The Crossfit Open and Mental Toughness Since childhood, athletics have been a strong presence in my life. I did gymnastics till age twelve, experimented with water polo, swimming, cross country and track and field in high school and spent my college years as a pole vaulter and thrower on my Division III track and field team. I’ve always enjoyed sports, but excelled at strength and conditioning. So after college, when I stumbled upon Crossfit, the “sport of fitness,” I knew it’d be right up my alley.
In the most concise terms Crossfit is “constantly varied, high-‐intensity, functional movement.” In a typical Crossfit workout, or WOD, you will see any combination of Olympic weightlifting, power lifting, bodyweight exercises, kettlebell work, basic gymnastic skills, running, rowing or jump roping. When you walk into a Crossfit gym, or box, as we like to call them, you won’t see any machines. Barbells, dumbbells, ropes, kettlebells, chalk buckets and pull-‐up rigs dominate the scenery. Intimidating to the newcomers eye, it’s a seasoned crossfitter’s playground.
This year was my second time competing in the worldwide Crossfit Open. The Crossfit Open lasts for five weeks. At 5pm every Wednesday one workout is released. Registered athletes must attempt the workout, and have it judged, scored and validated by a Crossfit coach before Sunday at 5pm. Come Sunday evening, you can go online and check your rank in your respective region or in the entire world, if you dare. This year over 120,000 athletes living in 118 countries took on the challenge. The newbies compete with the veterans, the beginners compete with the elite, all in the same five events; it is a truly unique opportunity.
The Open for most is a humbling experience. When you are competing against thousands and thousands of other participants, you are bound to be better than some, but you may get a shake to your ego when you realize that hundreds or even thousands are better than you! The Open is an opportunity to challenge yourself and push your limits, to compete amongst a supportive community, and to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. The majority competes in the Open for fun, but for those competitors wishing to make it to the individual competition at Regionals in May, it’s a fight for the top 48 in each region.
As one of those crazy crossfitters trying to qualify for Regionals, my feelings surrounding the Open covered the broad emotional spectrum. The grand revealing of each workout every Wednesday evening brought with it a plethora of mixed emotions: the relief of knowing, excitement, at times disappointment, and undoubtedly the fear of the pain and suffering I knew was to come. I was physically prepared for the workouts of the Open, but the mental game was a whole different beast.
Every Friday evening during the Open, my San Francisco Crossfit community would gather for a night of friendly competition to take on that week’s daunting workout, followed by plenty of food and drinks. Whenever you have a group of people so dedicated and excited about something, a strong community is bound to blossom from it, and that is definitely the case with Crossfit. On these Friday evenings, my stomach twisted in knots, I always felt some relief in the fact that we would all suffer together. When you cheered your fellow teammates on, you knew how they were feeling… there was empathy… and I think that’s why the camaraderie and support always felt so strong and genuine. And if my teammates weren’t enough motivation, I always looked forward to my “post-‐workout recovery drink” of beer or wine, and later I’d top it off with some delicious burgers and milkshakes with my boyfriend.
I can’t tell you how many times in my relatively short Crossfit career I have questioned why I enjoy doing Crossfit. It is a love-‐hate relationship at its finest. No matter how much I mentally prepare myself beforehand, there comes a point in every difficult workout when a flood of negative thoughts and emotions infiltrate my mind: ” I hate this,” “I can’t do this,” “Why did I ever think this was a good idea?,” “I can just stop now and all the pain will go away.” It feels like it takes the will of every molecule in my body to disregard those negative thoughts and keep pushing until the bitter end. But one Open workout in particular reminded me of why I continue to push myself. The workout was a repeat from the previous years Open. It had a 12-‐minute time cap, with the goal to get through as many reps as possible of the following: 150 wallballs, 90 double unders and 30 muscle ups. A wallball consists of squatting to full depth with a medicine ball (14lbs for women), throwing it up to a 9ft target, and catching and repeating (only 150 times!) Double unders are a jump rope skill in which the rope must pass under the feet twice before the feet touch the ground. And lastly, to perform a muscle up in Crossfit, a person hangs on a pair of rings and uses a kip to get their upper body over the rings and then extends the elbows straight.
There are exercises I dislike in Crossfit, but few I hate more than the simple wallball. Double unders can be my friend or foe, depending on the day, and muscle ups, in fact, are one of my favorite Crossfit skills. But in order to get to the glorious muscle up, I’d have to endure a mountain of suffering beforehand. About midway through the wallballs, already feeling quite exhausted, that devil on my shoulder began its negative rant. There were so many reasons I wanted to quit and in the moment they seemed awfully convincing. But somehow I kept going. I didn’t want to let down all the people cheering me on. I especially didn’t want to let down myself, and frankly, I didn’t want to do this workout ever again, so I better suck it up and give it my best shot now. Fast forward through the rest of the wallballs and double unders, I finally reached the muscle ups with two and a half minutes to spare. Three by three, two by two, and one by one, I eked them out until time was up. The time cap freed me and relief set in as I collapsed on the ground. My final rep count was 256…150 wallballs, 90 double unders and 16 muscle ups. It was 10 more muscle ups than I had gotten the previous year. My score ranked me 13th in the NorCal region out of 2000 plus girls.
It was in that moment that I remembered why I continue to compete in Crossfit. I couldn’t wipe a smile off my face. I literally blew myself away with what I had just accomplished in a mere twelve minutes. I pushed through the suck and emerged on the other side victorious. I’m sure marathoners, triathloners, swimmers, rowers, and other athletes have felt the same way. You endure a lot of suffering for those few moments when you sit there afterwards, truly in awe of what your body can do.
Now the Open is over. I qualified for Regionals by the skin of my teeth and a new and exciting challenge waits. The better I get at Crossfit, the more I have to suffer, and that’s an intimidating thought. And many times I push myself to the finish and the end result is just mediocre. But that’s the beauty of any real challenge in life. You work tirelessly; persevere through uncomfortable situations, sometimes to no avail. But when you finally see the results, or maybe even just a glimpse of progress, like I did after that 12-‐minute workout, it makes every second of the difficult journey worthwhile.