Ben Bergeron is the most successful CrossFit Coach in the world. As the current US President would add for effect, period. On the eve of the 2017 Games, he coached the male and female reigning champions to glory in 2016. Bergeron can claim a decade of coaching experience, three successful boxes and five CrossFit Games Champions. His online programming, Comptrain Masters, claims 18 Games Athletes and 73 Masters Qualifiers (Top 200) in the 2016 season.
So when Ben writes a book about the secrets of his success, maybe we should drop everything and read it. Or should we? Is ‘chasing excellence for everyone’?
In the book, Bergeron talks about a conversation he had with one of his athletes, Cole Sager, after he had just qualified for the 2016 Games. “You made it”, he says, “You ready to start working hard?”. Of course, Cole had already been working hard, harder than most of us can even begin to comprehend, but as Bergeron says, “at the Games, ‘world-class’ is just the price of admission”. In chasing excellence, Bergeron demands his athletes take it to the next level, that they commit to being focused on each minute of every day as a space to be perfected.
0.012 percent of the world’s athletes get to compete at the Games. Ben describes the training, nutrition, recovery, sleep and mindset of the last placed finisher as merely ‘competent’ compared to those chasing excellence – the top ten finishers. So if you’re not training to be better than the 0.012 percent, why would you read his book?
- For the stories. These alone are a great insight into the experiences and mindsets of the CrossFit athletes who won the Games last year. Many of Ben’s lessons start from the story of last year’s CF Games and his athletes. The book is a great read from this perspective alone as Ben takes us behind the scenes and into Katrin and Mat’s heads as events unfold from the surprise trip back to the ranch at Aromas to the cliffhanger (literally) of the women’s Peg Board / Thruster event (Redemption). The stories are one of the reasons that this book is such an enjoyable read.
- For the lessons. Ben believes that it is character that is at the base of a pyramid that makes champions and that unlike the idea of ‘talent’, character isn’t fixed. We can all develop the traits that go to build our character, no matter our starting point or age. So, even if you’re not aiming to win the Games, the lessons of the book be applied to every area of your life.
The Bergeron Pyramid
Most athletes and coaches are concerned with working on their ability (Strength conditioning and practice) and then execution / strategy (a game plan). Bergeron’s pyramid includes these (at the tip of the pyramid) but underneath is where he believes he adds value. The base of his pyramid is the person (their characteristics) and above that the process itself (maximizing every minute). These two areas is what his book is about.
The best way to understand this is to consider Katrin Davidsdottir’s testimony. In 2014, she narrowly missed out on qualifying the Games. After the final event of Regionals, she crashed from first place to sixth on the leaderboard. The rope climbs beat her, she lost the event in her head and gave up before the end. Still devastated, she received a text from Bergeron – “I know you might not see this right now, but this could be the best thing that ever happened to you.” At the time, Katrin wasn’t impressed, but today they both laugh at it and she knows he was right. Under Ben’s coaching since 2014, Katrin says, “I was getting fitter every day, but the real growth was happening between my ears. We did thrusters and pull-ups and lots of rope climbs, but what we really focused on was mindset.”
Ben’s athletes don’t talk about qualifying, they certainly don’t talk about winning. They focus on giving full effort in every single moment of every single day. They don’t compete against others. They compete against their own best self.
Each chapter intertwines great quotes, stories and a powerful message. What follows is my take-away from each chapter:
Commitment means being focused on each minute of every day as a space to be perfected.
Most of us aren’t training to win the Games but we can focus on long-term gain. We can commit to a process that leads to excellence in our own lives. We can, for example, “get up early to work out, …say no to crappy food, …carve out time for learning and mindfulness”.
Bergeron defines grit as “When things get hard, you push harder; when you fail, you get back up stronger; when you don’t see results, you don’t get discouraged, but you just continue to pound away day, after day, after day, with relentlessness, consistency, heart, and passion—that’s grit.”
This is hard, torture even at times. It’s why most people aspire to talent over grit. Why the virtuoso / genius Mozart is celebrated and we forget that “by the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands had become deformed because of the thousands of hours he spent playing and composing.”
