No Crowd, No Competitors: The Virtual CrossFit Games Is a Mental Challenge

The 2020 Games athletes may face their biggest “constantly varied” challenge with the online format

When recalling the final nail-biting event of the 2017 CrossFit Games, Tia-Clair Toomey speaks of the crowd energy in Alliant Stadium and the stress of knowing competitor Kara Webb (Saunders) was right on her heels.

She’ll have neither to get her over the finish line this year.

In true 2020 fashion, this year’s CrossFit Games will ring in like Christmas morning in Whoville: Without ribbons, without company, without fanfare and flash.

Some may be unfazed by this new virtual first phase of competition. Others might struggle with building the intensity and fire we’re used to seeing at the Games. And, unfortunately, the difference may be a matter of psychology – a variable that’s often hard to train for.

[Related: 2020 CrossFit Games Results and Leaderboard

Social Facilitation – The Audience Factor

Sports psychologists and mental health coaches have been tapped frequently in the last few months to discuss social facilitation – the effect of other people watching on a person’s performance in a given task. All major athletes are learning to play their sport without the typical roar of the crowd. As Philadelphia 76ers Coach Brett Brown described it, “It’s like we’re playing in a video game.”

Certainly, the lack of ambient crowd noise is also on the minds of CrossFit athletes preparing for this year’s Games.

“The only disadvantage I see is we are not going to have the crowd or competitors to give you a push for each workout” said Jay Crouch, a first-year Games qualifier. “It’s going to feel a lot like the Open I think.”

Studies have shown that social facilitation in athletes causes the body to release more adrenaline into the body – the ‘fight or flight’ phenomenon. (1) In terms of performance, this can be great for “power” events requiring big bursts of speed and strength: a max lift, sprint course or sled drag, for instance. The body’s sympathetic nervous system takes over, allowing for more power behind gross motor skill movements. This is where a coach might tell an athlete that their body knows what to do – to stop thinking and go.

“Sometimes the crowd gives me so much life I have absolutely no clue how I just did what I just did & it feels MAGICAL,” said two-time CrossFit Games champion Katrin Davidsdottir. (Adrenaline. The answer is adrenaline.)

But the surge of cheers may not benefit every situation – especially in CrossFit, a sport known for being constantly varied. Research shows things don’t go as well for athletes when an event requires some precision or critical thinking. The excess adrenaline can interfere with fine motor control. This could be problematic in an event like the handstand walk obstacle course of 2018 or an unknown and untested event like the cyclocross event in 2017 that threw many veteran athletes for a loop.

An Athlete’s Mental Makeup

While social facilitation may be responsible for an involuntary adrenaline surge in athletes, its effect – positive or negative – may depend on individual personalities. For extroverts, or at least the extrinsically motivated, the thrill of the competition floor drives them all the more into their “zone.” They want to please the crowd, stand on the podium, put on a show. They’ll have to find new carrots to chase when performing at home, without a built-in reward system.

Those more intrinsically motivated, who often have their mental game sharpened, may be unaffected by the new virtual format. Brent “The Professor” Fikowski comes to mind as one such athlete who seems to always have events pre-calculated before he steps onto the floor.
“CrossFit Games will look a little different this year,” Fikowski said. “Part 1 is at my home gym starting Friday. Still plan to complete as hard as if a few thousand of you were cheering!”

You Against You Against Everyone Else

Head-to-head competition can play an influential factor in an athlete’s performance. (2) During a competition, an athlete’s perception of success is based on their performance compared to other athletes – who they can usually glance over and see. Competing next to others can affect athletes’ tactical decision-making, giving them something to focus on other than the lactic acid burn.

But as long as you’re pushing your hardest, you should perform pretty similar whether alone or next to others, right?

A 2020 study tested this theory on male runners in a 10-kilometer race. (3) When the athletes ran a race with other runners physically present, they finished nearly a minute faster compared to their solo time trial runs. Even more interesting – the runners reported their perceived exertion for both races was the same. But during the solo run, they reported feeling more negatively as the race went on.

Perhaps this quote attributed to four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning, Jr. best sums it up: “In training, you listen to your body. In competition, you tell your body to shut up.”

Harsh? Maybe. True? Studies point to yes, it’s likely. When exercising, athletes naturally regulate intensity relative to performance goals and will stop short of early exhaustion. Throw a competitor next to them and performance usually improves. Turns out there’s some merit to moving to Cookeville, TN to train with the best, as Sara Sigmundsdottir, Toomey, Mat Fraser, and Haley Adams can attest.

The 2020 CrossFit Games athletes face the challenge of turning their training grounds into proving grounds. Those with an edge may be those who best mentally prepared this year. And without a rabbit to chase, athletes will have to find other ways to divert their attention from the mental pain cave.

Here’s to watching this year’s athletes get comfortable with the uncomfortable – from the comfort of home.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image: From @katrintanja on Instagram, photo by @tairandallphoto


  1. Albert V Carron, Todd M Loughhead & Steven R Bray (2005) The home advantage in sport competitions: Courneya and Carron’s (1992) conceptual framework a decade later, Journal of Sports Sciences, 23:4, 395-407, DOI: 10.1080/02640410400021542
  2. Hettinga, Florentina J et al. “The Science of Racing against Opponents: Affordance Competition and the Regulation of Exercise Intensity in Head-to-Head Competition.” Frontiers in physiology vol. 8 118. 28 Feb. 2017, doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.00118
  3. do Carmo EC, Barroso R, Renfree A, da Silva NR, Gil S, Tricoli V. Affective Feelings and Perceived Exertion During a 10-km Time Trial and Head-to-Head Running Race [published online ahead of print, 2020 Feb 11]. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2020;1-4. doi:10.1123/ijspp.2019-0586