When you want to get better, you hang around the people who are already like how you want to be. At least that’s what people say…
Since I started my CrossFit journey a year ago, I figured that if I am going to do this, I might as well do it right. Why not learn from the best of the best? I studied all the interviews and videos of the best athletes I could find online. I dissected Rich Froning’s book and interviews to distill his CrossFit success secrets in its own article.
The next step was reaching out to any regional or CrossFit Games competitors and seeing if any were kind enough take the time to answer my questions. Here is what they said:
Mat Fraser has won 2nd place in the CrossFit Games in 2014 and 2015. He won 1st place in 2016 and 2017.
If you don’t have time to watch the full documentary, some of the key points he repeats over and over is that:
- He is willing to do what today what no one else is willing to do what others can’t tomorrow.
- The first 2nd place trophy he got was great because he worked hard. The second one was the worst failures to happen to him because he knew he cut corners that year and could’ve won first place. That motivated him to not cut any corners the following year and win first place.
- The grind is not as glamorous as social media makes it seems. The CrossFit Games is just a few days. The rest of the year he trains feverishly and gets no glory for it. Some days he doesn’t hit the mark that he sees others do on social media but he can’t let it get them down; people only post their highlights on social media.
Katrin has competed in the CrossFit Games four times, winning first place in 2015 and 2016.
What is the most important exercise that CrossFitters neglect?
Definitely, the mind. It’s so easy to get caught up in the physical … At the elite level, where everyone is so fit and so strong and so physically capable, it’s almost always the mind that separates.
If you’re talking about exercise, I’d say basic fitness — hanging around your lactic threshold for an extended period of time. And it’s hard. But that’s where the magic happens.
It’s not going guns ablazin’ for a workout. It’s not talking pace either. It’s hanging out where you might drop off.
What was your biggest failure?
Katrin’s biggest failure, to summarize, was not qualifying for the 2014 CrossFit Games. She made the two previous years and was good but not great. Failing to qualify emotionally impacted her. She trained and coached but didn’t like it and did it only to “go through the motions.” But the only thing she really wanted. This motivated her to push forward and make it the following year.
Katrin Davidsdottir recommends two books:
- Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court (John Wooden)
- The Champion’s Mind: How Champions Think, Train, and Thrive (Jim Afremow Ph.D.)
Katrin agrees with all the points that Coach Wooden makes in the first book.
The second book was the first psychology book she read. She helped her change her mindset from thinking she is a failure and didn’t belong to focusing on giving her absolute best rather than comparing herself to others. This is what her coach also constantly helps her focus on.
Katrin and Mat Fraser recommend the same purchase when asked what their most impactful investment under $100 is: the Philips Wake-Up Light with Sunrise Simulation, available on Amazon (affiliate link), which wakes you up with light instead of sound.
- Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss. See other books recommended by other interviewees of Tim here.
- Tribe of Mentors: Most Impactful Purchases of $100 or Less.
The first person I sat down for an interview with was Alea Helmick. She has four top-10 even finishes, including a second-place in the Suicide Sprint. She’s placed 1st in Maryland two times and Top 5 in the Mid Atlantic Open four times. She’s placed in the Top 7 in the Regionals four times. And she came out 26th in the CrossFit Games in 2016 for Individual Women.
Alea’s husband is a high performing Games athlete as well. He placed 27th and 38th in the Crossfit Games Individual Men’s in two different years.
Alea and Gary Helmick were the only couple to compete in Individual events for the CrossFit Games 2016. Their team, CrossFit Revamped, competed in the 2017 CrossFit Games.
Do you notice any obvious differences, physically or mentally, between people who succeed competitively and those who want to but do not?
This may not be the answer you want to hear but a lot of it is genetics. My dad was a great athlete. He would push me like I was a boy. I grew up a tomboy and did a lot of sports, like track and field. I always genetically had a fierceness to me. I was very competitive.
I am also a perfectionist. I want everything perfect, including making sure I have no accidents on my driving record.
It’s possible to bring out character in someone and make them great, but it’s hard. It’s more about what you already have genetically.
Will’s Note: I noticed she did mention her dad’s influence on her. While a lot of it is genetic and luck, it is important to note how upbringing played a role too.
How important is the mental part of CrossFit? What percentage of CrossFit is mental or physical?
For beginners, mental toughness doesn’t play into it. You don’t know what the red zone is. Every workout is hard.
But as you get better, it’s very important. It’s about pushing further than you did before. This includes stuff like holding onto the bar longer and longer.
I would say it is 50/50.
At the highest levels of competition, the physical and technical skills between athletes are the same. If there are differences, they are very small. It’s all about your mental and training capacity.
How do you improve your mental toughness? Is it just about practicing pain tolerance during the workout?
Your mentality starts the moment you wake up in the morning. It’s about what you eat and what you make sure you don’t eat. It’s what you think about. It’s about planning out your day beforehand. It’s your whole day, not just the workout. You really have to want it. It’s all you think about all the time.
If you could only give 3 tips to get someone who wanted to compete to the highest level they could get, what would they be?
