Emily Beers talks to CrossFit Games athletes to discover what goes into the decision-making process when it comes to deciding between being competing individually or with a team.
In the early CrossFit Games days, the best athletes in the world always chose to compete as individuals, while the Affiliate Cup was more of a second-class event.
I remember competing at the track stadium, and even the tennis stadium, at the 2010 and 2011 CrossFit Games with my team in front of empty stands. To be blunt, nobody cared about the Affiliate Cup. Prestigious, it was not: It was an afterthought the spectators tolerated.
Empty stands were common at the Affiliate Cup at the CrossFit Games in the 2011 days
This is no longer the case today.
Last year’s Affiliate Cup at the Games gained wide acclaim, and not just because four-time Fittest Man on Earth Rich Froning was competing. Many other top-level athletes—Jason Khalipa, Lauren Fisher, the list goes on—also competed on teams.
This year, the trend continues: In California, 14 women, including 2015 Games athlete Maddy Myers, and 11 men chose to join their affiliate teams, meanwhile, in the Atlantic region, a whopping 21 women declined their individual invites. And on top of this, the woman who won the 2016 CrossFit Open—Jamie Greene—is competing with her team in a redemption quest for the Games. All this to say: The prestige around going team is definitely on the rise.
Adam Neiffer is one of these athletes.
He qualified to this year’s North West Regional Competition in 13th and is opting to compete with his CrossFit Fort Vancouver team. In fact, Neiffer has qualified as an individual in five of the past six years—2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016. He even topped the leaderboard in the Open in 2014.
But each year, he chooses to compete with his team, a team who has competed at every single CrossFit Games since winning the Affiliate Cup in 2010.
“For me, it’s simple. I love competing with my team,” Nieffer said. “The decision to go team every year is made before the Open, so qualifying to Regionals as an individual doesn’t change that.”
Neiffer (left) always has more fun with a teammate by his side
Neiffer simply doesn’t feel drawn to the potential prestige he might feel if he competed as an individual. It doesn’t tempt him at all, he said. Instead, he finds more satisfaction and joy having teammates, he explained.
“The CrossFit Games is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said. I never take if for granted.” And sharing the experience with six teammates only enhances the experience, he added.
“Having a group of 6 to 8 adults that are all at a place in their lives where they can put in the work to go to the CrossFit Games together is an extremely enjoyable experience, and it’s unique. Even though some of our team members change from year to year, we’re all like one big family.”
Further, having six athletes—as opposed to maybe just one or two individuals represent his affiliate at Regionals—gives the greater CrossFit Fort Vancouver community something to rally behind.
“We are just representatives of the entire community. None of us would be out there without the unending in support of the coaches and the community in the gym,” Neiffer said.
Although Blonyx athlete Christen Wagner did compete at the CrossFit Games as an individual in 2012, she has since turned her attention to team and has competed at the CrossFit Games the last two years with her 12 Labours CrossFit team—a team that placed 6th at last year’s Games. She’s also a member of the Baltimore Anthem GRID team.
Team sports are more her gig, she explained.
Wagner was an individual Games athlete before discovering her love of team competitions
“I believe I’m very well suited for team sports, in general,” Wagner said. “I enjoy the camaraderie that goes along with it and the added strategizing involved with team events in CrossFit.”
Wagner also joined the Blonyx team at the recent East Coast Championship competition in Boston
And while the level of competition is still arguably slightly higher on the individual side, the gap is narrowing, Wagner explained.
“(In past) years, you wanted your specialists on your team to really capitalize on the leaderboard. Specialists are now less desired on today’s competition floor, unless that specialty comes with well-rounded skills everywhere else,” Wagner said.
While the skills team athletes need today aren’t so different than individuals, what does differ are athletes’ mindsets, Wagner said.
“There is definitely a type of personality that intuitively plays well on teams. It’s difficult to establish that mindset if the person doesn’t instinctively have it…The teams that will really prosper are the teams that have six people that can effectively anticipate the needs of the team as a whole,” she said.
