Mindfulness in Training

Jake Articles

I’m hesitant to call this an article – it’s more like a collection of thoughts that, while not presenting any particularly new information, will hopefully get you thinking, just a little.

Training is inherently a mental, as well as a physical process. We know and accept this easily. We see people get pumped up before a big lift, flip their “go” switch when they’re in heated competition with a close rival, and of course, we get to see when someone has a bad day and doesn’t perform to their full capacity. Our mental fortitude gets us through a big lift, a tough workout, or a long run – it has a definite effect on how well you perform.

The other side of the story is not how your mental state affects your physical performance, but instead why we should try to be more mentally receptive to our training to move more efficiently and safely.

Let me explain.

I’ve heard people describe CrossFit as a continual work in progress, almost like a college course. On your first say, you begin with basic, foundational principles. Over the course of the semester, those principles are built on constantly to form a complex web of ideas and information. Similarly, we begin with basics. We start trainees with exercises which they are familiar with, and are more position rather than movement or speed oriented. We begin with push-ups and sit-ups, where the amount that has to be mentally processed is limited. We move on to squats. With proper cues, a good air squat takes little thought. When most of us began, we simply needed to run through our mental checklist – weight on the heels, chest up, back tight, and finally good depth – to perform a passable squat.

The problem is that many of us never reach the stage where we are using the body and special awareness we have, melded with what we know about a movement and how to perform it correctly, to ever get to the point where we are consistently moving efficiently and safely.

Stop, think.

Back to the college course analogy. Let’s say you didn’t bother to read your syllabus, and skipped the first few days of class. You likely missed out on some important material – foundational principles that would guide the semester’s learning material. You may be able to fumble through your coursework, but you feel like you’re missing something.

At the gym, there’s a similar story. Some of us don’t bother to process our movement mentally to perform even the simplest movements correctly. As we move from movements that can be thought through slowly to be performed correctly, to exercises that that require both proper positions and speed – like a clean – we’re going to find ourselves lagging behind. Eventually, if you pay attention to how you squat, recognizing what it feels like when we say “good” or “too shallow” or “get your back tight”, you won’t need to run through a long mental checklist just to squat properly. Everyone at the gym responds to cues, it requires fairly little thought, we’re simply helping your mind coax your body into doing what we would like. But consistently getting your body to move properly requires diligent, patient, thought.

Every day, I get people moving correctly, only to see them the next day making the same mistakes. If you never learn to think clearly about what you’re doing, you’ll never be able to perform more advanced movements with precision. You may be strong, fast, and have all the heart in the world, but eventually, your lack of training mindfulness will hold you back.

When you’re performing a movement, and especially when cued, don’t just react passively so that you correct yourself for a brief moment. Think about what you did wrong, think about how it felt to do it wrong, and how it feels now that you’re doing it right. With practice, you’ll eventually get to shuffle your technique error to the back of your mind, and shift your focus to other issues. But without tackling it up front, you’ll continue to make the same mistakes, delaying your progress, and making for an ugly looking squat.