Articles

An Economic Disclosure Statement

We’ve recently applied for several grants from the City and the County related to COVID-19 relief for South Loop Strength & Conditioning.

After submitting a grant application, I received an email noting that I needed to fill out an EDS (Economic Disclosure Statement). Sure.

No surprise that the EDS portion of the city’s website looks like it’s from 1998.

Screen Shot 2020-07-02 at 9.16.34 PM.png

No surprise as well that the process of creating an account was kind of circuitous and challenging — especially if you already have another account created on the City of Chicago website.

Now, once you’ve made it into the EDS system, you’re greeted with page after page of legalese about conflicts of interest.

Screen Shot 2020-07-02 at 9.15.47 PM.png

I can certainly understand why a variety of laws have been created to attempt to curtail the amount of corruption, nepotism, and self-dealing in awarding city contracts in Chicago, of all places.

And, I can understand the impetus to move the paperwork associated with such contracts to an online portal.

After wading through this mess of questions, it really honestly seems like you’re done and you’ve completed your Economic Disclosure Statement. The final button that you click might even say something like “Submit.”

But! Not so fast!

Screen Shot 2020-07-02 at 9.16.34 PM.png

A close reading of the EDS instructions — which is a wall-of-text PDF charmingly billed as a “Quick Start Guide” — reveals the following easily missable directive:

For every contract with its own PO, you will need to complete a NEW EDS. I cannot emphasize this enough. To do this, click on “create new” again but this time indicate that this is for a contract and complete the questions accordingly. 

Ah! Foolish traveler!

You thought you had completed your Economic Disclosure Statement by answering dozens of questions and laying bare — nay, disclosing — all of your economic relationships with the City of Chicago and its elected officials!

Rookie mistake! Instead, you’ve completed your EDS Template.

Your economics have not yet been properly disclosed. Please, click on “Create New” for the second time.

When people talk about “systematic oppression,” this is one of the more pernicious types that exists.

What percentage of people who really need the money from these grants are going to have the tech-savvy and the persistence with really crappy computer systems to actually complete this application?

What percentage are going to ignore or not see the email asking to complete an EDS?

What percentage are going to attempt to fill this thing out and get too frustrated by the site to complete the process — especially if they’re doing it on their phone?

What percentage are going to go through the whole process and think that they’re done, without realizing that “I cannot emphasize this enough” — they have only completed their EDS template and not the EDS itself?

How do you expect things to work?

We recently had a discussion at the latest Chicago Rationality meet-up on Jonathan Schulz’s paper on WEIRD psychology – and its possible origins in the Catholic church banning kin marriage.

At some point, Joseph Heinrich realized that huge volumes of social psychology research is conducted on volunteer university students at prestigious institutions.

Sure, everyone can recognize that there may be some challenges in extrapolating results from university students to other types of folks. You know, like people who have actual jobs – especially since scientists have recently discovered a dangerous link between book learnin’ and back talk.

But, what if there were something deeper that made findings on Western subjects non-generalizable to people throughout the world?

The acronym WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich & Democratic.

It seems that folks in those cultures are simultaneously both more individualistic and more trusting of institutions. They are also less nepotistic and clannish.

In our discussion on the differences in cultural psychology, we ended up touching on something that I thought was insightful in terms of clarifying the cultural axis of WEIRDness.

The question is: How do you expect things to work?

If you were going to try to start a business (kind of a WEIRD idea in and of itself), what would you do?

Would you fill out some forms on a government website and actually expect something to happen? [Even if the forms were opaque, the user interface was outdated, and it took longer than seems reasonable to get confirmation in the mail.]

Then, would you sign up for a Squarespace account, start a mailing list, and expect people to sign up for it based upon the interestingness of your idea?

Or, would you hope that your cousin manages to take power in a government position and starts giving you lucrative contracts?

If you expect institutions to actually work roughly as advertised and to create an environment in which you – as an individual – can strike out on your own to do what you want and change the world then you are WEIRD as hell.

If you expect institutions to only work for those who are in power – so the only way to get things done is through a nepotistic connection – then you are not quite so WEIRD.

In fact, we can potentially understand many of the culture war dynamics at play on both the left and the right as a “breaking” of standard WEIRD dynamics.

People for whom institutions have failed are not going to trust those institutions, and are thus going to fall back onto nepotistic groups as their default way of organizing in the world. If there are no institutions that can be trusted, it’s not safe to be an individual. We can see this in identity politics on the left and populism on the right.

