Forging Mental Toughness: Matt Baird

March 18, 2013

Jeremy Ridgeo

"It was the most humbling experience. I told myself I would never allow myself to feel that defeated again."

At last year’s South East Regional, Matt Baird of CrossFit North Atlanta sat in the stands with his fiancé watching the final heat of the men’s division in the last event.

The final heat was filled with competitors he not only respected, but was also friends with. The difficult part was that Baird was supposed to be in that heat fighting for one of the three coveted spots to the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games. Instead, 27-year-old Baird sat there thinking about the word “withdrawn” hovering next to his name on the Leaderboard.

“It was the most humbling experience,” he says. “I told myself I would never allow myself to feel that defeated again.”

Baird ended up taking 40 days off following Regionals because he could not physically workout. He tweaked his back during the first workout, Diane, and later dropped a barbell on his ankle after struggling with a push press. During his time off, he made a decision — one that has driven this past year of his training, programming and success.  

“I knew I had all of the physical tools, but my mental game was not there, so I decided it was time to find a coach,” Baird says. 

At 5-foot-7 and 195 pounds, Baird enlisted the help of highly regarded CrossFit Invictus owner and coach, C.J. Martin. In his first year with Martin, Baird says he has experienced plenty of physical gains, but it is his mental approach that Martin has had the biggest impact on. 

“C.J. asked me a simple question: When you’re struggling with a WOD, how many times do you tell yourself you suck?” Baird recalls.

This question, or rather his honest answer to it, made Baird’s stomach turn. 

Baird says Martin prepares his athletes to not only be physically ready, but he also demands that they are prepared to deal with adversity. This is what Baird says was missing in his training.

“If you say you are not good at this movement or that movement within a workout, then you have already defeated yourself so we had to change the message,” he explains. 

Baird trains with close friend, Zack Anderson of CrossFit Paragon, who is also an accomplished competitor and currently sits in third place in the South East. The two of them adopted a short saying: “Head down, mouth shut, mentally tough and physically dominant.”

Before every workout, the two friends repeat the phrase and commence with the workout. Their goal is to go to Regionals together and, ideally, stand next to each other on the podium.

Their training regimen consists of working out Monday through Saturday, with Sunday being an active recovery day filled with biking, swimming or time spent on the airdyne. Baird snatches and cleans heavy twice a week and frequently pounds out running intervals and works skills on Wednesdays. 

“Recently, we revisited all of the Open (Workouts) from 2012 and would have finished in or around the top five in each workout,” Baird says. 

Though Baird has improved his Fran time by five seconds to 2:04, and has gained 30 lb. on his snatch, now at 290 lb., he has seen the biggest improvement in his mental game. He attributes the turning point in his development to a trip out to San Diego where he was “lucky enough” to experience training with Josh Bridges.

“At Invictus, I realized I have no other option,” he says. “I have to win.”

Baird says he does not just want to be at the top of the Leaderboard. His plan is to win the Open, followed by Regionals, followed by a podium-finish at the Games. He is off to a good start, as he finds himself in first place in the South East and second place worldwide after the close of 13.2.

“I would be lying if I said I did not like seeing my name up there next to Rich Froning and Josh Bridges,” he says.

“My approach to 13.1 was pretty simple. Do not look up, forget looking around at others and rely on your own body and your own mind.”

His methods were simple: snatch it, drop it and repeat, and whatever happens, do not break concentration. It paid off to the tune of 195 reps, putting him in first place in the South East and fourth in the world. 

But it is his continued success on Open Workout 13.2 that solidifies his newly developed mental game. Baird set out on 13.2 with what he described as a “suicide pace” and a “refusal to have another year where he watches other guys beat him.”

Baird recognizes there was an inherent risk in going so fast right out of the gate, but he did not allow himself to think that way or allow doubt to interfere with his belief in confidence and execution.

The willingness to take a chance and the certainty of his physical capabilities paid off. Baird completed 368 reps on the workout, securing his top spot in the South East.

“At the time Annie (Thorisdottir) was the only video and numbers I had really seen, so I decided I wanted to beat her, which I knew could be risky, but why not do it,” he says. “If you bomb, that happens. Come back and do it again.”

With his mental game in check, “bombing” might have made Baird think twice, but he says he no longer has room for that type of second-guessing. 

“In CrossFit, the margins of victory are so slim,” Baird says. “If you are taking the time to say, ‘I think I can,’ or ‘I hope I can,’ then you are not believing that you actually can. So I eliminated certain words from my vocabulary in order to swing the margins in my favor.”

Baird doesn’t know what the remainder of the Open or Regionals will bring, but he has planned for his success, and is clear on what he is doing in the meantime.

“Now, for me, I focus on head down, mouth shut, mentally tough and physically dominant.”