Maya moves toward the loaded barbell with the utmost concentration. The lift is to be a squat clean, and the bar is setup with more weight than she has ever cleaned previously. She looks calm, almost peaceful; however there is an unmistakable air of intensity. She rolls her hands on the bar and engages her hook grip. For a few moments you think she might be fazed by the lift as she readjusts her hands, but you are wrong. With one last audible breath her performance begins, and she executes with precision setting yet another personal record. Maya is eleven years old. You are probably thinking she’s a natural, born to lift and a child prodigy. Her talent is undeniable, but was she simply born with the gift?
Maya is the daughter of Heather Bergeron. Heather is one the most well respected CrossFit athletes on the East Coast. Heather’s resume boasts an 8th place individual finish in the 2010 CrossFit Games as well as countless other accolades. Heather is also a trainer on CrossFit’s Seminar Staff and co-owner of CrossFit New England (CFNE) along with her husband and Maya’s stepfather, Ben Bergeron. Ben’s resume is equally as impressive as Heather’s. In addition to being a trainer on CrossFit’s Seminar Staff, Ben coached team CFNE to overall victory at the 2011 Game’s as well as crowning a male and female master’s champion in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Ben is widely recognized one of the greatest CrossFit coaches on earth. His knowledge and passion for CrossFit distinguishes Ben among his peers and places him in rarified air in the sport.
When viewing the video of Maya’s squat clean the vast majority of us sit in wonderment. Perhaps some of us frantically press replay to dissect her lift; while others simply throw their hands in the air. In the 20-second video, we witness a masterful performance. Although not 100% flawless, Maya’s effort is close, and many older athletes may indeed be frustrated by the young lady’s effort. The mind runs:
How can an 11 year-old girl move like that? How can an 11 year-old girl move better than some of the best CrossFitters? How can an 11 year-old girl move better than me? How can an 11 year-old girl make it looks so easy?
The answers to these questions are predictable – she is a natural or she was born that way. In the presence of excellence, we are quick to assign innate giftedness to the performer. Without diminishing Maya’s performance in the least, did we just run into the tip of the iceberg? Let’s chat…
Matthew Syed discusses athletes, musicians and professionals at the pinnacle of their respective fields in his book Bounce. The question posed by Syed deals with the idea of talented individuals being born excellent or predisposed to greatness. Syed argues that rather than innate talent, the vast majority of masters and prodigies achieve greatness through thousands of hours of purposeful practice and in most cases a set of unique circumstances. Purpose is an essential element of Syed’s argument for practice. He insists that the pure accumulation of time is not enough to spawn mastery. The practice must be focused and purposeful. After all, if practice alone equates to greatness we would all be world famous formula one drivers. However, when we drive we are anything but focused and purposeful.
When we witness a professional at the top of their game Syed offers that we are actually just seeing the ‘tip of the iceberg’. As we assign labels like ‘genius’ or ‘natural’ we discount the thousands of hours of practice (10,000 Syed cites, to be exact) and the circumstances responsible for the individual’s success. Syed’s work is rife with examples supporting his argument. My intention is not to convince the reader of Syed’s theory. Rather, my hope is to generate thoughtful discussion on the topic and compel the reader to think about talent, success, and excellence.
Maya’s practice in CrossFit can certainly be described as purposeful. At the age of five Maya began her CrossFit journey. She immediately began training with her mom and Ben becoming the beneficiary of quality feedback and a high standard of development. While most five year olds prefer learning through cartoons, Maya began learning through the sport of CrossFit. She studied human movement, learned to see flaws and efficiencies, and even began to coach alongside Ben and Heather. As she grew, so did her CrossFit acumen. Maya watched, listened and studied the actions of Ben and Heather as they trained for and competed in the CrossFit Games. The level of exposure to elite training pushed the young girl past her comfort zone and cultivated her drive for excellence. Maya soon became an impressive athlete in her own right, and her own commitment to physical training is no short of spectacular. She is highly conditioned and spends dozens of hours each week at CFNE. She learns and plays new sports, and through her own volition, spends much of her free time watching CrossFit greats compete daily at CFNE, Reebok ONE, or via CrossFit.com. Maya may very well be the hardest working pre- teen in the Northeast.
