Mind Games

July 14, 2016

Brittney Saline

A lot of the times we make our reality by the stories that we are telling, and you can tell any story in a positive way or in a negative way.

“Make it a great day—or not; the choice is yours.”

For four years, that adage was drilled into my head, the daily sign-off after my high school’s morning announcements. I always rolled my eyes. Sure, whatever, I thought. As if I could control how my day was going to go.

Cut to 10 years later, when Julie Foucher tore her Achilles on a box jump-over at the 2015 Central Regional, ending her final season at regionals rather than the Games. Not more than an hour after the season-ending injury, Foucher joked about wearing a boot at her upcoming wedding and said, “I have a lot of things to look forward to.”

She made it a great day, taking to the floor in an over-sized black boot in that afternoon’s 250-foot handstand walk event and outpacing many of her peers across the floor despite having to walk to the starting mat while others ran. She smiled and waved to the crowd, while those watching were brought to tears.

I asked myself, “How the hell did she do it?”

To find out, I got Foucher on the phone, along with a man who has finished no more than three spots outside the CrossFit Games podium for the last four years, Scott Panchik, and a woman who has twice been the favorite to win the CrossFit Games and twice been held back by injuries, Kara Webb.

If anyone could teach me the mysteries of mental strength, it would be them.

The Most Important Muscle

“I think mental strengths are the difference between being an above-average athlete and being Games-level,” Foucher said over the phone a few weeks ago. “Physical strengths are important to a point, but once you get to the Games, I think it's completely mental strength that determines your final performance.”

Panchik agreed.

“Mental strength is one of the most important characteristics of a great athlete,” he said. “At some point in your athletic career, you will run into adversity, you will run into something that doesn't go your way, (and) how you handle it determines how the rest of your competition's gonna go. How you handle that adversity and what you do with it kind of shapes you as an athlete.”

So what exactly is mental strength?

“I think a lot of mental strength is about being in the moment and not being distracted by anything else that's going on around you or any other thoughts, whether they're positive or negative,” Foucher said.

Her first lesson on the subject came as a high-school junior and promising gymnast, when she broke her foot at the start of the season. Luckily, she had been studying existentialism in English class at the time.

“A lot of it was saying that you are the only one who has power over your situation, and you can make it really bad or really good,” she recounted. “So I ended up trying to use it as a positive thing. I tried to be there for my teammates, and help them do the very best that they could and help us be successful as a team rather than just moping around or being upset about my own situation. That was the first experience that taught me the power of how important your attitude is in creating your reality.”  

For Panchik, mental strength means focusing on what you can control instead of dwelling on what you can’t. He first learned to write his own destiny as a scrawny kid, smaller, weaker and—in his words—less talented than other kids on the football field and the track.

“But the one thing that I knew I could control was that I could outwork every person on that team, and that's always been my mentality,” he said. “Looking at the things that you can control versus the things that you can't control, and moving forward with the ones you can.”

Brain Training

According to Webb, mental strength is just like any other kind of strength; it requires training and development.

“It’s probably the most important part of competition, but also just your general training,” Webb said. “It's a very constant, progressive thing and it's evolving throughout your life and it's constantly challenged, so I think it's something that you really have to stay on top of every single day. It's not like you can have a shower one day and then you're clean (forever), you're gonna get dirty again and you gotta shower again. You have to be on top of it because you are constantly challenged with different things in life and training.”

Foucher agreed.

“I think just like the physical training, it's something that you have to practice all the time,” Foucher said. “It's not something that you just do during a competition.”

For Foucher, practicing mental strength looks like daily meditation at home and at the gym before training sessions, often with the help of an app that guides her through five to 10 minutes of mindfulness practice.

“So with mindfulness, you're practicing basically not getting wrapped up in your thoughts,” Foucher said. “So you might have a negative thought come into your mind, which is completely normal, but then you're just letting it pass, you’re letting it go.”

It’s not about ignoring negative thoughts, but rather acknowledging their existence without letting them overcome her.

“A lot of times people become so wrapped up in their negative thinking and they don't even realize what's happening,” Foucher said. “But mindfulness is more about being able to recognize that this (negative) thought is here, and letting it pass, and not letting it become your reality.”

Frequently, she pairs mindfulness practice with visualization, in which she mentally rehearses every stage of competition from her warm-up to standing atop the podium at the end, imagining herself executing each repetition perfectly over and over again. That way, “it becomes more natural or second nature when you're in a situation that's more stressful or that's more high stakes or high pressure,” she said.

Though some might scoff at the concept of using your mind to affect outcomes, according to Panchik, it happens all the time—and if left unchecked, usually for the worse. Last year, he ruptured his plantar fascia in the first event at the Games. But he kept it mostly secret, avoiding cameras and discussing the injury only with his fiancée and closest friends.

“I really am a big believer in staying positive, and as soon as you start going down that negative road, you will start feeling sorry for yourself,” he said. “And if you feel sorry for yourself, then you can't expect to do well because in your mind you're already defeated. The first stage of being a winner in anything in life is seeing yourself do it and believing that you can do it. Whether it be your first competition or the CrossFit Games, you gotta visualize yourself being successful before it can happen.”

That doesn’t mean negative thoughts don’t creep into Panchik’s mind. It’s just that when they do, he gives himself what he calls a “halftime speech,” reminding himself of the success he’s had thus far and all the work he’s done to get this far.

