Last weekend I judged my second CrossFit competition at ESPN Wide World of Sports called the Fit Challenge. The first competition I judged was about two years ago yet in both competitions I experienced the same interesting situation. Now CrossFit competitions are extremely intense. The athletes push themselves beyond their limits simply just to see what they are capable of. These athletes compete at this level not for awards or money, but simply for their personal satisfaction. Usually competitors bring an entourage with them. Their “team” is with them for support and encouragement. So it amazed me when instead of encouraging words, a team member barrages their competitor with insults and condescending comments.

I saw this type of situation during the first competition I judged, and I definitely saw it yesterday.

I was judging a work out where the athlete had to ride an airdyne bicycle (a stationary bicycle that uses both arms and legs) until they burned off 30 calories, then do 3 rounds of (100 foot Bear crawl and a 200 foot sandbag carry). They ended with another 10 calorie bicycle ride. This work out sounded easy, but it was one of the harder workouts I have seen. There was a 10 minute limit and many of the athletes didn’t finish the challenge. My job as Judge was to make sure they rode the bicycle for the correct amount of calories, make sure they were doing the Bear crawls with their hands flat, and to time them if they were able to finish the workout.

The first group I had was a group of men. They were young and fit and they were ready to take on the workout. Their friends and family were up in the stands cheering and yelling for them. When the workout started the cheers got louder and louder. The guy I had in my lane looked like he was in great shape. He started the bike section. The tension on the bicycle was very hard. It looked in a leisure bike ride if you were watching from the stands, but it was more like a steep up hill push. It took the guys about a minute and a half to burn the 30 calories. When they got off the bike, their arms and legs felt like jelly. They immediately started their Bear crawl. The Bear crawl is one of those moves that either people are really good or not so good. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground on Bear crawls. If you’re one of those people that aren’t so good at Bear crawls then trying to crawl a total of 300 feet is quite a challenge.

The guy in my lane was trying his best. He was at a slow crawl, but he was crawling. His shoulders were burning and his thighs were on fire, but he kept crawling. I was trying to inspire him. I told him to find a rhythm and keep walking. I told him to stay strong and finish strong. And he was doing his best. He made it through the first round of Bear crawls and sandbag run, and he started his second round of Bear crawls. Sweat was pouring off of his fore head, he was breathing heavy, and he was in a lot of pain. His second round of Bear crawls was a struggle. He stopped to rest for a second. As soon as he stopped, one of his teammates started screaming and yelling at him from the stands. His teammate yelled “get up, why did you stop, get up!” I cringed a little because I was standing right next to him and I knew why he stopped. He was in a lot of pain. He heard his teammate yell and so he decided to start crawling again. But he only lasted about 10 feet and he had to stop again. His teammate was furious. He started screaming “you loser, get up, what the heck are you doing, you are going to lose, get up, get up”.

The guy in my lane, looked over his shoulder up into the stands at his teammate. The teammate yelled “what the heck are you doing, get up, you’re not tired, you’re not tired”. The guy in my lane got angry. He turned back around and started to crawl. He crawled for another 20 feet then collapsed to his knees. His teammate started screaming again. This time his comments were explicit. The guy in my lane turned back around, looked at his teammate, gave him quite a dirty look, and yelled his own explicit comments back.

I truly felt like the guy in my lane was going to run into the stands and smack his teammate. He was angry.

I knew his teammate was trying to make him angry on purpose. His teammate was trying to get him all riled up so he could have energy to finish. But what happened was quite the opposite. The guy in my lane did get angry. But his anger and energy was directed toward his teammate and not toward finishing the challenge. Telling him that he was a loser wasn’t encouraging and telling him that he wasn’t tired, was only reminding him that he was tired.

I decided to yell my encouraging words louder than his teammate was yelling. I told him to listen to the music that was playing and crawl to the rhythm. I told him to think about just putting one foot in front of the other. He got back up and started crawling to the beat of the music. I kept yelling comments like “you are strong, this is easy for you, smooth and steady”. And he kept crawling and crawling.He finished the second round and then the third. He stumbled over to the bike and started his 10 calorie ride. The time was running out and the calories didn’t seem to be burning. He pushed and pushed and finally he was done.

He finished the work out just in the nick of time. After he finished he fell to the floor. He had used every ounce of energy inside his body. He had pushed himself beyond his limit, and he proved to himself that he was capable of accomplishing more than he thought he could. As he lay on the floor he looked up at me and said “Thank you, thank you for pushing me and believing in me. That really helped me push through”.  I told him he was welcome.

His teammate ran over to him and gave him a huge hug. He told him that he was proud of him and  that he knew that he could do it. I’m sure that it was true. His teammate wanted him to succeed and did believe in him. But what he didn’t know was that screaming and yelling demeaning, negative, and condescending statements is not the best way to encourage your athlete. When we anger athletes, their anger is directed toward what ever made them angry. And using statement like “don’t be a loser” and “you are not tired”, are actually telling the athlete that they are a loser and tired. The athlete hears the word “loser” and the word “tired” and if they weren’t thinking they were a loser and tired before, that statement will start them thinking they are.

Instead, we need to encourage, empower, and help our athletes find the strength within them. If you want to empower your athletes use words that are empowering. Use words like strong, powerful, rhythm, or easy. When the athlete hears these words they start to think that they are strong and powerful. They start to think that keeping a rhythm will make it easy. Remember what ever the athlete thinks is true. So if you tell the athlete they are a loser, they will act like a loser. If you mention the word tired, they will act like they are tired. If you tell the athletes they are strong, they will act strong. If you tell them they are powerful, they will act powerful.