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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

2014 Regional Review

Every year, watching the Regional competition, seeing how incredibly difficult it is to qualify for the Games even for the most seasoned of athletes, it's hard to imagine that those who do qualify have any weaknesses. Yet in a few short weeks, we will once again see the programming elevate to yet another level, exposing any deficiencies and allowing the best of the best to shine. Even with a few big name athletes out of the mix, it's going to be another tremendous competition, possibly the best to date (the women's side in particular is WIDE open).

But before we move fully into Games mode, let's take a more thorough look back at this season's Regional competition.

First, we'll start with the programming. Although I thought the programming was solid this year, I still preferred last season's events a bit more. A big reason for that is the handstand walk event - I simply cannot get over the fact that a single attempt at walking on one's hands was worth the same amount of points as classic CrossFit metcon like event 3, event 4 or event 7. It just seems to me that if you're evaluating an athlete, those other events tell you a lot more than a handstand walk. Part of that is opinion, but it is also backed up by the numbers. Below is a chart showing the correlation between an atahlete's ranking in each Regional and Open event this season and the athlete's ranking across all other events. Higher numbers indicate that the best overall athletes are typically finishing high on the event, which generally means the event was a good test of fitness.

As I noted last week, the events that really stood out on the positive side were Regional Even 3, Regional Event 7 and Open Event 4. All three had correlations near 80% for both men and women. I've admitted already that my doubts about Regional Event 7 were unfounded, but I'll state it again: this was a pretty great event. On the flip side, you can see that the handstand walk (Regional Event 2) had one of the lowest correlations for both men and women, although the run/rope climb workout (Regional Event 5) had the lowest correlation of any event. My theory here is that since most other events generally favored smaller athletes, many top athletes on the other workouts struggled a bit here since the height was a clear advantage.

Which brings me to a second topic on the programming: did the Regional programming really favor smaller athletes, as many (including me) expected it would? This came up on the Update Show last week, and predictably it was dismissed as being a myth. The evidence? Well, since Tommy Hackenbruck, Jason Khalipa and Elizabeth Akinwale all qualified, the programming must not have favored smaller aithletes, according to Pat Sherwood. Needless to say, as a stats guy (and just a fan of the sport in general), hearing this topic brushed off so casually was irritating for a number of reasons:

  • Anyone who knows anything about data knows that you can't prove a point like this simply by cherry picking a few oddball cases. Can we assume height is not advantageous in basketball because Nate Robinson is in the NBA? Of course not.
  • Tommy Hackenbruck is not even that tall. The man is 6'1", so let's keep things in perspective here. And Elizabeth Akinwale is only 5'7"!
  • As much as HQ talks about data points and all the insights they can gain from the numbers, we so often get responses like this instead of actual analysis. HQ has the numbers at their disposal to provide better evidence to support their point, yet they choose not to. I love this sport, but we lose credibility when the organization in charge so rarely admits any fault.
None of this is to say that Sherwood was necessarily wrong. His opinions were simply not supported by facts. That's what is irritating.

However, the numbers are available to see if the HQ company line is in fact correct. I spent a couple of hours compiling the heights and weights of male Games qualifiers from the past three years (I'd like to get the female numbers at some point when I have some more time). Here are the raw averages for the field in those years:
  • 2012 - 69.9 inches, 198 pounds
  • 2013 - 69.9 inches, 197 pounds
  • 2014 - 69.4 inches, 192 pounds
Clearly there is a drop in size in the past year, and if we throw out the bottom and top two values from each year (including 6-foot-5 Aja Barto in 2012 and 2013), the trend actually becomes a bit more apparent.

  • 2012 - 69.9 inches, 199 pounds
  • 2013 - 69.7 inches, 196 pounds
  • 2014 - 69.4 inches, 192 pounds
Now, is this a drastic drop? No. But the fact that the average size of the Games athletes is a half-inch and 5 pounds lighter than a year ago is not meaningless. Perhaps you could argue that the programming in prior years was too favorable towards larger athletes (I wouldn't argue that, but you could). But to just ignore the numbers altogether is a bit disingenous.

Something else that came out of this investigation (which I hope to expand on at a later date) was that I decided to look at how the distribution of heights for Games qualifiers compared to the general population. My theory was actually that since the programming is generally so balanced, we'd see that the Games athletes have a distribution of heights that are pretty typical. Below are the comparisons (Games athletes distribution based on the qualifiers from the past three years combined, general public data from the Census bureau).

Although the shape of the distribution isn't terribly different, we do see that Games athletes are more concentrated around the average (approximately 5-10) than the general public. In fact, this has been a trend in recent years. The standard deviation in height among Games qualifiers has dropped from 2.4 inches in 2012 to 2.1 inches in 2014, and the standard deviation in weight has dropped from 15.9 pounds in 2012 to 13.2 pounds in 2014. I expect this will continue in the future as the field grows and it becomes harder and harder to overcome any natural disadvantages.

This brings me to my final topic for today: who were the most impressive athletes at this year's Regionals? Obviously, Rich Froning remains the dominant athlete on the men's side, staying well clear of the field despite (reportedly) battling a nasty cold all weekend. And for sure, Scott Panchik again showed that he's a podium contender by hanging right with Froning (and also finishing well ahead of the third-place athlete in the Cross-Regional Comparison). On the women's side, clearly Camille showed up big-time, as she typically has in past Regionals.

But considering what we saw above regarding the concentration of "average size" athletes, it does make performances by athletes like Hackenbruck, Nate Schrader (6'1") and Becca Voigt (5'9") even more impressive. In fact, I'd venture to say these athletes will do even better at the Games, since the programming could be more favorable to their size. Hackenbruck and Schrader were both in the low 20s in the Cross-Regional Comparison (the best of any athletes over 5-11), and I could easily see both in the top 10 at the Games.

That's it for today. In the next few weeks, we'll get into adjusting those Cross-Regional Comparisons, and of course, assessing who actually could win the CrossFit Games. Until then, enjoy your training, and I'll see you back here soon.


  1. Love your analysis every year. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Hackenbruck does. He's sort of the not very dark dark horse. He's not exactly unknown, but the competition has changed a lot since he last competed as an individual.

    Foucher is gonna win it all on the women's side. You heard it here (and probably elsewhere!).

  2. Love your analysis! Keep it up

  3. This is great. Sherwood's comment provoked the same reaction in me. :) I thought the drop would be bigger, too. I revived my blog, datawod, if you'd like to check it out:

    1. Mike,

      Thanks for the comment. I've checked your blog a few times recently and you're doing some cool stuff over there. The visualizations aren't my area of expertise, but I'd like to improve in that area and incorporate more of that type of thing here eventually. Should be cool to see where CF data analysis goes in the next few years.