17 Tips to a Strong Mental Game

How would you describe the coach in your head?

You know the one -- the voice that talks to you when you're deciding whether to show up at your CrossFit box today. The running monologue in your head when you're choosing your weights, wavering between something that will challenge you and a weight that will let you breeze through the WOD. The voice that whispers to you in the midst of an Intensity WOD.

What kind of coach are you to yourself

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Do you believe in yourself? Are you honest? Determined? Do you know the difference between excuses and legitimate reasons? Do push yourself just enough outside of your comfort zone to provide challenges and improvement? Do you speak with kindness, encouragement, confidence? Do you use what you know about yourself to provide just the right prompting to get you to the end? Maybe you need a no-nonsense approach or maybe soft encouragement; maybe you need someone to identify your weaknesses, or someone to highlight your strengths. Do you have a good sense of humor, an optimistic attitude, and an ability to give yourself grace? 

How do you speak to yourself when no one else is around, when no one else can hear, when you are at your most vulnerable -- in your head at the hardest moments of the WOD, when "Did Not Finish" sounds like a viable strategy? 

No one at the box is a stranger to poor self-coaching. Every one of us has faced our demons mid-WOD, or rising for the 5:30 am class, or choosing to put on our Nanos instead of pajamas after a long day at work. So what can you do to overcome the bad coach in your head? 

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

No matter where you’re at, where you once were, who you once were, who you’re trying to beat, or the level you wish you were at, YOU ARE HERE NOW! You may feel like you are sliding to the bottom of an endless hole. That’s how I’ve felt for a while and getting upset about it only makes it a million times worse. Stress eats away at you and your performance until you’ve drained the entire life out of the reason you started this journey in the first place.
— Cody Bailey, CrossFit Merit Co-Founder and 2010 Regionals Competitor

Forgive and Forget

Don't get down on yourself for the bad diet decisions you've been making. Don't let your waistline now determine your waistline in the future. Forgive yourself and don't wallow until one donut becomes a dozen and one beer becomes a six-pack (or two). If it's been a while since you've put plates on a bar and lifted them overhead, try to forget where you were and accept where you are. Forgive yourself for your bad decisions or circumstances beyond your control, and make good decisions now. Forget the past, focus on the future. 

Get to the box.

When you're feeling fresh, or the most determined version of you, get out your calendar. Schedule CrossFit into your life, when you know it will work for you. Make a commitment to yourself. If your commitment is three times a week, put it in the schedule, and don't give yourself any outs. 

Then show up. Showing up is more than half the battle, because once you're there, there are other people who will hold you accountable. The WOD is there for you and you will do it. And doing it, you will improve. Just. Show. Up. 

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Strategize before the WOD.

Assess what you know about your abilities, your current training program, how your body feels right now, and the scores and abilities of those who've already completed the WOD, and make a plan for the WOD. What will motivate you? What will make this challenging and fun and possible? Maybe it's a score you want to beat, a time you want to hit, or a similar goal:

  • I will do unbroken sets of wall balls.
  • I will never stop moving.
  • I will beat my old score.
  • I will give myself ten seconds of rest between each set. 
  • I will focus on my form. 

Embrace the challenge

Don't lie to yourself. This is never going to be easy. But you will get stronger. Don't expect the climb to be leisurely. Prepare for a challenging ascent, that pushes you beyond your comfort zone, and requires hard work, commitment, discipline, and sweat. Know it's going to be difficult, embrace it, and know that you are capable of conquering whatever your CrossFit coaches set in front of you.

Recognize that those muscles, scores, weights you are wishing for aren't given, but earned. 

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Did you think it was gonna be easy? Only you can reverse this cycle so slam your hands and feet into the sidewalls of this hole you’re sliding down, realize that you’re not who you once were, stop comparing yourself to others, and become who you want to be. Get better from where you are now. It’s gonna suck until you get traction but once you do, you will free yourself from this trap you set for yourself.
— Cody Bailey, CrossFit Merit Co-Founder and 2010 Regionals Competitor

Banish negative thoughts. Be an uplifting coach.

Don't think about how long the work out is. Don't look at the clock if it will not motivate you. Don't say mean things to yourself. Be a nice human, even in your head, even when you fall short of your personal goals. Banish "I can't do this" and "I'm going to quit." Shut down "I'm never going to make it," "I can't keep up with her," "He's stronger than I am."

Tell yourself encouraging, strong, motivating things -- "I can do this." "I'm going to reach my goal." "I am strong. I am getting stronger." "She's good, but so am I.

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Be confident.

Believe in yourself. And if you don't, tell yourself you do. Say it to yourself over and over until you do believe it. Walk up to the bar, the rower, the rope, the kettle bell, the med ball with confidence. Breathe deep, engage your lats, tighten your core, and know you've got this. 

All about that whiteboard, pacing off others, and having a competitive spirit

Does the whiteboard motivate you, or does it sap your morale? Does the work of the athletes before you inspire and push you, or do you find yourself giving up before you've begun? If you find it motivating, and your competitive nature can be expressed in a way that builds up those around you rather than tears them down, or kept silent altogether, then take a few moments with the whiteboard before your WOD. If you find it demoralizing, are vocalizing in a manner that discourages others, are struggling emotionally when you "lose" against your imagined competitor, it's probably best to avoid the whiteboard. 

The same could be said for pacing off a fellow CrossFit athlete during the WOD. If you can graciously accept a loss, if the banter between you is mutual and fun, and if you are both encouraged and pushed harder for the friendly competition, have at it. Or pace yourself silently, with someone whose skill and scores are comparable to yours. It will help you to keep pace if your will to finish starts to wane. And if your ego can handle it (and it should) and you are working hard to improve, consider pacing yourself with someone better than you, and try to keep up. One day, you will find that you are keeping up. 