Bergeron’s equation is: Talent + Grit = Unstoppable
Bergeron points out that almost two-thirds of English words convey the negative side of things. Positivity, therefore, he believes must be a learned behavior. His athletes soon learn that they “Never whine. Never complain. Never make excuses” because your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, and your actions dictate your destiny.
This positivity is related in the book back to the Games and Katrin’s mindset. It’s day two of the Games, the athletes are back from an arduous and long day of travelling and competing at the Ranch. In Katrin’s mind “she’s fresh and rested, while half the field is telling themselves they’re sleep-deprived and off their game.”
In a nutshell – what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
There are some great stories in this chapter that illustrate the importance of embracing adversity. From Katrin’s 2014 failure to qualify to the story of Brent Fikowski and how a torn labrum allowed him to use what psychologists call adversarial growth to turn a setback into an advantage.
“People want to do things they’re good at, because it makes them feel and look successful and provides a boost to the ego. It signals to those around them that they’re special, talented, gifted. The problem with limiting yourself to training, practicing, and living within your comfort zone is that it prevents you from growing and reaching your full potential.” Bergeron covers the overload principle and why your toughest days are your best days “because they have the potential to force the most adaptation—mentally, as well as physically.”
Bergeron explains how his definition of confidence is different from most saying, “people think confidence is the belief that you have the ability to win, or at least to compete with the best. But that’s not what confidence is, or where it comes from. Confidence has nothing to do with outcome. It can’t. Because I don’t care how good you are, but in most sports you aren’t going to “win” most of the time.”
In the equation, E + R = O (Event + Response = Outcome), most focus on the outcome, but successful athletes focus on the response. You can’t control the outcome but you can control “your competitive drive, your focus, positivity, perseverance, and grit, and whether you can maintain those characteristics when it matters most.”
For Ben, “ultimate confidence is the understanding that you simply need to find a way to give your best at every moment and every opportunity in order to measure up to your own standard of success.” By this definition some of Katrin’s greatest victories were in her weakest events and the Squat Clean Ladder and Legless Rope Climb events are used as illustrations of this.
You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hour rule. That to be world class at anything you need to devote 10,000 hours to practicing.
Mindlessly accumulating hours, though, is not enough. This chapter, then is about “deliberate practice” and the passion, without which, the former would not be possible.
Ben summarizes – “Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become. ”
He poses a by now familiar question, “Right now, in this minute, in these sixty seconds, what is it you should be doing to maximize your capabilities and results?”
If you are Mat or Katrin, this is every minute, 24/7. This isn’t something the vast majority of us can’t devote the time to, though. So does this mean there’s no lesson? I took the opposite from this – if I have less time to devote, my practice has to be deliberate to maximise the time I have. My seconds count more if anything, because I have less of them!
Ask yourself Ben’s questions: “what is it you should be doing to maximize your capabilities and results? Right now, should you be warming up? Are you moving through your warm-up with the most attention, the most care and effort, that you can bring to it? Right now, should you be training—and are you giving your training your all? Should you be recovering, eating, or sleeping? Are you giving each minute the respect it deserves? Every minute of your day is a building block that goes toward creating your success, your measure of excellence. Every minute deserves your utmost attention and commitment.”
What is the process? “Acknowledging where you are, identifying where you want to be, and breaking it down into pieces. Excellence is a matter of steps. Excel at this one, then that one, and then the one after that.”
When Bergeron started coaching Katrin in 2014 (already an elite CrossFitter by any standards) their focus for the first 6 weeks was the air squat. After she won the Games in 2015, they spent 6 months breaking down her Muscle Up before she was allowed to do even a single in a WoD.
British cycling is one of the most famous examples of the aggregation of marginal gains, believing that by improving everything the team did by 1 percent, believing that those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement. Bergeron concurs, “This is what the process is all about—habits. We are the sum of what we repeatedly do; we’re totally composed of the smallest details in our day.”
The process is all about detail and habit building.
The lessons for this chapter are illustrated by Mat Fraser’s response to a flurry of no-reps on his Ring Handstand Push Ups in the ‘Separator’ event at last year’s Games. He followed the advice on his tattoo which reads:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
For the process to work, Bergeron believes you have to learn to ignore the things you can’t control, and that “the next step is to identify the things you can control and should be focusing on.” For him these are training, nutrition, sleep, recovery, and mindset.
