Can Statistics Make CrossFit More Fair? (w/Tyler Watkins)

Today I’m talking to accountant, stats guru, and CrossFitter Tyler Watkins. He’s on a mission to help identify where competitive CrossFit — which is still a very, very young sport — can level the playing field to be a more holistic, consistent, and fair test of fitness. Beyond Tia-Clair Toomey winning every year, how can organizers and programmers really set out to find the fittest athletes? Tyler takes a numbers-based approach, and his learnings are relevant to any fan of strength sports — CrossFit, weightlifting, powerlifting, you name it!

Today’s podcast is brought to you by Colter Dillon, makers of custom cut-and-sewn t-shirts to give you that perfect fit each and every time. Get 25% off with code BARBEND. 

Tyler Watkins on the BarBend Podcast

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, guest Tyler Watkins and host David Thomas Tao discuss:

  • Tyler’s athletic background and figuring out David and Tyler share Bluegrass State origins (2:00)
  • Building tools to help people “compete better” (5:10)
  • A small family of CrossFit statisticians (8:00)
  • Other pioneers in putting numbers to CrossFit competition (9:20)
  • What a lot of competitions get wrong about elimination and cuts (12:20)
  • The counter-argument to changing how the CrossFit Games currently works (14:20)
  • Other numerical areas of interest in CrossFit competition (19:00)
  • The difficulty of weighing CrossFit teams against each other — is it even possible to quantify? (20:30)

Relevant links and further reading

Transcription

Now we’re trying to build a sport that can support multiple people’s lives. The top 40 athletes should all make a living at this. CrossFit is the hardest sport to train for, I think personally. We’re talking about you need to get the order of the top 40 correct because every one of those drops in position, leads to a huge pay drop.

 

Now, it matters exactly and you should get to fight if you’re in 20th place, but you might get 18th. You should be allowed to fight for that every single event as opposed to getting cut.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to this word as athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by BarBend.com.

 

Today, I’m talking to CrossFitter, Accountant, and Statistician, Tyler Watkins. Tyler is on a mission to use statistics to make the sport of fitness or fair.

 

How do we do that? Which events should we wait and how? How do you compare the fittest on earth against each other, especially from one season or event to the next? Tyler and I nerd out on fitness stats, but I promise this podcast is relevant to any fan of strength training.

 

How do you measure human performance? That’s what Tyler is really trying to get at the heart of. I hope you enjoy today’s episode. Make sure to leave a rating and review in your app of choice.

 

Tyler, thanks so much for joining us. Who are you? I think it’s a really important question. Before we get to the interesting stuff about what you do with data analytics in strength sports, so give us the Tyler Watkins rundown.

I’m an accountant. By day longtime CrossFitter been doing CrossFit almost 10 years now.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s an eternity in CrossFit years. That’s like 100 years.

I’m not one of the oh geez, but I’m close.

David TaoDavid Tao

 [laughs] CrossFit for 10 years. How did you discover it? What’s your superhero origin story? If you’re an accountant by day, and you do wear glasses I see right now? It means you’re a superhero by night. What’s your origin story here?

I played football in high school, and then I got recruited to play. We’re both Kentucky boys, by the way, so I got to throw that out there.

David TaoDavid Tao

Shout out to the Bluegrass the Commonwealth.

I got recruited to play at a university to cover one’s play for a year there and then I was like, “Yeah, I’m too short and too slow for this silver.” Then I got up to about 200-pounds on a 5’8 frame that was not solid muscle.

 

Then my coach came to me and said, “Hey, you want to do this stuff where like Navy Seals use it to get fit?” I was like, “Well, yeah, I’m getting fat. I need to do something.” We started doing CrossFit. I remember Fran was my first work out and it took me 21 minutes. I had to do each pull-up strict and with a lot of break between.

 

Now, I’m competing quarterfinals. It’s been a good road for me.