In these groups, there’s an assumption that no one is actually doing the right thing for the sake of institutions and for society as a whole and that it’s all a big con so that the powerful can get more power and the rich can get more money. So, opaque, procedural and techoncratic government is viewed as an elaborate ruse hiding the self-dealing and grift that everyone knows is going on behind closed doors, right?

Based upon this, populist leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are able to claim to fight corruption while being the most transparently corrupt type of politician possible.

However, this is the type of corruption that people understand – especially people who don’t trust institutions. It’s not couched in policy wonk language. It’s really straight-forward, old-fashioned fixin’, double-dealin’ and takin’ a bit off the top. But, this time, it’s being done by someone on our team for once.

Pseudoscience and Metaphorical Truth in Personality Modeling

I recently read a post on Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog about personality testing – and how it’s a bunch of pseudoscientific nonsense.

I don’t disagree that a lot of personality testing is kind of bullshit, especially if you have some knowledge about the more evidence-based Five Factor model of personality (Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience, Extraversion).

The Five Factor model isn’t “scientific”” in the way that we might think of something like… *searching for something that people actually think of as “science” and not some plot by ivory tower elites to cover up a secret cabal of sexual perversion and crony capitalism*…evolution,climate sciencepharmaceuticalsthe way that jet fuel burns, osmosis and fluid diffusion?

Instead, it’s a statistical aggregation of ways of describing people that seem to all vary independently. For example, people who are “generous” are also often “caring” or “tactful.” People who are “talkative” also tend to be “social,” “outgoing” and “interested in thrill-seeking.”

But, you can’t really say anything about how “thrill-seeking” someone is based upon how “generous” they are – meaning that trait Extraversion is uncorrelated with trait Agreeableness.

So, think of the current thinking on personality as having “knobs” that can be turned up or down. And people vary continuously across these knobs – meaning that they can have each of these traits tuned anywhere from 0 to 10.

Based upon this thinking, people do not fall into “types” the way that they do in something like Myers-Briggs, DiSC or Enneagram.

This can result in two major errors in understanding others.

1. Most people fall into the middle of the range of variation on a trait

So, a huge number of people aren’t particularly introverted nor are they particularly extroverted. They aren’t particularly neurotic nor are they particularly not neurotic. 

“Types” in a lot of personality modeling lean on putting people into categories that typically reflect the more extreme manifestations of specific traits, and people tend to be much more “in the middle” than their categories would belie.

2. Traits that many personality typing methodologies view as “opposites” vary independently

Yes, you can have hyper-organized and disciplined creatives (people who are high on both Conscientiousness and Openness). You can have people who are the life of the party but are very socially anxious (people who are high on Extraversion and Neuroticism). You can have a gregarious, back-slapping salesperson who is also extremely systematic in their follow-up (people who are high in Extraversion and Conscientiousness).

Still, despite their flaws, things like DiSC seem to resonate with people because they are true enough to be insightful without being overly complicated or messy.

If you don’t have a model for understanding variations in personality, then other people are unbelievably frustrating and confusing. (Instead of just very frustrating and confusing if you do have a mode for understanding variations in personalityl.)

While DiSC is pretty fluffy, it’s close enough to reality to give people buckets to put people in that at least kind of align with Five Factor variation, so it both fulfills basic human desires to “understand myself” and “understand others” while also being actually useful in understanding the dimensions across which people vary.

Sort of like a “gateway band” – most people don’t get into death metal without having a phase where they listen to Korn along the way.

And, if you have some understanding that other people behave differently than you would in their situation not because they are evil, power hungry manipulators who are trying to kick you down a few rungs on the status hierarchy and ostracize you from the tribe, but because they have personality knobs that are just tuned a little bit differently, then you may have a much easier time playing nicely with others at work.

Personality typing is an example of something being “metaphorically true” as opposed to “literally true.”

If an organization is trying to improve relationships across their team and stop the internal politicking and backstabbing, it may actually be more effective to introduce pseudoscientific, fluffy content like personality testing that allows people to easily categorize each other in “personality types” rather than trying to teach a nuanced Five Factor model that is fuzzier and more difficult to understand.

Most employees aren’t going to be terribly interested in thinking about things in terms of “statistically aggregated traits that are uncorrelated with each other.”

