CrossFit Games Veteran Emma McQuaid on Burnout and Social Media Pressures
Earlier this season, 21-year-old Haley Adams announced that she would be taking a break from the sport of fitness to deal with an eating disorder and her mental health. Just a few months later, 19-year-old Mal O’Brien, who took second at the 2022 CrossFit Games, also removed herself from the 2023 season in an Instagram post, stating:
- “Sometimes, we face personal challenges that demand our attention and care. It’s important to prioritize our well-being and embrace the support of loved ones.”
These two young and incredibly successful athletes are not the only ones taking to social media to share their stories of their struggles with mental health.
Over the past year, many athletes have become more vocal regarding the toll the intense pressure of competing takes on their mental health. This week, four-time Games veteran and 2023 CrossFit Games qualifier Emma McQuaid took to social media to join the conversation.
Unsurprisingly, McQuaid’s post garnered quite a bit of attention. While many vocal supporters flocked to the comments in agreement, a few dissenters rebuked her thoughts, stating that pressure was merely part of the gig when it comes to being a professional athlete.
But while McQuaid certainly admits that she feels the pressure sometimes, she knows that there is a bigger conversation at play and one she hopes to contribute to. The conversation around how we are creating a space in a sport as young as CrossFit, for young athletes to grow and thrive and continue competing well into their 30s and beyond.
In an interview, McQuaid admitted that this Instagram post didn’t come out of nowhere.
- “It’s kind of a conversation we [some of the older athletes] had in Berlin,” she said.
- “It is such a young sport, so we don’t even know where it’s going in the next ten years, but this year and last year, we lost a few of the new up-and-coming athletes [to burnout],” she continued.
- “If 19-year-old me was told I would be finished with my sport, I would have told them no way!” McQuaid exclaimed. “I’m 33 and still loving my sport.”
- “And it’s not just these two girls,” she continued. “It’s just that they have highlighted it a lot more,”
McQuaid isn’t wrong when she chastises the sport of fitness for burning athletes out before they hit their prime. In the past year, many Games athletes, both young and old, have commented on their experience with burnout and the pressure they face of being in the public eye while competing in the sport.
- “It definitely gets harder every year–more mentally than physically,” said Amanda Barnhart, in a response to McQuaid’s Instagram post.
- Even at the top, the pressure seems to seep in. Katrin Davidsdottir was just 22 years old when she won the CrossFit Games for the first time.
- “I started feeling the pressure of being the Fittest on Earth,” Davidsdottir said in an episode of her podcast Dottir. “I was so scared people would see me and be like, ‘Oh, that’s not how the Fittest on Earth should look.’”
While all this might seem like it’s coming out of nowhere, it’s a boiling pot and the pressure has been growing nearly every year.
- In January of 2020, nearly three years ago, Ava Kitzi of the Morning Chalk Up began sharing stories of the pressure and burnout that teens around the world were facing as the sport of fitness continued to grow.
- “Don’t get me wrong, they love the training, but it also means spending time in the gym away from friends, the pool and ice cream during what’s most likely one of the last real summer breaks of their lives,” Kitzi said in an article about the pressures teens faced to qualify for the Games.
- Kitzi would later go on to continue writing stories that included things, such as Emma Cary’s 6 AM to midnight grind to balance school and training for the Games and has continued to share these stories all the way through 2023, when she wrote about both Haley Adams’ and Mal O’Brien’s decisions to step away from competition this year.
Even McQuaid said that she felt the pressure during the European Semifinals two weekends ago.
- Last year, McQuaid injured her shoulder and while she knew it was fully rehabbed, she knew the muscle-up workout would be difficult because of the position the ruck put her shoulder in.
- “Everyone was expecting me to do well in the muscle-up workout, because I’m so good at ring muscle-ups,” she said.
- “But I really struggled because of my shoulder,” she continued.
- “I knew everyone was expecting me to do well and was watching me saying ‘Oh she’s crap’,” McQuaid concluded.
McQuaid also opened up on how different elements of social media can be impactful on an athlete.
