How to Learn New Skills in CrossFit

One of the questions we frequently get as coaches is, “how do I get better at X movement?” While the simple answer is to practice getting in more repetitions at the movement, the real answer is a little more complicated than that. In order to better understand what and how to practice, you must first know a few things:

Know What’s Possible Given Your Current Skills
Know What’s Not Possible Given your Current Skills
Find Something That’s Just Outside Your Current Skillset

Once we have identified the items above, we can begin to build our version of what’s known as the “Zone of Proximal Development”. This is a concept identified by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. We’re going to adapt this concept for something you might see in a typical CrossFit workout.

Suppose you walk in one day, and you see “50 Double Unders” written on the board. When the coach briefs the workout, they may give you a scaled option which is 2-for-1 Single Unders (AKA 100 Single Unders). Often times, people would hear that they can do 100 Single Under jump ropes in place of 50 Double Unders and go with that option because the Double Unders are outside of their skillset; however, if you really want to make progress in your CrossFit journey, you can apply Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development to your advantage. Here’s how you would do that.

Know What’s Possible Given Your Current Skills

The first step is to know what you’re currently capable of 100% of the time. This should be something you have absolute confidence in your ability to achieve AND there’s no way you could make any more meaningful improvements in this area.

For instance, in our 50 Double Under example, you must evaluate the 100 Single Unders scale option. If this is something that you do with great technique, maybe you’re able to get them all unbroken, you’re completing them as quickly as you can, and it’s not really possible to do them much more quickly than you’re already doing them, we will place them in the yellow circle below. By definition, anything outside that circle is something you can’t do yet.

Know What’s Not Possible Given Your Current Skills

Now that we’ve assessed what we are currently capable of, we now have to look at the prescribed movement in the workout to determine if it’s something that we are currently capable of doing. If it’s not, it goes outside the circle in the area of “Things I Can’t Do”. In our jump rope example, 50 Double Unders falls outside of the category of what you can do, so we’ll put it out here:

Find Something Just Outside Your Skillset

Now that we’ve mapped out the things we CAN do and the things we CAN’T do (yet), now we need to identify an alternative that sits just outside of our skillset. We want to find something that we can PROBABLY succeed at, but achieving it will be a challenge for us. Now, up until this point, if you’re familiar with Vygotsky’s model, you’re probably noticing that I’ve left something out. Just outside of your bubble of “Things I CAN Do” is an area of “Things I can do with Coaching“:

Next, we can identify all the possible scales in between the “Things I CAN Do” and “Things I CAN’T Do” to try to find the best option to find the movement you can do with Coaching:

100 Single Unders ➡ Got it
10 Double Unders + 80 Single Unders ➡ Probably Can Do This
25 Double Unders + 50 Single Unders ➡ Probably Can’t Do This Yet
50 Double Unders ➡ Nope

Then we can map these out on our diagram:

So, in our Double Under example, you can challenge yourself by doing a number of double unders that you are probably capable of doing. This is going to allow you to practice the movement in an amount that meets you just outside of your current skillset and will force you to get better. And if you are able to complete this much easier than anticipated, scale it up in the next round or workout. If you’re not able to get that number, scale it back next time. We’re not always going to be perfect at estimating what we can and can’t do.

How a Coach Can Help With Scaling

Where it’s really important to have a good coach is for situations like this. A coach can help you identify some of the other intermediate scales where it may not be as obvious as our example above. For instance, if an athlete doesn’t have ring muscle ups, there are so many options between Ring Rows + Dips and a Ring Muscle Up that likely exists just outside your comfort zone and will challenge you in a workout.

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