And, even if they are kind of interested, it’s another leap to turn something like the Five Factor model into an actionable framework that results in someone not just totally overreacting to a colleague who basically never actually fully reads an email before firing off a terse, spelling error-laden response (because they’re low Conscientiousness! Low Agreeableness! High “Assertiveness” dimension of Extraversion!)

Instead, it’s much easier and effective to be like “Ok, you’re an Aries, you’re a Virgo, you’re a Pisces. And you? Well you’re a Taurus, my friend.”

Pushers on Vacation

Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg’s work on passion and “pushers” has opened my eyes to the dark side of of high conscientiousness behavior.

Some of us turn everything we do into an assignment for ourselves that must be completed or else we are letting ourselves down.

This is the type of thing that results in business owners like Dave Teare of 1Password working so hard that they forget things in their actual lives like turning off the stove.

That results in athletes in endurance sports like marathon runners and CrossFitters exercising until their bodies betray them and their entire stress response physiology gets so dysregulated that they can’t sleep, can’t focus and have to stop working out.

This is the type of thing that results in accumulating 450 saved long-form articles in your Instapaper account and also saving all of the email newsletters that you haven’t gotten around to in a separate folder (I think there’s 386 to go down from like 1200) over the course of years of running a small business – and actually having a plan to get through all of them. [Hint: It me]*

And – I’m currently staying at the Ritz Carlton in Cancún for a friend’s wedding, and I couldn’t help but notice that they have an Ironman class on offer as part of their regular fitness programming.

You know, for all of the folks who work hard enough in their careers that they can stay at places at the Ritz-Carlton but – goddammit – have an Ironman in 10 weeks and are not going to let this goddamn vacation throw off training.

Push on, pushers.

*I figured out that Pocket has a pretty reasonable text to voice option that allows you to listen at 2.5x speed. After making it through the hundreds of bookmarked videos I’ve accumulated, I’ve shifted my focus to these articles. Ridiculous.

To Become More Productive, Notice Friction

I, like most people, want to be more productive.

I also find that one of the most important skills to becoming more productive is not necessarily related to actual productivity habits themselves, but rather the meta-skill of noticing when something is full of friction.

What counts as friction?

Well, since we are discussing “productivity,” we may as well use an example from my own life that I’m feeling pretty good about.

I’m a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology.

One of the key tenets of Getting Things Done – or “GTD” as geeks like to call it – is having a universal capture mechanism for ideas. So, rather than having random scraps of paper, some notes in your phone, a few voice memos, and some half-remembered notions bouncing around your head, you have one spot where you put all of your inbound stuff.

“Your mind is for having ideas not holding them.”

I use Asana as my homebase for tasks, projects, reminders, etc.

I have a project called “Inbox” where I collect pretty much any input into my system. This includes starred Slack messages, emails that I forward to an email address linked to Asana, and random Siri-transcribed voice memos of things that strike me as a good idea during inopportune times.

Theoretically, I clean out my inbox every other day or so – completing tasks that are quick to-dos on the spot, relegating other tasks to repositories of ideas, creating projects out of confusing thoughts with bad grammar, moving reminders to projects for “Follow-Up” or “Someday,” etc.

And I hate doing this. Because it’s full of friction.

My brain has to work so hard to figure out how to categorize everything, and I oftentimes can’t summon the energy to spend 30 minutes moving stuff around.

So the list grows. And then I know it will take 60 minutes to move everything around. So there’s more friction.

And this is where most people quit. We say things like, “Yeah, I tried to do something like that, and it was more work to use a system than to just remember what I need to do.”

And then we go on with our lives constantly forgetting to do things and having unclear priorities in our work, levying a tax on everyone who has to work with us and constantly remind us about accepted obligations, check on progress of to-dos, and generally keep us on track.

Instead, that friction  – that discomfort, that ugh, I don’t want to do this – is something to be leaned into.

Friction is indicative of a messy process. Something that isn’t quite right. Something that hasn’t been properly broken into an actionable task. A categorization scheme that doesn’t make any sense.

In the case of my Asana Inbox, I had too many disjointed things coming in, and I didn’t have good spots to put them. Here’s why I was having such a hard time:

•I was using Asana to capture notes that weren’t related to specific projects – more “general interesting things” or quotes from articles or papers that I wanted to save for future reference

•I was using Asana to capture things that I wanted to read and research more

•I didn’t have a clear system for how to catalog tasks and projects for things that I wanted to do “someday” – either things to learn, projects that aren’t a priority now but that are good to keep on the radar, events that I should consider attending, etc.

