In 2013, two weeks after Christmas, a group of former high school and college athletes, a fitness competitor, Army vet and one very nervous writer (me) signed up for a month-long team tournament organized by the Atlanta Affiliate League. No, I take that back. We were coerced into signing up by our coach, Shane Bonilla of CrossFit III in Kennesaw, GA. None of us had competed before. None of us have even been CrossFitters for over a year. “A friend called me up and offered a spot in a competition coming up in four days and we decided to take it at the last minute and get thrown in,” is how Shane describes the decision. He’s the kind of coach that describes a Hero WOD with a calm smile on his face so that you’re lulled into a false sense of security that evaporates only when it’s too late to back out. Competing can’t be that different from a typical WOD, we thought.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that success would require more than 30 unbroken pull-ups and repeated heavy lifts. Our competition WODs included classic CrossFit lifts and movements punctuated with a wicked mix of alternating wall balls, tandem burpees-to-bumpers, and partner carries. Walking into the box hosting the competition for the first time, we were met by a scene that looked like modern-day gladiator training. I can barely play ping-pong. How am I ever going to hang with these people? Shane assigned each athlete to workouts that matched our respective strengths. “We got out-strategized the first week, “he admits, “You really have to take everybody and make them work together completely. It is all about team.” So how do you take eight athletes who are used to working out on their own and create a winning team?
“The hard truth is most people aren’t good at everything,” Graham Lutz, co-owner of the AAL explains. “You see this in the Open. One guy can do like, 160 burpees in seven minutes but as an individual competitor [he‘s] worthless; he gets knocked out before he makes it to the Games.” He pauses before delivering his next statement, “but in a team competition, that guy is a f–ing silver bullet.” He continues, “You can have a team that’s not the biggest but works together the best. And they can win a workout.” Our team is certainly not the strongest or the most experienced—but in the right WODs, we could be eight silver bullets. Here are a few things we learned during our first team competition.
Graham describes “failure to plan” as the biggest mistake a team can make. “Teams come in to a 12 minute workout and go balls to the wall for nine minutes and burn themselves out.” After our first competition, we were exhausted after the first three or four events. For the following one, we worked with Shane to develop a constantly-adjusting strategy for each WOD. If a WOD includes alternating wall balls or back-to-back sprint rows, seamless transitions between movements or athletes can shave seconds off each round. Likewise, in team competitions you can’t “get in the zone” and block out your teammates, especially if the WOD calls for synchronized—or tandem—movements. The teams that excel perform cohesively as a unit.
It seems self-explanatory, but to really be competitive, your team has got to work out together. Aside from performing the workouts, group practices improve communication and are a great place to try different strategies. Graham also credits competitive teams with more strength programming. “Everybody needs to be stronger all the time. Too many gyms lack strength programming.” “A lot of the competitive teams get almost too much into strength and completely leave out cardio. If you can lift every weight but you’ve gassed out, you can’t do much else.”
Whether you’ve completed one WOD or 1,000, you know that mental fortitude is critical to CrossFit. In team competition, the will to push yourself and your teammates to peak performance can make the difference between two evenly matched teams. “We actually got applauded on one event because our attitude was so good and we pushed hard to the very end when we didn’t necessarily need to.” Bonilla recalls. “I think that’s our biggest strength.” That’s the trick with team competition—after hours of practicing together, I realized that I would rather sprain something than do less than my best for my teammates. As I began tapping into that energy, I pushed myself beyond what I thought I could do, both in competition and the daily WODs.
As the weeks of the month-long tournament passed, we won some events, lost some, and realized how strong our Crossfit III community is. When I heard athletes from our box that came as spectators shouting my name during one event, it was as if I had been injected with adrenalin. Finishing up the season, we went back to the box with greater determination to improve, and Shane couldn’t be happier. “It’s caused all our athletes to do a little more work outside of what’s programmed. Which is huge, from a coach’s perspective.” We’re still coming into the gym early and staying late to work on lifts or get a little extra time on the rowing machine.
Ultimately, competing on a team for the first time revealed just how strong the CrossFit community is, as it helped to bring individual CrossFitter’s together to train and perform as a team. And when that happens, everybody wins.