“‘You put in the time, you’ve outworked every one of these people,’” he quoted himself. “It's just talking to yourself. People talk to themselves in a negative way and talk themselves out of doing things all the time. This is no different, it's just that you're doing the opposite. You're pumping yourself up to do things and to be extraordinary, and that's how big lifts happen and that’s how, in my mind, champions are made.”

More Than Pie in the Sky

Still, all the self-talk and visualization in the world doesn’t mean that things will always go according to plan. To prepare for such instances, Webb not only visualizes herself succeeding, but also visualizes a “Plan B”—how she’ll extract as much good as possible from a bad event.

She learned to do this after a rough training session. The day’s workout called for 75 power snatches, with 3 rope climbs at the top of every minute. After 2 minutes she was already behind, spending most of her time on the rope.

“I started freaking out and just absolutely lost my shit,” Webb said.

After, she spoke with her coach, Brian Bucholtz.

“He said, ‘Why didn’t you just sit out for a minute?’” she quoted him.

“I expected that every minute I should be doing work,” Webb explained.

After a second attempt—this time alternating working minutes and resting minutes—she finished the workout with a revelation.

“Because it didn’t go down the way I wanted it to or how I had envisioned it, it was like it was all over,” she said. “But it wasn't all over, I just needed to find Plan B.”

To prevent losing her shit during competition, she mentally rehearses alternate plans for every event, emergency options should her best-case scenario fail. The practice, she said, stems from Bucholtz’s teachings, derived from his time spent in the Australian army.

“He's kind of taught me to take my emotion out of it,” she said. “He sort of explained it to me like if you're deployed, the guys don't get all emotional and go ‘Oh my God, there's people shooting at us,’ they've been trained to look around, and assess the situation ... my process now is to identify the situation first (and) look around and say, ‘OK, what are the possibilities here?’”

Free to Feel

Webb, Foucher and Panchik emphasized that it’s OK to feel bad when things don’t go as planned, but the key is what you do afterward.

When Foucher handstand-walked across the regional floor in her black boot and later waved to the crowds with a smile, she seemed to have it all together. She seemed super-human, beyond emotion.

“But that night I was just a mess,” Foucher said. “I think I woke up crying like five or six times in the middle of the night, just because I was finally processing that everything I’d worked for this year (wasn’t) going to happen.”

For the next few months she grieved. She gave herself time for the natural grieving process to unfold. And she started to do the groundwork to move on. The key to moving on after a setback, she said, is to focus on new goals and opportunities. At the time, that meant pouring her energy into recovering from the Achilles tear in physical therapy, planning her wedding and moving into a new home.

“You have to allow yourself to be sad and let those emotions pass, but then I think the difference is you have to give yourself new goals or new things to work towards, new things to fill your time,” she said. “You can't just sit at home and cry all day, but you have to get out, go to work, do your daily activities, set new goals and start working towards them.”

Webb agreed.

“You kind of have to let it play out like the stages of grief,” she said. “I think the most important thing, though, is I can feel what I need to feel, but I can't stop doing what I need to do. So it's like you can keep feeling stuff but it doesn't mean that you get to just throw everything away and sit on the couch for a month. Life has to go on. So I can feel it, but I need to go back in the gym and whatever my 100 percent for that day is, I need to be doing that. Maybe that's 50 percent of what it was before, but if it’s 100 percent for then, OK, put that forward … eventually it kind of just washes away and you end up moving on and you have other things to do.”

Back To Reality

Building and preserving mental strength may seem like an awful lot of work, especially if your goal is to simply show up to the gym four times a week, much less win the CrossFit Games. But the benefit, the Games athletes say, transcends the competition floor. Today, Foucher might practice mindfulness and visualization when preparing to take an exam, see a patient or have a meeting.

“We learned so many lessons through sport and just being in the gym that apply to outside in our lives, and I feel like I’ve been able to learn a lot of those in a lot more accelerated way,” Foucher said. “It’s so important to constantly visualize yourself being successful in whatever it is that you’re doing … if you are constantly seeing it and you believe it, it becomes your reality.”

Webb has also reaped the benefits of mental training in her daily life, crediting mental strength gained through CrossFit to her greater patience and emotional control within her relationships.

“Balancing out the beat-downs and the confidence boosters; (CrossFit)’s this constant roller coaster and I think that it makes you incredibly strong,” she said. “You can’t help but have it translate over into normal life. More than anything that’s the thing I’m most grateful for with competing, just having to be forced to be accountable for my responses, to my reactions to things. My training has kept me accountable to it, which has now given me those skills forever.”

But just like you don’t go from zero to a 300-lb. squat overnight, mental strength is the result of time and effort. To begin, Panchik suggests recognizing one positive thing in each day.

“Just finding little moments in the day that you can enjoy,” he said, “and doing something positive in the world, whatever it might be. Follow your dreams and do things that make you happy. I truly believe that the people who are happy in the world are the people that are being positive; they go hand-in-hand.”

As Foucher and I were just about ready to hang up, I asked for one piece of advice for those struggling with mental strength.

Foucher paused for a moment.

“Someone told me before to listen to the story that you’re telling yourself,” she said. “Because a lot of the times we make our reality by the stories that we’re telling, and you can tell any story in a positive way or in a negative way, and so it helps to stop and ask yourself, ‘OK, what is the story I’m telling myself: Is this really a reality, and how can I change this story to make it a better reality?’”

So make it a great day—or not. The choice is yours.