Friday, July 30, 2010

What is mental toughness?

That is me during my workouts.

#1 I just got back from Switzerland. If you haven't been. Go. Right now.

#2 I never remember what I have written about on this thingamajig, so if I repeat things in my posts, get over it.

#3 I'm not going to say much in this post, I'm going to let my brother's letter do all the talking (he doesn't know I'm posting this. He'll probably be upset. I'm ok with that).

I was struggling a couple months ago with feeling like I was mentally weak. I saw all these amazing athletes around me that, during the hardest of workouts, never had one look of pain or struggle across their face. They appeared to be immune to the torture. I never felt that way when I was working out. I feared workouts. I feared getting under heavy weights. I feared the pain that was to be inflicted upon me via thrusters. Because I feared so often, I was certain that I had some rare, possibly fatal, medical condition.

My brother Casey got his degree in physics which basically means he knows everything. Therefore, I burden him with all of my questions about life, liberty and the pursuit of chocolate. I wrote him an email asking him, as an olympic athlete, what he thought it meant to be "mentally tough". The letter he wrote to me seriously changed my life. I am not saying that I am mentally tough by any means, but I at least have a better understanding of how to go about becoming a better person each day. I read this letter almost everyday and it has gotten me through many times of self doubt. It is long, but I promise you won't be disappointed if you read the whole thing..especially if you feel like you may have the same medical condition that I had a couple months ago.

"First, you need to decide what you are going to do. This may sound like a simple step, or like you've already done it, but let me tell you, it's the hardest, and most important step in being tough. Once you make the commitment to do something, then almost nothing can stop you. This is why it took me so long to decide to come back to lifting. I knew once I committed, nothing was going to stop me from achieving my goals, no matter what the costs, or how much workouts sucked, or how badly my body felt.

So with you, you have to really really really decide that the Crossfit Games are what you want to do. Once you decide this, the process will be easy. When you commit, it's easier to block weaknesses out of your head, and workouts will seem like steps forward to your goal, rather than burdens. When you commit, I really believe you can do anything. Really take this decision seriously though, because if you only "half" decide you want to do it, or do it for "fun", then you shouldn't even worry about Regionals, and just train whenever you want to and not care about how a workout goes. If you decide to do it for "fun", then you can't be bothered by any performance at Regionals or any meet, because you decided not to take it seriously.

Now, either decision in your case wouldn't be a bad one (in my opinion), just make sure you stick to your choice wholeheartedly. I read a great book recently, and it talked about how when someone commits to something, they should do it all the way, and be satisfied with whatever the outcome. So if you commit to the Games and start training as hard as you can, you have to be comfortable with the possibility that you may succeed tremendously, or fail miserably (in terms of winning and losing). The important thing is that you committed, and you did everything you could to make it happen. Trust me, if you do that, the thoughts about winning and losing seem to almost disappear. It's about overcoming yourself, and pushing yourself to become greater than you were the day before, that's what really matters.

I'm reading a great book right now, and while I don't agree with a lot of points (it's an atheist book that talks a lot about being selfish), it has a lot of great points about pushing yourself to your highest potential. He talks mostly about pushing yourself in terms of knowledge and creativity, but I think a lot of it applies to life as well. Basically, every decision you make should be a conscious one in becoming a better person. Every decision you make has meaning to it, and you pursue a better self constantly. The friends you choose, the people you surround yourself with, the food you eat, the books you read, the television you watch, how much sleep you get, everything should be a stern decision that makes you go in a better direction than the one you're headed towards. Surround yourself with people who want to make themselves better, and who in turn push you to make you better.

One of the big points in the book is the "will to power", which basically means that when you conquer yourself and get rid of everything that has once held you back, you can "will" yourself to do anything. This is really difficult to achieve, but think about how much it could help if you just strive for it. If every time you have a bad day, or feel a negative emotion, or have a bad workout, you "will" yourself out of the poor mindset, refusing to let it beat you down, and just continue your journey in becoming the best you can be. I'm not saying you can be like this every day, but the important issue is that you are truly DOING it. You'll slip up, you'll still have bad days, but as long as your moving forward, and not letting yourself continue to slip, then there's nothing you can't do.

