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CrossFit Competition Tips: Potential vs. Expression - Making it Count on Game Day

In the sport of CrossFit, we often hear athletes and coaches talk about events or competitions “not being indicative of what they were capable of.” They will usually describe an error in execution, mindset, preparation, or another factor – not their “fitness”. We know that this is realistic, and often see athletes looking completely different day-to-day at a competition or in just a few weeks – not enough time to truly change fitness ability. What these athletes are describing and experiencing is a disparity in their fitness Potential and Expression.

What is Fitness Potential?

The best way to describe an athlete’s fitness Potential is to think about it like this – what would the individual’s physiological abilities be when observed in a laboratory under controlled circumstances. Here are some examples of what would be observed when trying to test an athlete’s Potential.

Absolute Strength - a muscles true maximal force production

V02 Max - the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilize during intense or maximal exercise

Muscle Endurance - the ability of the muscles to sustain repeated submaximal contractions

Lactate Threshold - the point at which primary energy production switches from aerobic to anaerobic

The list of fitness Potential metrics could go on - Creatine Phosphate ability, Strength Speed, Movement quality, etc.

When it comes to CrossFit, we can think about these things as the foundational qualities that an athlete possesses. The accumulation of these characteristics usually occurs in off-season training cycles, and in a lot of cases can also be connected with an athlete’s training background and upbringing. We want to develop the largest fitness Potential we can, as without it, execution can never happen – as the famous quote goes: “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

However, we also know that Potential and game day performance do not have a 1:1 relationship. The athlete with the best V02 Max is not always the one that wins the long aerobic workouts, the athlete with the highest Absolute Strength does not always win Clean Ladders, and the one with the greatest Lactate Threshold does not always win the Echo Bike sprint events.

What is Fitness Expression?

At this point, the answer to the question becomes pretty obvious – Expression is the athlete’s actual observable output – whether in competition, training, a specific workout, the total accumulation of workouts over the course event, etc. From a training cycle standpoint, Expression starts to become much more of the focus in Intensification and Pre-Competition phases. During these training cycles, we try to focus on preparing for the specific event and optimizing what we are able to get out of the Potential we have built. There are a myriad of variables that play into an athlete’s Expression than just their raw Potential, some controllable and some not, and some physical and some mental.


On any given day, whether in training or competition, an athlete’s physical preparedness could vary greatly. Of course, within this, there are even more factors that we could discuss – nutrition, hydration, sleep, external stressors, overall training load, specific movement fatigue from previous sessions or events, etc. This is an important thing for both athletes and coaches to be cognizant of – we can often look at a single day or performance in a vacuum, assuming it is a direct indication of where our fitness level is. It can be hard to look at the bigger picture and see where, when, and to what degree some of these recovery factors could be affecting our output, but gaining the awareness around this can be helpful in maintaining patience, looking at our progress with a broader view, and most importantly creating the best lifestyle habits to prevent it.


Having considered the idea of Potential, we can understand that every athlete has a theoretical upper limit to every single workout they perform. In other words, if every rep is executed perfectly and all environmental factors are controlled, there is a limit to the physical potential. Therefore, it can be a mistake to attempt performing portions of the workout above the pace of this upper limit. This is why we hear top athletes discuss Pacing and Planning of competition workouts so often – it can pay dividends to hover just slightly below threshold to have the ability to be emptying the tank right at the end of the test, rather than hitting redline so early that the overall pace is actually below threshold. The ability to feel and plan so well is the product of elite self-awareness. Without this self-awareness, it’s really easy to under or over pace workouts to the point that true physical potential is never reached.


This may be a bit more of an abstract idea, however we can break down why it may be important for athletes to think about this. Intent is what connects our actions with a deeper purpose. Having an understanding of our intent creates confidence, trust in a process, and accountability. When an athlete knows their “why” they can tap into their physical potential. However, without the trust in oneself or a purpose behind the pain, it is less likely an athlete will be able to Express their full Potential.

The list of factors that play into an athlete’s Expression extends even further, including things like execution of specific movements, optimizing strengths when they come up in competition, practicing properly for the sport, etc. The understanding of the relationship between Potential and Expression can be really important for an athlete’s long term development. Getting all of these things aligned can lead to an athlete achieving something we may liken to “flowstate” - where the athlete is operating near the limits of their Potential, yet the perception is that they are working with ease.

This leaves us with a list of some actions we – both coaches and athletes – can take to optimize both ends of this spectrum.

  1. Understand the purpose of each training cycle - the when, what, and why (are we building Potential or practicing for Expression)

  2. Learn how to deliberately practice/implement practice in training (not everything is max effort, some things are intended to be an opportunity to gain self-awareness, understand limiters, and maximize movement efficiency)

  3. Track short-term and long-term growth, progress, and perceived preparedness to hone in best lifestyle practices (what behaviors aid in recovery, what behaviors inhibit recovery)

  4. Reflect on weaknesses and strengths to best prepare for every event (being realistic with what you’re capable of to optimize performance rather than pretending you have no limits)

  5. Gain awareness around purpose and intention (what are your intrinsic and extrinsic motivators)

Lastly, one of the most beneficial things an athlete can do to gain a deeper connection of Expression and Potential is to have a coach that understands optimizing them. A strong trust in a coach can help an athlete gain a deep level of self-efficacy. At Underdogs Athletics, our Individualized Coaches understand how to assess specific athletic needs and design long-term training progressions to prepare for whatever an athlete is striving to achieve.


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