13 things I learned from the 2016 Open

Posted by Christie Johnson on

So the Open is over for another year. For many of us, this gruelling 5-week test of athleticism and mental toughness represented the culmination of a long year of training and preparation. Now, as we switch from participants to spectators for the remainder of the Games season, it can be helpful to pause and reflect on what we have just experienced. To that end I present, in no particular order, some of my personal take-aways from this year’s Open:

  1. It’s all about community.

It’s a bit of cliché in Crossfit circles, but the Open really is one of the best opportunities to see the Crossfit community in action. We always support each other, but having members turn up to the gym not to train but simply to cheer on their fellow members is unique to Open season. Judging within the box environment is another Open exclusive that gives us the opportunity to encourage each other through every single rep. And when else do you to do a workout with your friends and trainers coaching you every step of the way?

  1. It’s more fun if everyone participates.

Unless you are seriously injured there are no excuses for not getting involved in the Open, especially now that there are scaled options available. It’s the “ordinary” Crossfitters (an obvious oxymoron – you’re all extraordinary!) that make the Open so amazing. If you don’t join in because you doubt your abilities you’re not only missing out yourself, but you’re denying your friends the opportunity to watch you achieve more than you thought possible. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that some of my biggest highlights from this year’s Open involved people who thought they couldn’t do it proving themselves wrong – sometimes spectacularly so!  From those who lifted their 1rm (or more) for reps in 16.2, to those who got their first (and second, third, etc) bar muscle-ups in 16.3, to my coach completing all the workouts despite being heavily pregnant, there’s nothing more exciting than watching people smash through their expectations. Watching the elite athletes perform is impressive, but we know they can do all the tricks. Often the greatest excitement comes from watching those who are trying things they’ve always considered out of reach. So next year I will be unapologetically pressuring all my fellow box members to sign up – for my sake as much as theirs!

  1. Treat yourself like an athlete.

One of the cool things about the Open is that, with something on the line every week, I’ve noticed a lot of us starting to treat ourselves more like athletes. To maximise our performance we pay attention to our nutrition, listen to our bodies, try to get enough sleep and take sufficient rest days. Which is great, and my advice is – don’t stop now! Why should this care be limited only to Open season? You and I are athletes all year round. Let’s act like it!

  1. Find a great support team, and listen to them.

For me, the 2016 Open was unique because for the first time I was carrying an injury. Less than a week before 16.1 was announced I hurt my shoulder/upper back doing a bar muscle-up. This experience taught me a few things, but one of the main ones was that it is critical to have the right people on your support team, and to listen to their advice! I am lucky enough to have access to awesome therapists who are also Crossfitters, and they gave me detailed descriptions of which exercises I should and shouldn’t do. Thankfully, by following their instructions to the letter, I was able to complete all the workouts with something close to full intensity. It’s not always easy to rest when you want to train, or to have the discipline to modify or skip elements of a class when you want to join in, but the rewards are worth it. I also learned that there are always exercises you can do that will help you become a better athlete, so you can keep progressing without compromising your recovery. That’s where knowledgeable coaches and therapists who understand Crossfit are worth their weight in gold.

  1. If you want to do well in the Open, you can’t have any weaknesses.

There used to be a feeling that the Open was all about work-capacity, with strength and skills taking a back seat. 2016 taught us that is no longer the case. Dave Castro gave us a series of workouts that, in my opinion, did a reasonable job of testing a broad spectrum of athleticism while still being inclusive and practical for a box setting. Most workouts combined higher-level skills (chest-to-bar pull-ups, double-unders, handstand push-ups, bar muscle-ups etc) with strength elements and the ubiquitous work-capacity tests. So if you were less than well-rounded, there was nowhere to hide. Which brings me to my next point…

  1. There’s so much to work on!

It can be pretty confronting to have your weaknesses highlighted on the world-wide leaderboard, but there’s nothing like it for lighting a fire in your belly to spur you on to greater improvement. After my first open, when my double-unders had failed me abysmally during 14.1, I committed to practicing them at home every day until I could do sets of 30 consistently. While I no longer do this, I’m still reaping the benefits of that period of attacking a weakness. This year highlighted a number of weaknesses for me, but foremost among them was my squatting strength, which really let me down in 16.2. Squat cleans have been a bit of a nemesis movement for me since the Schwartz’s Challenge last year, and this year I am committed to doing as many strength cycles as it takes to bring my squatting strength up to the standard of the rest of my abilities. I also need to work on my engine, and get more comfortable with the new handstand push-up standard. I’m sure you have your own list. This is a great opportunity to commit to focusing on those movements you were dreading this year, so that next year you’ll be able to take them in your stride!

