Chasing Excellence - Ch. 3 Positivity


Last week we talked about Grit and how sometimes you just need to put your head down and get to work. Relentlessly hone in your craft so that you may be ready when the time comes to be tested. Put yourself through the endurance of drilling your weaknesses day in and day out until they become your strengths, then go find another weakness. While appropriate in this scenario, it can seem like it has a negative element to it, that we must torture our bodies into submission. While maybe an aspect, a negative mindset is not the way to go about attacking your weaknesses with Grit. In order for us to Commit to being Excellent, our Grit needs to have Positivity. This week we will dive into what it really means to have a positive mindset and why being positive is so important to your champion level character as we constantly chase Excellence.

“Never Whine. Never Complain. Never Make Excuses.”

That’s the motto at CrossFit New England - where Katrin trains under Ben Bergeron. He describes it as an “unbreakable three-fold policy.” He doesn’t allow his athletes, whether it’s the soccer mom in the 9am class or world’s fittest woman in the afternoon, to complain and speak negatively. In Chapter 3, Ben recollects one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever heard of Katrin’s mindset. She was doing one of her signature long warm ups outside, in Boston, in February. “When she came back in to the gym afterward, steam was flowing off her shoulders, and she was blowing hard on her hands to get some heat back into them. I asked her how the warm-up went for her. She gave me her times for each section, and told me her thoughts on the difficulty of the warm-up and her overall approach. Then she said, ‘And it was…uh, never mind.’” She was about to say it was really cold, but stopped herself because the words couldn’t even come out of her mouth. Even though at the surface this could just be stating a fact, remember what we talked about last about using talent as an excuse? These seem like very similar situations to me. We talked about how saying that an elite level performer, in any field, has a lot of talent, can give you the illusion and the excuse to not work so hard. It’s an excuse as to why you aren’t as good as they are, as to why you’re not excellent. So by Katrin saying it was cold outside, even though that’s an absolute and measurable fact, it’s a form of complaining. It’s an excuse as to why your time isn’t as fast or your lifts aren’t as big. This is a huge improvement from the old Katrin that first started working with Ben about 2 years prior. In the Foreword, Katrin reflects on one of her first training sessions at CFNE. She missed a lift, ripped off her belt, threw it at the wall, and stormed out. In only a matter of minutes, Ben followed her outside to lay down the laws of the land: "We don't do that here." And he was right. Over the next 2 years, Katrin would truly buy into that positive mindset.

Think about all the times your finish a workout and you didn’t do as well as you wanted to, or maybe we are testing our 1RM Back Squat today and you don’t hit the number you’re hoping for. What’s your first reaction? Do you complain that the fans were turned the wrong way? Whine about the volume of the music or the song that was playing? Make excuses about how your kids are sick and kept you up late last night so you’re tired? Let’s rewind 30 seconds. Walking up to the bar as you’re about to attempt a new deadlift max, what are you thinking? Are you thinking about how if you miss this lift it’s because you’re tired from all the wall balls that coach programmed yesterday so it’s his fault if you don’t PR? Are you dreading this workout because it has burpees and you hate burpees? Maybe it has deadlifts and your back “always” hurts when we deadlift. (Side note on the deadlifts, if this is the case, then maybe we need to slow down and look at our form……………..) Or maybe your hands hurt and you’re appalled that coach would make us do another workout with pull-ups when we just did heavy deadlifts yesterday. Or that the prescribed strength session percentages are too high and it’s unfair because you can’t hit those numbers. Have you ever made these excuses? Or whined about how your circumstances aren’t just “perfect”? Do you complain about the weather? Or do you look at the positives in each situation and pull out what went well. “Wow coach, did you see how I was able to consistently hit 5# below my PR with perfect form?” Though not in Chasing Excellence, another story I’ve heard of Katrin and Ben is that whenever she has a “bad” workout where her score isn’t what was expected, they high-five each other because they just found a weakness and now have something to work on and get better at. What if that was our mindset? What if we re-framed a poor workout results or 1RM attempt as a good thing because now we know what to work on and apply our character traits of Commitment and Grit to.