Mental toughness for me has always been hard to explain. I've never really thought that I was mentally tough, but the reason why I was successful in meets is because I KNEW what I was capable of. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to quit lifting, or give up, but I didn't because I committed to what I was doing. That was one thing Mom and Dad taught us that is invaluable; to never quit. When you commit to whatever it is in life, make sure it's a positive direction, and just don't quit. Fight with all of your being to achieve what you set out to, and know that you're becoming a better person because of it. So even if you have a bad day, or hate Crossfit, or lifting, or school, or whatever it is, you can still have the confidence that what you're doing is making you better in some way, and that is a beautiful feeling.

A lot of this may not seem like it pertains to mental toughness, but when you think about it, what does that mean anyway? Toughness means you fight through pain, or discomfort, and continue striving forward. But why would you do this in the first place? It seems against our nature to put ourselves through pain and discomfort, so why bother? The answer is this; because we are committed to making ourselves better, committed to be something greater than what we currently are. Think about the people who are tough, the one thing they have in common is that they've committed to something. Whether it's becoming healthy, smarter, a better parent, or a Crossfit Games champion, they decided it was what they wanted, and they didn't care how hard it became, or what obstacles showed up, nothing was going to stop them from following through with the decision they made.

The last thing I'm going to say is that while all of this seems draining, and challenging, it also has to be fun. Commitments can be joyous, they don't have to be discouraging and hard all the time. I committed to being a husband, that doesn't mean it's a burden. It's challenging, and tough at times, but I love every minute of it because I DECIDED that it was what I wanted to be. So take comfort in knowing that no matter what decision you make, or what direction you want to pursue, it's going to be amazing because it's your path, your decision, your direction. There's beauty in the successes and the failures of your journey. Soak up every ounce of it and know that you're becoming a better human being. "


  1. Thanks for sharing Sage. I've never met Casey, but he's definitely on point BIG TIME and sounds like a great bro!

    -Deric Maruquin

  2. Ohmygawd Sage! I love your family! This letter is amazing and totally spoke to me and motivated me...and I may have cut and paste it into a word document so that I can put it up and remind myself of this important message everyday.

    It reminded me of this guy I knew in university who swam on the swim team and was a competitive triathlete. His technique was gorgeous and he was one of those people who could push himself harder than even Phelps and not look like he was trying. I was doing a lot of competitive running when I knew him and at one point had stress fractures in my shins. I had to do a lot of crosstraining and swimming to keep up my endurance but something that didn't compact my legs and further damage my legs (if only I knew about Crossfit back then!). I saw him everyday at the pool and usually it was his 2nd or 3rd workout of the day.

    One day I asked him how he could tolerate multiple workouts in freezing cold water, and constant skin and eye iritations from chlorine - not to mention the heart and lungs of steel to put in that kind of mileage. He basically said the exact same message as your brother - that it didn't feel like a burden to him because he didn't feel like he had a choice - and he didn't mean that in a "ball and chain kind of a way", but in a "as sure as he was going to wake up, breathe in and out, and eat - he was going to swim. It was never a question of "if" he would train, but "what time." He made the choice to compete and he knew that meant he had to give it his best effort.

    I think it is so powerful and emotionally has me choked up that your brother would take the time to express all of that to you in writing. I have an older brother who was also an ex-olympian (winter olympian). I know he would do the exact same thing for me if I had the kahunas to admit that I frequently have the same fear related medical condition. I usually just choke it and stuff it down where no one can see it. You've now inspired me to ask him the same question when I see him next.

