How to Win the CrossFit Open (Even if You Come In Last)

Rich Froning, 2011 and 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games Champion. Courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.
Rich Froning, 2011 and 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games Champion. Courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.

(This story was originally published on Tabata Times)

From March 6 to April 7, more than 100,000 CrossFitters around the world will be competing in the CrossFit Open, the first stage of the Reebok 2013 CrossFit Games.

Although a true CrossFit workout has within it a dimension of competition—either competing against others at your affiliate or against yourself—the Open is a different animal and the regular pattern of training is spiked with the adrenaline rush that comes with  a new stimulus. In this case, a worldwide competition composed of five different workouts.

Athletes will, of course, approach the Open differently. For some, the goal is blindingly stark: qualifying for the regionals. Others may have the goal of wanting to simply make a contribution to the team effort of the gym.

For many, the goal is not so certain. Perhaps it’s simply to be a part of the CrossFit culture’s virtual get-together.  Or, in the spirit CrossFit’s “constantly varying” principle, the Open is an opportunity to changes things up. Or perhaps signing up for the Open was an act of caving into the pressure of peers or coaches at the box.

Regardless of the reason an athlete has signed up, Steven Ledbetter, a former strength and conditioning coach who is currently pursuing a graduate degree in sports psychology at the John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, Calif. and interning at San Francisco CrossFit, believes the Open offers an opportunity that Crossfitters should not pass by.

“Reflection is one of the most important sports psychology tools you can use,” Ledbetter says. “There’s always something great you can learn from a workout to improve.”

Reflective practice is a core technique used in the application of sports psychology toward improving performance. Ledbetter advises participating CrossFitters to plan on taking time after each of the five workouts to analyze the performance in a positive way.

“Take the time to reflect on each workout that you with these two questions:”

  1. What did I do well?
  2. What did I learn?

The idea, says Ledbetter, is to get a fresh grasp on where you stand right now as a CrossfFit athlete and to generate an awareness of what mistakes you made, what you did right and what new element or elements that you learned from the workout. By assimilating the experience with an accurate appraisal from a positive spirit, the athlete will learn more and potentially accelerate improvement, as well as harvest an opportunity to strengthen one’s confidence, a quality that can lead to further motivation to work hard.

It was this last bit–the motivation factor in regards to his clients–that changed Ledbetter’s path from coaching to his studies in Sports Psychology.

“It was a certain comment I would get from my athletes. They’d say, ‘I know what to do but I just can’t make myself do it.’ Motivation was the problem. And I decided that, as their coach, it wasn’t the client’s failing, rather, it was my failing. I realized that I was missing a tool in the toolkit.”

This realization has drawn Ledbetter to the application of Self-Determination Theory as it can be applied to sports and the “self-efficacy” framework in regards to cognitive functioning and motivation, a concept developed by Stanford professor, Albert Bandura. In essence, a bit-by-bit approach to building confidence and self-belief.

“It’s about selling an athlete on the idea of pursuing bite-size goals,” says Ledbetter. “If you have an athlete facing a task, and how they feel in terms of being confident they can accomplish the task on a scale of 1 to 10, and they give you a number of anything lower than nine, then as a coach it’s time to make the task or goal smaller or easier to achieve.”

He gives an example: Let’s say you’re a coach and you have a client that says, “There’s no way I can do the 6 a.m. workout.” The first thing Ledbetter would advise the coach to do would be consider two points: where the athlete is currently at and the objective you want to achieve. Then find a first step that the athlete is confident he or she can nail. One that garnes a “9” or “10” response on the scale. In this case, it might be this: Setting the alarm. Nothing else. Just setting the alarm for an appropriate time. That might be the goal for the week. Here’s your goal for the week: every night set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. For five days straight, your mission in life is to set the alarm at night for 5:30. Do that, and you win. Then the next week find the next small step that edges the athlete in the right direction toward one day being a regular at the 6am workout.

“The challenge of my profession is to make these sorts of bite-sized goals exciting. It’s about selling them on having the courage to aim low.”

But the thing is, Ledbetter says, that if you can get the athlete to buy into this “Small Ball” approach to setting and achieving goals, confidence is swiftly built and momentum begins to play a part. 

“It’s powerful, especially in group setting. Sure, have big goals and keep the big things in mind. But start with small goals and then just throw the kitchen sink at it.“

Ledbetter says that the CrossFit Open is an excellent competition to practice the application of self-efficacy and reflection, particular since it’s not over in one night.

“One great feature of the Open is that it last five weeks,” Ledbetter says. “Everyone is going to have different goals and a different approach to these workouts. But everyone will have an opportunity to learn from them.”

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.