Sunday, 1 November 2009

Check Yourself: Learning from Underperformance.

Intermediate and advanced CrossFitters are a confident bunch.  They are fitter than the vast majority of people they come in contact with, and they know it.  This confidence makes it much more painful when they don’t meet their own expectations.  Underperformance hurts. 

Underperformance is the best chance you’ll get to improve your own training and fitness. It’s time to reevaluate the efficacy of your programming, nutrition, mental outlook, recovery, and technique.  Why didn’t you perform up to your standards?  What can you do to improve your newly discovered weak points?

This post is longer than usual, but its vital relevance to your training merits its length. We will look at two top CrossFit athletes, Blair Morrison and Ricky Frausto, and examine how they have reacted to underperformance.  CrossFitters would do well to learn from Blair and Ricky’s intelligent responses to underperformance.  Each athlete has used underperformance as an opportunity to learn and improve, rather than as a catalyst for anger or denial.  Let’s start with Blair.

Blair finished in 7th place at the CrossFit Games.  His blog,, examines his efforts to train hard in the barren wasteland of Western Europe (barren as far as fitness goes at least.) 

A few days ago, Blair completed this workout:

With your bodyweight on the bar, do 5 rounds for time:

3 OH squat

6 Front squat

9 Back squat

12 situps

He completed the WOD in 11 minutes, which is by all means a pretty impressive performance.  But Blair was not satisfied:

“Last night's workout, the more I think about it, was very different from my usual WODs, perhaps revealing a hole in my programming. Looking back, I've subconsciously categorized squatting with weight as purely a strength exercise, meaning I never do it except on heavy days. Since I've been in the Netherlands, I think I've only included weighted squatting one time in a metabolic conditioning workout, and that was with 100 lb overhead squats during the Lullaby workout. Furthermore, I rarely combine similar movements into the same WOD, instead opting more for oppositional movements. Today, my legs are feeling this neglect.”

Blair has decided to address this “neglect” in his programming:

“Going forward I think I will try to include more "similar movement" groupings (squat complexes, clean complexes, snatch complexes, Bear complexes, etc.). In addition, I'm going to try and put variations of complex style workouts into metcon formats to help fill the hole exposed last night.”

Blair found a weakness and immediately started plotting a strategy to improve it.

Let’s look at our second case study: Ricky Frausto’s response to underperformance at the 2009 CrossFit Games.  Ricky came in 38th out of 74 athletes, a result which many CrossFitters would be happy to achieve.  But Ricky was not satisfied:

“I wasn’t totally pleased with how I performed. I didn’t necessarily feel as though it was a failure but it definitely wasn’t up to what I expect of myself. I blame myself for not preparing myself to to the fullest possible potential. I took it somewhat for granted. My diet was not where it should have been and I just didn’t give myself a chance to make it to day 2. I believe in myself to the point that I should have been in the top ten, if not higher. No excuses though, the unknown and unknowable is what I train for and I knew that going in but just didn’t give it my all in preparing. For this, I am sorry to all my fans out there. I give you guys my word that will never happen again. I will soon begin my journey into preparing for the fourth annual CrossFit games and I vow to be indestructable. The athletes will get better, the workouts will get tougher, but I will give myself the best opportunity to go head to head with the best and do damage.”

In a later post, Ricky revealed how he planned to change his programming in order to achieve this goal:

“I tend to gravitate towards the heavy and short met-cons but forget the importance of short met-cons that involve light weights as well as throwing in some light and long and/or heavy and longer in the mix as well…

So what I did yesterday was an example of changing it up a bit. I did full cleans (squat included) and ring dips. Usually in a workout like this, I would prescribe a heavier weight for the cleans kind of like Elizabeth but maybe even heavier than 135. Instead, I went with 88 pounds and decided to do ten reps of each movement for 10 rounds.  Now, the weight would not hold me back. My mind would be the culprit now. Could I push through when it would feel as though my heart would jump out of my chest?”

Ricky, as we all do, had a bias in his metcon workouts.  Sure, he reached a very high level of fitness with this bias.  But as with all long-term biases, it came to hurt his performance in the end.  Rather than clinging to the familiar, Ricky chose to confront the uncomfortable. 

