What makes a great athlete? Certainly to reach elite status at any level of any sport you need to have certain physical attributes. But, besides an impressive clean and jerk or the ability to make muscle-ups look flawless, what do the top one percent have in common?
And what can we —everyone from aspiring competitors to mere mortals just trying to get strong— learn from them?
“People haven’t looked at the success principles beyond the numbers, as to why these people are so good,” said James Fitzgerald, the first-ever CrossFit Games champion and the brainchild behind the new Mixed Modal course that aims to do just that. “It would be very easy for people to look at scores in the [CrossFit] Open or Games leaderboard and say ,’That’s what I need to score.’ But there’s a lot [more] that goes into that.”
Enter the Key Performance Indicators (KPI), which Fitzgerald has poured years of data and hands-on expertise from top coaches and athletes into compiling. (Read more about the course here.) The decade-in-the-making results are expansive. There are physical components of where athletes need to be with gymnastics capacity (which uses the classic 30 ring muscle-ups for time test) or strength battery (which requires you to perform max repetitions at a high percentage of your max).
But the most intriguing takeaways from KPI —which Fitzgerald will address in depth at next month’s Wodapalooza Fitness Festival—aren’t physical tests. They’re the global attributes, which offer insights into how elite athletes truly separate themselves from the pack.
Here are eight global indicators Mixed Modal has identified as key to taking your performance to the next level, and sustaining that success. Think of it as a bird’s eye view of how to step up your game, no matter what your goals are.
AN EFFICIENT MOVER
“That’s first and foremost among these athletes,” Fitzgerald said. “And it’s defined by whatever positions the sport has you get into. You have to be able to not only get in those positions but to be able to create work around those positions is one of the keys.”
It’s important to note that the best athletes aren’t just efficient movers barefoot squatting. In a sport like CrossFit, or even weightlifting, it has to be about movement under heavy load, under fatigue and under metabolic conditioning.
It means if you have tighter right hip relative to your left hip, and see a slight knee valgus on that side well that’s likely going to catch up for you at some point. For people that aren’t super resilient —which is 99 percent of us— poor movement is going to add up over time.
A HIGH LEVEL OF RESILIENCE
Which brings us to our next key trait in the best athletes. You have to be able to do things well and with the least amount of effort and thinking possible. A very resilient person has a ton of capacity.
But what about those people we see on Instagram lifting massive weights with poor technique? If Athlete X does it, why shouldn’t we?
“Without calling anyone out, there’s a few females that had gotten really good in the sport and then over the past year or two had really traumatic or career-ending injuries,” Fitzgerald said. “If you go back to looking at the five or six years before that, it’s the small [negligible] performance things that eventually add up to causing a system breakdown over time. Everyone argues the four or five years of success they had. I’m saying if you don’t pick on those kinds of small things, it may come back to haunt you.”
Of course, Fitzgerald acknowledges, it may not if you have the capacity to get past those things. Some people can move poorly and not get hurt, initially. And elites are often the most gifted to be able to cover for those things. But as volume increases and intensity increases, your resiliency has to be higher. Once it becomes too much, injuries and breakdowns occur. Everyone has a level of too much.
A SELF PACER
“We define that as a self-organizing method of getting through work more efficiently than others,” Fitzgerald explained. “They know when to not go [to their] threshold and when to hold back. We see this really clearly not just among the best, but those who continue to improve within the sport.”
Those who have the ability to pace naturally may often find themselves ahead of the curve in most CrossFit settings. We have to utilize our energy systems efficiently, as we’ve written about, and it’s no coincidence that the top athletes have an uncanny ability to pace. A lot of them are born with it or have developed from a young age. If you struggle here, it’s time to start working on it in training.
Genetics definitely plays a role when you look at the overall data of the best athletes and that’s something you can’t control. But those who have a low VO2 max expression, or are prone to injuries and immune disruptions can improve the same as those who are have more power as opposed to extensive endurance. You can out-train your genetics, but only up to a certain point.
“In the end when it comes to a higher competitive pool, they’re going to run into trouble,” Fitzgerald said.
That’s why no amount of hard work and willpower is going to get you to the Olympics. It has to be a combination of talent and good genes to go along with it. Still, there’s no reason you can’t seek out YOUR maximum genetic potential.
Rhythm trumps everything in an athlete’s lifestyle and is the umbrella that nutrition and other important recovery factors in.
Elite athletes have consistent workouts. They don’t get up at 2 a.m. and workout one morning and then take a three-hour nap and workout late the next night. They have rhythm in their lifestyle and in their training plan. Fitzgerald likens it to NHL player’s pregame routine.
“They have their own mantras, their certain nuances. They always put their left skate on before their right, etc.,” he said.
Find a plan and an approach that allows you to be consistent. Long-term consistency is key.
PROPER SPORTS INTENT
Why are you doing this? “It’s not really morals or ethics, but when people are doing the sport for the right reasons internally..it generally ends up being good long term,” Fitzgerald said. “If they don’t it for the right reasons, like popularity or looking good naked, competing always ends up in burn out or failure or they can’t hang on a few years down the road because they didn’t achieve the right base.”
There’s nothing wrong with valuing aesthetics over athletics. Just remember that you can’t work towards both at the same time. Eventually they will contradict. Elite athletes have a clear vision and a clear “why” for what they are doing.
HIGH FITNESS IQ
This is similar to resilience, but also involves an intelligence quotient. People with a high fitness IQ are generally very disciplined and incredibly self-aware. They’re able to evaluate themselves on a high level.
“Do you know why you are doing what you are doing and how good are you at that?,” Fitzgerald said. “If something isn’t that good and they aren’t aware of it, we are calling them unconscious incompetent individuals. Our first step is to move them to some sort of conscious incompetence. where they know they aren’t the best at a lot of things. Then we move them to conscious competence when they start to get better and recognize it.”
The ultimate level is unconscious competence, when an athlete is doing something extremely well and isn’t aware of how much better they are than the rest of the field.
EXTENSIVE SPORTS CULTURE KNOWLEDGE
This is commonly a missing link and, to be a successful athlete, is something that needs to be incredibly high. Basically it boils down to knowing the rules, the current state of affairs with sanctioning and the nuances of movement stipulations. In CrossFit, you should be familiar with who the top 10 athletes are, for a sport like weightlifting, you should know the national qualifying totals and what the placing totals have been over the past few years.
“It’s so, so important to be knowledgeable of the sport,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s often overlooked, to know the training programs, know how to do the qualifiers, what it feels like to create a training program, to prepare for a competition, etc.”