You want to highlight the tremendous abilities of tremendous athletes, and if you have a scaled division, you want to highlight the burgeoning efforts of athletes who are on the journey to tremendous. Your programming for a competition is paramount. It’s functional fitness, or elite athleticism, or high-intensity exorcism. You want to entertain the spectators, you want to set yourself apart, and maybe you want to surprise your athletes, to a degree, because part of the fitness competition ethos is the “unknown and the unknowable.”

Here’s where your event can take a giant dump on itself. If your judges don’t know what they are looking for, be prepared to get haphazard judging, poorly monitored movement, and a tremendous fiasco.

You need a head judge who either determines the points of performance for each movement or is specifically instructed what they will be, dissects and troubleshoots those movements, clearly articulates those standards to the floor judges, and has the ability to police the judges and the movements. Your head judge has to analyze the movements to determine where the problems and the no-reps are most likely to occur. And, depending on the size of your event, your head judge needs lieutenants with whom she/he plots, plans, and polices the playing field. Being a head judge is a lot more than just being a back-up set of eyes on a floor to judge-athlete pairings (which is just bad planning, because a head judge cannot be at every station, policing every rep). For all of your planning, the head judge is crucial to the success or failure of your event.

What does a head judge do, anyway?

I’m glad I pretended you asked. There is no set job description for a head judge because the world of high-intensity fitness competition has no governing body, no oversight, no accountability, no formal training requirements, and pretty much no idea how to coalesce the many ideas and approaches to organizing these sporting events. “But Moose,” you say, “The CrossFit Games is on the money, G! Their judges come in all wearing the same stuff, they take a knee and count reps, they give no-reps, and the whole thing looks like it’s been planned to a tee!” Yes they do, yes it does, and yes it has been; and that’s because CrossFit headquarters has put a lot of effort into training their in-house judging staff — probably months of effort in programming and movement/pairing testing — and gained a few years of experience since the dust-trail days of Aromas 2007. In addition to Adrian Bozman cracking the head judge whip, there’s a dedicated staff employed to plan that one huge event and organize the satellite regionals.

But if you’re an affiliate owner, you will be acutely sensitive to the observation I’m about to make: CrossFit headquarters is a company with a great intellectual property that teaches you a training methodology and licenses the limited use of its trademark, all of which it does rather well. It is not a governing body; it is not a franchisor; it is not an advisory group; and it’s not your mama. Once you get that L1 certification, and the usage of the limited trademark license, you are on your own. The only oversight you have is mostly state, local, and some federal government regulations that describe how many people you can have in a room, how many exits you need, how you may and may not sell food, and how you’d better have reasonable accommodations for the physically impaired.

So back to your not-so-Games-scale competition: How big is your planning staff? Who’s responsible for programming? Who’s responsible for deconstructing that programming? Oh yeah, there are a lot of other things you need to plan that require organizational infrastructure, but I’m just looking at the ultimate product you aim to deliver. If you don’t have one or several head judges in on the planning stage and who will be on the floor policing the implementation stage, you have a disaster, not an athletic fitness event.

What a Head Judge Should Do (At a Minimum)

A head judge should do the following well before an event:

  • Vet the proposed programming and give a thorough assessment of the feasibility of accurately judging the movement standards.
  • Determine optimal placement of judges and athletes to allow for clear observation and safe execution of performance points.
  • Assess the safety of the movements and communicate concerns to the event heads and workout programmers.
  • Instruct judging staff as to the movement standards and the task of judging.

I respectfully propose that a head judge should do the following during an event:

  • Police the judges on the floor to ensure they are enforcing movement standards.
  • Ensure that floor judges get adequate rest/break periods.

Sometimes the demands of judging require programming and even layout modification, and that’s where your head judge must be involved. A head judge needs to know not only the particulars of movement standards but also the points where programming gives rise to point performance failure. Take, for example, the burpee. How do you ensure chest-to-deck contact? What about full extension of the hips? And how high must that jump be? If you have spasm jumps in your event, you just struck a blow for controversy: Why is athlete no. 5 jumping 4 inches high while athlete no. 4 is barely getting off the floor? Why is athlete no. 9 in a cobra position when athlete no. 2 is kissing the mat? Because you failed to program a movement that has a unilateral, non-idiosyncratic execution. That does not mean you are a bad programmer. It just means you did not run it past the man or woman who is controlling the floor. And the man or woman controlling the floor has to ensure the programming is bulletproof. Don’t be reluctant when your head judge tells you that you have to add a hand release at the bottom or a plate to jump on to minimize inconsistency.

Your head judge needs to give you a realistic assessment of how easy or difficult it will be to judge the points of performance necessary for the movements you have programmed, and she/he needs to be the voice of reason when it comes to safety. Sometimes those burpee/muscle-up/burpee/squat/deadlifts to hang/power cleans are a bit much to monitor, or a bit much to execute on the edge of a 30-inch box. Event programmers increasingly imagine a wonderful movement series that sounds amazing in concept and looks even greater when tested by athletes eager to demonstrate the possibility of the movement. And then you give those movements to a field of athletes who bring an unlimited number of variations, unforeseen interstitial movements, and good old-fashioned gaming that destroy your well-laid plan and make your judges look like bug-eyed kittens watching a ping-pong match. If your judges do not have sufficient time to understand the movements and discuss the requirements and performance points, you will get inconsistent judging, situational standards, and complaints from everyone about what a lousy show you put on. Congratulations.

Last but not least, the “surprise ending” is often no surprise at all: It’s the part where you may as well have a free-for-all because nobody is enforcing the same standard for the workout you announced only five minutes ago. If it’s a 5k run, OK; If it’s a triplet, a couplet, or a chipper, start projecting a movie on a nearby wall to distract everyone and hope they don’t notice that each judge is doing something different. This is the absolute worst way to end a competition, because no one is going to accept the results as valid. Controversy: You can do without it, especially if you hope to put on another event.

So talk to your head judge well in advance and keep him/her in the loop. Maybe she/he can tell you how to make those underwater split-lunge box-jump squat flies work.

By John Mustafa

About Metcon

Metcon Media is headquartered in Southern California and is a media company dedicated to promoting a healthy and active lifestyle through functional training and proper nutrition.
Metcon Media’s functional fitness lifestyle specific agenda gives our readers a variety of training and nutrition related articles, podcasts and video from experts in the field on fitness and nutrition as well as other interviews including breaking fitness and nutritional news, product reviews and advice from certified coaches.

View All Posts