So now we have seen how two very fit athletes have responded to underperformance.  Now let’s turn to you.  Have you performed at a lower level than you were expecting?  How did you react? What are you going to do about it?

Post thoughts to comments. 


TexasPatrick said...

Guys, you're doing a bang up job. Really really appreciate the help here. Even if JBT is Dread Pirate Roberts: Sleep well Hoffman, most likely kill you in the morning . . . .

Tsypkin said...

You would deserve it, Hoffman.

traucer777 said...

funny you bring this up. i just had something like this happen a few weeks ago.
ive been doing my own programing for a while now with a kind of strength bias, which was going well until i plateaued disgustingly bad.
stepped back looked at my programing and tried to figure out what was wrong.
-serious lack of rest and recovery, skool+ physically demanding job+ Crossfit+ church+ rest of life= little time for sleep. and i hadnt taken a rest cycle since July and it was October
-lack of focusing on the fundamentals.
-unwitting cherry picking WODs that i liked and was good at. for example: after looking back over my progaming i realized i hadnt done a single OHS in over 6 months. O_O

-Black out my room's windows, and actually set myself a bed time. made a WORLD of a difference.
how long should a crossfiter go in between a rest cycle? ive heard 6-8 weeks. that sound about right?

-Finally bought a subscription to the CFJ. From there i realized just HOW important fundamentals were, and why. (Russ helped with some explaining of their importance as well)

-Switched to the actual Crossfit Strength bias. i didnt know something like that existed before.

-ive made a list of all the movements in Crossfit. now i make sure i get AT LEAST one of each somewhere somehow once a week. also gonna make sure i get at least one long WOD in per week.

ive been feeling stronger already after only 2 weeks. then freaking irritatingly enough i caught the flu. i was SO pissed. ive been out for a week and a half now.
BUUUT im back again tomorrow, its gonna suck how much ive lost.

Jay Ashman said...

All of us, me included, have had some cases in our athletic careers that have ended in busts. When I did the Hybrid Challenge in September I didn't do as well as I expected. My assessment of that was because I underestimated the toughness of the events, I didn't do enough heavy metcon work over 5-10 min domains and stuck to work from 2-4 minutes, that hurt my conditioning bad.

What I did was take a step back and analyzed my training and then I decided I need to challenge myself more with certain benchmarks, work my legs and leg endurance a lot more and capitalize on my natural size and make myself even stronger.

Do I need to be stronger? Yes. As my strength goes up, so does my conditioning. Its always been that way for my entire athletic career.

So I devised a hybrid program designed to make me stronger in key areas and utilize a more constantly varied approach to my conditioning workouts.

I tweaked my diet to allow for more recovery and more calories to support this higher volume workout, but it has been paying off so far. I've been hitting higher numbers in weights, while increasing my metcon capabilities. While I am no Jason Khalipa, I'd like to think that for my weight class (230+) I am one of the fittest CrossFitters out there.

In sports you have a different approach. Oftentimes our training is determined by the coaching staff or strength coach, unless you are playing a club sport.

When you perform at a subpar level you have to ask your coach what he sees in practice and your strength coach what they see from you in the weight room. Oftentimes you may know where you went wrong, but you may not know how to fix it. This is where being humble and opening your ears comes into play. This has happened to me in college and for my NFL workout, and the coaching staff always explicitly told me what I was subpar on and I worked harder at fixing those things.

If you suck in practice you will suck in the game, period. If your training and gym time is lacking in one area, bet your fucking ass come contest time you will be pissed at yourself.

One thing I have learned in my years as a high school, college and D1 men's rugby athletic career, coaching and my training career is that you NEED to keep emotions and ego in check on the field and in training. You won't be able to accurately plan an attack if you are emotionally distraught over it.

Accept it, move on, analyze and do your best to fix it for next time.

This may seem obvious, but you will be surprised how hard it is to look in the mirror and make a choice to work on things you underperformed on. But to be a champion (not just on the field, but in your eyes) you have to do it.

Tsypkin said...

Great post Jay.

Whitney said...

I listen to my trainers when I feel like I'm struggling or sucking at something. Funny thing happens... I stop sucking. Much appreciated guys!