By no stretch of the imagination, the girl grew up in a unique environment. Maya is a part of one of CrossFit’s founding families and was raised by arguably CrossFit’s greatest coach-athlete couple. These circumstances are undeniably special. Maya is intimately exposed to the training methods of CrossFit’s fittest individuals; all the while, accumulating thousands of hours of practice. In addition to her immediate family, other CrossFit greats reside in close proximity and surround Maya on a daily basis. The Northeast, Massachusetts in particular, is quickly becoming a hub for elite CrossFit training. EC Synkowski, James Hobart, Mel Ockerby and others are CrossFit sounding boards and coaches for Maya. Beyond the bountiful Northeast, visiting athletes, coaches, and even CrossFit’s Director of Training, Dave Castro, have come to know and work with Maya. On any given night, the Bergeron’s dinner table is the proverbial who’s who of CrossFit. While the discussions at dinner may not start with the topic of CrossFit, they usually get there eventually.
The preceding paragraphs discuss a set of circumstances and hours of purposeful practice that might not immediately come to mind when we see Maya perform. It may be the tip of the iceberg we see in the 20-second video, but the unseen circumstances and hours of practice could be the iceberg itself. Maya is completely immersed in CrossFit and has been for years. She owns more experience than some of CrossFit’s most seasoned athletes and coaches, and yet she’s not even in high school.
Although it may be difficult (perhaps impossible) to pinpoint the exact number of hours in Maya’s CrossFit education, let’s do some simple math anyway. We will average (1) hour of training for (5) days a week for the past six years (some days she trained much more, other days less; a rough but conservative number) – 1560 hours. We will triple that number, (3) hours a day (5) days a week, to include every video watched, dinner conversation had, discussion participated in, seminar attended, competition attended, sound byte listened, class watched, class coached, class taken, programming overheard, and movement practiced for the past six years (again, a rough figure but realistic for her circumstances) – 4680. Combining the numbers we see that Maya potentially accumulated 6240 hours of purposeful practice in CrossFit. Let that number sink in for a second. Now get ready. If you are casually doing CrossFit for (1) hour, (3) times a week, it will take you the next 40 years to accumulate the number of hours Maya currently owns in CrossFit experience. In the same time you could have a full career, raise a family and retire.
Syed earmarks 10,000 hours as his benchmark for mastery. A number he borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a work that deconstructs success in a similar fashion. Gladwell argues the success of persons like Bill Gates, The Beatles and others has more to do with “where those individuals are from” than “what those individuals are like.” Similar to Syed, Gladwell argues “they (the successful) are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that all them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” Maya may very well be one such beneficiary in the field of CrossFit. She may not be at Syed and Gladwell’s 10,000- hour mark yet, but if her numbers stay constant, she will exceed that figure by 2015. If we accept the argument in favor of purposeful practice and circumstance, imagine how you may feel about your squat clean compared to hers in three years – scary stuff.
I chose to write on this subject for three reasons: first and foremost, my admiration for Maya as an athlete (girl is an absolute rock star, go shake her hand); second, for my interest in the idea of talent and excellence; and, finally, for my distaste of the words “I wish.” Too many times in CrossFit and life, we wish. Whether it’s wishing for more pull-ups, better fitness, a happier marriage or greater success it’s really all the same. My contention is that wishes won’t get you anywhere. The road to excellence, whether professional or personal, takes hard work and practice – hours of it. As the saying goes, ‘aspiration without perspiration is meaningless.’ So get out there, work hard and make it happen.
My hope with this essay is to help you stop wishing and start purposefully practicing the skills necessary to achieve your personal goals. Before I conclude, it is necessary to briefly address the different measures of success CrossFit. Maya is a unique case and might seem somewhat overwhelming for some new to CrossFit. Make no mistake, she is developing at a level far above the norm. If she chooses to continue along this path, she is on her way to a career in the sport of CrossFit. I fervently believe that CrossFit can and should be impactful, healthful, and meaningful for each individual irrespective of age, sex, or level of fitness at the outset. I do not value achievements by Game’s champions over the achievements of athletes on day one. Each and every day that you come to CrossFit and give your best effort, you are getting fitter. No matter the size of the steps in the journey toward fitness, each step is a tremendous achievement.