What James Fitzgerald, a CrossFit Champion, Can Teach Us About Mental Toughness

Since 2007, CrossFit has organized a competition, “The CrossFit Games,” in an attempt to test the fittest men and women on the planet.

CrossFit Games

I remember watching the 2009 Games and being glued to my screen in awe by how tough the events looked. I couldn’t fathom how most of the athletes were still alive after the hammering they took on the first day, let alone how they must have felt after that weekend.

James Fitzgerald at the 2009 CrossFit Games

James Fitzgerald

Today we’re talking to one of those athletes, James Fitzgerald, the winner of the 2007 CrossFit Games, and a competitor in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 Games. The mental strength and toughness I watched him display during those 2009 Games was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. I literally thought that he might die, but watched him continue to push himself harder and harder.

In this interview, we talk about his experiences competing in the Games, and also about his training, coaching program, and other insights from his life. Enjoy!

James Fitzgerald Interview

Full Transcript

Spencer: So first question, before discovering CrossFit, what were you doing for physical activity?

James: Through high school, basically I had physical activity through sport, and fitness wasn’t even registered in the conscious. And then I had an injury and that led me into understanding through physical therapy how you had to do conditioning in order to get better. And then through doing physical conditioning as to how to get better, that led me to understand how important physical conditioning or general physical prep or fitness could have made all my previous experiences in sport a whole lot better. So I just started going down the road on trying to understand exercise physiology. So, I went through university and through those periods of time, fitness just like most people, only let’s just say fifteen to twenty years ago fitness was bodybuilding really. Bodybuilding or aerobics or competitive athletics, that’s pretty much what it was and people have different philosophies on what that could have been but pretty much that’s all it was. It was either strength conditioning and bodybuilding and then there was different families within that so that was my physical activity preference for many years just going through bodybuilding, power lifting, strength conditioning and basically just trying to understand principles of strength conditioning for numerous years, up to 2005 in which I discovered CrossFit and basically had a complete shift in perspective on what conditioning is and if listeners don’t understand what CrossFit is then to come from a conditioning background of just strength and conditioning, it was kind of faux pas to start doing touch and go power cleans and running along with it. So I had to do it in my basement on my own because I’d be shun basically from the strength conditioning community. But I learned a bunch of things because I was open minded to basically just seeing things like what this piece of fitness is and it went from there basically.

Spencer: From the power lifting and the other conditioning programs you were doing, were you getting results from those?

James: Yeah, well when it was specific relative to what I was trying to do. So if we go back to that period of time for strength conditioning, my goal was like every kid and coach who was reading Muscle Media 2000 or on forums with Dan Duchaine or interviews with Charles Poliquin or Mauro Di Pasquale or these legends online, your basically trying to figure out how to get increased lean mass and stay as lean as possible so for me and my makeup it was really hard for me to gain lean mass so basically I did see progress but it was half and half because I also wanted to teach other people about it too and I saw their progresses in terms of what it took in order to get there so it upgraded my own prescription. For lean mass development when I focused on it specifically, I did get it and I had the secrets of how to do it best for me and obviously with doing it with hundreds of clients, I also found ways of improving that prescription and when it came to just getting stronger I was also capable of doing that too when I followed a specific program. So to answer your question, yeah, when I specialised in specific areas there was progress.

Spencer: And what motivated you to switch to CrossFit? Or to at least, not switch but take a look?

James: Yeah, I get your question. I think it was a natural evolution of that fifty, fifty that I said, that fifty percent of me was conditioning just to stay in shape and look good and the other fifty percent was a learning piece so I was still a student and I still am a student and trying to learn from what’s the best fitness prescription and the more and more you go down that rabbit hole you start to discover that there is no perfect fitness prescription because everyone is so individual based on what they want to do and they hold the key for their goals for that but when I did change, it led me down this path of this awakening and being more open to a whole different perspective.

Spencer: I want to talk a bit about that too, when you switched to CrossFit because I was watching your video of you speaking online and I believe it was at the Black Box Summit it was a presentation where you were saying that CrossFit showed you that you weren’t as tough as you thought. Can you expand on that a bit?