Based upon this, I would have nebulous tasks, links to scientific papers that I want to read, and quotes from articles cluttering my inbox. And I would hate going through it since I would rarely be in the mood or have the bandwidth to make high level decisions on priorities, read a dense academic paper, or categorize some abstract idea from a blog post into a useful project.

By recognizing this friction, I’ve been able to clarify my thinking around capturing tasks and develop cleaner systems for different types of ideas. So now, I no longer need to push through a mental molasses every time I think about what to do with my uncategorized tasks.

I’ll keep rolling with this example, since I think that having very tangible, in-the-weeds flows can be helpful (even if you don’t use the same system or have the same struggles that I do):

•I now have an Inbox in Evernote specifically for notes from articles so those don’t even touch Asana. This makes the Asana workflow much simpler – and doing all of the “note categorization” at once flows nicely once you get in a rhythm. While David Allen advocates having one inbox, I find that separating things like “notes” from “tasks” is very helpful. Besides, going through multiple notes at once can spark some interesting connections between seemingly disparate ideas.

•I refined the way I think about things that I want to do “someday” or ideas for projects that I’m not currently working. I have more clear categorizations for “Things that should be considered in the next few months” vs “Things that seem cool that I should periodically check on.” I also clearly split out different types of ideas: ideas for SLSC, ideas for Legion, things I would like to learn, courses I would like to attend, etc. This results in much cleaner buckets for these “maybe someday” ideas, and allows for easy categorization.

Has this made me more productive? Tough to say – but it certainly feels a lot better.

And the point here isn’t to “get better at understanding how to categorize your ideas and create better buckets for them to fit into.”

The point is “recognize when there’s something that causes a lot of friction in your brain and figure out a different way to do it.” If you do this enough times, you’ll be astonished at how much progress you can make.

Growth Mindset: Probably Real but not all it’s Cracked Up to Be

Growth mindset sure is controversial.

Magical thinking goofballs love it because it seems to indicate that – just by changing your mindset – you can become better at just about everything that you want to do.

Rationalist-leaning scientists hate growth mindset because – well – magical-thinking goofballs love it.

And, Carol Dweck didn’t do herself any favors in her popular science book on growth mindset (called “Mindset”) by citing a bunch of examples that read like some sort of inspirational Horatio Alger rags to riches tale. “Ragged Dick sure was downtrodden and struggling. Then – he discovered the growth mindset! And his fortunes were changed henceforth!”

Growth mindset also sure does seem to check a lot of the boxes for a social science study that will fail to replicate that will be chalked up as part of the expanding replication crisis.

Depending on who you talk to, it seems like it either does replicate (with a small effect size) or it doesn’t actually do anything.

What I think we’ve got here is a really complicated situation. Any time we’ve got small effect sizes in complex systems, stuff gets really messy. Have you tried to keep up with which which foods and mechanisms actually cause heart disease, for example?

So, what’s the actual deal?

Growth mindset research seems to show that – through some framing and priming effects – children can be primed to work harder and longer on challenging problems or to quit more quickly. This result is surprising and counter-intuitive, since complimenting children on a trait like intelligence in a way that implies that it’s a static trait that you either “have” or “don’t have” results in them putting forth less effort.

So, what do I think?

I think that growth mindset is an actual thing. The research seems to have shown an effect across multiple scenarios. However, the effect isn’t quite what people – including Dweck in her popular writing – make it out to be.

While growth mindset critics pounced on the study from this year showing that growth mindset had no impact, I can’t say that this is terribly surprising – since the methodology of the study involves training teachers to implement growth mindset lessons in their classrooms.

I spend a significant amount of my weekly time and energy trying to teach coaches – most of whom I see nearly every day – to coach in more effective ways.

And it’s really, really, really hard.

Transmission of knowledge is hard.

Creating behavior change is hard.

Creating accountability structures to make sure that policies are being followed is hard.

We do a pretty good job, and we put a lot more energy into coaching development than any gym I’ve ever seen, and there’s still a huge gap between what I think should be happening and what is actually happening on a daily basis.

(This is not meant to put our coaches on blast – more just a recognition that transferring a skill or knowledge from one practitioner to another is just unbelievably challenging).

So, I can’t say that growth mindset failing to create a tangible effect in a third or fourth-hand scenario is terribly damning evidence against it.

Still, I am skeptical of the framing of growth mindset as some sort of elixir for success in business, fitness, love, wealth and success.