David TaoDavid Tao

Your work capacity has increased a little bit across broad time and modal domains. Let’s put that way.

It has. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

 I love that because I talked to CrossFitters at all levels, but even at the elite level, a lot of them are former collegiate athletes and they say, “Well, I was too short and too slow for this.” They always put those two together because a lot of the top male CrossFitters, it’s the ideal body type. It’s like 185, 5’8 or 5’9 is really what you see.

That’s exactly what I am.

David TaoDavid Tao

This is like a marketing slogan, CrossFit should use this. Are you too slow?

Are you average?

David TaoDavid Tao

 Are you average? Are you an average person who will never get paid millions of dollars to carry a football? Well…

We might have the answer for you.

David TaoDavid Tao

We have an option. I’m going to call CrossFit after this. I’m friendly with some folks there, I know you are too. We’ll make it happen, OK.

 

CrossFit 2012 back then, it was a lot different. It was still a lot more grassroots. I think that explaining exactly how CrossFit has changed over the past 10 years is beyond the scope of this specific podcast episode. We need a whole series like an ESPN 30 for 30 sort of thing.

We’ll do that. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

You’re very heavily involved in analyzing CrossFit from a competitive perspective, especially. Talk a little bit about how you started melding your passion for data and analytics with your passion for fitness.

My dad is an engineer. I guess he just brought me up to think about reverse engineering things. When I finally started treating CrossFit serious, I was going across the maxima set in Lexington at the time. We had a team and they were very good and I wanted desperately always be on that team.

 

I wanted to basically reverse engineer. What are the metrics that I need to be getting to be on this team? Then you start looking into who’s on teams? What are their averages cleans? How do they each on average perform? Can you have weaknesses? Can you not have weaknesses?

 

The rabbit hole goes really deep really fast, and that’s where it started for me. I just wanted to use it to compete and actually, that’s something that I’m not doing now, which is giving back to people who want to compete. I love doing this and I love just analyzing the sport, but I want to use it mostly as a tool to help people compete better.

David TaoDavid Tao

That first set and what year is this when you first started looking at this from an analytical perspective?

2014, probably.

David TaoDavid Tao

What were some of the numbers that sprung to mind? If you had to create the combine for CrossFit athletes at that team regional or team games level, what were some of the numbers back then? Then I want to compare that to what some of those numbers might be today. Eight years later on.

I remember looking at a sheet that a guy named Chris Walker. He was the captain on Maximus. He had a sheet of metrics that you need to hit. I remember cycling, Touch-and-Go Power Cleans, 205 for a set of 10, you needed to do unbroken.

 

Now that’s like 225 for probably a set of 15. Unbroken muscle-ups for probably a set of 15 plus. What’s the 150 Wall Balls? Is it Karen?

David TaoDavid Tao

Karen, yeah.

You had to do it unbroken under some time. If you didn’t do it unbroken, you had to do it in some amount of time. Those were the things that they looked for. Now, it’s all about speed and consistency because you can tap in and out. Some other athletes can come in type stuff. Those are a few of the metrics that I remember.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

I just want to point out Karen 150 Wall balls for time. If you’ve never done CrossFit before, even if your legs are strong, that seems really innocuous. It’s basically 150 squats for time. Right?

 

Right, but it isn’t.

David TaoDavid Tao

It is not. The most sore I’ve ever been in my life is the two days after an all-out attempt at Karen. It’s been years since I’ve done this. Giving it you’re all, the two days after that. The sorest I’ve ever been. I believe I called into work one day because I was just not convinced I could…I lived in a fourth-floor walk-up at the time. I wasn’t convinced I could make it all the way down.

It hurts deceivingly bad afterwards. I’ve still never done an unbroken. There are so many metrics. I have that sheet somewhere. I need to find it and just see where I am, nowadays.

