This Athlete Used CrossFit to Get Over Her Competition Anxiety

This Athlete Used CrossFit to Get Over Her Competition Anxiety

After a decade of competitive gymnasticsShelby Neal decided she'd had enough. She was strong and flexible, but she had come to fear the training that occupied 40 hours of her time every week.

"One day, I could do a skill, and I was fine. Then, I'd have one fall, and that's all I could think about — my failures," 17-year-old Shelby tells Teen Vogue.

She came to fear the balance beam, and after she learned how to put a twist in her backflip, she was scared both to twist and not to twist. From there, she couldn't back tumble at all, and her coaches started focusing on other, more promising athletes. "I stopped having fun," she says, "and I stopped believing in myself."

As shaken as her confidence was, Shelby wasted no time finding a new athletic outlet. In her last week of gymnastics, she started CrossFit, which she says was a fairly easy transition. Some movements, like pull-ups and handstand walks, are the same in both sports, and Shelby quickly fell in love with the technique required for the weightlifting movements, like the clean and jerk(getting a barbell from the ground up to the shoulders and then pressing it overhead). Within 18 months, she had trained enough to qualify for the 16- and 17-year-old division of the 2016 CrossFit Games, the four-day competition to find the "Fittest Teen on Earth." However, she still struggled with the mental component.

CrossFit prides itself on its breadth — in addition to gymnastics and weightlifting, it includes running, swimming, biking, kettlebells, and obstacle courses — which intimidated Shelby. Relatively inexperienced, she worried that every event would expose a fatal weakness in her training.

"I got in my head and was thinking, 'Oh, there's no way I can win. Everyone's better than me. Everyone's been here before. I just got lucky and slid in,'" she says.

Though she finished in eighth place, she still didn't feel like a true competitor.

During the off-season, Shelby started to change her approach. Also a member of the 2017 USA Weightlifting team, she trained at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where she met other teenagers and Games competitors who've become some of her closest friends. After qualifying for the 2017 Games, she was also invited to train at the headquarters of Rogue Fitness, one of CrossFit's biggest sponsors, and traveled to Columbus from her home in North Carolina. While there, she got coached on the form for her clean and jerk, and after a few days, her old personal record, 196 pounds, "felt like nothing."

More important than the technical work, though, was that Shelby started identifying specific weaknesses and working to overcome them. "What am I not good at?" she asked herself. "Rope climbs. Okay, do 10 rope climbs. Then the next day: do it again, and again, and again, so I feel fine with the technique — not like, fast, just getting comfortable doing the stuff I'm not good at." She also practiced pushing sleds and running, and now she feels like has only one ultimate weakness: rowing. "Everything else would be like, sure, I'll do it. Like, okay, it's fine."

Most important of all, Shelby started experimenting with her training. She tried climbing and even attempted the American Ninja Warrior-inspired Warped Wall. A few weeks before this year's Games, she "finally got her first pegboard" after working at it all summer. Because many of the events at the Games aren't announced until the day of, Shelby felt better knowing she had experience in so many different domains. Flying to Madison, Wisconsin, to compete this year, she was optimistic she'd perform better than in 2016.

At first, it was a slow start. She placed seventh in the opening event, a one-rep max for the snatch, and on the second event, a mile-and-a-half run, a 500 meter swim, and a mile-and-a-half run back, she drank a little too much of the water from Lake Monona. She spent the following morning lying down and clutching her stomach, but by the afternoon, she was ready for one of the most grueling workouts of the weekend: Bar Fight.

When the buzzer rang, Shelby started the event with 50 chest-to-bars, which are like pull-ups but, instead of clearing the bar with her chin, Shelby had to touch the bar with her chest. She did all 50 in four sets and then moved on to the 40 toes-to-bar, where she hung and touched her toes to the bar. The final movement was 30 clean and jerks, the movement Shelby had improved so dramatically at Rogue Fitness. But, this time around, it wouldn't "feel like nothing."

After hanging onto the bar for so long, Shelby's lungs were burning, and her grip was taxed. To make matters worse, she had to clean and jerk on a narrow lane, and when her foot would touch the edge, the rep didn't count. Watching from the stands, her family and friends would shout as the bar slid more and more to each side, but Shelby was too focused to hear them.

Even though she had to redo four reps, Shelby finished the workout in sixth place — the same standing she'd end the weekend with after six more events, ten in total. That's only two places above her performance last year, but in terms of her confidence, it's lightyears ahead.

Shelby is aiming to return to the Games next year in the adult division, and she was surprised to learn that other girls also doubted their abilities. "Some of them thought it was just luck," she says, "and I'm like, 'You guys all deserve to be here. Everyone's really good, you know?"

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