Chasing Excellence - Ch. 2 Grit

Photo Credit: @jordansamuelphoto, @benbergeron, @competitorstrainging

Photo Credit: @jordansamuelphoto, @benbergeron, @competitorstrainging

Two weeks ago we talked about how putting character first builds a champion then we dissected the character trait of Commitment. “Short term pain for long term gain.” This is not hitting snooze on your alarm. This is showing up to the gym everyday regardless of how long your day has been. This is loving your spouse regardless of how you feel in the moment. But the character of a champion doesn’t stop there. It’s one thing to commit to something, post a bunch of Pinterest quotes to your bathroom mirror, and then show up to the gym. That is great. That’s our first step. Commit to DOING something. Anything you can DO now to set yourself up for success later. It’s another thing to commit to the grind. The grind is a day in and day out mindset. We like breaking Commitment down into a series of small decisions throughout our day which adds up to the whole, but what about the whole picture? How does Mat Fraser, former junior Olympic weightlifter who was training for the Olympics, win the 7k Trail Run at the 2016 Games against everyone else in the field? How is a former weightlifter the best in the world at a running event? That’s insane. It’s because Mat is one of the best in the world when it comes to the champion characteristic of Grit.


What is Grit?

Bergeron defines Grit as “When things get hard, you push harder; when you fail you get back up stronger; when you don’t see results, you don’t get discouraged, buy you just continue to pound away day, after day, after day, with relentlessness, consistency, heart, and passion – that’s grit.” The reason Mat can win something like the 7k Train Run is because he dedicates himself to finding things he is bad at, and then training them so hard that he never again worries about that weakness. Three stories I know about Mat come immediately to mind and right on cue, Ben uses them all as an example. In the 2013 Regionals, Mat’s rookie year at Regionals, he got crushed on the benchmark workout “Jackie” (For Time: 1k Row, 50 Thrusters @45#, 30 Pull-ups). He got demolished and even though he finished well on other events throughout the weekend, it had buried him into a hole he couldn’t climb out of. After Regionals, Mat goes home, buys a rower, and rows 4,000 to 5,000 meters of intervals every single day for the following year. We aren’t talking about rowing a leisurely or even a fast 5k for time which would take him 15-20 minutes. We are talking about :30 on and :30 off at max efforts, 500m sprints with 1 minute rest between, and other stomach churning workouts. There’s a reason we only do these types of workouts about once every quarter at CrossFit Eta. They hurt. A lot. People will leave the gym puking. But that is Mat. He found a weakness and pounded at it every single day until it was no longer a weakness. The next story that comes to mind is shown in one of the Fittest on Earth documentaries. One of the hinging points in Mat’s loss (2nd overall) to Ben Smith in the 2015 Games was on the Soccer Field Chipper which started with pig flips. The “pig” first showed up in 2013 but now has been revamped to look like a refrigerator and weighs 580 pounds. Even though Mat got through it, it crushed him and eventually wrecked his arms so he couldn’t do legless rope climbs later in the workout. After the event, Ben Smith, who flew through the event to take first and narrow Mat’s then lead, joked with him that it’s just like flipping a tire. THE DAY AFTER THE GAMES, Mat goes online, buys a pig, and flipped it every single Sunday evening in his gym. Sunday evenings are empty and dark. Mat just flipped and flipped and flipped until there was no way every again that an implement like that would get in his way. Mat got to the point where he was doing 100 flips for time. That’s grit. A third example Mat has talked about before is when he was in engineering school. He would study for hours in the library reading books cover to cover. When he finished a chapter, if he couldn’t recite every formula or theory perfectly, he went back and read it again. Over and over and over. Ben’s description of Mat’s grit is my favorite line of the chapter: “There’s nothing fun about waking up and doing things you’re bad at, over and over again. It takes an extraordinary amount of grit to commit yourself to that brand of torture.”

How difficult is it for us to come in and work on something we aren’t good at doing? Do we feel embarrassed sometimes when we have to scale a WOD when it feels like everyone else is doing Rx? Is there this one movement or lift that we are just terrible at that we can work on? Let’s use double-unders as an example. We’ve all either been there or are still there now. Learning double-unders is so difficult because every time you fail, you whip yourself. You leave the gym with lashes across your legs, arms, butt, and a whole bunch of other unknown places. It’s frustrating. When the pros do it, it looks so effortless. It’s just jumping high and swinging a rope twice. Why can’t I do them? How come I can do 50 in a row while I’m fresh yet 30 seconds into a workout, I can’t even do 5 at a time? If this is you, you are in a prime condition to show some grit. Are you willing to come in 10 minutes early to work on double-unders every single day? Not just once a week, but every single day before AND after class. Do you allow your CrossFit Eta coaches to scale you down to double-taps in order to work on your form and resiliency rather than just struggling and whipping yourself through sets of 50 doing only 1 or 2 reps at a time? Do you seek out open gym time to work on your pull-ups, or do you just whine and get discouraged every time they pop up in a WOD and Coach makes you use a band? Your coaches are more than willing to help you, but you have to bring the grit. There’s no amount of luck or chance or even talent that will get you where you need to go in life. Are you willing to work on your marriage even when times are tough? A loved one dies, your spouse makes a big mistake, your children are acting like the devil, and your boss is yelling at you for something you didn’t do. Are you going to bow down and succumb to the pressure, or are you going to work extra hours practicing your craft so you get better? Are you going to give into the pressure of alcohol or other coping mechanisms to “cure” your marriage, or are you going to put your head down and figure it out? Love them when it doesn’t seem like they love you. Work harder at your job even when it seems like the boss doesn’t even notice. Go to the track or down the street in your neighborhood and run intervals outside of class. Then come back to the gym and surprise us. Surprise us in the same way Mat Fraser, the Olympic weightlifter, surprised the other competitors, fans, coaches, and announcers when he wins the 7k Train Run.