James: Yeah, the toughness piece probably came from my vocabulary because I was doing a toughest man alive competition. This was in 2001, 2000 where there was the toughest firemen alive. There were different kinds of competitions on a full-day event that myself and my colleagues used to participate in and it was your version of toughness so basically it was a full day event with standardized tests and measurements. For example, a rope climb for speed, eighty meters sprint, hundred meters swim sprint, a 5k trail run, bench press maximum, strict chin up (pronated maximum), obstacle course and something else and this was in the form of a day right… And so there was a bunch of different fitness test measures and so I thought that with my conditioning, it was tough but really with all my experiences with what I know in terms of energy system training too, I had either done strength training protocols, so short kind of, even with weight training up to intervals, nothing more than like a minute let’s say, okay? And then I also did lots of running because running was mixed in with all those programs as well and my conditioning. And I always was a good runner even when I started gaining weight through those bodybuilding and power lifting protocols, I was still competing in running. And I continued to do that as I started CrossFit as well so I was either at two ends of the spectrum. I was either doing short, fast, heavy, shit or longer stuff. And this middle ground piece, I believe is the thing that people get caught up in, in terms of understanding CrossFit too. I think it’s the most potent piece of fitness that we as coaches have to work with, but when I say potent, I mean if used incorrectly, it’s horrible. And so, if used correctly, I think it’s magical and almost spiritual as weird as it sounds. So, that piece in CrossFit, I discovered, and was completely not in my vocabulary so I couldn’t even resonate with it as to what it felt like to go that hard for three to five to seven minutes because I had done this real short shit and this long stuff and so when I started doing that stuff, there was stuff in my psyche that really challenged my makeup and so it said ‘you thought you were tough’, if toughness being fitness in my eyes and then I’m given a whole different perspective on it. Then I realized that that mental transformation had to occur and it did, it taught me a lot over time. I’m very grateful for that.

Spencer: And you talked about a guy, Brett Marshal AFT, is that correct? And you said that he basically kicked your ass for like a year or two in a row. What was that like, going through that?

James: It was more than a couple years. For more than two years. I think we started together because we were training partners from 2000. What people seem to forget about Brett and I, is that we experienced a lot of stuff together for many years. So from 2000 up till really, 2007 or 8, we pretty much went head to head on whatever we did. Even before CrossFit and it was just a great partnership as guys who know, when you have a good training partner, it’s very tough to come by but they’re invaluable. So then we started to do CrossFit stuff relative also to Brett being busy with doing some coaching and also firefighting. We all got caught up in this CrossFit phenomenon because it was this new thing that we tried to understand in terms of fitness. So I would basically come in every morning, early every morning because that was my workout time and just hammer that workout. And every workout that was posted, we put our scores on the board and of course, Brett would come in later in the day trying to fit it in because he was so busy. And he would nail it every time and beat me by a couple seconds here and there, sometimes just smash it and he had periods which people don’t seem to recognize because he came second place at the games, the first games, the first year. He did stuff in terms of physical capabilities that people don’t recognize; you can’t comprehend based upon his bodyweight and his power output. It’s kind of like the stuff that Josh Bridges is doing today if you recognize that name. If you know his bodyweight and power output, if you were to put a power meter on him, Brett had that same kind of power meter in the infancy of the sport which was ridiculous. Anyway, side note, yeah he would basically come in and kick the crap out of me for those scores for a number of years and then of course the games came up and we were like ‘man, we’ve been doing this every morning, every day now for a couple of years, let’s just get together with all these guys’. We wanted to see Josh Everett and compete against Jeremy Teale and test our strengths against Brett Berry and Chris Spealer and a number of guys that we were looking up to. We were hoping Greg Amundson was going to show up too but he wasn’t able to that year. So we went down there in basically hopes to see those guys basically. We’d been online friends for a while and Josh Bridges was on there at the time too but he couldn’t compete, I think he was gone away on work but yeah, Brett would take me down on all those workouts for a couple of years but the way the stars aligned in 2007 is that I just edged him out based upon just the strength lifts. On the Sunday we had a CrossFit total and I got him on a few pounds and that was the only difference. Otherwise I think the histories would have changed tremendously.

