As we move up and down the layers of abstraction regarding “mental toughness,” we encounter varying frameworks and strategies.
The tools needed to perform well on a specific workout are not necessarily the same tools necessary to perform well on a week of workouts or a month of workouts.
In many other sports, a truly transcendent ability during game play can supersede all other aspects of athletic development. If you are that good at basketball, football, or soccer, the marginal gains of proper sleep, nutrition, training and planning may not offer enough of a percentage improvement in your performance to make a true difference in your competitive abilities.
However, in sports like CrossFit – where the ability of an athlete is very closely tied to how much training they’ve done and how well they’ve adapted to the training – the aggregation of percentage point improvements in recovery and physiological adaptation are worth quite a bit more in terms of performance during competition than in field sports that are much more heavily determined by skill during gameplay.
So, what variables do matter for the long-term development of CrossFit athletes?
One of the major ones is the accumulation of quality training sessions over time.
You can’t control your genetics (which are going to be one of the main factors dictating how well you can recover from and adapt to these training sessions), but you can control your attitude and your discipline such that you are maximizing the amount of quality training sessions you have in a specific time period.
What time period is that? Well, that depends on specific goals. For many athletes, we are looking at a time horizon of several years to achieve their competition goals – and in this case, we are often looking to accumulate the maximum tolerable dose of training (meaning as much training as we can do without causing negative consequences).
For many people looking to “live long and prosper” (as James FitzGerald would put it) rather than “compete and win,” that time horizon may be decades – and here we are looking to accumulate the minimum effective dose of training (meaning as little as we can do while still creating progression towards goals or maintenance against entropy).
In this context, “mental toughness” does not refer to the ability to push harder.
It does not refer to the ability to be rigid and routine-based and get up at 4am every day and push yourself through an ass-kicking workout.
It refers to the ability to maximize your number of quality training sessions over the amount of time over which you are attempting to reach your goals.
(With the caveat that competitors are going to always be looking for ways to add more training into their routines and every day folks are going to be looking to find the leasts amount of training that progresses them at a reasonable rate towards their goals or maintains their fitness.)
So, from a more zoomed out perspective, mental toughness for both competitive athletes and every day people in the gym requires them to have enough discipline to do the things that matter – creating time in their schedule to train consistently, developing habits and consistency surrounding sleep and nutrition, developing an awareness of how they are feeling so they can give appropriate feedback on their training load, etc – while also building in enough flexibility in their schedule and their plans that they don’t become overly obsessed with achieving specific results in training sessions, hitting exact numbers of macros on every single day, or making sure they complete every session prescribed to them even if they have the flu.