It depends on the person. But I would say work on your weaknesses. If you’re bad at gymnastics, I’d tell you to work on that. If it’s nutrition, I’d tell you to work on that.
Work on your mental game. This includes visualization. My dad would teach me to visualize the movements before competing. In track and field, if you missed a single hurdle, you were screwed. For CrossFit, I would picture in my head doing the whole workout flawlessly over and over again until I saw it.
Gary does a lot of this too.
This also includes positive self-talk and affirmations. If you feel like you’re too tired during a workout, tell yourself, “No, I’m not.”
Will’s Note: I asked her to dig into visualization a bit more since it’s mentioned quite often in personal development. She said she does not listen to affirmation tapes or anything like that. She doesn’t know who Tony Robbins is. She is motivated by her faith and who is next to her and competing with her.
How important are team dynamics and energy for the CrossFit Games? The team competition is a lot different from individuals since it’s a group of people.
We didn’t expect to make it to regionals but we did. Then, we made it to the Games. So it was just great being there.
Team dynamics are really important. We actually have 30 people outside of the 6 that competed that we consider part of our team. They were there with us when we trained. In fact, we consider our whole gym our team.
I noticed your gym doesn’t have any fancy obstacle courses or weird Worm stuff like they had at the Games. It seems like your basic CrossFit gym. Did you practice any of those activities before the Games?
Gary bought a worm and we practiced with that before the Games.
Mainly, we stuck to the standard gym programming. Our success just speaks to the effectiveness of the programming.
We did occasionally go out and do funky stuff on our own, including stuff with sandbags, though.
Do you have any advice for normal people with more normals goals who do not necessarily want to compete? For example, they may just want to be more fit, lose weight, and look more attractive.
Choose a gym that knows what they’re talking about and has good coaches. Because 99% of people are going to be average. Therefore, you want to find a gym that focuses on having good people all around rather than one that focuses on just the best people.
A lot of people talk about having fun. How important is having fun in your training and CrossFit as a whole?
Having fun is incredibly important in order to stay balanced. We train 1 hour a day.
What’s your typical training regime like(e.g. one hour a day or hours a day)? What’s Gary’s?
We were training 1.5 to 2.5 hours 5 days a week.
Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias
#Tbt to the time we threw heavy things over our shoulders to wrap up an incredible weekend at the @crossfitgames regionals. @bradletes @t2crossfit @inov_8 @masimopersonalhealth @fitaid @rxsmartgear @lurongliving @cert4sport @exosleeve @romwod @rocktape @crossoversymmetry @ntrecovery @thechestee @iceagemeals @lightstim @crossfitgames #crossfit #girlswholift #strongisbeautiful
I also chatted with Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias. Out of over 150,000 women who compete in the CrossFit Games Open, she consistently rises to the top of the standings.
In the CrossFit Games, she has placed:
- 9th for 2013
- 22nd for 2014
- 22nd for 2015
- 10th for 2016
- 25th on 2017
It’s not easy to place so well consistently for any CrossFit athlete when there’s so much competition. I was interested in finding out if there were any patterns she noticed among her competitors that differentiated the successful from those who weren’t.
What do you observe to be what differentiates competitors who rank well in the Games and beyond and those who want to but don’t (visualization, goal setting, mentality, work ethic, genetics, etc.)?
Every competitor, first or last has their pre-workout routine. Some visualize, some socialize. I wouldn’t say those at the top of the ranks do one thing more than anyone else. All the athletes at the games are at the top of their sport so what they do works for them.
What’s the most important thing you’d tell someone to do to steer them in a better direction towards doing better competitively?
Make sure you are always having fun. You can’t compete at the top of any sport if you are not having fun.
How important is your mind and preventing injury and what do you do to work on these?
The mind is very powerful. Self-belief is what is needed to get to the top. If your mind allows you to believe that you can do something then you are more likely to succeed.
Obviously, injury isn’t good for anyone so listening to your body and not over training are key.
If you could only give one tip for becoming a better competitor what would it be?
Listen to your coach and trust the process.
How about for someone who just wants to be more fit and attractive?
Listen to your coach and enjoy the process.
It isn’t always the best move to compare yourself with the best in the world for many reasons, including genetics. I asked Adam Blaney what he thought about this. Adam finished consistently in the Top 34 for 3 consecutive years in the Mid Atlantic Regional in the Individual Men’s. For the CrossFit Games Team Series, he finished 57th in 2016 and 31st in 2015.
Adam had some harsh truth to share:
“I would say for starters that CrossFit is definitely for everyone but “competitive CrossFit” will have to be paired with at least some base of athleticism and/or God-given talent. The sport is becoming so competitive that not only do you have to work extremely hard but to be a high-level performer you also have been dealt a pretty good hand in terms of genetics … there’s a reason that 90% of the male competitors at the CrossFit games are 5’8″ to 5’10” 185-195 … It’s those lever lengths and strength-to-bodyweight ratios that seem to thrive with the movements comprising CrossFit WODs.