Spencer: And that was in the 2007 games?

James: Yes.

Spencer: Was Brett – you were in the 2008 games right?

James: Yes.

Spencer: Was Brett as well, in those ones?

James: Yes. Brett didn’t plan on competing in the 2008 games but he came down and Dave Castro met him on that day or the day before and was like ‘hey man, we can fit you into a spot if you want’? Brett was like ‘yeah, okay’. And knowing his abilities – I’ll back this up. First and foremost, Brett and I were smashed from 2007 so we basically culminated a few months of hard training and we got there and we were wrecked. So we were happy, and it was fun, but we were wrecked. So for a couple months after we were like ‘well, I’m not sure if we want to go back and do that stuff again’. And then 2008, I hadn’t planned on doing it either but there was a movie coming up and all the drama that went on with that and the continued participation in the sport and stuff so I forced it and forced it and really I was injured and keep getting injured myself but it led into the 2008 games which was the movie compilation ‘Every Second Counts’. Yeah, so he went down there and didn’t plan on participating because the night before he had downed a couple of burgers and had a smoothie and a fricken milkshake and it was a funny story and anyways, but if you go back and look at those scores for that day, I mean those are Brett’s workouts. You know, besides the heavy deadlift burpee event, because the deadlift wasn’t his strength relative to the one RM but that’s his shit, that was his style. But then Sunday, with the repetitions and the amount of work that he had to do for the higher power work, he just wasn’t prepped physically relative to the demand for that workout. Whereas if he had stayed training and probably not had a couple weeks being off on training, if he had trained specifically for that, I would argue that he would have been in the top five of the 2008 games as well. But that last workout just took a beating on him and, when we got to like rep twenty, twenty one, or eighteen and like Khalipa is done and everyone starts finishing and you’re out there all alone in that little cage and you’re like ‘let’s just get this over with’. It didn’t come down to like seconds in time then, it was basically like ‘Jesus, this is embarrassing, let’s just stop this’ but you knew you just had to finish, otherwise it would be like fiftieth place. Brett had that mentality, he was either going to win it or he was going to come a hundredth and that was what I liked about him. And that’s why, when you look at his scores and where he finished, it’s not relative to how he finished that year and people who were around at that time knew that too.

Spencer: And in the 2009 games, those are the ones when there was that chipper at the end, I believe I watched this online. You looked like you were going to die.

James: Yeah, that was one of the toughest ones. I haven’t participated fully in all the 2010/2011 games so no comment on that but the 2009 games was quite challenging. Again I was not planning on competing. After 2008 with the drama, I went through a big emotional checkup on who I was and what I wanted to do and I really got caught up in OPT and not who I was as a person and a coach, so I wanted to go down that road and still to this day, I want to share CrossFit and coaching with people. And there’s some disparities and loss of perception on where that is, I’m not sure where that got started but I wanted since the 2008 games, to start teaching people about this and I still do it to this day. It’s pretty much my full time gig, within it I get lots of great fitness prescriptions but I still coach people within that sport. So I wanted to do the same thing going into 2009 but Greg and Dave called me up and said ‘you know, it’s going to be the biggest one yet’ and it’s like ‘Jesus, how do I say no to that’ and I remember the phone call was May and I started training, I still have my log and it’s actually right here ironically. I keep it real close to me. I have the log of all the training that I did specifically every day, up to – I even had May 30th and every workout that I had planned as well as what I had leading up what it would look like. So I planned out specifically after the phone call from Greg and Dave, what that plan would look like. So I did it like that, where I would give exact examples of what it was going to be and what style of training right up to the games right or wrong. That’s July 10th so pretty much you can see there I had like six weeks of training that whole year because really I wasn’t training. I was training maybe two or three times a week because I was coaching other people and getting them interested in it. And my business was rising doing strength and conditioning. So basically when it came down to it, I didn’t train long enough right… I had six weeks of high peak training which is great, which got me to Sunday but I barely made it through that hill, you ask anyone that did the hill sprint, with the sand bags, that was one of the worst workouts ever. That was just ridiculously painful.