TexasPatrick said...

Do you guys think you can spot holes in your own training as you go along or is that something you can only do to yourself AFTER when you've sat and looked what happened? Is it the coach watching you who can spot the holes as they're are showing themselves? Or some combination?

osatts said...

This is something that until recently I had been quite blasé about.

I follow a 5 on, 2 off format and I used the programming format found in one of the CFJ (can't remember which issue off hand). However, my programming wasn't really well balanced i.e having a lighter, skill based day mid-week to leave some juice in the tank for Thursday and Fridays WODs.

Up until recently this hadn't been an issue. However - my body started to fall apart from 5 straight days of heavy lifting and heavy metcons. Sleep quality went out the window and carb cravings were huge!

Something had to give as, even though I was still setting PRs, PRs were only being broken by a second or two on WODs that hadn't been undertaken for 6 months or more. Therefore, something did give...psycologically.

Allowing myself to not feel guilty about taking a lower intensity, skills based day during my week, instead of 5 full throttle WODs, left my physically and mentally fresh everyday, allowed more recovery time, more time to prepare good meals AND most importantly more fuel in the tank at the end of the week.

Last Friday (30th Oct), I hit 27 rounds of Cindy in a 10kg vest, when my unvested PR stands at only 32!

If I had tried this WOD 6+ weeks ago I think 20 would have been a challenge! Who do I have to thank for this structure change? Well, to be frank, it comes down to me (a control freak) handing my reigns over to Jacob. He has taken over my programming for the past 6 weeks and I now have a fresh pair of eyes looking at my development and for that I am grateful.

Stepping back and reviewing the structure of your programming is probably the most beneficial action we can take, if we truly wish to become elite.

Thanks for helping me see the light!

Jay Ashman said...

Texas Patrick - it is a combination of both.

osatts - good call. Even with being smarter a 5 on 2 off programming tends to get very hard to maintain. I tried it, and I recover well, but it added up and forced me to do my 2-1-3-1 schedule now. Good call reassessing that and learning.

Russ said...


Excellent self-analysis. This is exactly what I was talking about in the article.

I have a few questions and answers for you.

What physically demanding job do you have?

How many hours have your slept per night for the past 4 nights? Which hours?

Paying for the CFJ is an excellent first step. The amount of information available there will keep you improving intellectually and practically for years.

You are starting with the CFSB ramp up program right?

I recommend an extended period of rest every 2-3 months. I often do a week, but some people do well on 4-5 days.

How did today's workout go?

Getting sick is often a sign of over-stressing by the way. I know it is in me. Acne is a good signal too.

Good luck with your training. keep me updated.

Russ said...

I can't believe I forgot to ask you about what you eat. Also, do you drink alcohol?

Russ said...


There is a gem in there about how you changed your diet in expectation of the changing demands of your training. A lot of people don't understand that direct link.

I also think you're right on about the role of the ego in self-evaluation. That's why I called this one "Check Yourself."

Thanks for your input.

Russ said...

Osatts (Owen),

That's the best vested Cindy score I've ever seen. Pretty sure it's a world record. Congrats.

How's the back doing?

Jay Ashman said...

Russ, anytime. Dietary changes are a must when your volume increases, or else you will pretty much open the door for overtraining

traucer777 said...

Didnt do any WODs cuz my cough hasnt quite gone away yet, gonna wait till its more/mostly gone before I go back….

1st my job:
i am a maintenance worker at my old Junior High.
as such my job is pretty random, but recently my job has consisted mostly of painting just about the entire school by myself, setting up and tearing down 80-100 chairs with a corresponding amount of tables, power the main walking areas, fixing/replacing just about everything that can possibly break aka lights, ceiling fans. in short i’m on my feet all day.