Maybe you have a competitive spirit and you are going to thrive on the chance to chase your rabbit. Maybe you love being someone's rabbit. Competition can breed excellence.  

Or forget pacing with anyone! Pace yourself. Know thyself! And push thyself! 

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

I find myself facing the wall when I work out rather than facing someone else. That way, it’s easy for me to focus on myself rather than trying to compare myself to someone else.

It is fun to compete with some of our Crossfit members but I usually don’t focus on just winning the whiteboard. I focus on finishing the workout to the best of my ability that day.
— Maggie Scopel, CrossFit Merit Coach

Think about your goals and how you're reaching them with this workout.

Do you have a vision -- what you want to look like, the PRs you want to reach, a timeline that's achievable? What are the sayings or quotes or song lyrics that inspire you? As you WOD, in those moments when your brain starts to question its sanity, give yourself something else to think about -- picture yourself reaching those goals. Imagine that you've already reached them and treat this WOD like you already are the athlete you hope to be someday. Scale your weights, of course, but give it everything you've got. Intensity. As you work, focus on the muscles that are being trained, stretched, grown, challenged. Get excited about the progress you are making right now. 

I normally end up finding out I’m a lot more capable than I thought and even if I don’t make that lift or time, I tell myself I will tomorrow. It gives me something to work for and be excited for - it keeps me motivated and happy about how far I’ve come.whether it’s an off day or not.
— Maggie Scopel, CrossFit Merit Coach

Set goals within the WOD

Don't look at the end of the workout. Don't think about how Very Much you have to go. Instead, give yourself small goals throughout the workout, like keep moving, keep this pace, do this set in the next 3 minutes, do this round faster than the last round, push harder, earn it, unbroken sets, rest for just 10 seconds then pick up that medball, keep up with the pace set by someone close to you in stamina.

You know yourself best -- say what motivates you

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Play the numbers game

When you coach yourself mentally, tell yourself the best sounding encouragement: You are already 1/3 of the way through and that was easy! I can do that two more times!  At the end of the workout, "You are almost there! You've done 2/3 of this, only 1/3 left to go!" Think of the positive thing in each situation -- The wind is at my back, the air is fresh. It's all downhill from here. Last round! Reserve thoughts about big numbers for work that is already done and use the smallest number possible to describe what you have left to do. Trick your brain. 


Don't underestimate the power of a good beat. Build your playlist, or share your favorites with your coach, and then turn that music up loud and sing along. 


Control your breathing. Besides giving your brain something to focus on, it can help you to control your heart rate, and provide much needed oxygen to your hard-working muscles. Deep breath in through your nose, out through your mouth, and use your exhalation to push through the hardest portions of your movements. 

Set Yourself Up for Success

When you begin a set, especially of something repetitive whether it's running or Olympic lifts, mentally invest in the later rounds of the WOD by repeatedly running checks on your form very early on -- think of the positioning in pose-running and the six sequences of the Burgener warm-up. Concentrate on the cadence of your feet hitting the pavement beneath you. Get into a rhythm that your body will strive to keep pace with when your mind wanders.

Keep your mind busy

Especially during repetitive actions, your mind is going to wander. So, give it something to think about. You can think about anything already discussed -- your goals, your form, your cadence, how much you've already done, how little you have left, the muscles you're working, the pace of the person beside you -- or maybe you need to think about something entirely different. 

Something other than (*gasp*) CrossFit.

Maybe it's your to-do list. Maybe it's your evening plans. Maybe it's getting the attention of a special someone and the courage to ask them out. Maybe you're mulling over the latest episode of Game of Thrones and what the latest revelation means to Bran and the space-time-continuum of Westeros. To each their own. Mull away, and before you know it, the Rogue timer will ring and life will move on. 

Challenge Yourself with a Benchmark

Choose a CrossFit benchmark WOD like Fran, Cindy, or Grace. Complete it, record your score, and then determine to beat it in 6-12 weeks. Commit to the training that will make that possible. A good short term goal with measurable results can translate to a stronger mental game! 

Or remember the last time you finished Fran, Cindy, or Grace. You can think about your score if you want. You can think about how you broke it up. Or whether you had pull-ups yet. Or wore a weight vest. You can challenge yourself to do just as well as last time, or to beat your score. Maybe a lot has changed. You might be better. You might not. Maybe you've not been especially committed to fitness this year. Challenge yourself appropriately, given that knowledge, and push yourself to do your best. Issue yourself a challenge that is difficult but achievable, and determine to beat it. 

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Photo Credit: Brett Bobek

Do a Hero WOD

Even better than a regular benchmark, complete a Hero WOD -- these are workouts designed to honor the memory of a fallen hero. Take the time to learn the story behind the WOD, the significance of the numbers or the movements, and spend your WOD time grateful for their sacrifice. And thinking how much easier this WOD is than what they went through. Watching Lone Survivor right before doing the Murph WOD should cure you of any (vocal) complaining at least. 

Anticipate Good Things

You know that feeling when you've done the "impossible" and completed the WOD you were afraid to even start? The one you almost quit half-way through? When you're laying on the ground, breathing lungs full of air, your muscles completely fatigued, and your heart still racing -- that feeling of accomplishment and pride that starts small and explodes inside your chest?

Yeah, one of the best feelings in the world.

And the best part is that it's not dependent on how anyone else did. Your pride, your joy, your exhilaration in the CrossFit journey is just you against you -- or, perhaps better yet, you routing for you. You control that. You showed up. You did your best, you finished, you challenged yourself, and you won or you lost, but you beat out the negative voices in your head. You replaced them with a cheering section and the best coach in the world -- you. 

What do you do that gets you through to the end of the WOD? Please share your favorite tricks and tips!