10 Things I’ve Learned from Putting on a Fitness Competition for Five Years

We recently ran the fifth iteration of the South Loop Games.
The event had 51 individual competitors and 126 team competitors.
Over the years, we’ve had many high level competitors participate (including quite a few CrossFit Games athletes as well as Sanctional and former Regional level competitors).
While the competition is probably not “worth it” from a pure numbers perspective, we get a lot of fulfillment out of running it and it’s a top priority for us every fall.
Over the years of running the competition, we’ve learned quite a few things and made quite a few mistakes.
Here’s a few of them that may be helpful to anyone else attempting to put on an in-house competition.
People really value an on-time event
The bar is set very low for local competitions. People expect the event to be disorganized and to be running 45-90 minutes behind schedule.
Keeping the event on time requires a pretty significant amount of upfront work, including – but not – limited too:
•Creating detailed heat schedules with specific transition times between heats and between events
•Planning and setting up all equipment transitions ahead of time
•Having the following roles in place for the day of the competition:
On floor event supervisor who is starting and stopping the clock. This individual can double as a head judge as well and observer the flow of the event during the actual events.
Athlete control supervisor who is responsible for making sure that every individual who is competing in the next heat is in the warm up area by the team the previous heat starts
Equipment transition manager who is keeping track of coming equipment transitions and staging all of the necessary equipment
Each of these areas will ideally also have multiple volunteers working with them moving equipment, chasing down missing athletes, etc.
Other things that we’ve learned that help keep an event on time:
-Having different transition times between heats allows for a bit of a buffer – and also prevents people standing around excessively between their heats
Short transition: 2 minutes
-This is ideal for transitions between events that require minimal resetting of the competition lane. An example would be a transition between heats of the same division where the only equipment is an assault bike and a dumbbell.
Medium transition: 3 minutes
-This transition works well for events where some equipment must be moved on and off, but there is not a huge amount of work to be done. An example here would be transitioning between two divisions with minimal equipment – for example, moving from an intermediate male division to an Rx male division where the only change is moving a dumbbell on and off of each lane.
Long transition: 4 minutes
-When we have events that involve a lot of equipment and significant resetting, allowing for a bit more of a buffer is usually wise. An example here would be some an event with some sort of max lift where athletes have loaded several plates onto the bar. Between each heat, the bars need to be stripped and reset for the next heat.
It’s also wise to leave a little bit of extra time between heats during the first events of the day. This allows a little bit of breathing room so you don’t start out behind schedule right away. Also, athletes will often settle into a rhythm after the first event and will start doing a better job of showing up on time, finding their lane, etc.
The best way to market your event is to repeatedly put on a high quality event.
This year was the best year yet for the South Loop Games – in terms of registration, revenue and spectator attendance.
We also probably did the least amount of promotion of the event this year.
(All of that said, it is still a relatively low margin event. We overshot a little bit by increasing the prize money this year more than we probably should have relative to our registrations.)
At this point, we’ve run the event five times, and people have some idea of what to expect. So, when we announce that registration is open, people are excited to participate and they sign up without much coaxing.
That’s not to say that some of the promotion that we did in the past wasn’t valuable since it probably helped build the profile of the event.
However, after running this multiple times, we now have the luxury of having an event with a solid reputation as well as a large list of competition alumni who are eager to come back and participate again.
I’m generally skeptical of “build it and they will come” marketing advice. But, for our competition, it seems that “building it” year after year has in fact resulted in people coming to the event.
It is much harder to program for intermediate and scaled divisions than to program for elite divisions.
The abilities of competitors in intermediate and scaled divisions are often much more variable than the abilities of athletes competing in an Rx division.
If you’ve worked with enough high level athletes, you probably have a decent idea of what a typical Rx competitor can do and what will be appropriately challenging for them. And, if you program for that avatar, you will probably get a good distribution of performances from the rest of the competitors in that division.
Intermediate divisions are a different story, though.
You will have some athletes who can lift just as much weight as any “Rx” athlete, but they struggle with high rep gymnastics, so they are in the intermediate division. You will have athletes who can do huge sets of pull-ups and can handstand walk for days, but are unable to lift the typical Rx weights.
Based upon this, you will find that intermediate divisions will inevitably have some events that are “too easy” for a chunk of competitors while another chunk of competitors can barely get through the workout.
On a related note, intermediate male division competitors – on average – are often much more comfortable with gymnastics than intermediate female division competitors. It adds complexity to have different rep schemes for different divisions, but this is something to potentially consider.
I don’t think there’s a perfect solution here, so just keep this in your mind when programming, and – as discussed in the next point – make sure to test the events extensively.
Testing events extensively is crucial – particularly for intermediate divisions.
Some of our biggest mistakes in programming have come from the intermediate versions of our events. We’ve usually tested everything in some form or another, but – especially with intermediate divisions – it’s important to have a wide variety of athletes try the event to see how it’s going to go.
It’s usually better to have an event be “too hard” for some competitors, rather than having it be “too easy” for the top of the division.
Particularly in intermediate divisions, there are a few different avatars of athletes who should test an event (ie “Strong but struggles with gymnastics,” “Good with gymnastics but struggles with heavy barbells,” “Good engine but struggles with both heavy barbells and high rep gymnastics”)
Similarly, for high level competitors, it’s important to have a network of athletes who are willing and able to test events for you.
You will still be caught by surprise – either by athletes moving through something much more quickly than you expected, or by athletes really struggling on something that you did not anticipate. However, having every event tested by at least two different athletes should give you a solid perspective on the difficulty of the event and whether or not the timecap is reasonable.
Something else to consider is the total accumulate volume of the day. People will typically move faster in a competition environment than they will in a testing environment, but being aware of the number of reps of similar movements (like squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling, etc.) that athletes have already done in the competition will potentially modify how long something will take.