  1. Getting comfortable out of your comfort zone.

I’m sure most of you, like me, have an extra gear that you engage when performing in a competitive situation. I like to think that I push myself in training, but five weeks of Open workouts has made it clear to me just how much harder I can go when I really try…and how much it takes out of me! My next post-Open resolution is to try to reach that level of intensity more often during training, to work towards become mentally and physically comfortable with performing at that level, and recovering afterwards. After all, most competitions don’t give you the luxury of a week to recover between workouts!

  1. You don’t need much time to train if you do it right.

Open workout 16.2 lasted 12 minutes for me, and I could barely move for 2 hours afterwards. I felt no need to train again that day. For me this was a practical confirmation of what science has been telling us: short, high-intensity training is just as good as, if not better than, long, moderate-intensity training. Great news if you’re time poor!

  1. It’s all in your head.

The 2016 Open once again brought home to me the importance of having a strong mental game. Like all competitions, it’s a great opportunity to practice skills such as staying calm and focused during a workout, blocking out negative self-talk, learning when to pace and when to push towards your redline, setting goals for a workout, and finding the sweet spot between too much and too little adrenaline. But it also provides a unique mental challenge because, unlike most competitions, you have the chance to assess your performance and repeat if you think you can do better. This is not always a good thing for me, as I have a tendency to obsess over how I could improve or what I could do differently. This year I repeated two workouts, 16.2 and 16.3, and in each case I was not able to improve on my original score (although I did improve my tie-break time in 16.2). This helped me learn to assess my performance more realistically, and taught me to appreciate when I had given my best effort.  

10. Focus on the things you can control.

One of the problems with the Open is that, because the workouts are not known in advance, it’s difficult to set goals that are not based on your ranking. I dislike this sort of goal, because it depends as much on everyone else’s performance as my own, and I have no control over that. In the end I achieved my goal of placing in the top 200 in Australia, but my ranking slipped a little from last year. There could be many reasons for this – perhaps my injury affected me, or perhaps the workouts suited me better last year, or maybe there are just more great athletes on the leaderboard this year. One thing is for certain – it doesn’t mean I have not improved! By every measure I am fitter and stronger than I was last year. So the lesson for me is to focus on my own benchmarks – the things I can control – and not get caught up in rankings.

11. There’s always next year.

I have to confess that I was quite upset when I got injured so close to the Open, and I was also disappointed to rank (marginally) lower this year than last. Particularly as a slightly older athlete (I will be 36 this year) it is easy to feel like time is running out, and missed opportunities may never come again. But every time I start to get into that mindset I turn my attention to our awesome Masters athletes. Some I know personally and some I only know on the leaderboard, but they are all amazing and inspire me so much! They prove that age is no barrier to success, and if I work hard I can expect to be performing at a high level for many years to come.  

12. Integrity matters!

I couldn’t write a reflection on the 2016 Open without some reference to “Bridgesgate”. I have a lot of respect for Josh Bridges as an athlete, but I was heartened to see the Crossfit community come together with a groundswell of defence of good movement standards. This was a good personal reminder to keep focusing on the quality of my movements, so that even under pressure muscle memory will ensure my reps stay good. But more importantly it was a reminder that integrity matters. That when my judge miscounts the reps in my favour the right thing to do is to correct her. That when I’m judging it’s important that I tell my athlete if their movement is starting to get a little short. There will always be those who try to see what they can get away with. But as a community we must not fall into the trap of lowering our standards to the lowest common denominator. Together we are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the sport we love.

13. Burpees suck!

Can I get an amen?!?

(Alright, I knew that one already.)

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