Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while that we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence. (Vince Lombardi Jr)
For those who don’t follow the sport of Crossfit, Ben Bergeron may not be a familiar name. However, if you look him up—and the athletes he’s coached—you’ll quickly discover that he’s figured out how to catch excellence and has the credibility to write a book titled Chasing Excellence.
Crossfit, if you haven’t heard of it, is a fitness phenomenon turned sport that strives for physical mastery in all domains of athletic performance—everything from weight lifting to sprinting to swimming to rope climbing and more. The pinnacle competition in this sport is the annual Crossfit Games, which crowns the world’s Fittest Man and Fittest Woman. This event is no joke. As Bergeron points out, the weight lifting performance to just get to this competition would have qualified athletes for the Olympic team a few years ago. These are serious athletes who embody excellence.
Bergeron is a coach in this sport who trained both the Fittest Man and the Fittest Woman in the 2016 Games. His coaching prowess is widely recognized by those who follow Crossfit, and his athletes—Mat Fraser, Karín Davidsdottir, and Cole Sager— demonstrated incredible growth to move past significant limitations and dominate their competition.
Chasing Excellence is structured around the story of the 2016 Games. However, it is not fundamentally a book about Crossfit, or even about athletics. Although it draws on sports imagery, Chasing Excellence is really about the framework Bergeron has uncovered for achieving excellence in any endeavor.
The lessons from Chasing Excellence are worth digging into, and so instead of a normal book review, this is going to be split into three parts following the three major sections of Bergeron’s book.
Chasing Excellence starts by discussing the framework Bergeron uses to approach training his athletes. He asks the question—when your competitors are the best, how can you be better than the best?
His answer starts with this pyramid:
He points out that most people focus on the top two rungs: Ability and Strategy. Football teams, for instance, put a lot of effort into strength and conditioning, practice, and developing a solid playbook. Bergeron’s approach is different:
It starts with the development of the person, of the character traits necessary to achieve at a high level. These character traits enable my athletes to follow a rigorous process designed to utilize every minute of every day toward improvement and progress. The process allows us to maximize every ounce of their abilities, which in turn shape our strategy.
We will discuss the process Bergeron mentions next week. This week, we’ll delve into his explanation of what is involved in developing the person.
Bergeron specifically calls out five character traits necessary to be a person capable of achieving excellence:
- Embracing Adversity
In recent years, the philosophical practice of Stoicism has gained in popularity as an alternative to the consumerism that is so pervasive in our society today. It is not at all surprising that a book on chasing excellence would include an emphasis on embracing challenges with a positive outlook and steadfast endurance.1
Bergeron’s approach to commitment consists of identifying the areas necessary for success and then becoming obsessed with each and every one of them, working harder than you could ever imagine working to improve them. He quotes Tim Grover2, who wrote, “There are no secrets, there are no tricks. If anything, it’s the opposite: Whether you are a pro athlete or a guy running a business, or driving a truck or going to school, it’s simple. Ask yourself where you are now and where you want to be instead. Ask yourself what you’re willing to do to get there. Then make a plan to get there.”
Bergeron’s application of this concept is to imagine that you are a machine or a robot, and then design the optimal routine, fuel, and programming to make this robot version of yourself successful.
If commitment is the overall dedication necessary to become excellent, grit is the quality of being able to maintain that dedication consistently day after day. I love this quote from Bergeron:
“What is grit, really? It’s a word that’s been used to describe everything under the sun, but it means something specific: when things get hard, you push harder; when you fail, you get back up stronger; when you don’t see results, you don’t get discouraged, but you just continue to pound away day, after day, after day, with relentlessness, consistency, heart, and passion—that’s grit.”
Positivity, Embracing, Adversity, and Confidence
Common sense tells us that a positive attitude will result in being happy, but most of us don’t realize that positivity or negativity can dramatically affect the tangible aspects of our performance. Bergeron explains the surprising results of scientific studies that correlate the state of our attitude with our ability to perform, whether it’s playing a classical instrument, typing, or competing in athletics. This principle provides the basis for Bergeron’s unbreakable gym rule, in large letters on the wall:
NEVER WHINE. NEVER COMPLAIN. NEVER MAKE EXCUSES.
Bergeron explains, “This is easier said than done. Not only is negativity hardwired into our DNA; it’s become ingrained in our culture: almost two-thirds of English words convey the negative side of things. Positivity, therefore, must be a learned behavior.”
For his athletes, positivity is a skill practiced just like lifting weights or climbing ropes. He explains it as “telling the right story”, and provides some examples from athlete interviews at the Crossfit Games to illustrate this. Positivity involves not whining, complaining, or making excuses—but also involves the proactive behavior of framing challenges, suffering, and adversity in a positive light. As his athletes practiced this approach to handling struggles, it transformed their mindset to automatically see the good things in their environment.
”An optimistic mindset is a distinguishable characteristic of elite performers because what the human mind focuses on and talks about is what we see more of. Stanford professor Arnold Zwickau calls this the “frequency illusion,” which is essentially a phenomenon that cause you to see more of the things you’re already focused on.”
This ties in with the quote Bergeron places at the front of one of these chapters: “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” (Henry David Thoreau).
Becoming a Person Capable of Excellence
The person—the characteristics and traits of an excellent performer—is the base of Bergeron’s training pyramid. When we think of what becoming excellent looks like, we usually focus on our specific abilities or on training methods. Bergeron’s approach upends this and places character above all else.
This mentality is consistent with both Stoic philosophy—which holds that one’s personal character and mindset is far more important the external realities of career or performance—and also with Biblical principles of Christian living 3. Becoming the right person allows one to consistently grow in the Process, which we will discuss next week.
- Stoicism embraces the pursuit of various character qualities, including αρετη (arete). While most commonly translated as “virtue”, αρετη also embodies excellence. Chasing excellence, in the sense Bergeron (or Vince Lombardi) use it, could be aptly phrased as “Chasing αρετη”. ↩
- Personal trainer to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, and the author of the book Relentless. ↩
- N.T. Wright has explored this in-depth in his book After You Believe, which I will be exploring in some later posts. ↩