    This is why I love you Burgeners. You are like the "Will Smith's" of Crossfit. Your family goes even beyond the bonds of the family unit (which in and of itself is a powerful thing - and you guys have nailed it!) but you are also a solid unified TEAM. I can't really describe it, I just know it when I see it, and know enough to know it is a rare and magical thing. I think all people need to be raised in that kind of an environment...or at least if more kids were raised in that kind of an environment I think the world would be an even better place.

    It makes me feel awesome just knowing people like you and families like yours really do exist. It inspires me to want to be better every day. I love how humble and appreciative you are for each and every blessing.

    So THANKS bunches and bunches for the inspiration!

  3. Wow. Thank you so much for the kind words.

  4. Great Post! I'm doing my first O lifting meet tomorrow and am beyond nervous for it. I'm actually wearing one of Casey's singlets! I hope I can live up to that honor in some small way. After reading this I am only going to think about accomplishing my lifts instead of dwelling on the bad things that could happen. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

  5. #1. I would like to but I've been banned.
    #2. I'm older than you, therefore I repeat myself more often than you. Get over it.
    #3. Your brother rocks, as does most of the rest of your family except Rocky who farts.

  6. i am blessed as a parent! wow! how proud i am of all my kids!

    coach b

  7. Amazing, thank you for posting.

  8. Sage,

    Thanks for sharing this. I think so many of us go through that "is this what I want... what do I want..." As a CrossFit Coach, Regionals Competitor, Full Time Nurse, Full TIme Single Mom, I have been in this place more than once. Heading into the Texas Regionals I was RIGHT here!

    I hope my clients and the other women of CrossFit Texas that look to find these answers can find the same appreciation as I did of your brothers letter.

    May I link it to your site from my blog? It is Crossfit Mom/Coach related blog.

    Shannon I

  9. Wow!

    #1 Thanks for posting this wonderful, personal blog
    #2 I too am much older and repeat myself way too much...ask my kids!
    #3 I will be doing my Crossfit OLY cert in Dallas Sept. 25/26 and very much hope your dad "THE" OLY guy will be there. If you are there too, that will be great. I've watched Crossfit videos of you OLY lifts and your form is spectacular!

    I too am a Crossfit Competitor, #6 finisher at the South Southern Central Regionals. We weakest events are those that include OLY lifts. Having gotten started in the Crossfit competition world late in life, I wonder if it is worth it, if I should continue.

    I needed your brothers words right now.

    BTW, is there any truth to the rumor he couldn't complete a FRAN?

  10. Shannon- Of course you can link to my blog! Thanks!

    Kelly- no that is not true, my brother actually got a spectacular fran time! Thanks for asking though!

  11. Wow, those are some awesome words of wisdom from Casey! I too suffer from the same medical condition Sage, must run in our family! I had a rough time with my WOD this morning where I wanted to quit..definitely needed to read this today. Miss you guys!--Rebecca

  12. Thank you for sharing. What a wonderful, loving family you have. Thanks for sharing those words of wisdom, they were just what I needed to hear today. What a blessing!

  13. Thank you so much for posting this Sage!
    The last couple of days I've been feeling old, slow, heavy, and like my squat depth sucks. Your brother's words have inspired me to suck it up and hit the WOD hard today.
    Thank you both!
    ps. Would love to know the name of the atheist book he mentioned.

  14. Hey Sage,
    Thank you for sharing!amazing words of wisdom from your big brother.
    You and your family are inspirational~
    Stay real and go forth to become all that you were created to be!

  15. Great post! (As usual) What are the titles of the books that he refers to??!


  16. I love your Blog- you never know how your feelings and thoughts will inspire someone else. I read your brother's letter and it totally resonates with my struggles right now....I am going to read that as a motivator as I continue to become a better lifter, Crossfitter (is that a word?dunno) and human being. You are a smart woman- at such a young age- you rock!

  17. Hey Sage...Steve Seapker here. When I read this letter( and the rest of this blog for that matter) I was so proud of the both of you. It's been a privelege to watch the both of you grow up into a pair of truly wonderful human beings.