The Face of Battle

By Jeff Barnett

In Coaching

July 08, 2011

PDF Article

Jeff Barnett explains how facial expressions can give good trainers valuable insight into each athlete.

I took the name of this article from a book by John Keegan. The book describes three epic battles: Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. For me, the centerpiece was the Battle of Agincourt, a 15th-century English victory over the French during the Hundred Years’ War. Keegan’s message about Agincourt was clear: war is ugly. It’s full of mud and rain and broken wagons and body parts and shit and piss and blood and dead animals and dead people—stacks of dead people. Friction assails you at every opportunity, making the easy difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible.

Yep, sounds a lot like CrossFit.

As a trainer at CrossFit Impulse, I get to witness a different face of battle every day as my athletes attack the WOD. I can tell much about an athlete’s expectations and mental state during a WOD by his facial expressions, mannerisms and actions. Expectations and mental state are large drivers of performance in competitive and high-intensity activities. If I can perceive what an athlete is thinking or what he is feeling, then perhaps I can coach him in the right direction. Furthermore, it gives me insight into an athlete’s psyche: how the athlete views himself, the WOD, the world—everything.



12 Comments on “The Face of Battle”


Tammi Byxbee wrote …

I know I have fallen into the category of Dangerous Danny from time to time, both in solo training and under my coaches-this was an awesome article. As a coach too, I have had many of these types of athletes described here-it can be highly stressful and frustrating if people come to you looking for direction and not be willing to take the necessary steps to achieve their potential. It can make you feel from time to time that you're not a good coach, not doing enough or saying the right things at the right time. Many thanks again.


wrote …

Fairly sure "Couldgiveashit Carla" is someone who's under-recovered. Speaking from experience on that one D:


wrote …

Great article. I know I have made several of these faces. Also, to the pic on page 5 Go Cats!


wrote …

“Yep. Sounds a lot like CrossFit.”

I have never seen “stacks of dead people” at any CrossFit gym, nor seen the floor covered in shit, piss, and blood.

As a method of physical training, CrossFit can help prepare the user for the physical rigors of combat and can develop some of the mental toughness required for success. However, nothing compares to the fear and the knowledge that there are human beings in close proximity actively trying to kill you and your friends, and that you must kill them first. Many CrossFitters get nervous before a workout and that anxiety shows on his or her face. Or get tired and feel like quitting. However, equating CrossFit to the violence and mayhem described in Keegan’s book and experienced by today’s warriors is inaccurate and a misuse of the phrase: “The Face of Battle.”


replied to comment from Seth Nicholson


I believe that was in reference to the transition, "Friction assails you at every opportunity, making the easy difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible."


wrote …

Good article. It's interesting to look back and see some of the faces or combos of faces in people I train with. Most facial expressions are are completely involuntary and when under physical duress (like in a WOD) they can really give you incite into what someone is feeling.

Facial expressions that represent states of mind are hardwired into everyone by evolution as evidenced by the fact that even blind babies (who've never seen or touched another face) smile and grimace when they're happy or angry/upset.
Additionally, when you see a facial expression, you reflexively imitate it in order to assess what the facial expression you're seeing means. Most people do this atomically however, if you're unsure what a facial expression of a person you're training means, I'd suggest quickly (and discretely depending on your style/personality) imitating the facial expression and thinking, "Under what condition(s) would I make that facial expression." and base your reaction as a trainer off of that assessment.


Jeff Barnett wrote …

Thanks for the comments and insight, everyone. Very interesting points, especially from Adam.

Seth, I'll keep using some artistic license in my writing if you'll have a beer and relax. Deal?


wrote …

Jeff, this is a brilliant piece. Thanks for your continued outstanding contributions to the CrossFit Journal and the CrossFit Community.


wrote …

Jeff, this was a great piece of writing and I think I have seen some of these same looks from my Marines during platoon PT. Although you do have much more coaching experience than me, I think you missed one that I get a lot called "pissed off wife". I usually get this one atleast twice during a workout in our garage gym.

This is going into my collection that will help my box once I can get it up and running.


Travis Duncan


wrote …

pain faces. good article. i like how the author mentions that the information he's presenting has practical use and isn't just for conversational purposes, as is so common in trendy communities like this one.


Jeff Barnett wrote …

Greg, thanks so much for the comment. It really means a lot coming from you. Travis and Jake, glad you found this useful. Semper Fi.


wrote …

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