Champions Club Chronicles Vol. 3: Teen Athletes Spotlight


About three weeks ago, Steph Curry unloaded a comically historical shooting display against Oklahoma City that ended in a nuclear launch from half court to win the game. My question is: did those 53 minutes of game-action make him a better basketball player? Or was it just a reflection of his recent practice habits? Or maybe both?

Before I ever knew about CrossFit, I played sports. In fact, it was in that playing of sports that motivated me to start CrossFit in the first place. So naturally my approach to CrossFit is similar to how I approached basketball, football, or track.

You don’t play a football game every single day. You would die. Instead you have practices at about a 5:1 ratio of games. At those practices you emphasize specific performance points that you might need for the game. There is little to no attention paid to passing yards, tackles, or even points scored because the habits developed in this frame are more important than measurable outcome they produce. When the game comes, the outcome typically reflects the habits you practice (unless you are Michigan’s punt team.) This is why I find it so irritating when I see coaches yelling at their players during a game about something they messed up, as if they’re going to correct it in front of a crowd of people and a scoreboard. That needs to be addressed in the controlled environment of practice.

Kelly Starrett has helped me come to realize that the weight room is practice. We exaggerate positions and conditioning demands that we might find in sport or real life so that when we do encounter them, we are more likely to succeed. CrossFit, in specific, serves as one of the world’s best diagnostic tools for movement dysfunction. It exposes us to so many domains of training that our weaknesses have no place to hide. It is the coach’s job to recognize them when they come to light and fix them; the gains an athlete makes in strength, coordination, conditioning, power, etc. all come as a byproduct.

The Champions Club has always been comprised of predominantly teenagers. In specific, teenagers who are not doing CrossFit as a sport, itself, but using it to help them in other sports. As I wrote about before, we have seen the training lead to a lot of success. But, again, we have come to view our athletes’ sports performance as a byproduct of their training, not their goal necessarily. After all: what’s the best way to improve shooting a basketball? Uh… practice shooting a basketball. One hundred push presses is not an equal substitution for one hundred pull-up jumpers.

Teaching develops perception, and perception allows you to be your own coach.

I evaluate my coaching based on how well our kids (or parents, for that matter) move without being coached. I realized that we weren’t doing the kids any good if they showed perfect movement in the gym, but were clueless when they worked out by themselves at college or with their football  team. If they need me there watching to have good form, then I have failed. So lately, we have been a little bit vaguer with our directions. One of our young coaches, Nicole Murley, put it best in an article last year: “Cues foster dependence. Teaching develops perception, and perception allows you to be your own coach.” This is where the Pose Concept has really helped us out.

All athletic movement is comprised of both strength and skill. Strength is the capacity to maintain a stable position, and skill involves the coordination of doing it correctly and is heavily dependent on perception. As I mentioned before, I believe the Pose Method for running is the best way to develop bodyweight perception. The effortless feeling in running should be able to be replicated in kipping pull- ups, cleans, and rope climbs. In fact, we often do Pose drills as a primer for Olympic lifts. Same skill (unweighing), just different poses.

In another attempt to help our athletes move well without coaching, we have simplified our teaching. Instead of having a million different exercises and rules, we have come to recognize a few underlying movements and standards that encapsulate everything we do in the weight room. In short, there are three movements that every kid in the Champions Club needs to perform:

  1. Push-up
  2. Jump/Land
  3. Run

That’s it. If you can do those three things, then you have a foundation for snatches, back squats, handstands, spiking a volleyball, throwing a baseball, or tackling a running back.

An overriding theme for those movements are three rules that must be obeyed at all times; regardless of what you are doing:

  1. Midline stability – No change in spine while moving
  2. Loading order – Prime movers (hip/shoulder) must move first
  3. Laws of Torque – Flexion = external rotation; Extension = internal rotation

In a weird way, it’s almost like the coach is working against the athlete. The athlete’s job is to obey the rules at all costs. The coach’s job is to make the athlete break them, then note where the breakdown occurs so it can be fixed. The coach can use things like speed, load, volume, change in orientation, fatigue, and range of motion to challenge a movement pattern, while the athlete can use perception, skill, blocking movement, and mobility drills to help their cause.

Coach Sinagoga working with one of his athletes. (Photo credit: Chris Sinagoga)

We kind of formalized this mindset about a year and a half ago, and it has drastically helped me when dealing with all of our teens. My biggest coaching fear used to be having an athlete fail right in front of me while I was coaching them. Or even worse: if they trained hard and did well in the gym, then performed poorly in their sport. But now seeing that it is actually my job to make them mess up helps me understand where they fall in the progression of that movement continuum. And if their sports are not going as planned, then it just exposes something that needs be addressed in the gym going forward.

The biggest challenge, for me at least, is adjusting to the different level of athlete. Beginner athletes tend to be completely dependent on a coach, and therefore the relationship works perfectly. With advanced athletes, the relationship is interdependent. Matt Fecht, who finished 50th at the recent U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, trains with us and we both bounce ideas off each other. Intermediate athletes, on the other hand, tend to be the most challenging because they are at that stage that awkward stage. Sometimes they feel too much time is spent on the basics they have already worked on ad nauseam, and sometimes I am too quick to label them “advanced.” And usually our sessions will be filled with variations of all three athlete types. Needless to say there are many entertaining days out here in Madison Heights.

Pairing the idea of working out with the emotion of fun is what ultimately leads to a lifetime of fitness

Finally, I think it is important for the kids to have fun. As the Jeff and Mikki Martin have always stressed, pairing the idea of working out with the emotion of fun is what ultimately leads to a lifetime of fitness. So we definitely do some weird stuff. We have theme workouts during the Summer when all the College Kids are back and on holidays. Some of the favorites are 80’s, Disney, Jurassic Park, and Shark Week (which has recently been blended with our Hawaiian Workout). As for most of the daily workouts, we have a warmup similar to the traditional CrossFit warmup (if anyone actually remembers that from the old days), then mobility work, and finally the workout of the day. I am usually lenient on the talking and messing around during warmup and mobility. Then when the time comes, they flip the switch and get their mind right for the workout. Sometimes the workout doesn’t go as well as planned, and then I get pissed and make an adjustment the next day. In the end, we let the movement quality dictate everything. It they are moving well, we let it roll. If not, we adjust.

We let the movement quality dictate everything

The great thing about coaching teens is that, in most cases, there is a wide margin for error. We experiment on them all the time because they can recover quickly if we mess up. In addition, their involvement in sports gives me a lot of feedback that I would not get otherwise. The habits they develop in the gym show up on the field for me, and the hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of spectators to see. There’s nothing like it.

About the author(s)

Champions Club | WEBSITE | + ARTICLES

Chris Sinagoga is the owner of the Champions Club/CrossFit Athletic Group in Madison Heights, MI, whose obsession with coaching CrossFit is only surpassed by his obsession with the game of basketball. Chris is heavily influenced by MGoBlog and Hip Hop and writes for the Champions Club website. Among other prestigious credentials, he has achieved certified master status in both Pokémon Red and Gold versions. Contact Coach Chris Sinagoga for more information and training.