David TaoDavid Tao

The consistency has come a long way. I remember back then you have a lot of games athletes who did have weaknesses. They might not be super strong, they might not be good swimmers, they might be slow on the runs, and they knew that going in. These days, you can have absolutely no weaknesses in order to make it to the next round of competition beyond the open.

 

If there’s anything that you’re going to have even a tiny weakness in these days and still make it to the level, you’re at like a quarter-final athlete or semi-final athlete, what might that be?

I was having a conversation with a few other statisticians today, across statisticians. We were talking about what are the weaknesses in the stats that I’ve created so far. This gets to the point of your question, which is there are no endurance events that have been tested. You can actually, at this point, get into semi-finals probably and not have tested a really enduring engine.

 

That’s basically where I’ve made my money competitively. I haven’t made any money competitively, but I’m not terrible at anything. I have all the skills. My motor is not great. I tell people all the time, you really need to work on your motor because it’s the thing that gets you to the next level.

 

The thing that keeps you in the game is having all the skills, so just get all the skills and then work on your motor.

David TaoDavid Tao

I was having a conversation with a few other statisticians today, across statisticians. We were talking about what are the weaknesses in the stats that I’ve created so far. This gets to the point of your question, which is there are no endurance events that have been tested. You can actually, at this point, get into semi-finals probably and not have tested a really enduring engine.

 

That’s basically where I’ve made my money competitively. I haven’t made any money competitively, but I’m not terrible at anything. I have all the skills. My motor is not great. I tell people all the time, you really need to work on your motor because it’s the thing that gets you to the next level.

 

The thing that keeps you in the game is having all the skills, so just get all the skills and then work on your motor.

 

That’s great to know, Tyler. Let’s talk about some of what you work on today when it comes to stats. Obviously, you want to use these ultimately as a tool to help people improve and improve their fitness. Totally get that.

 

Take us through the process of how you identify what you want to study and then how you collect the data to study and how you crunch the numbers, so to speak. I’m not as smart as you so you can talk down a little bit. That might actually be useful so that we can all understand it a little bit better.

I won’t talk down. I’ll just talk straight across.

 

 I’m always trying to answer questions and some of the things…Brian Friend is the guy who’s got me a lot of my story. You all were good enough to give me, I think, a big writing start to get some notoriety in the sport. Brian Friend’s really been a mentor of mine in the analytic space.

 

The questions that go after, the things that people want to know. He is really good at just data recall. He knows in his head who did what? When they did it? I am not good at that.

 

When something enters my brain, it leaves almost immediately because I don’t have any use for it anymore. I don’t have enough memory onboard, so I got to wipe it out.

David TaoDavid Tao

That just means you’re efficient, like any good CrossFitter.

[laughs] Right. I’m not good at that like Brian is, so I had to create my own way of being able to look at a pool of athletes and be like, “Who’s good?” What the easiest way to do that is numerically and having some standard. I tried to answer the question that everybody’s been trying to answer. How do you look at a field and say, “Who’s the best?” With some number?

 

I did that based on performance, relative to performance to the current season. Right now, we’re getting into data that’s maybe three years old. I think I’m going to stay in that range.

 

Basically, I look at their finishes, the types of events they competed in, who was there? That was the paper that we just came out with, was the relative strength index. How strong was the field that they competed in? All these things are things that matter. I want to put numbers to them.

 

People love numbers. They love looking at a number and it’s like, “Oh, it’s 1 out of 10,” or 1 to 10 ratio. “What number is that?” “Oh, well, it’s a seven.” “Well, seven’s pretty good. It’s close to 10.” I wanted to give those numbers to people so they’d be like, “OK, this person is pretty safe to bet on,” or to think about.

David TaoDavid Tao

 In your analysis, are some years at the CrossFit games…? Let’s talk about the games. That’s when it’s a spectator sport. People do watch quarterfinals, semifinals, they keep track of the open, but the game is the big spectacle.

 

Are there some years that stick out to you, in your opinion, in the last, call three or four years where the test of fitness ultimately was not necessarily the most fair, or I guess you could say the fullest compared to other years?