Moreover, I think the number one thing that separates mediocre competitors from high finishers is the mindset. You have to know before it even begins that it’s gonna hurt and it’s gonna hurt bad to be competitive. Some of the scores these days are out of control. Even laying on the ground writhing in pain after a workout I’m not even in the same league as some of these freaks. That said, the Average Joe is not willing to count the cost to really be competitive.
For some, they go into the workout confident but then when the heart rate spikes and things start getting really uncomfortable, the high finishers are gonna keep the foot on the gas while the middle of the pack will let up in order for it to hurt less. That said, if an athlete has that level of strength to not be exposed than the most important thing is INTENSITY.
Call me old school but I am not a fan of a million workouts a day all performed at 85-90% effort. One, maybe two, workouts at 100% effort will yield much better results and this advice falls on deaf ears to most I speak to as they see Rich Froning and Matt Fraser doing countless workouts a day and think they need to be doing the same.”
It seems clear that genetics play a role but so does mindset, which can be trained. While not all of us have the right ratios to compete at the top, we can still achieve goals we never thought possible if we adopted the right attitudes and trained ourselves to deal with the intensity and suffering necessary.
I asked Adam about this to make sure it was truly something that can be developed and if so, how. Here’s what he said:
“I think the mind can be trained but a person has to have a willingness to suffer to be truly competitive in CrossFit. If they have that even just a little bit and they’re competitive, then my advice would just be to hit workouts with intensity consistently and the mind will get stronger and stronger.”
Finally, I spoke with Christopher Clyde. He has made it to Regionals with his teams consecutively for every year since 2013, placing 1st Overall a few times.
Predictably, I found out that great athletes never cut corners. They don’t skip out on workouts. They see the short term and long term. Chris explained it a lot more eloquently than me. He said:
What do you observe to be what differentiates competitors who rank well in the Games and beyond and those who want to but don’t?
Games athletes do the grunt work RELENTLESSLY. Not once a week. Not for one phase. Constantly doing it all. I’m talking every phase of energy work. They do the corrective work every day. They keep improving. They see the forest for the trees AND the trees for the forest. They polish their strengths and completely obliterate their weaknesses until they don’t exist. Those who want to make it to the next level, and don’t, neglect the work, or get bored with it for qualifiers or general programming, or just don’t understand the whole picture. In my opinion.
How important is the mental game?
The mental game, at the top, is the entire game. Under regionals, it matters as an equal part to the puzzle. At the top echelon, where the differences are milliseconds and less than 5lbs on lifts… it’s the decider.
If you could only give 3 tips for an up and comer to get them as high as positive in rank, what would it be?
Make your movements perfect. Condition more than you want and twice as much as you think. Listen to your body – the basics are simple, the foundations are simple and everyone gets it – but barely anybody does it. They chase the maxes, instead of the consistency. The social media over the work. Instead of building the right way.
How about for someone who just wants to be more fit and attractive?
Work hard every day, in all aspects. Work out with people you love, and love to compete with. Have fun. DO SOMETHING EVERY DAY!
Luke Espe of the 12 Labours Lions Team
Luke is the co-Founder 12 Labours CrossFit and 12 Labours Lions Team Captain. They placed 9th place at the CrossFit Games 2014, 6th place in 2015, and 2nd place in 2016 against titans such as Rich Froning’s team, CrossFit Mayhem Freedom.
The team is a four-time CrossFit Games team with an all-time best finish of second place in 2016. That year, it was one of only three returning top-10 Games teams from 2015 (CrossFit Mayhem Freedom, CrossFit Solid) and just two from 2014 (CrossFit 808). A top-performing Mid Atlantic and Atlantic Regional team since 2010 with just two regional absences from 2012-2013, the team has been training together in part since 2010. In 2016, four of its six members were returning members of its 2015 Games team. The team had two event wins and eight top-three event finishes.
In conclusion, a clear pattern we’ve seen in these quotes is an acknowledgement of the importance of genetics so you have the right body and lever ratios but also a strong reference to the importance of the mental game, mindset, attitude, and work on your mental strength.
While it does suck that not everyone will have the right genetics, we can all still improve our mind and perspectives with practice.
Setting out extra time to train your mental toughness could be a overlooked opportunity to get ahead. While many athletes train their physical bodies, they neglect training their mind.
I respect and admire the sacrifices these athletes have made and the level of mental performance, hard work, dedication, and effort that went in to achieve their goals. I find it inspiring that many of the traits and habits of these high performing people can be incorporated into our own lives as our own responsibility to improve our lives — and the benefits to doing so are off the charts.
Other Useful Resources
- How I Became The Fittest Woman On Earth by Tia-Claire Toomey (book)
- Tia-Claire Toomey comprehensive interview on her CrossFit secrets
- Jason Khalipa has competed in the CrossFit Games 8 times, finished in the top 10 6 times, and won once. He sat down for an interview in this Stack.com article and shared some secrets.
- Rich Froning’s podcast, “Froning and Friends” on iTunes or Youtube (here’s an episode featuring Mat Fraser)