- “I felt a lot of external pressure,” she said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself and even though you try to not let it affect you, it still affects you.”
- “I felt like the odds were against me from the start [going into this Semifinals weekend],” McQuaid continued.
- “There were a bunch of media platforms saying ‘Emma McQuaid is not making it back to the Games,’” McQuaid elaborated.
- “Each time you see it, it hurts a little bit,”
But one thing that McQuaid prides herself in and an area she feels she’s grown into as she’s aged has been her mental Game and her ability to hold confidence in herself.
- While the 33-year old athlete admits that it’s not always easy to let the comments slide, she knows she’s right where she belongs.
- “Every time I’ve made it to the Games I’ve belonged at the Games,” she said.
- Not only that, but McQuaid feels that her years spent in competitive sports have provided the foundation for her maturity not just during the good times, but also the bad.
- During European Semifinals this year, McQuaid received a questionable no-rep on one of the rope climbs during the workout. A no-rep that cost her not only a top placement in the workout, but also caused her to nearly not finish the workout.
- “That [scenario] was an absolute testament to my [personal growth],” McQuaid said. Staying composed, not yelling at the judge, and not panicking.”
- “I looked at the clock and gave myself a time frame,” she continued. My 18 or 19-year-old self would have tried to race back up the rope, failed again, and not been able to finish the workout,” she concluded.
But 33 years of self-confidence isn’t built overnight and in the age of constant connection where it seems nearly everyone has something to say, people can be ruthless, especially when they have a screen to hide behind.
Since 2013, the average age of the top ten women at the CrossFit Games has gone from 30 to 24 in 2022.
- Looking back at 2013, Samantha Briggs was the CrossFit Games champion at age 31 and 50% of the top ten women were 30 or older.
- That statistic has drastically shifted in 2022. Last season, the average age of the top ten women at the CrossFit Games was 24, with the youngest at 17 and only one athlete (Kara Saunders) over the age of thirty.
And while the athletes have continued to get younger and younger, the comments and the scrutiny from fans has only grown as the sport itself grows as well.
- “I think it’s more when you’re personally attacked,” said McQuaid commenting on how the fans, analysts, and social media keyboard warriors can impact an athlete’s self-confidence.
- “The predictions are an exciting thing,” she said, voicing that it wasn’t necessarily the predictions as to who was going to win that were driving the pressure. “We play the game of who’s going to win ourselves amongst athletes,” she added.
McQuaid continued to elaborate on how comments from reporters and analysts on an athlete’s performance or whether or not they were improving in a certain area could be absolutely devastating to younger athletes who are working their hardest.
- “Sometimes a massive win to you isn’t as impressive in the context of the entire field,” she said.
- McQuaid continued to elaborate that no one really knows what’s going on behind the scenes of an athlete’s training beyond their coaches and training partners.
- “Haley [Adams] was so criticized for her strength,” McQuaid said.
- “I know how she feels. It doesn’t take one year, it takes years to develop strength. Give the kids a break. It takes time,” she continued.
- “They’re still children. It’s going to take them years. I’m 33 and I only feel like I’m getting going,” she concluded.
As the field continues to get younger and athletes who would typically compete in the teenage or have just come out of the team division are now qualifying as individual men and women for the CrossFit Games, the question has largely become: How do we create a safe and productive training and competitive environment for these athletes to grow and thrive.
- “My main concern is that this is directly concerned with where this sport [CrossFit] is going in the future,” McQuaid said.
- “If we don’t take control of it now, there isn’t going to be a sport. You’re never going to see these athletes in the masters division,” she continued.
- “They are capable,” she said, silencing those who might think she doesn’t think younger athletes are ready for the physical demands of the competition.
- But for McQuaid, she believes we’re forgetting that while they might be ready physically, the mental side of the sport, as well as the maturity and the ability to deal with the pressures of being a professional in a sport often don’t develop until much later.
Instead, McQuaid advocates for a longer timeline for sustainable and continuous growth for the younger athletes in the field.
- “It seems [right now] to be a race to make the Games as young as possible,” she said.