Blending Scaled divisions and high-level individual divisions is very challenging.
Scaled competitors will usually be intimidated to come to a competition known to attract high level competitors. So, unless you’re running an event that is already quite large with a significant reputation, it probably makes sense to focus in on a specific demographic (beginners, serious competitors, “just for fun,” masters, etc) and include divisions for a few adjacent demographics.
If you try to run a competition that doesn’t already have a significant reputation that includes Rx, Scaled, Masters and Team divisions, you may end up with a mess on your hands. And you may also struggle with registration since none of those demographics feel like the competition is “for them.”
And, if you have too many different types of competitors at your event, you will potentially run into some problems during the event.
You will probably have a lot more issues with scaled competitors.
Many people would intuitively think that there are more likely to be judging complaints, emotions running high, and problematic athletes when you’re dealing with high level competitors.
Our experience is the exact opposite.
Elite athletes typically intuitively understand the flow of workouts, are used to being held to high standards in their movement quality, and have competition experience (so they understand roughly when they should warm-up, they’ve probably checked heat schedules online for an event before, etc).
Elite athletes also have often developed the skill of controlling their emotions in high-stakes situations.
And, they probably have some understanding that maintaining a good relationship with their judge and the event organizers is in their best interest.
Scaled competitors, however, they are often doing one of their first competitions. The events are confusing and opaque to them, they’re not great at sticking to movement standards, they have little experience competing so they struggle to understand the flow of heat times and lane assignments, and they have not practiced exercising in high stakes exercising situations so they are easily overwhelmed by emotion.
If you want to have scaled competitors at your event, it’s probably best to structure the event to focus specifically on that group. Otherwise, the scaled division can derail your event by consistently showing up late to their heats and having difficulty setting up in the allotted transition time.
Also, the judges are more likely to take a beating in scaled heats, since teams are particularly likely to become emotional about being held to movement standards or to create confusion about the flow of the event.
I see the same thing in the rec soccer leagues that I play in. While the more competitive leagues can certainly get intense, the lower level leagues are much more likely to feature complaining and berating of the referee, dangerous late tackles, and games ending in awkward shoving matches as people lose their tempers.
Try to minimize the number of moving parts for team events.
Even if you think the flow of an event is super clear, there’s a good chance that many competitors and judges will be confused by it.
Consider that most people are typically doing workouts on their own (even if they’re in a group class), so they’re familiar with all kinds of scenarios (AMRAPs, intervals, for time, “death by” workouts, etc).
However, people have much less practice working out in teams. So, they are going to be more easily confused by different work/rest scenarios and things like synchro movements.
If you can keep the amount of equipment needed to a minimum and make it very obvious how and when athletes transition, you will reduce the opportunity for confusion and dissatisfaction.
If you are not very specific with event flow, athletes will come up with crazy ways to do things – and judges will get confused.
We’ve learned that it’s important to specify the flow of events – particularly with teams – in great granularity.
Where do non-working athletes have to stand?
What happens to equipment that isn’t being used?
Where can athletes do specific movements – and which way should they be facing?
What order do athletes have to go in?
How do athletes transition from one movement to another?
While it can seem restrictive and “hand-holding” to force athletes to stick to some of these standards, it’s essential to maintain overall structure of the event.
If these things are not specified, athletes will find bizarre loopholes and crazy ways to do things.
If the flow of the event is very specifically laid out, judges will be confused by the crazy stuff that athletes are doing and start to make mistakes.
I’m generally not a fan of “slippery slope” types of arguments for being harsh and draconian with rules, but this is a situation where everything needs to be strictly and literally enforced.
If athletes see someone in a previous heat doing something, they will expect to be able to do the same thing – if not push the enforcement of the standards even further.
Judges struggle to count double-unders
If you are relying on volunteer judges (which you probably are if you’re putting on an in-house competition), you can anticipate that there will be some potentially serious miscounts in any workout involving double-unders.
This isn’t meant to say that you can’t program them – just be aware that the potential for judges being off by not just 1,2 or 5 reps, but potentially 50-75 reps is there and program accordingly.
We had a big set of double-unders in one year of our competition, and we had some athletes who probably did over 100 extra reps and some athletes who probably did 100 too few reps.
Based upon this, we’ve avoided programming large sets of double-unders since we don’t want the very likely event of a judging error to significantly impact the outcome of the event.
Have contingency plans for judges
A monitor on an assault bike will freeze. A plate will break. Some crazy thing will happen, and an athlete will end up losing 30s of a workout. Something will go wrong with the clock, and athletes will end up starting their interval later than they should.
Empower judges to make quick calls as to what the best way to handle these issues are.
Have back-up equipment ready.
Give each judge a stopwatch so they can have their lane keep going on a separate clock if the clock gets screwed up.
Allow judges to use their stopwatch to add or subtract time from an athlete’s event if an act of God messes up the timing of their event.

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