What about your nutrition? Do you ever hear yourself saying, well that’s just the way I am, I’m big-boned, and then go back to eating unhealthy because the world of nutrition is out to get you and you don’t think you’ll ever get down to your weight as a high school freshman? What about the opposite when you’re trying to put on and gain muscle mass but shy away from eating more good protein, good fats, and good carbohydrates? Do you just have a “slow metabolism” or “bad genetics” or are you going to have a positive attitude and re-frame your thinking to support your fitness aspirations? Don’t use “facts” as excuses. Never whine. Never complain. Never make excuses. Own your fitness. Own your nutrition. Own your training. Own your job. And own your life. Debbie Downer isn’t going to get you any closer to any of your goals. “In no competitive or life scenario will focusing on negative uncontrollable factors improve your performance or stress levels.” Let me show you.

Frequency Illusion

One of the most important principles about having a positive versus a negative attitude is described by Stanford professor Arnold Zwicky as the “frequency illusion, which is essentially a phenomenon that causes you to see more of the things you’re already focused on.” We can divide this up into two psychological processes: selective attention and confirmation bias. Selective attention is when you learn something brand new and then now start to notice it way more often. Confirmation bias is the continued process that “reassures you that each sighting is further proof of your impression that the thing has gained overnight omnipresence.” I’ve heard this example before, but imagine you’re trying to buy a car and what catches your eye at the dealership is a red pick up truck. As you drive away and go about your day, you feel like you immediately notice and increase in red trucks driving around. You notice all of them and your brain goes under the illusion that they are more frequent. Red pick up truck sales didn’t just spike overnight, your brain is operating under a confirmation bias. “But because you’re actively thinking about it, you can’t help but notice them everywhere.” Let’s talk about your training. “If you talk about (or worse, complain about) things that are outside of your control, things that could diminish performance, you will see and experience more of those things.” Imagine that. If you complain about how cold this winter is going to be, your brain is going to notice more often when it is cold and you will naturally think that this winter is colder than normal when in fact it’s just a regular winter. If you complain about a song you don’t like during CrossFit class, then you’re going to notice more often when you don’t like a song and then feel like every song is “bad.” Instead, we should have a positive attitude about the music. Why don’t we point out every time a good song comes on so now our brain notices that and we leave the gym with a better overall experience. Why don’t we just say “Yay burpees!” every time we start the warm up with 15 Burpees to a 6” Target so that your brain thinks burpees are a positive thing and thus passes the time quicker while you may even enjoy them? By complaining about every single individual burpee, you are making each burpee worse and worse because of the frequency illusion.

Another important aspect of the champion characteristic of positivity is the principle of self-fulfilling prophesy. Words are powerful and they’re dictated by our thoughts. As we speak works out loud, we are prophesying over ourselves. If I decide in my head that I am bad at running and good at strength movements, then every time a workout pops up that has running, I will self-fulfill my own prophesy and not do well. Even if my fitness has improved and I am better at running, because I speak into existence that I’m a poor runner, I will continue to run poorly. Bergeron uses himself as an example and being technologically incompetent. “I tell myself that I am not good at understanding technology, so it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy – because I hate technology, I studiously avoid it, which ensures that I remain incompetent at using it, which makes me hate it all the more.” Same thing with our training. Do we avoid workouts with Double-Unders and just stick to singles every time? We just assume we are bad at DUs, so we tell ourselves we are bad, we then perform badly during the warm up, then recluse back into our shell and only do singles in the workout. Here’s another personal example. Whenever I am training and the session is to establish a 1RM of any lift, I usually know within 10-20# of where I’ll end up. That’s not being positive or negative, that is me being a smart athlete and knowing my body after years and years of training in this way. I’m not just going to wake up one day with a 100# PR. But, as I work up in weight and start to approach my old 1RM, my mindset is everything. A 5# PR for me is huge and I go ballistic. That’s a huge win for me at this point. As I bend over to attempt a maximum weight snatch, my brain can think in two ways – positively or negatively. “You can’t miss this weight, we just did a 12-week Olympic weightlifting cycle and you have to improve your 1RM now,” or “Billy Bob John Doe hit this weight already today and it would be embarrassing if you can’t lift more than him” or “You haven’t maxed your snatch in a full year now, you’re going to be stuck at this weight forever.” I confess, I am not perfect. That’s what goes through my head sometimes whether it’s the week before, the day of, or as I’m walking to the bar for my attempt. What I have been working on recently is to think positively. “Bro how cool is it going to be when you hit this?” or “Imagine what it’s going to feel like standing up tall with all this weight overhead!” My personal favorite, is to plan your celebration. What are you going to do once you hit this new 1RM? Jump up and down, let out a barbaric roar, pump your fists in the air, do a cartwheel? Pick something fun, plan out your immediate celebration, visualize you standing up the lift, then go do it - and don't forget your pre-planned celebration! Having a positive mindset isn’t going to make you stronger in the moment, but it’s going to eliminate unnecessary missed opportunities that are lying in front of you. “Positivity doesn’t guarantee anything, but it can lower perceived exertion, make things seem more enjoyable, improve your chances of competing at your potential, and give you a competitive advantage.” When you’re in a tough situation, think positively about it so that your brain and body can perform at its highest level rather than inhibiting your potential performance with self-doubt and a negative attitude.