Is “the willingness to stick to a hard problem longer and to not think of yourself as a failure with an inability to get better” the actual limiting factor for most people’s performance in the things that they care about?

Likely not.

Is there potentially a difference between short-term “stick-to-it-iveness” than can be primed up or down through growth mindset style interventions and long-term “stick-to-it-iveness” that is a relatively stable personality trait (or maybe another TED Talk)

If someone’s mindset, per say, isn’t their limiting factor, what could it be?

How about:

•Interest in the subject matter

•Understanding and application of effective learning strategies (like spaced repetition, active learning, etc)

•Intelligence (dun dun dun)

•Ability to transfer learning across multiple domains

•For CrossFit athletes: the ability to do high volume dynamic contractions without creating occlusions

In some cases, could a poor mindset prevent someone from taking the steps necessary to move forward on their actual limiting factors…and thus be the one true cause of all lack of progress? I mean yeah I guess so.

In other cases, can transcendent talent or overwhelming interest more than make up for a lack of a growth mindset? Sure can.

[In fact, many of the examples that Dweck used in her book of athletes or business people with fixed mindsets behaving badly and shooting themselves in the foot were, in fact, stories of world champion athletes and billionaire business owners. So, in these cases, clearly the fixed mindset was not too much of a limiting factor.

She also mentions Michael Jordan as a shining example of the growth mindset. This may be true, but – if you saw the controversy around Michael’s acceptance speech – you may think of him more as a ruthlessly competitive crazy person who manufactured endless perceived slights and thrived off of negativity and proving others wrong. And that might be an excellent way to get really good at something. Better even than having a growth mindset!]

So, yes, I still coach my athletes in ways that utilize lessons I’ve learned from Dweck’s work. I try to praise effort rather than innate talent. I try to frame things as “improvable” – because they usually are.

I discuss growth mindset in our coaches meetings. We use the framework of the fixed mindset to understand why clients sometimes behave strangely when they think they’re being evaluated. We also use the the fixed mindset to understand why some clients constantly beat themselves up for falling short of their own unrealistic expectations.

it’s a valuable tool. I think it makes a difference in the performance of our competitive athletes. I think it improves the long-term results of our clients. I think that it helps our coaches better understand what clients are experiencing.

But I still hate magical thinking.

Don’t Tell People They’re Broken Because of Your Movement Screen

Coaches will often get excited about the possibilities of detailed movement assessments.

Wouldn’t it be great to go down the rabbit hole and find all of the potential dysfunctions with a client – then fix them one by one?

Every stone would be overturned for elite athletes, and all of those 1% gains in efficiency from having perfect movement would certainly aggregate to a massive improvement in performance! Wasn’t there something about a British cycling team winning the Tour de France based upon creating these small improvements? (Oh yeah, and – how could we forget – doping.)

New clients would start with a totally clean slate, and they’d be able to build perfect technique on top of a pristine movement foundation!

However, we can also easily spend a lot of time and energy chasing phantoms of dysfunction and ending up empty-handed.

And, the impacts of chasing dysfunction where it doesn’t exist aren’t just limited to wasting our time. We can easily make our clients feel fragile and broken by convincing them that they have all kinds of movement issues that require excessive foam-rolling and special breathing exercises before every training session.

But, there has to be some sort of value in screening for movement issues, right? We still run all new clients through the SFMA top tier at South Loop Strength & Conditioning. We just have to find the balance between screening for major issues, giving clients helpful tips for minor issues, and not over-optimizing for a screen.

Ideally, we all have an understanding of what the “base rate” is of clients having a movement dysfunction that causes them an actual problem – either injury or significant movement restriction that limits their training.

In other words, what percentage of people coming into the gym have some sort of significant movement issue?

From that base rate, we can make adjustments of the likelihood that a client will experience issues based upon their movement screening results, whether or not they have pain with certain movements, and how they move when performing actual exercise (not just screening protocols). If we want to think of this in terms of a Bayesian prior, that may be helpful.

This stepwise process of thinking through how likely someone is to have an issue gives a more complete picture of a risk profile, and also gives a framework for thinking about the amount of time and energy that should be spent on “correcting” a pattern that is dysfunctional on a screen.

There’s an opportunity cost to everything we do in the gym, and – by getting too far into the weeds on tracking down every “dysfunction” – we are potentially wasting our time and our clients’ time.

And, we also need to make sure we are not overloading clients with unhelpful information that will overwhelm, confuse and scare them.

