Death, taxes and asking “is this Sara Sigmundsdottir’s year?”. In the build-up to every CrossFit Games since the Icelander arrived on the scene, fans and commentators alike profess that this time Sigmundsdottir will deliver on her early promise. But once again, Sigmundsdottir was far down the rankings and never in contention for the top five.
Sigmundsdottir burst onto the CrossFit scene in 2015 with a third-place finish at the Games. She then backed up her performance with another third place in 2016. She was just 23 at her inaugural Games and everyone wondered how far she could go, but instead she dropped down the rankings, finishing fourth, 37th and 19th, with different reasons ranging from injury to format changes.
This weekend, during the first leg of the CrossFit Games 2020, she finished 21st and therefore did not qualify for the in-person final in October.
But these results do not suggest she is getting worse at CrossFit or her fitness is failing her. In the years that she has slipped down the Games rankings, she has also won three Regionals and the Open three times, including this season’s Open. The first leg of the Games was online as athletes competed remotely, so if her Open success is anything to go by then the format should have suited her.
Sara Sigmundsdottir explains her poor performance in opening round, cites shin injury and cortisol issue
In addition, Sigmundsdottir has won two of the Sanctional events this season, fuelling even more speculation that this could have been her year at the Games. So why has she come up short again?
Choking is defined as underperforming in stressful situations, according to “Choking interventions in sports: A systematic review” in the “International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology”.
The emphasis on the Games is sure to make it more stressful than any other competition, no matter the format. What’s more, the speculation that this could be her year probably adds to the stress, specifically for Sigmundsdottir over other athletes that court less attention.
There’s more stress still given her own perceived failings at pervious Games due to “self-imposed performance expectations in critical situations (when it counts the most), which is devastating and embarrassing”, as put in “ Choking under pressure: theoretical models and interventions” in “Current Opinion in Psychology”. Sigmundsdottir could not even bring herself to watch the 2019 Games documentary because of the painful memories.
Sigmundsdottir described the stress, saying: “I felt like I was doing it for someone else, not for me. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”
Fortunately, there are models to address choking and reduce the chance of it happening. Sigmundsdottir has been adopting them without even realising.
The first is based on the idea that athletes can become distracted under pressure and begin to respond to the wrong cues. The solution is a familiarity and “interventions may include the use of pre-performance routines consisting of features such as cognitive and behavioural preparation, deep breathing, cue words, or countdown to performance”, according to “Choking interventions in sports”.
A lack of routine goes some way to explain Sigmundsdottir’s underperformance in years gone by, as she said “I love staying up late and sleeping in and training at 11pm sometimes. I’ve always been like that”.
But it also gives hope because she has identified this issue and before the Games said “I’ve been trying to change: I wake up, I have the same warm-up, I do breathing in the morning and I do breathing before bed”.
That was in April. Perhaps her new routine has not had enough time to embed, so her body does not innately associate the cues with high performance yet and can still get distracted. But the fact she is addressing the issue means there is time for her to go on to smash her potential in years to come.
Another model for addressing choking is acclimatisation interventions. In short, it is practising under mildly stressful situations to get used to the pressure. With that in mind, Sigmundsdottir is set to benefit from the expanding CrossFit calendar.
The Games was the be-all-and-end-all of CrossFit until recently. There were next to no other events to replicate that kind of pressure. The Open is without a crowd and athletes can repeat workouts until they are satisfied with their performance. The Regionals were just once a year and the stakes were high, so it would be like going from base camp to the South Col of Everest in one push.
But the format changed in 2018. Now, instead of Regionals there are numerous Sanctionals. These events vary in size and are the perfect training ground for acclimatisation intervention. Without even knowing it, Sigmundsdottir was acclimatising this year.
She entered the Filthy 150 and won. It is one of the smaller Sanctionals of the calendar, so she was exposing herself to less stress. Then she entered the Dubai CrossFit Championship, another Sanctional event but more high profile and with stiffer competition. She won again.
The Icelander was increasing the pressure she was exposing herself to, like a mountaineer slowly reaching higher camps to get used to the thin air before the summit push.
Adding a routine and exposing herself to more pressure at incremental levels may have come too late this year, but they are both sure to pay dividends in years to come.
Sigmundsdottir’s days of choking are hopefully behind her.