 

 

 

2020 was a weird year that we probably need to throw out. Most of the guys in the analytic space do, just because it’s entirely impossible to quantify with everything else. 2019 was pretty bad.

David TaoDavid Tao

Why was that?

I talk about this all the time. Cuts are bad. When you need to test yourself against the…Say you’re doing a one-rep max deadlift. In the CrossFit space, the guy that holds that trophy is Sam Dancer. If Sam Dancer isn’t in the one-rep max deadlift test, are you really testing yourself against the fittest in that event?

 

If you cut away half the field here, half the field there, eventually some of your guys who are freaks at one thing aren’t going to be there. You won’t get your exposure to that data. Even though they might not be in the top of the field, they still have an effect on what the scores are.

David TaoDavid Tao

Right, because the score in one event is relative to all the other competitors in that event. It’s not like the seating is redone every single event or weighted. It’s weighted relatively evenly between or among the events.

 

Just for context, because some of our listeners are not hardcore CrossFit statisticians, explain a little bit about how the cuts worked in 2019, and why that was a little bit of a weird year. It’s something we covered on BarBend. It’s something I remember quite well. For those who don’t know exactly what you mean about that, what was different about that year, basically?

That was the nightmare year. It was good in an idea, but it didn’t pan out in real life. We took the top person from every country that had an affiliate. Right there, already, you have somebody in Zimbabwe or something that’s not very good at CrossFit but made it because they were the only person in Zimbabwe that competed.

 

You had a large field. I think it was like either 125 up to 150, maybe. They did two events and they cut it down to 75 immediately. The next event they cut it down, I think, to top 40 again. After a few events after that, they cut it to 20. Eventually, at the end they cut it to 10.

 

The cut from 40 to 20, there were so many good guys who got caught up on something. They screwed up on one thing or another that should have been in the top 10 or top 20 that weren’t there by flick reasons. It screwed up the test.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’ve heard a counterargument to that, which I’d love for you to address. I’m not necessarily taking sides here. I get to play Devil’s Advocate a little bit because I get to interview on the podcast.

 

A counterargument I’ve heard is that in that year, ultimately the winner on the men’s side in the free individuals, Mat Fraser. The winner on the women’s side, Tia-Clair Toomey. No surprise there.

 

Those two athletes also did extraordinarily well on the first two events, right before that big cut where they cut half the field on the women’s and men’s sides respectively. They each finished first in both events, or first and second, between. They were within the top three people in both of those events.

 

Your fittest people are performing in those events, and then they still win overall after 12 more on the weekends. Address that from a statistician’s perspective, if you don’t mind.

You’re taking the Dave Castro’s stance…

David TaoDavid Tao

 I’m not taking any personal stance. I’m repeating a counterargument I’ve heard.

I’ve labeled that argument, which is the Dave Castro argument. It’s a fair argument. His argument is, “Well, the fittest still won the games.” That is totally true. I’m not arguing in that case. I try to solve multiple problems at once, and that argument is outdated. That’s a 2008 games argument, a 2009 CrossFit games argument.

 

Yes, you paid the fittest person, but now we’re trying to build a sport that can support multiple people’s lives. It’s top 40. The top 40 athletes should all make a living at this. CrossFit is the hardest sport to train for, personally. It’s definitely up there top 10 in the world to train for. You can’t argue with that.

 

Now, we’re talking about, you need to get the order of the top 40 correct because every one of those drops in position leads to a huge pay drop. It matters exactly. You should get to fight. If you’re in 20th place but you might get 18th, you should be allowed to fight for that every single event as opposed to getting cut.

David TaoDavid Tao

Look, Dave Castro is no longer working for CrossFit. We don’t want to get to the politics of that on this episode.