What this means for Wagner is the pressure of being part of a team means she pushes herself even harder than she does when she has competed individually, she explained.
“Individual competition is a little less stressful for me—or at least stressful in a different way…I personally feel much more pressure to perform on a team. You not only control your own fate, but the fate of others on the team.”
And when it all comes together and the team has success, as Wagner’s has in recent years, celebrating is always more exciting when you get to share it with others.
Wagner (right) enjoying the success of qualifying to the CrossFit Games with her 12 Labours Team
“There is no better feeling than crossing the finish line with five of your best friends celebrating at your side,” she said.
Melissa Doss first became familiar with CrossFit Games competition as a team athlete.
In 2014, her teammates convinced her to join their team in their quest for the Games.
“Thank goodness I did. We ended up winning Regionals and going onto the CrossFit Games, where we finished 2nd,” Doss said of her experience with her Conjugate Black team. “It was hands down one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had the opportunity to be part of and taught me so much about what it means to be a team player.”
This wasn’t something that came naturally to Doss.
“I had a very difficult time learning how to be a good teammate. As an individual, you are used to doing all the work, even if the skill or lift is not (your) strength.” Being on a team, on the other hand, means evaluating your strengths and weaknesses and being OK with letting others do more than you when your weaknesses show up, she explained.
“When you’re on a team, you have to swallow your pride and let go of any ego you may have and do whatever for the betterment on the team,” Doss said. In 2014, this meant Doss sat back and watched her strong teammates “beast the deadlifts,” she said. Speaking of deadlifts, Doss was on the same team as Sam Dancer that year—a team athlete who gained instant fame that summer when he lifted more than 655-lb. in the Affiliate Cup.
And here he is with an easy 495 lb. x 6 reps
Although it was challenging back then, it isn't anymore.
"I have zero issues with this now," she laughed. "When I do team comps, I have no problem letting my teammates take over movements they are fantastic at and me taking a back seat on them. This allows the entire team to shine."
Doss had a chance to do just that earlier this season when she chose to compete with a very strong three-woman team at the recent Wodapalooza competition in Miami. She and her teammates Kristi Eramo and Elyse Kile placed fourth.
Doss and her teammates at Wodapalooza
Having strong teammates next to her also motivates her to work harder, Doss explained.
“Sometimes as an individual, when I feel like I’m dying, a moment of quit flashes across my face. My husband knows this look very well. He saw it at Regionals last year during ‘Tommy V.’ That look of quit doesn’t happen when I’m on a team. I push so much harder,” she said.
Despite her love of team competition, Doss has chosen to try her hand as an individual athlete at the Central Regional competition this year for the second year in a row. She will undoubtedly use the lessons and experiences she has had with teammates to propel her in her quest for the Games.
She has the muscles to prove it
2015 CrossFit Games athlete Carleen Matthews is an individual athlete during the CrossFit Games season, but dabbles with teams for fun in the off-season.
“I don’t consider myself an individual athlete only, but for the CrossFit Games season I am an individual athlete. I do team competitions out of season,” Matthews said.
She started the sport with an individual mindset, but somewhere along the way added a love for team competitions.
“Jess Core (perennial CrossFit Fort Vancouver team member) convinced me to do the Team Series two years ago,” Matthews said. “I fell in love with it.” After that, Matthews went on to compete with Core at the 2015 Fort Vancouver Championships and had a blast having a teammate by her side. She competed again in 2016 and won.
For now, though, Matthews will continue to embrace the more physically demanding individual competition as long as her body can handle it. This is where her heart lies today, but she thinks eventually she’ll compete at Regionals with a team.
One day, she won't carry the entire weight on her own shoulders, but for now she's embracing the pressure-filled life as an individual athlete
“I can’t imagine going individual forever,” Matthews said. “I think that teams will be the next big thing. It’s definitely the route I will go in the future. It’s less stress and demand on the body with less volume,” she said.
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