Talent vs. Grit

The last paragraph I wrote was heavy. It calls out a lot of people. I write these blog segments also as a window into my life and my struggles. I use my own examples and my own internal struggles all the time. You may not notice it because I hide it in the flow of the blog, but I’m struggling too. I, also, am on the journey to pursue excellence. When someone first joins CrossFit, they can go a couple of different ways. They can be a beginner at everything and slowly get better over time, or maybe they pick up on things quickly and seem to excel right off the bat. These people are frustrating. They seem like naturals. They hit strength numbers in their first year that some of us have been chasing for 5 years. They can do a muscle-up in their first month and we’re still struggling to get our first pull-up. So what do we do? We say, “Oh well they’re a natural” or “they used to be an athlete” or “it’s just God-given talent” or “they’re just so talented.” Let’s think about that for a minute. If we offer up that the only reason they are good is because of talent, it gives us an out. By saying someone else is talented, you are making an excuse for your own situation. “People want to boil down elite achievement to ‘born with it’ talent; it gives them an excuse for why they’re not at the same level.” If you are talented, that is good, but it’s not great. Talent itself isn’t enough to develop you into a champion. “Talent without grit is just potential. Talent plus grit is unstoppable.” Next time you see someone lift more weight than you, don’t give yourself an excuse not to work hard because they’re the coach’s wife, or they are just naturally strong. That just means you have to work even harder. To repeat the quote from earlier: “When things get hard, you push harder; when you fail you get back up stronger; when you don’t see results, you don’t get discouraged, buy you just continue to pound away day, after day, after day, with relentlessness, consistency, heart, and passion – that’s grit.” Don’t sell yourself short by thinking someone’s talent makes them better than you, put in the extra work to overcome them. Be the first to show up to class and the last to leave. Don’t sit on the benches for 15 minutes when you get here early, work on your double-unders or your pull-ups. Dedicate yourself to your nutrition outside the gym. Focus on your mobility before and after class. Get to bed on time and wake up when your alarm goes off. The character of a champion is defined by their Grit, not their talent.

I’ll leave us with this last example. I’m not naturally talented at muscle-ups. I couldn’t just do a muscle-up by hopping up onto the rings and taking a few practice swings. Three and a half years ago, when Coach Jonathan and I were both still young in CrossFit and attending our first CrossFit gym in Tulsa (shout out to Coach Doug at Vertical Limit Fitness), we both wanted to do a muscle-up. Jon and I both showed up to class 15 minutes early every single day and practiced and practiced. For at least a month, we would take turns on the same set of rings with failure after failure after failure. We got so close so many times. At the time, Jon and I were roommates, and every night when he would get into the top of the bunk bed, he would set up like a muscle-ups and jump up into his bed. We found fences to jump over and do the same. Our CrossFit lives were consumed by that muscle-up. He was the first to get it, and not even a day later, I got my first muscle-up too. Then it was the race for two back to back. Then it was a race for 5. That whole semester, we worked on muscle-ups every day before class. Then once I could do a handful, I did one muscle-up exactly 60 seconds after the end of every workout. Because the next step was doing one under fatigue. Eventually we are both to the point where we can demonstrate them while talking in class, or knock out unbroken sets of 5+ relatively easily. It’s not because we’re extra talented or because we are CrossFit coaches and owners, it’s because we made ourselves slaves to our craft and had the grit to continuously work on something we were bad at.

The opening photo has been the background on my phone for the last year and a half. It's a daily reminder that grit is worth more than talent. This blog post today isn’t as fancy or flamboyant as the last two, but it has the most gravity. It’s the simplest. Do work. As Josh Bridges would say, “Pay the man.” Don’t give yourself the excuse that these elite level athletes on television have talent and you don’t. Josh Bridges doesn’t sign off to the excuse that he’s 5’5” and lightweight and weak compared to the rest of the Games athletes. He just works harder than those with better genes or gifts or talents. Work and slave at your craft until you have mastered it. Then go find another weakness and eviscerate it too. Put your head down and do the dirty work.

“Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t.” – Jerry Rice