Spencer: And was that like 200 meters up the hill?

James: I’m not sure brother, it felt like a kilometer. But after that and then doing the row, I was lucky on the row, that was a stupid event. I was lucky on the row because every time I hit that thing it was going down like two inches so it was just a row and hit that and come back. I wasn’t as unlucky as some of the other guys with the positioning. The row didn’t wreck me that much but that did, the hill climb and then that night the snatch and the wall balls. I was working on enzymes, I was probably working on my twelve year old enzymes, I was digging deep, way down where seventy five pounds felt like a hundred and fifty pounds. I was doing singles, to give you an example for seventy five pound squat snatch. That’ll give you a perspective as to how messed up I was and then I had to try and do three workouts the next day. I didn’t sleep that night, I tried to eat a lot on Saturday night. I started at a hundred and sixty seven pounds on Friday, I was one fifty nine on Sunday morning. Perspective. And this was with trying to keep all food in. If you look at the pictures too, I was pretty messed up. And then after the second workout, the first one was a snatch, it was heavy so it didn’t mess me up nervous system wise. The second one, I dug in and luckily enough, based on my bodyweight, it was only me and Miko and Pat Burke that didn’t have a problem with the handstand pushups and getting through things. And Jason as well but anyhow, I was able to get through that and still have a good standing and you’re just willing it in your head and from that workout up until the next one, there was stuff going on in my body like peeing little droplets of golden nuggets to peeing for two minutes straight to cramping in my abdominal section to my vision starting to close in. I’d go into the bathroom and use the bathroom and look in the mirror and start to almost break down. So there was stuff going on and I was like ‘you know, this is not good’. But you try to will yourself, try to do a couple of muscle ups because I knew they were in the first part of the workout, I think and then I started cramping in my breaker radialis and my VMO so I was like ‘hey, let’s get on the table and start loosening it up’ and as soon as they started touching me and moving stuff, my body just started to go into a shut down mode. And I know what that felt like in terms of the descriptions that other athletes had given me, from some endurance athletes actually, from artman and some long distance stuff. And your brain plays this nasty back and forth of you can will yourself to do it and then you try and yeah. So it was upsetting because I was going against what my body said but it is what it is.

Spencer: How long did it take to recover from that? From that whole episode?

James: I had to do lots of medical intervention pretty much. My adrenals took a big smash as well as all anabolic hormones. I had the hormones of a ninety two year old for months and months after that. So it took me till Christmas to basically come around just from that. Because that period of training and pushing it past what you’re supposed to, it took me a while. I haven’t really recovered from that since, in terms of performances and stuff. But I tried to rework the system and so for the following games the year after I was like ‘okay, Christmas forward, I just want to be healthy again’ and I took that attitude going into the next games that I just wanted to be just healthy fitness, not CrossFit because I knew that I wasn’t as good as a shit load of other guys that were in there but I was lucky enough to be able to go in there and compete. I was happy that I was just able to be there for that. And then I switched gears after that year and I said, ‘I’m going to give it a go again’ and I really thought half way through the year like coming into November, December, January, I was making claims that I was going to win this again or I was going to come back and do this because I thought in my head ‘it’s my feeling, I can say what I want’ but I really thought that I was going to be able to do it. And for my training year, leading up to the games 2011, things were going that way where I’d done some good competitions on my own. I was basically stronger than ever because the game had changed in terms of being strong and I revamped the system and learned a lot from what I was doing in coaching other people as to how to be in this sport and do it effectively and plan it. So I really thought that was going to be a good year and good time and then yeah, some stuff happened where there seemed to be a little bit of miscommunication and there seemed to be some sort of kind of thin air disparity between OPT and CrossFit that arised. And I’m not sure where that came from but it kind of just soured me and I went back to my little hole and just coaching people and forgot about myself. I felt a little off in terms of being a competitor again for that.

Spencer: Was that around the time you were motivated to develop the certification program for coaches or did you already have that in place?

James: No that was in place. That was in place early 2010 so I had been doing that coaching program for over a year, twelve, fourteen, fifteen months.