Nope.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s something we’ve covered on BarBend. Dig into that if you’d like, but he’s no longer involved with the CrossFit games. In your opinion, and this is just your personal opinion. This is not as a representative of anyone, but Tyler Watkins. What could the CrossFit games do to make it a fairer test of fitness and a more consistent test of fitness?

The first thing is get rid of cuts. Across the board, they use the excuse, “Well, the days start to drag on and it’s really hard to run that many events with that many people.” Yeah, but you’re also claiming you’re crowning the fittest on earth. That’s not an easy thing to claim, so you have to hold the weight. Sorry.

 

The second part is, and this is something I’m working on in my off time between work and writing other articles, is we have to be able to quantifiably break down what the sport is testing. Dave Castro did a really good job. He programmed pretty evenly. I’m going to name-drop a little bit.

 

I had a two-hour conversation with Brett Makowski about this. He said that some years he would get done with the games. He’s like, “I was really sore on my legs,” or, “Some years I would get done with the Games, and I was really sore in my upper body.”

 

He was like, “If you’re doing a flat-tested fitness that tests everything, you shouldn’t be sore in any one particular place more than the other. You should hurt all over.”

 

There are biases in the programming. I think programming is the number one problem we have to solve right now. I don’t want it to be dogmatic that we do the same things all the time. There should be some deep, deep thought into exactly what we’re programming and why we’re programming it.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some other areas…Thank you, by the way, I know that’s not necessarily an easy subject to talk about. I know it’s something you’re passionate about. I know it’s a tough egg to crack.

It is.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s a very difficult thing to solve because CrossFit’s still, it’s in its infancy, as far as a sport compared to every other sport that we hold near and dear, at least in this country that we might watch and follow.

 

Even compared to other strength sports, it’s still super, super young. Those sports have had decades, in some cases 100 years or more to get things figured out, and they’re still getting it figured out. Rules are still changing, federations are still clashing.

 

What are some other specific areas of interest that have your attention or have had your attention when it comes to CrossFit analytics?

Another paper, it was the first paper or article rather that I wrote…

David TaoDavid Tao

You call the papers?

 Yeah.

David TaoDavid Tao

Your articles are well-supported enough to be called papers, I give you that permission…

 

I appreciate it.

David TaoDavid Tao

 …especially when they’re on barbend.com.

The first article I wrote was about Z score, which is a better way to score. What Z score did was basically take into account how much you beat the next person.

 

It scaled the points a little bit better. Now, that caused the whole uproar and all that stuff but what it did was it made people really accountable for programming and logistics of a competition.

 

Teams are a very hard thing. I had a conversation with a guy the other day, everyone’s…I’ve had a few. I’ve opened a doorway for statisticians now and they’re trying to reach out and they want to know where to look in.

David TaoDavid Tao

 Is it a doorway, or is it a Pandora’s box? You can be honest.

It is a box. It’s a Pandora’s box. I went from getting zero messages a day on Instagram to getting a lot from a lot of nerds, fellow nerds, but nerds nonetheless. Teams is a big interest and we want to break down teams and right now, there’s just no way to break down teams. Who’s the best team? Why are they the best team?

 

You can’t quantifiably do it. It’s so much so that I’ve not even tried anymore. I used to try and I can’t do it anymore.

David TaoDavid Tao

I thought the best team was whoever had Rich Phoning on the team.

[laughs] That’s the exact right answer.

David TaoDavid Tao

They always seem to….No, I want to dive into this more, because if it’s difficult to quantify the best team, then why does Rich Phoning’s team seem to win almost every year? I believe they’ve won the CrossFit games all but one year he’s competed on team?

He gets the best people, but it’s not easy. They are the best people. We know that. It’s not easy, from a baseball statistics or statistician point of view, to say why put a number on why they’re the best. I think that takes away from the sport we can’t speculate on. This team might have a chance. We don’t have any data we can go to say anybody’s in the ballpark.

