Did Lane Placement Impact the Shuttle to Overhead B Standings?

First, a little context. In a recent Training Think Tank podcast episode, “The CrossFit Rant”, Max El-Hag brought up an issue on the placement of the jerk blocks on the Shuttle to Overhead B workout. The jerk blocks were staggered such that the jerk blocks in odd-numbered lanes were closer than those in the even-numbered lanes. See the photo below.

As you can see above, Tia-Clair Toomey’s jerk blocks, in lane 14, were farther away from the finish line for the sprint portion of the workout compared to the athletes in either lane next to her.

El-Hag contends that by having varying distances from the finish line to the jerk blocks is inherently unfair to the half of the field that has to run a further distance to begin the shoulder-to-overheard movement. Seems like a reasonable assumption.

El-Hag said that he brought the issue up to CrossFit after the athlete briefing and was told that during testing with the Demo Team, they found no difference in scoring potential between lanes.

El-Hag’s position makes sense in theory. But I wanted to know if the results matched the theory…

So I analyzed the number of shoulder-to-overhead reps for each athlete and grouped them by whether the jerk blocks were close or farther away from the finish line. I did this for both men and women.

I initially looked at all 39 men and 39 women that completed the event (Emily Rolfe and Kealan Henry had withdrawn from the competition). Here’s what the data said:

Full Field
Average Reps Near Blocks Far Blocks
Men (39 athletes) 11.3 11.2
Women (39 athletes) 8.4 8.9

When looking at all 39 men’s scores, the data lined up with El-Hag’s assertion…barely. Although with the margin of error, it would not be statistically significant. But then looking at the 39 women’s repetitions, the opposite was the case…and by a larger amount. This would say that by having jerk blocks farther away from the finish line, an athlete could expect to get 1/2 more rep than an if the athlete was lifting on the closer jerk blocks.

This seemed odd.

In looking at the data more closely, there were definitely some outliers among the athletes on both sides of the equation. Some women only got 2-3 reps in total. For them, it wasn’t going to matter whether their jerks blocks were. And then an athlete like Toomey hit 18 reps from the far blocks.

And with anything, outliers can potentially skew the data. So I removed the outliers and looked at only the athletes that fell within the first standard deviation of the mean. So I only looked at the men’s reps that fell between 8-15 and women’s reps between 5-12. That left 27 athletes on the men’s side and 28 on the women’s side.

The results?

Outliers Removed
Average Reps Near Blocks Far Blocks
Men (27 athletes) 11.7 11.9
Women (28 athletes) 8.4 9.2

In both the men’s and women’s field, the athletes on the far blocks actually outperformed those who didn’t have to go as far to begin lifting. The difference for both, but especially for the men, was minimal. But even El-Hag thought it might only benefit an athlete by potentially a rep or two.

So maybe CrossFit was right. Maybe the jerk block placement didn’t matter.

Or was there an unintended consequence of staggering the jerk blocks. If you go back and watch the four heats (two men’s and two women’s), the athletes did not run directly to the jerk blocks and begin lifting immediately. Most walked to the jerk blocks after slowing down and then paused to collect themselves before beginning to lift.

For those who had to walk farther, those athletes were in the front row. They couldn’t see any other athletes in front of them. However, the “near” block athletes could see the front row, “far” block, athletes.

With the “near” block athletes getting to their jerk blocks faster and seeing the front row begin their jerks. Could the “near” block group have started lifting sooner than they should have? If so, could resting a couple of seconds actually improved their scores?

Pat Vellner was one of the athletes whose jerk blocks were in the “near” group. And while Vellner is one of the strongest athletes in the sport, he admits that heavy jerks are not one of his favorite movements.

In his recap of the event, Vellner commented that the run took it out of him more than he expected. In a workout that he felt he needed to get into a rhythm to do well, he was unable to do so…causing him to fail numerous attempts. He ended up taking 35th in the event after only completing 5 successful shoulder-to-overhead reps.

I asked Vellner if being in the “near” row and seeing the “far” row in front of him could have caused him to start lifting faster than he should have. Vellner said it was his responsibility to block out any possible distractions, but did acknowledge that it “probably makes a bit of a difference from a composure perspective.” Whether it impacted his score or not is an impossible question.

Ultimately, the positioning of the jerk blocks in the Shuttle to Overhead B workout created a difference in how the athletes approached the shoulder-to-overhead movement. The difference, while likely minimal overall, was the opposite of what would be expected in theory – that being closer to the finish line of the sprint created a distinct advantage.

The data, however, showed that the athletes who had to lift on the jerk blocks further away ended up having a slight advantage, +0.2 reps for the men and +0.8 reps for the women. In an event where the total reps topped out at 18, every lift was worth a lot of points.

Regardless of whether the “near” or “far” blocks had an advantage, the problem that it was an issue at all is the issue. All of this could have been a non-issue if all the jerk blocks had been lined up rather than staggered, something both El-Hag and Vellner agreed with.

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