Analysis: Making the Jump from the Teen to Individual Division

June 4, 2020 by
Photo credit: Renato Macassi, @furyphotography
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Back in 2015 when the CrossFit Games debuted the teen division, it seemed that it could create a direct line to the Individual division, cultivating prodigies and an avid fanbase. However, six years after the introduction of the teen division, only eight of the 189 teen Games athletes have made the leap. A few of those athletes have made a significant mark and competed in the top echelon of competition.

Of the teen Games athletes, who has made it back as an individual?

  • Haraldur Holgersson (Team-CrossFit XY, 2017)
  • Filippa Ferm (Team- CrossFit Fabriken, 2018)
  • Ashleigh Wosney (Team- Reebok CrossFit One, 2018)
  • Gabriela Migala (National Champion, Poland, 2019, 17th in the Open, 2020)
  • Haley Adams (32nd in the Open, 2019, 2020)
  • Guilherme Malheiros (National Champion, Brazil, 2019, 2020)
  • Bryan Hernández (National Champion, Colombia, 2019)
  • George Sterner (8th in the Open, 2019)

In addition, three more athletes were on track to return to Madison in 2020, but their trips were canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

  • Luis Oscar Mora (National Champion, Mexico)
  • Murtaza Nadeem (National Champion, Afghanistan)
  • Rees Machell (Team, Starr Strength Black)

But with only about six percent of teen athletes able to make the jump, what happened to the others?

Similar to other elite-level high school sports, competing at the top tier of CrossFit is almost a full-time job for these teens. After years of countless met cons and hours in the gym, psychological burnout can take a toll on any athlete, especially teenagers. Not to mention the toxicity many feel, whether it be from social media comparisons to getting badgered by friends and commenters about having “big muscles for a girl.”

And, it would be unreasonable to expect these elite teens to focus solely on CrossFit for their entire lives. Burnout, and perhaps wishing to broaden one’s experiences outside the gym, can lead teen CrossFitters to take long breaks. Brooklin Smith, a three-time Games athlete, decided to take a break from competing after failing to qualify for the Games for her fourth and final year. Smith admitted that while she was training for the Games, she had no interests outside of the gym. Now, as a rising sophomore at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, Smith is able to open herself up to new opportunities.

  • “We are young and constantly in a state of change, I believe it’s natural to want to explore,” Smith said. “Also, I think we get wrapped up in our identity in the sport and eventually just mentally exhaust ourselves out of it.”
Photo credit: Brooklin Smith

Burnout seems almost unavoidable for some, as certain athletes may come to depend on high levels of competition that prove unsustainable. According to the founder of Active Life RX Dr. Sean Pastuch, teens competing at the top level of their sport might be engaging in what he calls “Toxic Exercise Dependency.”

  • I believe that fitness for fitness’s sake leads to an unhealthy dependency on intense stimulus to keep someone feeling like they have done enough,” Pastuch explained. Basically, the hours-long training routine for these teens turns into a job that they feel like they need to uphold to progress. “ Eventually the returns are diminished and the risks outweigh the reward.”

Pastuch’s solution? Stop testing the teens.

  • “(Teens) stop playing CrossFit and start training CrossFit. Once you switch your mindset from “I get to go to the gym!” to “I have to work out first,” you’re on your way to burnout,” Pastuch said.

Does Injury and Physical Exhaustion Play a Role?

Even though injuries in CrossFit are four times less likely than those in football, overtraining, as Pastuch mentioned, makes these elite teens prone to injury. In fact, according to a study of college athletes, training two-three hours per day, 30.8 percent of men and 23.5 percent of women reported “frequent” physical exhaustion, leading to injury (Vetter et al., 2010).

As for a CrossFit case study of this fact, 2017 Games athlete Logan Griffith was forced to withdraw from the Games due to a broken shoulder. Griffith, now an Olympic weightlifting headliner, jumped into the Open after only a few months of CrossFit. When he unexpectedly qualified for the Games, he used the summer leading up to the competition to “catch up” to his competitors. This relentless training, which he described as “five to seven times a day,” led to a nagging shoulder injury that couldn’t be remedied when Griffith got to Madison.

  • Griffith: “The volume and weight I was taking on was just too much for my body to handle and it wasn’t long before It deteriorated. ”

While Griffith looks back on his CrossFit days without any regret, he shares a sentiment that teens now on the outside looking back have expressed: more rest and recovery would’ve made the difference.

What impact does the Transition to College Have?

Many times, when teens graduate from their age division, their priorities shift. CrossFit is seldom included among traditional or even contemporary college activities, so these top-tier athletes are stuck in a sport with no discernable path or collegiate infrastructure. And, their CrossFit training often leads to opportunities in other sports.

  • Some CrossFit teens are being recognized for their mental capacity by college recruiters and have shifted to play other sports.
  • Another group of former elite teens have made the jump to Olympic lifting and are making a splash.

Trend: Taking Advantage of the New Games Qualification Process

The new CrossFit Games qualification process has served former teen Games athletes well in its first two years, giving an outlet to those that were formerly on the bubble.

  • No teen Games athletes qualified as an individual for the CrossFit Games before 2019
  • Of the qualified athletes, only Haley Adams and George Sterner have qualified through a Top 20 placement in the Open, all others have qualified through a National Championship or Team spot
  • Only three of the now-qualified former teen Games athletes made it to Regionals as an individual
  • Three former teen athletes also competed at Regionals on a team (and made it to the Games)
  • The closest a teen ever got to qualifying for the Games as an individual in the old system was Gabriela Migala, placing sixth at the 2018 European Regional

Former teen Games athletes are embracing the new qualifying system and are on the prowl for competition with the big dogs via Sanctionals.

  • 38 former or current teen Games athletes have competed in at least one Elite Sanctional
  • Gabriela Migala has competed in six Sanctionals, with an overall win at the Norweigan CrossFit Championship
Photo credit: Joey Palmroos

In the 2017 and 2018 Opens, only three teens placed in the Top 200 worldwide each year. But, in both 2019 and 2020, 13 athletes placed in the top 200. In 2020, this included current teen athletes Emma Cary, Olivia Sulek, and Paige Powers.

While the CrossFit Games teen division has not yet proved to be the preview of the individual division some thought it might be, former stars from younger age groups are starting to appear at the highest individual level. Though burnout, injury, college, or new sports may take some in different directions, former elite teen athletes are likely to continue strong appearances in competitive CrossFit.

Research and statistical support by Chad Schoeder.

Citations:

Vetter, E., Symonds, M. (2010). Correlations Between Injury, Training Intensity, and Physical and Mental Exhaustion Among College Athletes, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(3), 587-96, https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2010/03000/Correlations_Between_Injury,_Training_Intensity,.1.aspx 

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