 

The big talk right now is Andy’s team in Iceland. They could have a chance, but I don’t have any numbers to support that. I don’t have any data. It’s hard. Every team loses a person, gains a person every year. Teams are totally dissolved and formed into other teams. The team side of the sport actually needs…It’s the one I’m most passionate about, but it’s the one that needs the most work.

David TaoDavid Tao

Rich might have secret recipe locked away in a vault down in Cookville or something like that.

 

Oh, guaranteed. They need to give that guy the keys. If this is his last year, they need to give him the keys to the teams because he’ll know exactly what to do.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] I don’t know if he’s working off a Hunter if he’s got his own army of statisticians he’s paying to keep quiet that we don’t even know about.

I know a few of those guys. If you guys need a statistician, please reach out to me. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

You said you already get too many Instagram messages. Your DMs are going to be blowing up after this.

I’ll see Rich’s DM, I believe.

David TaoDavid Tao

Do me a favor. Leave him on Red for a day.

Oh, Yeah.

David TaoDavid Tao

Obviously, you got to take him down a peg now. I’m kidding. Rich is great. He’s a friend. He’s been on the podcast. He’s fantastic. Actually, this is good practice because I’m recording a podcast episode with Con Porter, who’s on Annie’s “Icelandic Super” team tomorrow.

 

This has given me good stuff to poke the beast a little bit, feed him. He’s so friendly. I don’t know if I’m capable of getting him riled up. That’s the problem.

He’s too cool. Anytime you try to rile him up he’s going to be cool the whole time.

David TaoDavid Tao

How do I goad a cool Australian who like surfs and has long hair and is super fit? How am I supposed to do that? What am I working with here? Absolutely nothing. I’m a big nerd too. Come on.

He’s tough. He’s a nerd, too. He’s a nerd in his own way.

David TaoDavid Tao

Australian nerds are a whole different breed.

 

I got to figure that. You mentioned Brent Fikowski. He’s a self-identifying nerd and is also professionally an accountant. I can see how you two would really jive, just a bunch of CrossFitting accountants, going back and forth.

Him and I have some really good conversations. We diverge on our opinions quite often, but we’re able to support them and come away of being like, “I don’t agree with you, but I see why you’re saying what you’re saying.” It’s really fun. Anytime I’m battling something in my head, I’ll contact Brent like, “What do you think about this?”

 

He’s like, “I disagree, but…”

David TaoDavid Tao

A Canadian accountant and a Kentucky accountant arguing. That’s got to be the politest conversation anyone’s ever heard.

[laughs] You and I have two different opinions of Kentucky.

David TaoDavid Tao

You still live there, I don’t. You’ve seen a little bit more day-to-day. It’s been a while. I was born and raised, but I left.

Are you in Nashville?

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m in Brooklyn.

Oh, I thought you’re in Nashville now, I’m sorry.

David TaoDavid Tao

I was in Nashville a few weeks ago. BarBend has some team members down in Nashville, so I’m there occasionally. I went to high school in Chattanooga. This is too much information. This podcast is not about me.

People are going to find you now.

David TaoDavid Tao

If people want to learn more about you, Tyler, where are some really good places to do that, on social media outlets, you write for BarBend and otherwise, all that good stuff.

It’s easiest to find me on Instagram @texxess, that’s T-E-X-X-E-S-S.

David TaoDavid Tao

Spell that again, sorry.

T-E-X-X-E-S-S.

David TaoDavid Tao

Got it. OK.

Texxess. Then, of course, on BarBend, I have a few articles coming out here within the short future about semifinals breaking down. We’ll see my power rankings, teams to look for. Occasionally, I pair up with Brian Friend on “Morning Chalk Up,” and we do an occasional article. Look for me there.

David TaoDavid Tao

Fantastic, Tyler. I really appreciate you taking the time. Thanks for diving deep. These 30 minutes went by blazing fast. Love to do it again sometime. Thanks so much.

Appreciate it. Thank you, David.