The best example of a negative mindset turning into a self-fulfilling prophesy is batting with 2 strikes. All of baseball would be a phenomenal example, but when you’re up to bat with the pressure on, bases loaded, 2 outs, 2 strikes, bottom of the 9th, what are you telling yourself? “Whatever you do, don’t strike out!” What’s about to happen? Spoiler alert – you’re going to strikeout. I’ve never been in a more telling situation than batting with 2 strikes. You tell yourself all this negative stuff. “Don’t strike out, don’t strike out, don’t strike out” – boom, strikeout. The pitch will be in the catcher’s mitt before you can even think it again. The same happens in life. Imagine giving a presentation at work where you go into it repeatedly saying to yourself, “Don’t mess up” or “Don’t be shy.” Guess what you’re going to do? What if you try to be the perfect wife (or husband) at home and make the perfect meal and do all the laundry and all the dishes all at once? “Don’t burn the chicken, don’t overcook the broccoli, don’t drop this super heavy dish while I’m reaching over people at the table to serve them!” You’re going to disappoint yourself every time. Change your mindset to a positive attitude. “Look at this goofy pitcher, he has to throw that ball right next to me and I’m defending the plate with this awesome bat and about to hit a game winning single!” That’s helped me so many times in the batter’s box. Think about all the pressure on the pitcher to throw it ~60 ft. into this little strike zone that you’re standing over with a bat. Be the positive one. Don’t tell yourself not to mess up - tell yourself how good this steak is going to be when you finish cooking it. It’s not going to make you a better cook, but it will help you perform at your highest potential and be a bad cook (for no reason) far less often. That’s the benefit of a positive mindset. And if we practice this every day, throughout every aspect of our day, it will allow us the opportunities to become better and we will make ourselves into a better hitter, a better wife or husband, a better coworker, and a better athlete. Also, it just makes life more fun and us more enjoyable to be around as a person.

As we move facilities this week from 1.0 to the new and upgraded CrossFit Eta 2.0, both Jonathan and I wanted to take this cultural interruption and turn it into a positive cultural change. We’ll get more into specifics on the gym side and you’ll probably see an email with some new rules and policies, but when you do, look at it through this lens. We are trying to cultivate a culture of champion mindsets rooted in character, and if our purpose as a gym is to improve your fitness and thus improve your quality of life, we have to start with mindset inside the gym which allows you to make more progress thus improving your fitness, health, and quality of life. Let’s start here. Let’s start with a positive mindset that views the opportunity in each circumstance. Even if there is no positive point, thinking of or speaking about the negative will only hold you back. “Your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, and your actions dictate your destiny.”

Maybe we will make it a rule that you must exclaim, "Yay burpees!" before we do them in a warm up...