Know Thyself: You Got What You Got! Now What?
Flash forward to 2016, when I attended a couple of incredible workshops: the Performance Care Athlete Workshop at Active Life Athletics and an OPEX Athlete Camp. Though quite different in subject matter and scope, I walked away from both of these experiences with a sense of reality around my capacity and training. Not with what I thought I could do, how I saw myself, or what I was hoping for, but just… what is.
We did all sorts of testing: mobility, flexibility, absolute strength, neuromuscular efficiency, lactic power, gymnastics battery, etc. You can’t really game this stuff out. You accept the parameters, do the work as best you can, and see what happens. You get a sense of things as they are. You’re nailed to the present moment. And somehow, even though we picked apart the numbers and details and outcomes, and even though I still compared myself to other people on that whiteboard (old habits die hard), there wasn’t a value judgment placed on it all. It didn’t mean so much about me, that I wasn’t as good as others or that my best wasn’t enough. It just was what it was. I walked away with concrete information about my current capabilities. Most of all, I left with ideas for how that could change over time. There were real, substantial implications for training. And that’s where the magic happens.
Empowered by this information, I started programming for myself and essentially trained alone from about October onward. It was an adjustment, but it felt necessary. Armed with specific information, I challenged myself to actually do something about it. I’ve known about my leg-length difference my whole life. But now I can’t ignore how crucial single leg strength training will be for my overall health and longevity in this CrossFit stuff. Squatting will probably always be a structurally difficult movement for me, so should I really be concerned that my Power Clean is now the same as my Clean? Or should I spend my time elsewhere? My Overhead Press is a relative weakness, so if I want my shoulders to function better and hurt less often, I have a clear priority.
There’s something else buried in all of this. Somewhere along the way, I think CrossFit got the reputation for kicking you square in the ass all the time. That if you weren’t wiping your blood, sweat, and tears off the floor at the end of every single day in the gym, you weren’t doing it right. But the past few months of training have proven otherwise for me. I started thinking so much more about my recovery, taking some extra time to walk my dog or spending an hour doing simple aerobic work after a couple of tough training days. I focused on executing workouts at sustainable effort instead of trying to bang out every last rep before collapsing on the floor. I practiced caring a little less about numbers on the board and a little more how I felt and what I could sustain during the WOD.
Plan to Succeed, Do Your Best, and Be Content
So here’s the thing: even with all of the details of this testing and training, the biggest difference in my experience of the Open was my mind. I concentrated on my own reality and allowed the work of others to fade into the periphery. A big portion of why I’m still doing CrossFit after 7+ years is the community and comradery that our gym provides. I’m already enjoying taking group classes more frequently right now to contribute to and feed off that energy. But learning about myself and engaging with the process of training—rather than trying to prove myself, look good, or win the workout every time—have transformed my approach to the day-to-day and the way I compete when the time is right.
I cringe as I write this because I’m afraid of how it will read, but a big portion of what allowed me to be my own version of successful in the 2017 Open is that I didn’t care nearly as much about what everyone else was doing. Did I still look at the leaderboard? Hell yes, I even volunteered to tally the scores! Did I still ask around for top times and reps? Sure did. But when it came time to actually do the workouts, I found my own focus to prepare and give my best effort.
- Assess the workout: How do my strengths and weaknesses play here? What is this really testing? I know those Dummbell Snatches are going to add up, but if I just stay calm and find the rhythm, I can keep moving.
- Think about timestamps: If I want a chance at that second round of Bar Muscle-Ups, how will I need to pace to get there with a bit of time but without blowing up?
- Consider what’s possible: Ok, maybe I’ll get some Open magic and be able to rock out a Snatch or two at 135? Stay calm and focus on getting the work done with a good tie-break time up to that point.
- Test out some rep schemes: I know I could do 10-15 reps on those Deadlifts, but maybe it’s better for me to commit to sets of 5, take short breaks, and stay steady.
- Create a strategy: Go in with a plan. And then be adaptable. Doing 35 Double-Unders unbroken is usually no problem. But when I feel my heart rate spiking and I know that’s going to force a big rest before the next set of Thrusters, it’s probably time to do two quick sets and not fall apart.
- Visualize success: It seems crazy, but I watched myself do pieces and parts of these workouts, step by step, in my mind before even stepping foot in the gym. Mentally rehearsing it beforehand—the rhythm of a kip, the pace of a lunge, the bounce of those double unders—means my body can just repeat the work I’ve already done.
It all comes down to this: what is the best possible way that I could execute this workout on this day, with my body the way it is in this moment? Not the me from two weeks ago before my neck tweaked out. Not what I think Coach KHarpz can do so I should try to do something sorta close to that even though I know it’s probably not possible cuz she’s such a beast uggghhhhh. That stuff is irrelevant.
What do I need to focus on, let go of, remember, and forget in order to create my best possible performance right now?
Having this conversation with myself, I walked away from each Open workout with a sense of contentment. I did my best today. Not anyone else’s best or my best the way I hope it could be in another year. Would I get some skill adaptation if I repeated the workout again in two days and get a couple more reps or shave off a few seconds? Probably. (But I’m not going to Regionals I wasn’t interested in going through that shit again to find out!) Did I leave anything on the table today as it stands? Hell no. Was my best sufficient to top someone else on the leaderboard?
That, my friends, is completely out of my control.