Conquering Mental Hurdles

By Becky Rivard

How many times have you visited the CrossFit Women page on eliteathletic.com, looked at the workout of the day, and thought to yourself, “There’s no way I can do that!”  Before you even set foot in EAD, before you even pick up a barbell, you’ve decided against trying something new or perhaps attacking something you find difficult.

Stepping outside our comfort zone is never easy. More often than not our bodies can physically handle whatever task is in front of us, but sometimes our minds tell us differently. Everyone has mental hurdles; the challenge becomes how to conquer them.

I’ve been a competitive athlete for almost my entire life, so I’m no stranger to challenges.  Give me a long jump pit, 45 inch box, or basketball court, and I wouldn’t think twice about attacking the task in front of me. Make it an endurance/distance event, however, and I’ll avoid it at all costs. Why would I want to put myself in a situation where I’m not comfortable and fear I won’t do well?

Despite this, I accepted the challenge I’m going to issue you and tried something different and totally outside my comfort zone. Actually, I tried two things outside my comfort zone — the Chicago Indoor Rowing Championships and a local 5K — and I’m still alive to tell about it.

First up was the Chicago Indoor Rowing Championships. I had known about this event for several months and reluctantly agreed to participate. In the months and weeks leading up to the competition, I kept telling myself I would get some rowing practice in and do a baseline 2K row. Every time I was about to get on the rower, I would talk myself out of it. I knew it was going to be very uncomfortable, so I kept putting it off. I kept thinking to myself, “How the heck am I going to survive rowing 2000 meters? So instead of attacking this challenge like I normally would, I let it get into my head and hold me back.

Flash forward to race day about 10 minutes before my flight starts. Here I am, sitting on the rower, for about only the 4th time in several months, warming up about to do something I never thought I could. 3, 2, 1…go. I start pulling and quickly settle into a pace that was comfortable. Wait a minute…this isn’t supposed to be comfortable…it’s supposed to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, right? Well it turns out I was wrong. All I had to do was focus on my breathing, take it one stroke at a time, and before I knew it I had less than 200m to go. My adrenaline kicked in and I rowed as fast as I could to the finish. The feeling of “I think I’m going to die” that I was certain would come following the race, never did. I survived. Not only did I survive, I actually had fun.

One event down, one to go; next up was a 5k run. I hate distance running more than ANYTHING. I would rather do 100 burpees than run anything longer than a 200m sprint. So why the heck did I sign up to run 3.1 miles? It all goes back to pushing my limits and going beyond my comfort zone. I’m never going to get better at distance running if I don’t do it. I even managed to do a tiny bit of “training” for the race. I use the word training loosely because it consisted of maybe 3 or 4 runs prior to the race at a very slow pace because that’s all I thought I could handle.

On the morning of the race my stomach is doing back flips. I am not looking forward this. The gun goes off, I start running and I find myself passing people left and right. My confidence is pretty high and I’m actually feeling good about the race at this point. That feeling quickly fades as I pass the one-mile marker, and things start to go south in my head. All I can think about is that I’ll never finish this race without walking. I still have more than two miles to go and I’m ready to stop. Instead of experiencing how good my body felt, how effortless the run was going up until that moment, and what a pleasant surprise it was to feel so good, I let my thoughts overwhelm my actual experience. That is until somewhere around mile two that I thought back to the rowing competition and how I had just concentrated on my breathing to get me through. I made the choice to just focus on my breathing and take it one step at a time. Before I knew it I was approaching the finish line. I had survived another distance event.

How can it be that I was wrong TWICE? I worked these events up in my mind to be way worse than they really were. I let my mental hurdles get the best of me. Luckily, I found that staying focused on my breathing kept my mind from thinking irrational thoughts. Knowing what I know now, I can’t promise I won’t ever have a mental block to distance events, but I can keep telling myself that it’s never as bad as it seems and push through any hurdles that come my way.

You can overcome mental hurdles, too. It’s just a matter of finding what method works for you. Perhaps simply staying focused and taking it one step or meter or rep at a time will get you through. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is a necessary evil when it comes to pushing our limits and moving forward.

So here is my challenge to you: Don’t be afraid of stepping outside your comfort zone. The next time you face a challenge (whether it is a single movement, whole workout, or event), don’t let your mental hurdles stop you from attacking it with everything you’ve got. You just might be surprised at what you can handle.