So you’ve been training for a little while and want to start entering CrossFit competitions. Maybe you’ve even already done a comp or two. You’ve identified the skills you need to practice, found yourself a training plan to follow and booked yourself in for some regular sports massage. But have you thought about how to prepare mentally?

The athletes who often do the best in CrossFit competitions are those who can keep focused, can psyche themselves up when needed, switch off when not, and stay resilient in the face of adversity. All of this takes practice. And I’m going to give you some tips and tricks.

Managing Arousal

Arousal refers to how alert you are and it’s important in regulating consciousness, attention, and information processing. This is all controlled through changes in levels of specific hormones, including adrenaline, histamine and seratonin. There are lots of ways arousal is increased naturally, for example where feeling threatened kicks off the flight or fight response – getting cut up on the road can make you so angry that your pulse raises and you start to shake. 

A certain amount of arousal is good for performance – it primes the body for action and can focus concentration. But too much, or too little, could turn your competition on its head.

The key to managing arousal lies in identifying your optimum level, and using prompts to help you raise or lower it as required.

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Arousal Prompts

There are four key prompts for raising and lowering arousal levels, and which is best depends on what you most respond to in general, e.g. how you learn:

  • Visual (spatial): try using imagery. Picture yourself winning an event, performing a particular skill, etc. The point is to make your visualisation as realistic and detailed as possible so it becomes experiential with the hope of “re-living” it when the time comes.
  • Aural (auditory-musical): music is your best friend. Choose music with a tempo that gets you ready for action, but not so pumped that you’re over stimulated. The subject of music in sport psychology has been extremely well researched so it’s worth looking into!
  • Verbal (linguistic): try slogan clothing or wrist bands, or repeating a short motivational phrase to yourself before and during competition. Music can also be good for verbal motivation. For example, UFC fighter Miesha Tate’s walk on music is Katy Perry’s “Tiger” – this may seem like a strange choice, but the lyrics say it all:

“I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter,

Dancing through the fire,

‘Cause I am the champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar,

Louder, louder than a lion,

‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar!” 

  • Physical (kinesthetic): try having a pre-competition stimulating massage – ideally in the minutes directly before the event – using warm up drills that mimic the movements and intention of the exercise(s) you’re about to do (e.g. using the same aggression on an empty bar warm-up as you would in a heavy version of the lift) or stomping your feet/slapping your legs before stepping up to the plate.

Identifying Optimal Arousal

The optimum level of arousal is like gold dust. Get it right and you could line yourself up for a PB performance. But knowing where that point is can be hard and it’s easy to let yourself worry and become anxious before a performance. Nerves are not necessarily bad; a certain amount of nervous energy actually leads to increased arousal, which I’ve already said can link to better performance.

Finding the point at which you can perform well before hitting that tipping point can only really be done through trial and error. Choose a practice event in the lead up to your main competition to gauge how you perform and what strategies work for you.

Identify that point where you can focus and push the nerves aside.

Coming Back Down

For competitions with multiple events, it’s just as important to be able to “switch off” and come back down to a state where you can relax, take stock of where you are and recover for the next event as it is to get psyched up for the event in the first place. If you ever watch the CrossFit Games, the most successful athletes are those who can turn their drive on and off and put the last performance behind them, ready to focus on the next one.

The same processes can be used to reduce arousal as those that increase it – just choose more calming versions of the same prompts!

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Facing Adversity

Not everything is necessarily going to go your way in competition. Whether it’s a judge who seems particularly harsh, or missing movements that you usually hit in practice. The athletes who will succeed are those who can pause and correct whatever it is that’s going wrong. Here are some tips for how to do just that.

Movement Standards

Judge keep shouting no rep? Guess what, it’s not their fault. Even if you think you’re achieving the movement standards, calmly ask your judge what you need to do then fix it. This could mean exaggerating the movement a bit. If you get angry or frustrated it’s not going to help you, and it’s probably just going to piss your judge off – which definitely isn’t going to help!

As the CrossFit posters say – leave your ego at the door.

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Failed Lifts

Know you can hit a 60kg snatch but keep failing over and over again? Step back, analyse your movement patterns and identify what you’re doing wrong. Not keeping your shoulders over the bar? You’ll struggle to keep that bar moving in an efficient path. Not getting your hips to full extension? You’ll limit power on the pull. Create that body awareness of what a good lift feels like and you’ll be able to identify, and correct, inefficiencies that much more easily.

The same applies to all movements, not just the lifts. Safety, efficiency and effectiveness of movement are key.

Practice Makes Perfect

As with everything we do in life, the more we do it, the better we are likely to get at it. No-one was perfect the first time they did a movement. Everyone has to learn the basics and build from them – even your top level Games athletes. 

But, as calisthenics star Stephen Hughes-Landers says, when it comes to movements – perfect practice makes perfect. We probably all know an athlete who is brilliant in training but falls apart in competition. Sometimes this is down to nerves, but probably 9 times out of 10 it’s because they aren’t hitting the movement standards in training.

“No rep” yourself. Learn the feeling of full range of motion. If you can’t get there? Work on mobility and getting those weaknesses strengthened. Train like you’re being judged!

Do you take part in CrossFit competitions? What are your tips for success? Comment below – I’d love to know what you think!

Photos taken at an in-house competition at CrossFit Raeda.