Spencer: And what was your motivation to develop that coaching program?

James: Yeah, man. I guess it’s just evolution because I was coaching for such a long period of time and you get so many clients across your desk who are like ‘man you got to do a book’ or ‘you got to tell people about this stuff’. And you just change so many individual people’s lives, it’s a natural progression. I’d get coaches come into work with me just to be a client and they were like ‘man, you got so much shit to share’ and I had so much to say, you know? I call it a John Nash moment where I had a couple of days where I was just drawing shit up and I just basically threw up everything that I had basically put together because remember like, my experiences leading up to CrossFit, I thought I knew everything within strength conditioning you know? But then you get into CrossFit and it just switches gears altogether because I had been with the endurance community and geeked out on strength and conditioning and now with CrossFit, I had this beautiful blend of the full spectrum, that I was like, ‘this is a package now that I can put together based on what fitness is’ right? And I knew we had these different pieces so I investigated what our business was made up of – nutritional consulting – which was a big part, physical assessment, how to do program design, how to run a business properly and then life coaching. And so the mix of those five things, I came up with a design with what it was going to be for a coaching certification program. And God love the people that were in the first courses because I was just like spewing years of information incorrectly and they were like ‘oh, my God, is this going to be over soon’ kind of thing. I can remember Dutch Lowie and CJ Martin in some of those early classes. They were just like, I talked I think for eight hours straight on the first Saturday, to give you an example. Anyways that was the makeup of the CCP. I felt like I had to create a legacy component, kind of like passing information on because I really felt there was a missing link in me creating this real; big change, like we all want to have some purpose, you know? And my purpose was really to put an impact on creating change in terms of coaching, coaching fitness so that’s where that came in.

Spencer: Can you talk a bit about the higher orders of thinking as taught in your coaching program with Bernie Novokowsky?

James: Unfortunately Bernie passed away last week. I saw your question come up previous to this too so it’s a little bit sad for me to speak of or speak about. I still haven’t truly come to grasp with it because we’re in different areas now. We used to live together or live in the same area in Calgary. And he was my business and life mentor since 2001 pretty much. He’s basically a fricken legend in terms of what higher order thinking means. I’ll try to explain it a little bit. It’s basically built on these concepts of fundamental systematics that the universe has, and everything within it, there’s certain principles and guidelines and universal principles of systems that if we look really closely at, it aligns all things appropriately. And so, within everything and so the higher order thinking was a process of aligning and organizing your thoughts so that your thinking was correct such that if you wanted to do anything, it would allow you to orchestrate that appropriately. His teaching methods, basically, were built upon that for me personally so he did it for me personally. And I used to do contra training with him to try to help his health because at the time I met him, he was still smoking cigars and drinking. And then he had a shock with cancer, which really created an awakening and after that, I really felt and all of our friends of Bernie’s felt that ‘you got to start passing this shit on, dude because there’s so much you can help people with in terms of this awareness’. It was a very easy fit for me because I was a life coach consultant when I would consult with people so we started including it obviously in our CCP programs and coaches were fortunate enough to get to listen to Bernie speak about that. The higher order thinking process if I was to break it into a few words for your listeners is basically understanding a concept of awareness. Of being aware and noticing and so these things, simple concepts like that lead into good life coaching practices. Life coaching is a real improperly used word today but helping people and resonating with folks. That’s where the higher order thinking concepts were developed and came into play.

Spencer: And that’s taught in your coaching program. Is that taught anywhere else? Is there anywhere people could go to learn more?

James: No, Bernie was the gatekeeper on that one, and we’re so fortunate that he was able to teach a bunch of his graduates of the higher order thinking program. I was one of them, one of few, and also, the involvement of the HOT stuff within the CCP program will be passed on. So the OPT CCP program is the only place really where people can get those kind of concepts.

Spencer: It would be cool to put a video out or something like that, just kind of on it. Just so people can kind of hear about it if they haven’t yet.

James: Yeah, I hear you. That’s noted. Thank you.