So, don’t stop screening people for movement issues. Just be careful with how you communicate those issues, and develop a framework for your own reasoning so that you can understand when a movement issue “matters” and when it’s a red herring.

“Old Man Hats” and Correlation vs Causation

Everyone knows that “correlation does not equal causation,” but most of us don’t know it.

Like most people, my mind is quick to jump to causal relationships in just about every scenario possible.

It’s always looking for things that I did wrong (“Why didn’t that client sign up?” “Why didn’t that potential podcast guest get back to me?” “Why didn’t that athlete do better on that workout?”)

It’s always looking for ways to justify my pre-existing beliefs (“Yeah, social media is distracting and a net negative for society!” “Yeah, energy balance is the primary factor in body composition change, and other explanations are mostly inputs into the energy balance equation!”)

I have at least partially trained myself to recognize these snap judgments, and to find some pleasure in recognizing when I’m wrong (since it’s an opportunity to learn more) or quickly flipping any alleged causal relationship around to look for reverse causality (sleeping more than nine hours per night is associated with poor health not because sleeping a lot is bad for you, but because people with health problems tend to need more sleep), external causal factors (the notorious correlation of ice cream consumption and drowning deaths…because summer), selection effects (drinking a small amount of alcohol is correlated with better health…because people who are able to drink small amounts of alcohol consistently without binge drinking have other beneficial traits that create positive outcomes)  or spurious correlation (check out the relationship between Mt. Everest and opium production in Afghanistan!).

One of my favorite cases of “correlation does not equal causation” is when people talk about how they’re going to be “getting old, walking around with my old man hat on.”

People talk about “old man hats” as if – at some point when they reach their 70th decade – they’re overwhelmed with an urge to only wear newsboy caps.

No, those hats were super popular in the early 20th century! So “old men” are just wearing the hats that they think are cool!

In 60 years, people are going to be like “Yeah, when I’m old I’ll be hanging out with my old man Supreme sweatshirt…”

Buzzy Social Media

If you ask me if I want to go to a nightclub, the answer will be an emphatic “hell no.”

In fact, I can’t really think of a place that is ostensibly for fun and enjoyment fun that I would rather go less.

However, there’s a good percentage of people who emphatically want to go to night clubs. People who look forward to going to night clubs. People who quit their normal, high-paying desk jobs in order to work in night clubs because they like them so much.

I think there’s an analogy here to social media.

It’s no secret that I kind of hate social media.

That I’m totally onboard with Tristan Harris’s Center for Humane Technology attempting to restructure how we think about the parasitic devices that are always in our pockets leeching our data and – more importantly – our attention.

That I think the supra-normal stimulus of notifications, newsfeeds, and algorithmically predatory headlines are equivalent to the junk food clogging our supermarket aisles and the discarded plastic floating in our oceans.

That the metricized social hierarchy on Instagram creeps me out – and makes me insecure in my own social signaling skill set.

Still, I think that a certain type of personality gets a lot of fulfillment and value from social media.

Some people enjoy the stimulation of social media and find the “buzziness” of it to be enjoyable and exciting. Other people are more sensitive to stimulus and find things that are optimized to create excitement (like bars, casinos and television programs) overwhelming and unpleasant.

Some people enjoy being aware of the networks of relationships around them and find joy in keeping up with friends and acquaintances. Others find discussions about other people to be boring, “gossipy” and irrelevant.

Some people have careers where they need need to be plugged into a constant stream of communication, and they do their best work when engaging in rapidfire iteration of ideas and mental models while plugged into the idea stream of social media. Others need huge blocks of uninterrupted time to chip away at hard problems.

Most people are probably a blend of each of these traits – and they may switch what “mode” they prefer based upon what they’re working on.

In my case, my disposition, my work and my preferred working style make social media a really unpleasant place for me.

But, just because I never, ever want to go to a night club, that doesn’t mean that I think that no one should ever go to night clubs.

Still, I’d be pretty annoyed if there was a night club in the next room over all the time, and – every 15 minutes – a bunch of club bros popped out and started dancing while I was trying to get some goddamn work done.

So that’s why I hate social media, and why I try to leave my phone as far away from me as possible.

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.

Pushers on Vacation

Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg’s work on passion and “pushers” has opened my eyes to the dark side of of high conscientiousness behavior. Some of us

Read More »

Buzzy Social Media

If you ask me if I want to go to a nightclub, the answer will be an emphatic “hell no.” In fact, I can’t really

Read More »