The Optimal Blend of Luck and Skill in Competition (And at the 2019 CrossFit Games)

The CrossFit Games just wrapped up, and – with the large numbers of competitors from national champions increasing the field from 40 athletes to ~150 in both the male and female divisions – a series of aggressive cuts were added to the competition this year.
The field was quickly whittled down to 10 athletes with about half of the competitors being cut from the field after the completion of each of the first six events.
This has resulted in some controversy in the CrossFit community, as many perennial podium contenders and fan-favorite Instagram celebs did not make it into the top 10 athletes that completed the majority of the events over the weekend.
While I think that some people are upset about not getting to see their favorite athletes compete, I think that most people who are upset are reacting to the addition of more “luck” into the outcome of the event.
The results of all sports and games are dictated by some blend of luck and skill.
People find games that rely almost entirely on luck to be tedious and unfulfilling (Candy Land). 
[That said, people do seem to love gambling on Super Bowl Squares, which is totally insane to me.]
Within most sports that people watch and compete in, they prefer there to be an outcome that is mostly dictated by the skill of the competitors but that has enough of an element of luck or chance that there is potential for both suspense and surprise relative to the final result.
While everyone loves a Cinderella story, an underdog, and a come-from-behind victory, these narratives are only compelling if there is a framework in which the “better” players usually win by virtue of their skill and their better use of resources.
If there is too much chaos in outcome, it’s difficult to build narrative, and our instincts of meaning-making are flouted.
We want to see stories that make sense. We want to see hard work rewarded. We want to see up-and-comers have surprising performances and “level up.”
If there’s too much luck, the outcomes of the event dissociate from the narratives we build to understand and follow sport, and it becomes less fulfilling and exciting to follow.
However, in “real life,” luck is a huge part of any sort of success. While most podcasts and articles detailing the life stories of business owners, athletes and creatives focus on their upbringing, their work ethic and their moment of surprising insight, we never see the countless businesses that were bit too late or a bit too early, musicians who never got a break, athletes who suffered a debilitating injury early in their career, people passed over for promotions based upon office politics, victims of discriminatory hiring practices, and people born in areas with no economic opportunity. [I ranted about it on the podcast recently, though.]
We don’t want sport to imitate life too much, though.
We like sport to have clear rules, and we like those rules to weight things heavily towards the skill of the competitors in terms of dictating outcomes.
We like the outcomes in sport to be mostly dictated by skill, with just enough luck to keep things interesting.
In the CrossFit Games, luck has historically played a role not just in terms of the happenings on competition day (Did you come down with a virus leading into competition? Did you get a judge holding you to a different standard than the rest of the field? Did your opponent rip their hands on their first rope climb?), but also in terms of the selection of the events.
While athletes understand that they have to be “good at everything” in order to succeed, most athletes could easily draw up a “best case scenario” for themselves and a “worst case scenario” for themselves in terms of programming. 
In order to get better as a CrossFit athlete, your goal is often to train such that the set of “worst case scenario” programs becomes smaller and smaller, since weaknesses are punished harshly based upon the scoring of the sport.
So, I think that many of the people who are upset about the changes are upset about the addition of “more luck” into the programming since now it is not just the events themselves that dictate the outcome, but the order in which they are released.
This changes the dynamic of the scoring even more – weaknesses are already punished more than strengths are rewarded. But, in the past, athletes have been able to mount exciting comebacks from early mistakes or poor performances. Now, however, a bad event sends people home early in the competition.
If you watch the post-Games, press conference, you can see Dave Castro react somewhat aggressively to questions about the cuts
How does Dave think about the role of “luck” in testing?
I would guess that Dave thinks of the test of the CrossFit Games as something more akin to “real life” testing rather than “sport” testing.
Meaning: do you have the capacity to deal with anything that comes your way, whether or not you’ve prepared for it or whether or not you think it’s “fair”?
Based upon this, early cuts, event selection, and other factors are irrelevant – the fittest are those who are able to handle whatever is thrown at them.
And, in fact, an important part of the testing is the ability to respond to the psychological adversity of a changing landscape and unknown events – and still perform at an elite level.
Those who are not up to the task are not just “victims of bad luck,” but have also demonstrated a lack of preparation, a tendency to wilt under pressure, and a propensity for making costly errors in high-stakes situations.
Mat Fraser, Tia-Clair, and CrossFit Mayhem would have probably each won their respective divisions almost no matter how the event was structured – provided it looks anything like what we consider to be “The Sport of Fitness.”
The rest of the podium and the athletes making each of the cuts would have probably changed based upon the order of the events.
So, what is the role of the CrossFit Games? Is it to find the fittest?
What is the optimal balance of luck and skill in terms of dictating the outcome?
Will athletes be willing to devote as much energy and as many resources to training if the outcome of their season is further decoupled from things over which they do have control?
My biggest concern is that – while the fittest will almost certainly figure it out and be fine regardless of the structure of the season, the qualification process, and the cuts at the CrossFit Games – those who are on the margins of different ability levels will become overly frustrated at the lack of clarity surrounding what the sport looks like.
For the long-term health of the sport, we don’t just need to “find the fittest,” we need to also have an ecosystem of athletes, events and sponsors that are all bought in. It seems that the transition to Sanctionals will likely push in that direction. But, there are a lot of “role players” in the competitive CrossFit landscape, in their experiences can’t be discounted. 
While Tia is probably the CrossFit Games champion in just about every imaginable scenario, she needs to have 150 other athletes to compete against who are almost as good as her in order to make the sport compelling. If too many of those athletes throw in the towel because their experience at the highest level is too chaotic and they are treated as second-class citizens, then the sport as a whole loses out on the talent pool necessary to make the competition exciting and develop future talent.

Did you like this post?

Learn about new ones when they come out.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

One Reply to “The Optimal Blend of Luck and Skill in Competition (And at the 2019 CrossFit Games)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *