Awhile ago I decided to crack open a new book - Mastery by George Leonard. It had been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, and for some reason I was drawn to it (probably because it looks like a short, quick read). The entire premise of the book is about finding joy and fulfillment in the continual learning of a certain craft or skill. The author practices Aikido, which is a modern form of Japanese martial arts.
After only 10 pages I said to myself, “Everyone who CrossFits® needs to read this”.
Sure enough, as the pages kept turning and my highlighter kept highlighting, I realized that this book should be standard reading for all athletes pursuing CrossFit mastery. It has profoundly impacted my thoughts about coaching, progress, and plateaus - across my training, and daily life.
In today’s modern, addictive “quick hit” society, the thought of long-term pursuit of a goal seems relatively foreign. Everyone assumes that goals should happen fast with as little effort as possible. Cutting corners is too often a way of life, and if it can’t be done quickly then there’s no time for it. Plateaus are seen as the enemy and are considered something that should never happen.
While as silly as these titles sound, “Work Hard For Two Years & See Your Abs!” or “Drop your body fat by 2% in the next 6 months!” would sell approximately zero copies. Slow and steady progress just isn’t as attractive.
In Mastery, the author presents an interesting take on the pursuit of a goal, craft, or skill. He outlines four archetypes for achievement. Below I’m going to make some insights specifically about what they might mean for us as fitness athletes pursuing CrossFit Mastery.
The Dabbler is that person who goes from being COMPLETELY all-in about their training, but quickly falls off the wagon and reverts backwards. Often they see quick progress in the first few weeks or months, but eventually as progress plateaus and/or they’re faced with obstacles, they quit.
Scenario: It’s January 1, and your friend announces that they're going to join CrossFit. You're pumped, but nervous when they quickly jump in and start attending 6 days per week... sometimes twice a day.
The end of January rolls around, and they walk out of the gym with you to your car.
“That was fun, but I think I'm going to join a spin studio in February," they inform you.
"But... you were going so many classes... I thought you really liked it?"
“Well yeah bit was great at first, but pull-ups seem to be pretty hard, so I think it's time to try something new!" your friend exclaims, oddly proud of their decision.
The Obsessive is prominent throughout life - and I would imagine many people reading this could fall into this mode of thinking if they are not careful. Here is a quote from the book:
“The Obsessive starts out by making robust progress. His first spurt is just what he expected. But when he inevitably regresses and finds himself on a plateau, he simply won’t accept it. He redoubles his effort. He pushes himself mercilessly. He refuses to accept his bosses’ and colleagues’ [and coaches’] counsel of moderation … When the fall occurs, The Obsessive is likely to get hurt …”
The Obsessive is someone who won’t accept a plateau. Instead of enjoying the “pursuit of a healthy lifestyle”, they want it all right now; they don’t want to wait.
In other words, instead of making small, reasonable changes with their training and lifestyle across time, they attempt to COMPLETELY optimize it all at once.
They’re in the corner of the gym googling, "What does an elite athlete eat? What supplements do I need to get stronger?” - and then the next day have set up a shipment of 14 different vitamins and supplements is already in the mail.
Any step forward is worth the effort, no matter what the cost may be. They focus on every single tiny detail to a point where they drive others around them crazy, and they also do it to themselves. Progress turns into insanity which then turns into quitting.
Look at the end of The Obsessive graph - the drop. That’s the part where it all comes crashing down. This might happen in a few months, or even a few years. Regardless, sooner or later The Obsessive will have a breakdown and fall away, never wanting to return.
When it comes to living a long, happy, and healthy life, do you think burning out on extremes like this is a good idea in the long run? You might even end up even less healthy compared to the beginning of their journey.
The Hacker is probably the lesser of these three evils. However, The Hacker will never understand mastery. They have holes in their game, and they’re perfectly fine with it.
Take nutrition as an example. Keto, IIFYM, Paleo, 6-Pack Secrets, etc... the Hacker is looking for a new quick win. Sure, we can applaud them for trying to be diligent in the search for the optimal diet, but usually their blind faith to one fad diet prevents them from seeing the best results.
"But grains and potatoes are BAD!" they protest (LOL).
(Yet they have no idea why they are declaring this, they just know their diet says so).
Know someone who thinks Paleo is the best diet, yet can't seem to get as lean as they'd like? They can’t figure out why their longer metcons are suffering despite every effort to “crush it”? ... you've possibly met a Hacker.
Do they ever actually attempt to educate themselves on their diet, or explore if it’s the best fit? No way, because they’re okay with being a Hacker. Here’s what the author has to say:
“After sort of getting the hang of a thing, he or she is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely. He doesn’t mind skipping stages essential to the development of mastery if he can just go out and hack around with fellow hackers.”
Just to be clear, I’m not calling everyone who follows these diets a “hacker”. If you’ve stuck with the program for a long time and you’re seeing great results - that is awesome. However, if five years ago you were “Atkins”, two years ago you were “Paleo”, and now you are “Keto”... 😉
This is important: the Master isn’t worried about what others think.
A CrossFit Master doesn’t beat themselves up about a bad performance day, they just keep practicing. They keep chugging along and seek virtuosity - even if only incrementally.
And in relation to training, here are the keys to CrossFit Mastery when learning a new skill: Adherence, Progress, Adjustment, Rest.
Don't try to hack the system or do too many things at once. Instead, start simple. Make a plan, have a program in place, and track your progress over time. This is exactly the course that we follow in our Strict Pull-up Strength program. Check out an example of our milestone checklist below:
What about plateaus in training? They are perfectly normal. As long as they stay dedicated to their practice, a plateau is simply one step before their next growth spurt. It excites them, and they respect it.
The authors words are profound:
“There’s really no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it. The curve above is necessarily idealized. In the actual learning experience, progress is less regular; the upward spurts vary; the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way. But the general progression is almost always the same. To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so - and this is the inexorable fact of the journey - you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”
Pretty heavy stuff, right?
Moving forward this week, I urge you to enjoy the process. And take some time to ask yourself: Am I a Dabbler, Obsessive, or Hacker? Am I willing to accept the Master’s Journey (practice, practice, and more practice)?
As always, I really hope that you enjoyed this. At a training level, if you feel prompted to work on becoming a “Master”, we are here to help
Before you go, please comment below - which archetype are you?
Honestly, before I found CrossFit I was definitely The Dabbler, and when I first starting getting competitive I probably switched to The Obsessive. Thankfully, I like to think that I’m currently on the Master’s Journey, have a long way to go, and that’s perfectly fine with me 🙂
Lastly, do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Mastery by George Leonard. It will change the way your approach fitness, training, and so many other aspects of your life!
Disclaimer: WODprep is not associated with CrossFit® in any way and opinions are separate from the CrossFit® brand.
The CEO and Head Coach at WODprep, Ben is passionate about helping fitness athletes of all abilities get their competitive edge and learn new skills! He's currently living in Denver, Colorado with his wife and two dogs, and whenever possible the two love to travel and explore new places around the world (and meet new WODprep athletes).
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