The following essay explores one of the most profound ways I believe mindset can impact performance, using a variety of examples from my own athletic career.
I’m using myself as an example not to explain or justify my successes or failures as an athlete, but as that is the information I have immediate access to and my own mind is the only mind I can explore with complete honesty and transparency.
Though this article focuses exclusively on the concept of the “light-switch mentality” it is by no means the only mental aspect of competing needing to be trained for success and I’ll do my best to try and follow it up with some other thoughts I’ve had on the topic over the years.
I felt different competing this year at regionals. Neither bad or good. Just different.
In the days following the event, as is in my nature, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting and in the absence of a current training goal, turned my attention to the pursuit of knowledge on my favourite thing to reflect on, mindset.
The mind has fascinated me my entire life, specifically It’s potential for both greatness and destruction so I trawled databases, read articles and searched for as much information as I could consume (inbetween doing actual work I have on at the moment haha) on the subject, specifically within the context of sports performance.
I stumbled upon an article about a concept called “the light switch mentality” (link below).
The article talked about golfers on the PGA and how come Sunday (the final day of play) when the lowest ranked athlete has to take the green alone, the running joke is how fast will they play to just get the event over. This player is out of contention for the prize and probably playing poorly as is. They’re just going through the motions.
They’ve flicked the “light switch”.
The light switch mentality according to the article is “analogous with complacency or going through the motions. It usually occurs when a player is out of contention or playing poorly.”
An awareness of this switch may seem redundant to many athletes, as they believe they know when and if they’re trying to their full potential. However I think sometimes the light-switch mentality is more subtle than that.
In reflecting on my performance at regionals this year, I was stumped by some of the decisions I made in the heat of the moment, particularly when compared to how I’ve competed in the past. (note, I doubt changing what I did in these instances would have had much, if any baring on my result, that’s not what I’m saying, I’m simply noting that they were out of character and that is where my interest in highlighting them lies).
In the rope climbs I chose to chalk up between every rep to make sure of every climb – in training I had done the climbs in sets of 2 and last year didn’t chalk my hands once in the rope climb event. In the kettle bell deadlift workout I would break each of my second sets of deadlifts before the last rep / farmers carry, despite knowing that I would get to relieve my grip immediacy after and was able to do this unbroken comfortably in training, I chose to do this also, I wasn’t breaking because I couldn’t pick it up.
In the muscle up event on the round of 9 I split my reps 5/3/1, in training I went 5/4, twice. The last rep was always hard but I could do it, heck I was coming off the rings anyway I had a lot more to gain by going for the rep even if I failed it rather than choosing to stop. But stop I did. I chose to err on the side of caution (comfort even).
This is so different to how I would typically compete, why was I making these split second decisions this time around?
After reading the light switch mentality it dawned on me.
This is the first year I’ve ever gone into a competition comfortable with any outcome.
This was the first year I’ve competed with various other priorities on my mind, full time study, business, travel plans and several other projects I’m invested in, some of which arguably provide more internal value to me than the satisfaction of another Games trip.
In the past, making the Games has been EVERYTHING. There was no other option in competition.
However I wasn’t actively thinking of anything other than the task at hand whilst competing. I went out and gave my absolute all in each event and it was only in reflecting I realised I had made some really strange decisions at the time.
Also, after the drama before and during event two I was forced to make peace with the fact that something outside of my control (if I tore my pec) may ultimately decide the outcome of my campaign for a fourth CrossFit Games anyway.
And (after a brief emotional moment) I was totally cool with it. I got fired up and went at every subsequent event as hard as I could and walked away from the experience a happy man.
I think it was in that moment my “light-switch” changed.
Again – I’m not arguing that doing things differently would have affected the outcome of the weekend. I’m simply exploring a phenomenon, using myself as an example, to illustrate the way in which it could affect an athlete’s mindset (even subconsciously) in the hopes that others may learn from it.
I feel as if the light switch mentality has probably also existed when I’ve competed at the Games in the past, particularly the last year.
For me making the Games has always been enough of a victory that I’ve never approached competing there with the same desperation as regionals.
Do I think I would have won or placed in the top 10 with a different mindset?
No way in hell! However I would have probably walked away from them far less confused by my choices in the heat of the moment during many of the events.
So how can we use this idea of the light-switch mentality to improve performance?
I believe the key to a stronger, smarter mindset begins first with understanding how your mind is working. This is no easy task, as honest introspection is much harder than assessing how you perform physically. If we are poor runners, our running speed and technique is easily observable and measured objectively, by coaches, peers and ourselves. Our minds on the other hand are both subjective and exclusively our own, thus getting outside input into their nature will always be limited by our own understanding of our thoughts and our ability (and comfort) articulating those understandings to ourselves and others.
This ability to honestly reflect on your mental processes can help pinpoint potential “light-switch” triggers, both during competition and in training and keep those switches turned to where they should be to maximize success.
If you are training with the mindset that if at any point during the session you feel shitty, get tired or find yourself distracted then you can take your foot off the gas and just get through what you can, how do you think that will carry over to competition?
My training for the past six months has been littered with thoughts such as “I’ll get through what I can” and “I’ll still train but just take it easy.” Or “If there’s something on I want to go to I’ll just get through what I can before hand.”
At the time of training I was putting in as much effort as I thought I could and often that meant amazing sessions, but through honest introspection I can see that the types of thoughts I let myself think around training were light-switches being flicked long before I took the competition floor.
Knowledge is power and knowing how to sift through your mind for what thoughts are turning your switches away from success is the first step in developing a more productive and focused mindset. Once you’ve isolated some of these thoughts you can begin to figure out how to counter them. Mindfulness practices can quieten them, clear goal setting can help push through them and eliminating the things that allow these thoughts to exist can also help keep them at bay.
It’s also important to note the positive potential for this light switch mentality and the incredible mental fortitude required to capitalize on this. Being able to identify and eliminate any and all possible excuses and limitations to your success takes ruthless introspection and sacrifice. It is this kind of ruthless pursuit of one goal that separates the best in their games from the rest of us.
The original article I read / referenced can be found here: