January 14, 2021

Mat Fraser is the most dominant male CrossFit athlete there has ever been. He’s won the CrossFit Games more times than any other individual athlete and has done so in complete blow outs of a field that continues to improve. The overwhelming dominance at the top end of the competitive field is more impressive every year, even more so that he seems to continue to improve at a faster rate than his competition when you would think they would be closing the gap. What is he doing that even the best of the other athletes in the sport are not?

Obviously there is a blend of natural talent, the right environment, and a lot of hard work that goes into making anyone the best in the world. But I wanted to dive a little deeper into it and look at some of the things I’ve picked up on him saying that could potentially be reasons that he’s able to continue to dominate a sport that should be getting closer as it matures. Part of his success is genetic, part is probably upbringing and experiences he had at a young age, and his training history of being a high level competitive weightlifter through his teenage years certainly are things that matter but I’m going to focus on things that he does on a day in day out basis that I think may make him different from his competitors.

From listening to him talk about his training and his mindset I’ve come up with 3 main ideas that he seems to put a very high priority on. It’s impossible to say if these are the difference makers between him and the other top athletes in the world but while these may seem like simple ideas, they are things I think other competitors would have a very difficult time doing to the same level Mat does. I think if anyone wants to try to get to his level in this sport they are going to have to make sacrifices similar to those that he makes to set themselves apart.

1. He pays attention to the details that matter.

2. He makes his life as simple as possible.

3. He has a mindset of a Champion.

Diving into each of these three things a little more. He pays attention to the small details in a way that I think compound over time and he does this on a more consistent basis than I see the other top athletes do. He said after the 2015 Games he was disappointed in himself because he knew he could have done better and promised himself for the next season every decision he makes would be through the lens of “is this going to help my performance?”. If it wasn’t, then he would say no to it. I think a lot of athletes do this to some level obviously, but taking it to the extremes is where Fraser is different.

The details I’m talking about can be things he does day to day to make sure he’s squeezing the most progress he can out of each training session. But also details about things like learning and practicing the techniques of the movements we commonly see in CrossFit in excruciating detail. He gave credit to his High School olympic lifting coach, Chris Polakowski, for his extreme emphasis on technique. When he started he would only practice lifting an empty barbell. His coach would continue this even at the expense of short term success, other kids were stronger than him but he wasn’t going to let Mat lift any weight until his technique was developed. Even after Mat began lifting heavier weights, his coach would make him take weight off the bar any time he saw a technical fault. Most people would be frustrated and either give up or try to work around their coach's advice but Mat saw this as putting in the long boring repetitions that others wouldn’t so he could later get results that others won’t. The emphasis he puts on volume at technique practices is another detail that doesn’t sound like a superhuman skill to have, but it is something I see as a difference maker between the very best and those that are just “good.” He calls spending time working on technique, “laying a wide foundation so the peak can be higher.” He sees way too many people lifting heavy weights with poor technique and that is going to lead to less consistency, especially in CrossFit when technique is required while under fatigue and it also leads to a much higher risk of injury.

Another example of attention to details can be seen in his sleep schedule. On one of the podcasts I listened to he said, “if sleep weren’t a normal thing, it’d be a banned substance.” He knows the importance of sleep. I’m sure most Games Athletes do, but what makes him different is his attention to the details to ensure his sleep is optimal. He uses tinfoil around his windows and creases under the door where light may get in and get on his skin. Sleeping in total darkness helps us optimize melatonin production so he makes sure he sleeps in a completely blacked out room. Maybe some athletes know this is important but I would guess very few actually implement it. Same goes for strategies like turning the temperature in his room down to 68 degrees, using a dawn simulator to make sure he wakes up naturally, because waking up to an alarm can cause stress. He avoids bluelight after 8:30pm and reads rather than watching tv at night. All these things may make .001% difference but if he does them consistently while others don’t, it adds up. His attention to the details also extend to his recovery practices in things like bodywork. He uses a therapist from TB12 that has worked with Tom Brady who is still playing in the NFL at age 43. For most it may be finding someone local for convenience but Mat knows the importance of taking care of his body and it’s important for him to have someone working on him that he views as the best in the world at what he does.

The second characteristic I think that makes Mat Fraser different from his competitors is his Mindset. Mindset is something that is talked about a lot in the CrossFit world, and for good reason. Listening to Mat talk about his approach to how he structures his life, views competing, and training, it is clear that his mind is working with a different approach than others. He was on the Ironclad Podcast recently and talked about having trained with several Games athletes over the years, but when he started training with Tia Claire Toomey he could immediately identify that she was a different breed of human and it was refreshing to know there are others out there that think like him. He said it’s important to surround himself with a small team of like minded people that have the same goals and have their defined roles in achieving those goals. His manager takes away all business distractions, his fiance eliminates chores or distractions that need to be done at home, his coach communicates with him about what he wants to improve on and the intention behind each piece in his training so he can put 100% of his efforts into the training itself.

Having his close knit team of like minded people around him also allows him to know who’s opinion he actually cares about and to purposely not care what other people think. He says this is a practiced skill that he’s had to develop because he has had people that have tried to bring him down in the past. The quote “success is the best revenge” hangs in his garage to remind him not to give attention to opinion from people who don’t matter. His career won’t skip a beat because he doesn’t give their opinions the time of day. Having these people he cares about around him makes his decision making very simple, but that doesn’t mean it's easy.

Again, he gives credit to his High School olympic lifting coach for his mindset of being passionate about what you do. His coach didn’t charge for his service because it weeds out the people who show up down to only those that are super passionate about it. Not people who throw money at something hoping they can get what they want by doing so. Passionate people will show up to do the boring reps with just a pvc because they love the work, not because they are tied down to doing it because they paid for it.

His mindset about decisions he makes every day again comes down to “is this something that will help my performance or not?” If it doesn’t then it gets thrown out, but he also puts things into buckets of things he can control and things he can NOT control. Knowing how to react to things he can NOT control is a big differentiator for him. He has a tattoo of the serenity prayer on his shoulder and he said he sometimes uses it as motivation for a particularly tough workout. He can not control the fact that some workouts are going to be particularly painful, but he knows he can control the effort he gives on those workouts.

When something comes up that he knows he has no control over, his knee jerk reaction is to say “good.” It’s another learned skill that has taken him time and practice. But when the first event of the Games was about to start this year, it was announced that there would be no music playing. He had developed the mindset of knowing he can not control that, and just embraced it rather than giving a second of his focus. You can find the good or you can choose to be miserable about something, that is your choice.

His mindset towards his training can be different depending on his day and mood but some of the things that motivate him day to day are one of two things. The first is having a good story to tell and the second, asking himself if he’s going to be proud of his efforts at the end of the day. Having a good story to tell is thinking long term, some of the toughest times and biggest obstacles will make for the best stories. He talked about a big moment for him was when he realized he could overcome adversity and his “jaw wasn’t made of glass.” You have a choice to what your story is going to be and being proud of yourself at the end of the day will come down to his effort, and only he knows if he held back or not. So during a workout when it’s a tough piece he knows he could slow down a little and make it a little less terrible immediately, or he could push through and really push his limits but either way, 10 minutes after it's over he’s going to feel fine. So the question he uses during a workout is does he want to push and be proud of himself or not.

The third thing I think Mat is able to do at another level compared to other high level CrossFitters is simplifying his life to optimize it for the best performance possible. Some of the things that I classified as attention to detail could also be used here. He keeps a small group of people around him, that are like minded and support him in achieving his goals. He keeps it simple to avoid distractions and he sets his entire life up to hope for the best but be prepared for the very worst.

A simple example of this is having an entire gym setup in his garage. That may not be that uncommon for high level CrossFit athletes but when you add in all the recovery tools he has set up there as well like sauna, ice tub, massage table, float tank, etc. I think it's a bigger difference maker compared to the others. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and gyms were forced to close down it had very little to no effect on his day to day because he had everything set up right there at his home. He sets his life up to be simple so he can be completely self sufficient in case something like that happens.

He has talked about simplifying his life after the 2015 Games because he knew he could do better. Anything that wasn’t contributing to his performance and he cut it out of his life. Things like girlfriends, social life, staying up late, etc., were cut out and he suddenly realized he had a ton of time to put a priority on his training. It can seem like other Games athletes just “train all day” but then you see them spending a lot of time trying to sell programming or run their affiliate or start a business based on the brand they’ve developed and you can see how it can become a big deterrent to them reaching their highest potential. Mat’s sponsorships are taken care of by his agent and he doesn’t have any side businesses. He doesn’t even sell his programming, which could probably be an easy way for him to add an additional stream of income. But he says it’s just a ton of boring stuff that no one would want to do anyway.

He talked about saying no to going to his friends bachelor party, continuing to live at his parents house so he could simplify life and focus on training, and during the season he says no to travel opportunities so he can keep his routine. At times leading into the 2016 season he said he would have to say no to going out with friends if they were going to eat at a restaurant. Would 1 meal hurt his chance at winning that much? Probably not, but if he let things slide here and there or maybe just once a week they could add up to 50 meals that weren’t helping his performance over the course of a season and that could be a difference maker.

Going further back you can see how he simplified his life in college when he talked about going to the library after a workout and picking up a pepperoni stick and a gallon of chocolate milk to get his protein and carbs in. Or during an internship when he was also training for the Games he would just walk outside during lunch and start running hill sprints. It was nothing special, or any fancy programming, just simple hard work. He talked about wanting to run a free program for people that want to olympic lift so only the people who really want to be there show up. Most people don’t want to work with a broom stick for an hour and it will quickly weed out the people who aren’t passionate about it.

“Everyone says they want it but I don’t think they really do”, he said after finishing a workout that was 40 minutes of alternating minutes of 18 cal rowing and 16 cal assault biking. It’s the simple stuff that leads to success but the simple stuff isn’t fun.

Wrapping this all up, I think every athlete that competes in CrossFit knows the importance of these things. But I don’t think anyone takes them and uses them to the level Mat does. We know we should pay attention to the details like nutrition, sleep, body work, etc. but how many athletes are shutting off their phones, tv’s, iPads off at 8:30pm so they can get the best sleep possible? How many are putting saunas in their backyard? How many are really cutting out the distractions that aren’t going to help their performance? Or putting in the amount of monotonous simple work like rowing repeats or years of empty bar work to properly learn the Olympic lifts. I think we can learn from watching and listening to him because he has a well developed mindset of a champion, he sets his life up to be as simple as possible to avoid distractions, and he puts an extreme amount of effort into fine tuning the details that matter. The process is simple but not easy.