2nd sleep schedule
its pretty much follows these times +/- 15 min on when i go to bed, but i wake up at these times exactly to get to school or work on time:
Sun night~1-8= 7
Mon "night"~1am-9:30am=8.5 hrs
Tues night~ 1-8= 7hrs
Wed "night" 1:30-9:30= 8 hrs
Thur night 1-9:45
Fri "night" depends entirely on the night :) but i usually end up with at least 10 sometimes 11 hrs of sleep
Sat night 1:30-8

3rd CFSB ramp up
ive heard about it but was unable to find anything concrete on it. if its just not diving in shooting for PRs straight away, ive definitely been doing that. made sure i started well under the 20% of 1RM for a starting point. then depending on the lift took an amount of weight off so that i could get near the 20% on the last ascending set of 5.
ex. for 3x5 Back Squat my 1RM is 285, so i did 185, 205, 220.

4. as to stress i dont think that had anything to do with me being sick. i havent gotten sick in over a year, which leads me to believe it was just my turn to get sick.
the fact that i go to community college, i work at a school, and ive recently been to a few concerts doesnt help my chances of NOT catching something. i probably just picked up from someone who didnt know they were sick yet :-/
lastly diet.
no i dont drink. im 20 and have actually managed to get through life without having a single drop. but at this point im just getting to 21 so i could say i did it.

as to food intake,
i TRY to eat the whole: lean meats, fruits, veggies, seeds, nuts, good oils etc. But because my mom controls what food is available such fine fuels can be scarce at my house. Ive tried to explain what foods are good to have around to my mom, but all she seems to remember from our conversations is that there should always be fruit of some kind available. Which usually just means making sure there are apples, maybe oranges available, that and carrots. which when I eat to much has some interesting effects on my digestion if u get my drift. :-|
ive essentially been surviving off of apples, pears, oranges, PB&Js, walnuts, milk, oatmeal, occasionally bacon and eggs. However this only accounts for about half of my total calories. The other half come from fast food of some sort, whether its from the work cafeteria, school roach coach, or regular Carls Jr and what not.

I KNOW nutrition is my weak point. And it BUGS THE HECK OUT OF ME, because I can feel the poor quality holding me back.
But I have no choice,
its all thats available. Again I would LOVE to be able to buy and cook my own food, but even suggesting such things, my mom takes in offense. Its a problem… a HUGE problem.
There is a reason im skinny, and its only partially because I crossfit...

Sorry about that rant. Its just that a prime example my poor nutrition has occurred this very night and only adds to my ire.
Due to the lack of available food my dinner consisted of a poptart, a fried microwave chicken pattie sandwich, a bit of chicken breast the size of my index finger and middle fingers together (to make my mom happy, it tasted like death), then a medium sized bowl of greek yogurt and granola mixed together. Im probably gonna end up going and getting Carls later tonight once my mom goes to sleep so she doesnt get mad at me.

Russ said...


People have made progress on way more stressful jobs, so that shouldn't be a problem. Steve Smith took some time off of fighting in Iraq to compete in the Games.

Your sleep isn't that bad. Get more if you can.

You're not getting enough protein. If you are going to eat fast food, then make it as good as possible. Get as much lean meat as possible; minimize bread, fries, etc.

The ramp-up program is explicitly mentioned in the Strength Bias article in the Journal. You must have read over it. Re-read it and apply it. They say in the article that they've never seen anyone succeed without doing the on ramp.

anywherefit said...

Great posts and great responses. Honored you guys chose me as an example.

traucer777 said...

ill keep the fast food lean meats in mind.

and as much as i hate supplements do you think it would be worth buying just a simple protein shake, like Syntha 6?

as to the "ramp up" part of strength bias, i used the search function to try and find it and the word "ramp" didnt even show up.
ill just reread it at skool tomorrow.

Russ said...

You are right, Traucer, the article does not use the term "ramp-up." Check page 7 though for the "Entry Phase/Introductory Cycle."

Also, the authors make a very important point which I think most people have overlooked (myself included in the past.) They say that it doesn't make sense to focus on strength development if correct mechanics aren't present.

I can't urge you enough to keep working on perfecting your deadlift, squat, and overhead lift form.

traucer777 said...

but of course. ive personally always been a stickler for form. i would really like to have all my facilities when im older. ive seen too many old people who have trouble just doing basic things like walking, or sitting in a chair because of bad knees, bad back and wtvr. i vow to not become one of them...

i also film myself for a reason, besides just having videos to show off...

Russ said...


Are those videos on your facebook profile? I'll see how you're doing there.