The Darren Woodson podcast featuring 5-time CrossFit Games Champion Mat Fraser triggered lots of forum chat for the minor (and now very much over) drama between himself and former CrossFit Games Champion Rich Froning. This 20 minute segment of a 2 hour long interview overshadowed some of the deepest insight that Fraser has ever given into his mental game.
First, he’s developed a laser-like focus on what’s important. Second, he seeks out weaknesses and he develops a plan to work on them long term. These two components allow him to focus on the process, rather than on the results of his efforts, a key component of mental fitness.
Editor’s note: The article was written shortly before Fraser announced his retirement from competition, but we think the lessons and insights are still worth sharing.
[Related: Five-time CrossFit Games Champion Mat Fraser retires.]
What Is Under My Control?
A competitive athlete’s field of focus must be as small as possible in order to maximize their potential in their sport. Mat exemplifies this not only in what he chooses to think about, but also in the way he’s set up his home life.
After the 2015 Games, where Fraser came in 2nd to Ben Smith, he embarked on the year he calls “No More What-Ifs” (8:55 in the interview above). He went all in on his goal to win the 2016 Games, deciding to leave nothing to chance: not his diet, not his training, not his recovery. All decisions went through the filter of, “Is this going to help me win the Games?”
He collaborated with his partner Sammy Moniz to minimize his day-to-day tasks. His one job was training, nutrition, and recovering. These decisions gave him peace of mind when it came to the question: Did he do everything that he could to win the CrossFit Games?
Learning how to sort through information that is relevant, helpful, and actionable is a skill that any athlete seeking greatness needs to develop. Distractions cost time and energy that needs to be devoted to preparation. Because the CrossFit Games season format has changed every year for the last 5 years, speculation and rumor typically ran rampant in the lead up, and many athletes struggled with the uncertainty.
What worked for Fraser is focusing only on what he knows to be fact so far, leaving decision-making for when official information has come in.
Fraser also notes in the podcast that competitors are often asked by interviewers if they’ve been thinking about Mat through their training year, and when the answer is “yes,” his response is, “I haven’t thought about you once.” (3:30 in the interview above). This isn’t arrogance, but focus: Mat is only thinking about his training, his goals, his weaknesses. Any mentally fit competitor knows that the person you’re truly competing against is yourself.
Focusing only on what is under our control is a facet of inhibitory control, an executive function of the brain that is, put most simply, impulse control. Many of us impulsively focus on what we don’t have control over, like what other people think of us or how we compare to others or what’s going to happen in the future, and it creates worry, anxiety, and distraction where none is necessary. Fraser’s skill at controlling these impulses allows him to work harder at what he does have control over.
Seeking Out Weaknesses
That focus on what is under his control applies to how Mat structures his training, and his training is structured by his post-competition analysis.
View this post on Instagram
He is famous for the acronym HWPO, or “Hard Work Pays Off.” Fraser reveals in the podcast that this acronym is not from his CrossFit experiences, but from college. Early in his engineering degree, he was failing a thermodynamics class, and his lack of understanding went so deep that, as he said, “I [didn’t] know what I [didn’t] know.”
The “Hard Work” that went into passing the class was simple: he read the textbook, highlighted every word he didn’t understand, looked it up, and then read it again. He repeated this process until he set the curve for the class. Hard work is not necessarily doing more. It’s doing what’s hard.
When he started competing in CrossFit, he applied this same method to his post-competition analysis. Each event in a CrossFit competition is designed to test certain facets of fitness to shed light on weaknesses. In each event with a lower placing, Fraser would ask himself, what held me back from winning? Was it my mobility, was it the time domain, or a movement?
Creating a plan for getting better may be simple, like practicing more. When practicing wasn’t getting Fraser the results he wanted, he sought out experts to learn how to get better. At the 2016 Games, Fraser placed within the top 10 at every single event except the Deadlift Ladder, where he placed 23rd. His response was to talk to Chad Wesley Smith of Juggernaut Training Systems to find out how he could improve. As he says in the podcast, “Why would I have all the answers?” (1:00:31 in interview above).
The courage to look with brutal honesty at weaknesses, combined with the confidence that we have the power to improve on them is a near magical combination that allows us to see our situation with clarity, develop a plan to address weaknesses, and execute the plan without excuses or distractions: what’s known as the process.
Loving the Process More Than the Results
This is much easier to say than do, yet Fraser exemplifies this to an extremely high degree, and it’s a hallmark of why he is so dominant in the sport. Fraser points out that having one’s identity “consumed with being a winner” is a losing game: the results of the Games are not under any individual’s control. What is under an athlete’s control is their effort, the Hard Work of “…finding a problem, putting together a plan, and then executing that plan,” not just at the Games, but all year long.
Instead of the results, Fraser’s identity is tied to “falling in love with the daily gratification, the daily achievement of hitting that little checkmark of, ‘Yo…did you fucking crush today?’”
What does it mean to crush the day? This is the simple question Fraser asks himself: “What can I do today that’s going to put me where I want to be in a year?” This is an elegant way to find solutions to problems: actionable, flexible, and long term.
We cannot be courageous enough to seek out our weaknesses when our self-worth is tied to winning. It’s too distracting and uncomfortable. We’re wired to avoid discomfort, and we avoid it by complaining, blaming, labeling, making excuses, or hiding. Becoming comfortable with looking at our weaknesses requires shifting our self-worth from winning to our effort, and this trains us to focus on what we can control.
How Can We Apply These Lessons Ourselves?
Self-reflection and ownership are skills of an elite mindset. Fraser took 2nd at the Games in 2014 and was ecstatic, while the same result the following year led to a depression. He sat down with a notebook to explore this and found that the 2015 results “reflected the work [he] put in. All the cut corners” added up. This was humbling and painful, yet it served as the catalyst for his dominance. Athletes who are willing to reflect in this way and to take ownership of their mistakes will far exceed those who avoid it.
With the 2021 CrossFit Open beginning in March, athletes have the opportunity to apply these lessons to their competition experience and their training for the coming year. Post-Open, look at the leaderboard. What was your weakest event and why? Create a plan to improve on that weakness over the coming year. Give yourself the opportunity to check off “Did I crush today?” String 364 of those days together, and you’ll leave no doubt that you gave it your best effort.
[Related: How to prepare for the CrossFit Open.]
Make it a practice to ask yourself every day, “what can I do today to get me where I want to be a year from now?” Sometimes the answer is to practice something uncomfortable, sometimes the answer is to rest or recover better, sometimes the answer is to seek an experts’ knowledge. Confidence and pride come from focusing on what we have control over, the courage to see ourselves as we truly are, and the humility to know when we need guidance.
Featured image: CrossFit Games