- “I think once kids become professional athletes, they stop being kids,” she continued. “You need to experience life,”
- “It’s scary that kids are missing exams and coming out of school in their final year [to compete full time in CrossFit],” McQuaid said.
So what should be the goal to focus on in McQuaid’s eyes? For McQuaid, she defines success not as making the CrossFit Games, but something entirely different.
- “Success in my eyes is being in the sport when you’re 33,” she said.
- “Or, if you’re Sam Briggs, when you’re 40,” she added laughing.
- “I think there are more coaches focused on helping their athletes find success for themselves as coaches [making the CrossFit Games], rather than success for the athletes,” she concluded.
To this point, McQuaid is true to her word with every young athlete she coaches.
- “I’ve had 15-20 teenagers compete in the teenage division [at the Games] and they’re all now in their 20s, healthy, PRing their lifts and loving CrossFit, because I held them back,” McQuaid said.
- “Two of them could have easily been Games athletes,” she added.
But the truth is, even McQuaid doesn’t know the full solution to the problem that has become ever more so apparent in recent years. It’s much more complex than simply placing the onus exclusively on the coaches, parents, or even CrossFit itself as a governing body of the sport.
- Creating an environment that can provide these resources for these young athletes will require a great deal of time, investment, and capital from everyone helping to shape these athletes and keep them in the sport for the long haul.
- Even the 2013 CrossFit Games champion, Samantha Briggs, took to McQuaid’s comment section to defend the sport and the athletes.
- “CrossFit being a young sport and far from ‘professional’ the additional resources that are available to maybe some other top athletes are hard to come by, which is unfortunate, she said.
- “Hopefully in the future, there’ll be more support for the younger generation coming through,” she concluded.
At the highest levels of larger sports leagues, we see resources such as mindset coaches and highly curated training and injury prevention programs for athletes. Even at the college level, students receive a number of resources to help them balance school and sports. However, within the sport of fitness, there’s no central league or organization that can provide those resources for athletes competing at the highest level in CrossFit. There are also very limited screenings or prerequisites for the coaches who take on the immense responsibility of coaching these athletes.
- Taking an athlete who is still trying to succeed full-time in high school and compete at the level that elite athletes dedicate their entire lives to achieving is an exquisite balance that is nearly impossible to attain.
- Last year, in an interview with Morning Chalk Up, teen superstar Emma Cary (the 18-year-old who took first at North American Semifinals) disclosed that her high school years were tough and isolating.
- “Every minute was spent training or doing homework. Even while I would eat, I would do homework. There was just no time to relax, sometimes no time to even stretch or recover my body. It was like, I can sleep or I can stretch, and right now I need to sleep. It was tough,” Cary said.
With situations like the one Cary described continuing to build, it is pivotal that we as a community continue to build the support network for these young athletes as we continue to build the sport. In the case of McQuaid, she acknowledges was lucky to have a strong and supportive network that helped her to grow and thrive as an athlete over the years.
- “My parents had my back from day one and they still do,” McQuaid said.
- McQuaid continued to elaborate on how parents can continue to support their children as they progress through the sport of fitness.
- “The [continued] guidance from their parents [is important] as well. They might not know the sport, but they should know the signs. [And be able to see] if their child is struggling,” McQuaid said.
The big picture: Beyond the actions that coaches and parents can take to support their individual athletes, it is clear that the sport of fitness needs a radical change in how it handles its youngest athletes. And if we want to see the true potential of where this sport can go, it needs to start now. In the next several years, a new environment needs to be created that not only allows young athletes to grow into a long career of competing at the highest level in the sport of fitness but also to continue to hold CrossFit as a pursuit for the rest of their lives.
While it won’t be easy, it will be the only way to secure the future growth and longevity of the sport. If we want to see the full potential of what the fittest human on earth can truly be, that investment starts now and it starts with our youth. Cultivating programs that involve coaches, parents, and a governing body in the sport of fitness to not only create a safe, but exciting and empowering path from your local affiliate’s CrossFit Kids program all the way to the CrossFit Games.