Training the Mind

By Andréa Maria Cecil

In Competition, CrossFit Games

October 12, 2011

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Andréa Maria Cecil looks at how three elite CrossFit athletes prepare their minds for competition.

Like the body, the mind must be trained so there is a plan when things go wrong.

Such is the wisdom of David Yukelson, director of sports psychology services for the Morgan Academic Support Center for Student Athletes at Penn State University.

“The mental side of sport is very important at any level of competition,” he said.

But there are many myths, said Yukelson.

“People talk about ‘the zone.’ It’s not about ‘the zone.’ Teaching mental skills is about compensating and adjusting when things aren’t going well,” he explained. “There is no cookbook. You have to understand what the person’s going through to develop a specialized plan for them.”

Then that person must take ownership.

“An athlete needs a coach to provide instruction, give guidance and feedback,” he said, “but then it’s up to the athlete to execute.”

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5 Comments on “Training the Mind”


wrote …

There is no spoon!! Great article!


wrote …

Very motivating


wrote …

Very motivating


wrote …

The "zone" that people have started to misuse or misinterpret refers more to the moment of action in a movement; the execution. When a golfer makes contact in a drive, when a tennis player throws the ball up for a serve, when a shotgunner initiates the movement to a moving target, when a boxer is backed into a corner and reacts with an engrained combination from training; these are examples of the instances of the "zone". (There are various points in a "zone", just as there are many points to a snatch as an example.) Specific thought to how and where have no play in these moments. They are trained and practiced movements that the athlete either reacts to or proactively initiates according to a situation. The focus is more upon the execution of form and speed of the movement rather than the reasoned dynamics. As pressure, weight, and fatigue (physical and mental) come into play, the more clear the purpose of the movement becomes to a focused, prepared athlete. This clarity has been coined as the "zone".

This article stays at a higher level concept of preparation and adjustment outside of the "zone" moments, and is referring more to the adjustment before or after movements, even before or after workouts. Mr. Yukelson has assumed that the "zone" refers to all the instruction, guidance, and feedback that an athlete and coach go through, when the "zone" really, or should really, refer more to the very execution of the movement; that dark secret place that we bounce in and out of through our workouts relying on our training and guidance to perform efficiently and well.

Concerning mental preparedness, I would argue that preparation is king. CrossFit makes preparation difficult because athletes now have to think about how to approach workouts all the time, and the workouts are all different. (Seeing as though there is an infinite range of what a workout can be, this makes preparation hard.) However, the athlete that can assess a task at hand, figure out the most efficient way to do it with the personal attributes he or she has and is confident in, and executive the bastard will be the most successful. (Then, of course, they have to do it again, and whomever can do it again and again and again eventually wins.) Coaching this preparedness suggests the necessity to vary workouts extremely and put the athlete on the spot to think and feel how a workout should be done, (then assess mistakes and accomplishments).

Lastly, this nonsense of good attitude and luckiness to be around such a great group and life is great, grand, beautiful crap...that's not how wars are won, games are won, championships are won, or life is won. It's either yours or mine, and I'm going to bust my arse to make it mine. If an athlete is trying to convince themselves that they are able to go to the level of pushing oneself alone, without competition...that athlete is using a softer approach to their execution to calm themselves of the competitive nerves that are surging through their bodies. Don't fool're at a competition, and you're there to take away 1st place, the glory, and...oh yeah, two hundred and fifty big ones. This "I'm just competing against myself" crap is merely a tool, which makes the girls think you're a nice guy, when at the end of the're just trying to get some and that's what seems to be working these days.


wrote …

Sorry, just a quick side note...

People sometimes get stuck thinking that preparing mentally refers to how you approach a task, and how well you perform the task, and they neglect the overwhelming factor of PRESSURE. The trick is to find the best way for you to prepare for pressure.

How do you best prepare to perform under pressure? (Answer this one and you'll go far.)

Do you perform better when you're calm and happy? Or, do you perform better when you're amped and angry?

Do you perform better when you feel like you're a part of a team, or a community? Or, do you perform better fighting for yourself?

Answer simple questions about yourself, and prepare yourself to try and be that when the competition begins. Use music, readings, pictures, mantras, set-ups, anything really that can best assist you to get there.

Training for pressure is not a technique that has been very well explored outside the approach of creating or fabricating pressure situations. (Those that compete the most normally are the best at competing.) What remains clear, however, is that without the engrained approach to a movement and confidence in it, repeated success will never be.

Example: You have 40,000 people looking at you to do a task. This task you have done hundreds, if not thousands of times before. (Maybe it's a clean and jerk.) Your focus for success is not in the 40,000 people looking at you. It's the approach to your lift. It's your mantra. It's the cues your mind is going through for the pull, the shrug, the catch, the recovery, the drive, the catch, the stand. A smart athlete takes the 40,000 onlookers and uses the energy, whether nervous or enlightening, and focuses it where it can be used. Have no doubt...this is a talent that only a few acquire, and the effect of 40,000 people looking at you is significant. (Enough to alter execution.)

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