Talent, CrossFit and Mental Toughness (Part 1)

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(I’m reposting this series because I’ve been getting the same emails about talent and mental toughness. Hope this blogs can clear up some of the confusion my new readers have about mental toughness and physical talent.)

When I started to make some progress with my CrossFit training, I was very pleased. The hard work was paying off. But, at the same time, I resented the lack of natural talent that I had compared to those that came from athletic backgrounds. It always seemed that I had to work harder than everybody else to learn a new skill. My strength was nothing to brag about either. I put a lot effort to get my numbers up with my deadlift, but I would see newbies walk up the bar and pick up my weight as if it was nothing.

I don’t want to sound bitter about it because I’m not. I found great joy in doing all the extra work. It no longer seemed like a chore because I knew I was bettering myself, plus I loved being around my CrossFit buddies. Whenever I was working on a new skill and got frustrated, there was always somebody that went out of their way to help me out. That’s the beautiful camaraderie and best thing about being a member of a CrossFit box.You are surrounded by such giving people that will do just about anything for you.  I will always be grateful for the wonderful CrossFit instructors and friends that I have.

By now, I was used to being the CrossFitter with the least amount of talent in class which was fine with me. I sort of liked it. It forced me to work hard and as I bought in the belief that improvements were attainable with dedication and persistence. I didn’t have much athletic talent, but I had an enormous blue collar work ethic that made up for my physical deficiencies. Everybody at my CrossFit box knew how much time I put in at the gym, but they didn’t know the true motivation behind all the hours.

As much as I loved CrossFit, it also reminded me of my painful childhood and teen years where I felt clumsy on the playing fields and inadequate in my bag of bones body. I was the guy that always got cut from sports, last person to be picked at recess and the provincial right fielder that would always pray that the ball won’t come towards me. With CrossFit, I had choice  – either I was going to relive my youthful misery or rewrite my history as an adult.

I chose the latter and even added some hard earn muscle to my old body.

As I stated to get my name on some of the top scores on the white board, I felt for the first time proud of my physical achievements. I was now in my early 40’s and nobody was more surprised than I was at my sudden athleticism. I became so proud of my new levels of strength that I wanted to share them with those in my past who I used to admire for their athletic skills and physique.

However, as I Facebooked and sought those that were amazing athlete during my childhood, high school and college years, I was surprised to see what I saw. Just about all these individual with the god given talented that I wish I could be like, had become grossly out of shape with protruding guts to match. Not surprising, most of them are very inactive and have absolutely no desire get in shape.

Whenever I visit my family during Christmas, I hope I would run into my old high school friends. A couple of years back, I ran into a guy that I knew that that was one of the best natural athletes that I have ever seen when I was in high school. He was a little heavy around the edges, but not as bad as most guys in our age bracket of being in the mid 40’s. When I bumped into him at the local gym, he couldn’t believe it was me.

He asked what got me in such great shape and I told him about CrossFit. He was intrigued and wanted to impromptu try to do a WOD. So we did a scaled down version of “Cindy” without the pull-ups. I started off with full steam because I knew how out of shape and that he would never catch me. To his credit, he was able to match me for the first couple of sets, but by the third minute, the former big man on campus was done.

Part of me felt some pleasure from outlasting my former idol, but a bigger part of me felt bad for him. He was never arrogant even in his glory days and now I could see how embarrass he felt. I actually felt like an asshole for showing him up in this unfair fight.

Twenty two years ago, this guy lettered in football, basketball and baseball while I was in stands cheering him on, wishing I could be like him. It seemed now that our roles were now reversed.

That day, I learned just how far CrossFit has transformed a physically retard like myself. I had finally become the athlete I always dreamed about, but I didn’t realize it because I was so preoccupied with all the hard work that I was doing. Still, I wondered and pondered – how did this happen with my overall lack of talent and at my old age of 45?

(End of part 1)

Today’s classic CrossFit WOD –


As many rounds as possible in 20 minutes

5 pull-ups

10 push-ups

15 squats

Go into the WOD with the belief that “all the hard work will pay off.” In order for you to develop mental toughness and a better body, you must whole heartily believe there is direct correlation with the long hours that you put in and success. It cannot be argued or be detested. Knowing this to be true, you will be motivated to want to do more work and like me, you will actually enjoy the work. There are not many absolutes in this program, but rewarding those that are tireless is one of the truths in this mental toughness system.

So repeat this mantra of “all the hard work will pay off” throughout the WOD today. Change the words if you must to make it your own, but make sure the concept of high investment means high rewards remains. Some example mantras that I have used in the past are “The harder I work, the more rewards there will be” …”I will be rewarded for working my ass off“….”Only with hard work will I achieve mental toughness“, etc. Even to this day, I still repeat these hard work = rewards types of mantras during my workouts. They are simple reminders to myself that there is a direct proportion to what you put in and what you get back in the end.

You’ll need a lot of reminders of the benefits of arduous work with this WOD because “Cindy” is very deceiving. She’ll have you think everything is fine as you’ll be coasting at a very comfortable pace thinking this WOD is a piece of cake. Then without warning, your whole body will suddenly feel like it is totally drained from all its energy. You’ll barely be able to lift your arms up and your legs will feel like putty. To make matters worse, you’ll look up at the clock and realize in horror that you’re only two minutes into the WOD. When this happens, the most common response is “I got 18 more minutes of this shit?”

During your despair, is when you must convince yourself that the hard work you are doing will pay off eventually. If you can’t convince yourself of this, you might as well just quit the WOD because, who in their right mind would subject themselves to this unrelenting beating from “Cindy”? You must find value in the fight between you and her. This will be your major test today. If not, this broad will eat you up alive and spit you out, all the way back to your old  habits of lat machine pull-downs and dancing to Richard Simmons’ aerobic DVDs.

But, if you bang it out with her to the very end, you’ll feel the emotional high of winning a hard fought battle. This feeling of achievement is incomparable to anything you have ever felt while you were doing your old workout protocols. This rush of superiority is so gratifying, it will leave you with wanting more. Once you experience this new sense of power in your life, you will do whatever it takes to feel it again. Even if it means, doing more work that’s fucken harder than the last time.

When you achieve this feeling again and again, you will truly believe that hard work does indeed pay off.

Scaled down version of “Cindy” –

1. Do as many rounds in 10 minutes.

2. Use this alternate rep scheme –

3 pull-ups

5 push-ups

10 squats

Acceptable alternates –

1. Use Woody bands for the assisted pull-ups

2. Horizontal body rows can be done instead of the pull-ups. They look like this – images (18)

3. Jumping pull-ups are good too. Here’s what they look like – download (2)

4. Do the push-ups from your knees

5. If you can’t squat, do sit-ups instead.