Arousal and Aggression in CrossFit

liftlikelindseyI find myself in the midst of a sport psychology problem that I feel is probably pretty common, especially among women who are relatively new CrossFitters – being aggressive under the bar.

Aggression is not something that I am comfortable with, and I would guess a lot of other women feel that way too.  I didn’t play sports growing up, but I did dance competitively for a number of years.  Although dance requires a high degree of athleticism and skill, it was not particularly helpful in teaching me how to be aggressive.

“Aggressive” can be a loaded term, so I am going to provide a working definition to give this post context: making an all-out effort to win or succeed.

CrossFit programming at my gym is generally structured so that for the first half of class, we are working on one of the big lifts – back squat, front squat, overhead press, clean, clean and jerk, or snatch.  The point of this component of the WOD is to build strength, so we are working at or near our one rep max most of the time.

Frankly, this scares the hell out of me.  I like to feel challenged in my workouts, but my comfort zone ends well before the point of failure, particularly when I am working with what I perceive to be a lot of weight or on a movement I’m not proficient in (ahem, snatch).  I like feeling fully in control of the movement I am doing and knowing with 100% certainty that I can handle the load.  This makes me rather conservative when deciding what weight to use during a workout and it also means I’m consistently under-performing because I am reluctant to push myself to the point where success in a lift is a question mark.

I also have a bias against ugly reps.  Maybe that is an artifact from my dance days, the belief that the execution of a movement needs to be aesthetically pleasing in order to be considered acceptable.  Technique and safety are obviously important, and I’m not trying to say otherwise, but a rep shouldn’t look or feel effortless, especially when you are pushing your limits.  However, my issue is not just on weight selection for a workout, it is also in my approach and attitude when working at a one rep max or attempting a new PR.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being effortless and 10 being impossible, if a lift feels like an 8 or higher (depending on my comfort level with the lift), I throw in the towel at the first sign of struggle, which is a shame.  I made up my mind that it was too heavy and I wasn’t capable without really giving myself a chance in the first place; therefore, I didn’t fight for the rep or give all-out effort.  So, the obvious outcome is I fail the rep, I stall my progress, and I chip away at my confidence.

My lack of aggression is due to two things in my opinion – lack of arousal and lack of confidence.


Arousal is two-fold, with both a physical and mental component.  In sport psychology, I learned about the inverted “U” theory of arousal, which basically states that as arousal increases, so does performance, but only up to a certain point.  After that point, any further increases in arousal actually inhibit athletic performance.  Where the tipping point is varies from individual to individual.  Therefore, my optimal arousal level may be different than yours.  In addition, the type of sport will often influence a person’s optimal arousal level for peak performance.  For instance, my optimal arousal level if I am playing golf is probably going to be significantly lower than my optimal arousal level if I’m doing a CrossFit competition.  Based on my research, OVER-arousal tends to be a more common problem in athletes than UNDER-arousal, which is what I’m struggling with.  There are some excellent charts here that show the relationship between arousal and performance.


I’m not sharing anything earth-shattering by telling you that confidence impacts performance.  I can tell you that I don’t approach the bar with confidence consistently when I’m attempting a new PR or working near my one rep max.  I tend to think about how weak or tired I feel, how I barely completed a rep at that weight last time and that it was probably a fluke, how I might get injured if something goes wrong, or how embarrassing it would be to fail the rep.  I’m distracted, I’m self-conscious, and I’m fearful.  Can I really be surprised by a poor outcome with that kind of approach?

I’m treating myself as my own sport psychology case study, and have already begun implementing some changes to how I prepare for CrossFit and how I approach a lift.  Preliminary results are good, so I am hoping that I have some helpful ideas to share with you in a follow-up post if you are struggling with similar issues!


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