Next, he identifies five to ten specific daily tasks or habits that are essential to his athlete’s ability to make progress. For example, regarding sleep, “We dial in their sleep by tracking total hours and the quality of their sleep, as well as creating a nightly routine that promotes more restful nights.”
“Check your ego at the door” is a common motto on Box walls and that’s the message of this chapter, illustrated by Mat Fraser’s self-realisation after the 2015 Games that he needed to work on his running. Consequently, “he did what few athletes would have the humility to do—he reached out to the local high school track coach and asked if he could practice with the team a few nights a week. Then he got his ass handed to him two nights a week for six months.”
This, evidently, is double-loop learning. Where single-loop learners search for external factors to explain why they’re not succeeding, whereas “double-loop learners iterate, and then look inward for the solutions to problems that arise. They’re the kind of people who can take a hard look in the mirror and tell their reflection, “I’m the reason I’m not succeeding,” and then proactively change into a better version of themselves.”
“Competitive excellence is not a switch you can just flip on game day.” The best compete everyday. Bergeron explains that “regardless of your chosen profession, being the best means taking advantage of every opportunity that each day brings. Success is not achieved by an occasional heroic response, but with focused and sustained action. Excellence can only be achieved today—not yesterday or tomorrow—because they don’t exist in the present moment. It’s the not-so-hidden secret to extraordinary success: clarify what you really want, then work as hard as you can for as long as it takes.”
I’d never heard of a “clutch” performance. I assume it’s a common term in America but Ben explains, “Clutch, simply put, is the ability to do what you can do normally under immense pressure.”
The example is Katrin again and her performance on the Peg Board. Not an event she won, but one in which she gave full effort and outdid her previous best.
“When the stakes were at their highest, she was able to compete exactly the way she trains in the gym, when there are no stakes at all. She focused on the task, not the outcome; she adapted coolly in the face of adversity; she controlled her own performance and ignored her competitors; and she maintained her signature optimistic confidence that if she did everything she could, it would all work out.”
The traits she needed to do this – grit, optimism, focus, adaptability, determination, resilience – had already been forged in the crucible of training. As Bergeron points out, “Who you are on the competition floor is a reflection of who you are in practice—no more, no less.”
If you love CrossFit, you’ll love the stories and the book is worth the cover price for this alone, but it’s also so much more. Ben has an engaging and easy style. He peppers the chapters with great quotes and references to existing research on mindset, but he does so in a concise way. Unlike many similar books, Ben is great at getting to the point and it never feels like he is filling out the book to hit a word count.
The book is also a fantastic insight into the mindset of a Coach who believes that mindset and character are key. It’s hard to disagree when you read this book and consider his results. He believes the lessons and process will work for anyone and it’s hard to disagree that these ideas can’t be applied to anyone’s life. It won’t be easy (he promises it won’t be!), it will require grit and resilience and all the other traits he talks about, but you will only develop them by starting the process.
One of Ben’s chapter titles (and key character traits) is positivity. You’ll certainly come away from reading this book full of positivity. If some days you feel like you’re chasing something impossible, that you’re slipping behind, that your competitors are posting more workouts and volume on Facebook and nailing their nutrition better than you, this book gives you permission to forget about your numbers, leaderboards and rivals (you won’t find Ben’s athletes posting their workouts on Facebook). It gives you permission to focus on the process and to accept that your full effort is full victory. By living in the moment, not only are we likely to get better but we’re more likely to enjoy the journey and that, for me, is what makes the book worth buying whether you’re a Games athlete or Master who wants to be their own best version of themselves.
Ben finishes with a call to action. “The ideas in this book are only useful insofar as you can decide to apply them to your life, consistently, day in and day out…Go get to work.”
While you’re at it, get yourself a copy of Chasing Excellence.
Chasing Excellence by Ben Bergeron is available to download on amazon as an e-book or to buy as a paperback.
Ben is a great fan of Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist who has written about the importance of a growth mindset. Her book, Mindset is a great place to further explore the theory behind the practice.
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