In the CrossFit world, we tend to think of mental fitness as merely mental toughness. That usually boils down to two things: the ability to pick up the barbell one second earlier than you’d want, or the ability to go through long grinds of highly metabolically challenging workouts designed by someone trying to be the Dave Castro of our lives. In other words, we think of mental fitness as the ability to suffer.
Yet, in your pursuit of physical fitness, your mental game is much broader – and just as important.
Understanding the purpose and objectives of a given workout, analysing your own behaviours and movement patterns, knowing what to prioritise in training, understanding your nutritional needs beyond a macro breakdown, consuming information, programs, and supplements critically are all fundamental parts of getting you fitter and stronger.
All of these are mental or cognitive skills. They’re all encompassed by your ability to perceive and process information, to convert information into knowledge, to understand and employ your emotions, to orient toward a clear sense of purpose, to manage your time and resources and, of course, in some small percentage, to be mentally tough.
Get this: to maximize physical fitness you must optimize mental fitness.
And no, I am not saying you need to be able to prove the Galois Theorem while quoting Robert Musil and explaining the Lombard’s paradox to your mom (are those references obscure enough?). What I mean is that in order to be the most well-rounded athlete you can be, you must be able to make excellent decisions both on the fly and under stress.
You must have the critical thinking ability to discern if a given supplement actually works for you or not; if your relationship with your coach is hindering you more than helping you; or if pushing through an injury is the right or wrong decision at that moment of your life.
All these instances of your fitness journey require that your mind is honed, as well trained as your quads, and as flexible as your shoulder. Well, maybe more flexible than the average CrossFitter’s shoulder, but you get the point. How much you can suffer through a workout – while important under a specific set of circumstances – will not help you all the time.
The ability to pragmatically assess your situation at any given time and make the right choices based on all the knowledge you’ve gathered during and outside your training sessions – in essence, to be mentally fit – is just as important as your physical preparedness.
TRAIN YOUR MIND
The cool thing is that, just like you can train and develop your physical fitness, you can train and develop your mental fitness and improve your mindset. Solving cognitive problems requires energy. It is an energetic bio-process and just as you can become more efficient at any movement, you can become more efficient at being smart. There is hope, people!
Just like you would do in training, you can push your cognitive limits beyond your current baseline to learn faster, reason better, make better decisions, and be more efficient with your cognitive resources.
On top of that, if you learn how to be vulnerable and accept that we all are emotional biological beings, then your mental game will strengthen exponentially. What I see with my athletes is that when they move from trying to not be/get too emotional to expecting emotions and analysing them, then they start making better decisions.
I see it all the time with male athletes and Olympic lifting, often they are scared, and they have a hard time understanding that emotion. It is not that they are faking it or covering it. It is just that they have been culturally raised to deny it.
Yet, if you think about it for a second, it is only natural your body produces the signal of fear when performing snatches or jerks. Throwing a heavy metallic object on top of your head putting yourself in a position that demands lots of flexibility and balance can be dangerous.
Understanding that this can create a lot of fear, even if just in your body, is fundamental. It will guide your training to create skills and strategies to feel safe. For example, learning how to drop a barbell or developing strength and flexibility in the specific ranges of motions. The athlete that cannot understand or even detect this fear will always find other ways to explain why his Olympic lifts lack, which slows the whole process down.
When the athlete embraces that emotions are just a way our bodies perceive external phenomena then you can more effectively deal with those emotions and improve your mental game. And this, my friend, will bring you to, believe it or not, a faster Fran time–which is all that matters, after all.
Now you are probably thinking: “Okay, cool, but where do I start?” Anywhere! Keep in mind that just like in physical training we have different domains that guide our training, in mental fitness we do too. Here are six areas, based on Dr Gareth Furber’s domains of mental fitness, that might help you understand how this works.
MENTAL FITNESS DOMAINS
- Positive emotion and the ability to understand and regulate negative emotions
- Sense of identity or purpose
- Ability to modify your environment to achieve your goals
- Memory and the ability to find, store and organize relevant information
- Concentration power
For now, just pick one of these six domains. Choose the one that calls your attention for any reason and start working on it.
Get your mind super fit!
Juan Acevedo, PhD, is a Level 3 CossFit Certified Trainer and Precision Nutrition Level 2 Coach with over a decade of coaching experience. He is a humanist, destroyer of negative narratives, and constructor of positive change, and specialises in aligning the mindset, fitness, and nutrition habits of his athletes.