Spencer: What do you think are the biggest ideas, attitudes or qualities that are missing in the overall fitness community?

James: What are the qualities that are missing in the fitness community – well, I guess I can only speak from my eyes and my perceptions because I guess it takes one to know one but I think more of a focus on openmindedness. So I think openmindedness is missing and I think a perspective of the client is missing. So what I mean by that is openmindedness meaning that there’s a number of different ways to skin the cat and you got to be open to that and not be biased in terms of how you learned and how you made a change and think that everyone should follow that direction. And then, secondly, in fitness coaching it’s so much about the coach and the business and we forget that it’s all about the client. So the client has to tell us what their goals are. I’m not going to tell you what you need to do. You need to tell me what the direction is and my goal is to guide you on that, on the correct incremental normal C path. And not say ‘this is what we’re doing, welcome, jump on in’. So I think that those are two pieces that could be missing. Just in terms of the big picture for fitness, I think quality control. I’m sure there’s philosophical arguments to it everywhere but it seems that everyone, maybe I’m biased but it seems that everyone can teach fitness today. I’m trying to meet a middle ground on that, it’s like I saw some people’s personal training programs or certifications and you had to spend eight years in order to do it and I understood it because there’s complexities involved and then there’s some weekend courses where those people can teach fitness. And they’re trying to get lower costs from one another across the street to try to develop the best fitness program for people that we’re trying to help. But, just in any profession, I think there’s a lack of quality control in terms of who teaches fitness. But anyone can do that and one of these days, there’s going to come a time when someone calls themselves a trainer and they’re going to hurt the wrong person and something’s going to happen.

Spencer: On the other hand, what do you think are some of the best parts of the overall fitness community?

James: I think, call it a CrossFit movement, depending upon I guess, in the early two thousands, this perspective that fitness can be done differently, is probably the biggest positive thing. And, many people can see it as a negative but you just got to see it the right way, that it’s a very positive thing, to really start looking at fitness. Because it changes the landscape of course, what we do for people’s fitness program. Remember we’re not just doing weight training and cardio on the treadmill anymore. So some people have done different kinds of energy system training before and ironically think they know what energy system training is today but this mixed modal training, call it what you want, if you want to call it CrossFit or if you want to call it circuit training or the concepts of circuit training or the dose response that we’re investigating for circuit training or mixed modal work. I think that stuff does a really positive turn for fitness because it makes it better for the client. It makes it more exciting, it makes it more enjoyable, they improve on different skills. It just makes fitness more enjoyable. There’s just no other way to say it.

Spencer: Last question for you. What ideas, discussions or discoveries have been interesting to you lately?

James: I’ve got a whole board of them here. We do, Max and myself do those think tank sessions on these concepts of what we try on people. I guess some of the big ones is the douse response of mixed modal training so trying to create these standardized tests to determine exactly what makes someone more fit than another in terms of mixed modal training. So what are the concepts that allow people to do that and how do you try to measure that scientifically. So if we had twenty males and twenty females, all unfit, and we gave them all mixed modal training and after two years we saw them again. What is the thing within some of these people, let’s call them the three, the outliers of the twenty that made them get better at that kind of training. That’s the kind of stuff that we’re investigating. So we’re doing scientific investigation from a standardized measurement position just so we can see exactly if any of those things are the outliers so VO2 Max, Forced Expiratory Volume, lactate balance point testing, body composition and anthropometrics, nutrition, previous training. So get all that in one area and basically look at all those points and then try to put together some newer concepts like heart rate variability and adaptation to stress and skill adaptation and breathing adaptation, respiratory exchange ratio when modalities change. Those are the kinds of things we’re looking at investigating to try to figure out what are those little missing links so that we can make basically a better coaching prescription and also to get answers to some of those burning questions that we have. So I guess that’s one of the things that we have going on.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald is the founder of OPT and a full time husband, father and fitness athlete. His 16+ years of experience and service as a strength coach/technician, tireless practice on refining energy system work, nutritional and lifestyle balancing techniques and training of other coaches has made OPT a sought after method of bringing fitness to a Higher Order.

Daniel from FitnessFAQs during an ab workout

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