A trainee must learn first to be quiet, then to be alone, then to face and examine himself, then to recognize and speak truth, and finally be with others, unaffected by circumstance or surrounding, of single mind.” --Jason Dougherty

My experiences with athletics, academics, physical training and military service have exposed me to different types of people. Based on this exposure, I have observed several characteristics that distinguish world-class trainees from the pack. The purpose of this essay is to explain these characteristics, and highlight their significance. These characteristics are frequently observed in the gymnasium, yet I believe their relevance applies to numerous occupational fields. A complementary case study will illustrate the characteristics in a real world scenario.

There are a number of characteristics common to world-class trainees. Specifically, these characteristics include, but are not limited to:

Desire. World-class trainees have an insatiable desire to improve. They are self-motivated and take action in the absence of specific direction. Their burning desire enables them to take the “full dose” of the training.

Willingness to Listen. Great trainees understand the necessity of listening. They are teachable, open and willing to accept guidance and correction. Engaged listening fosters effective communication between pupil and teacher. Intelligent discussions pertinent to the situation ensue, which strengthen the bonds of trust and confidence.

Dedication to Fundamentals. Exceptional trainees embrace fundamentals. They build on an already solid foundation, performing common movements uncommonly well (virtuosity.) Great trainees improve with regular, deliberate practice. Pre-workout time is maximized and used as an opportunity to sharpen basic skills.

Mental and Physical Preparedness. World-class trainees are prepared at every session. They understand that early is “on-time.” They are enthusiastic about the opportunity at hand, regardless of how they “feel.” They recognize rest and nutrition not as distractions, but rather complementary building blocks of elite human performance.

Ability to Train Alone. While a group dynamic offers encouragement and mutual accountability, there are times when a trainee must work alone. Military deployments, austere environments, unpredictable schedules and road trips present training disruptions. Excuses aside, a world-class trainee will find a way to face rigorous protocols alone and unafraid. The seeds of world-class performance are often born in the silence and solitude of the morning darkness.

Behavior under Duress. World-class trainees are able to deal with injury and the mental anguish of rehabilitation. They may get temporarily discouraged, but are able to bounce back quickly and with even greater resolve. They understand that pain and injury are part of the contract. World-class trainees reveal their true character in times of discomfort and adversity. Great trainees perform well by themselves and in group or team settings.

CFJ Case Study:

Jason Dougherty, former Marine and long time friend of the CrossFit family, embodied these characteristics while deployed to Fallujah, Iraq in 2004. “The Battle for Fallujah” is a storied Marine Corps battle. At the time, it was one of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable environments.

Working “graveyard” shifts, often under enemy fire, Jason maintained his training regimen by living the aforementioned traits. He relied on these characteristics to counter combat’s inherent friction. My conversations with him reveal how he sustained world-class training efforts through desire, mental toughness, behavior under duress and dedication to fundamentals. Let’s pull the curtain back and listen as Jason described his experience:

During lulls in the action, I would step into the night to train. I performed four types of exercises: weights in a make-shift tent, calisthenics, quick tabata-style drills, and running, when practical. Incoming fire usually deterred running. If I could see where incoming rounds were hitting, I’d usually turn back. I’d wear at least a flak vest with Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI) plates, and during high-tempo incoming fire, I’d obviously wear a helmet.

I had so little control over available food, slept little (2-6 hours per day) or none at all, and training times were inconsistent due to the criticality of operations. The results surprised me. The heavy weights and intense effort made me stronger quickly. My strength grew faster than my technical capacity, so my strength was better than my technique. I sustained a severe back injury which hampered my progress considerably. Up to that point, I was on track to be stronger and bigger than I’d been in several years.

The unpredictable training frequency combined with high levels of intensity allowed for adequate recovery, and I never leveled off. Aside from the obvious environmental factors—heat, dust, danger—the experience was memorable because it was so varied and random. I adapted rather quickly to the unpredictability. I expected it, knowing CrossFit’s theory.”

Experiences like Jason’s inspire us to pursue our goals with renewed vigor. Desire, listening skills, fundamentals, preparedness, ability to train alone, and behavior under duress are all within our ability to control. Perhaps we will consider using these characteristics in our own training efforts. We might discover their applicability to other aspects of our lives along the way. In closing, Jason Dougherty’s words ring true:

The most valuable part was the mental toughening. Physical training was the one gift I could always give myself. We fail to see how far we could actually take this thing were we to bring all of our resources to the endeavor.”

-Andrew Thompson is a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps, a level-3 CrossFit certified trainer and founder of CrossFit Quantico. Jason Dougherty now works for Stryker Medical.