What's up with NCAA gymnastics scoring this year? An anonymous judge explains

What’s up with NCAA gymnastics scoring this year? An anonymous judge explains

طوبیٰ Tooba 3 months ago 0 29

Perhaps nothing drew more attention to NCAA gymnastics judging this season than the Tennessee Collegiate Classic in January. During one session, all four schools competing — Ball State, Kent State, Southeast Missouri and Wisconsin-Whitewater — set new program records for highest team score. Wisconsin-Whitewater set the all-time record for a Division III school at 194.450. Five gymnasts earned a perfect score — the first 10.0 for each of them — at the meet.

While each of those teams would go on to have highly successful seasons, none would reach anywhere near those high scores for the rest of the year. Ball State scored a 198.025 that day in January, then averaged a 196.292 across the rest of the regular season, ending the season ranked 34th. The only other teams that scored about 198 were ranked in the top 12. Wisconsin-Whitewater averaged a 191.223 for the regular season — almost three points lower than that record-high mark.

Following the meet, College Gym News called the judging from the event a “disgrace” and said the current scoring system is “broken.” Rhiannon Franck, a former NCAA judge and another columnist at College Gym News, declared the event’s judging “unethical.”

Throughout the NCAA season, judging has been a constant topic of debate as analysts like Bart Conner and Kathy Johnson Clarke, as well as coaches such as Florida assistant Owen Field, pondered overscoring and its ramifications.

So, how exactly does NCAA judging work? We reached out to a veteran judge to better understand the basics and help answer some of the year’s most pertinent questions.

Because judges are not allowed to speak to the media during the season, we agreed to protect her identity and will be referring to her as “Judge X” throughout.

There are allegations of overscoring around the Tennessee Collegiate Classic and other meets this season. How does this happen?

“When it comes down to the fact that [Ball State] got over a 198 — that’s as high as Oklahoma — that’s really kind of shocking,” Judge X said. “But the frustrating part of it is just like anything in our sport, when there’s something bad that happens, it reflects on all of us. And if judging is done poorly at a competition, it reflects on all of us.

“It has been upsetting to many of us. But I can’t control what other people do. I can’t control their scores, so all I can control is mine.”

Judge X said she didn’t know who the judges were for that meet, but she was just as surprised as everyone else by the results. She said she assumed the judges for the meet were likely inexperienced and perhaps feeding off one another’s high scoring, but believed they would all learn from the backlash.

Beyond the Tennessee Collegiate Classic, she also personally believes the code of points simply needs to be more difficult. She said judges are simply working within the current system the best they can.

“It should be harder and allow more separation between the best and the rest,” Judge X said. “A 9.7 should be a fabulous score. And there’s really not that much difference between a 9.7 and a 9.95 compared to what there could be. I know they want to keep everybody competitive and it keeps a lot of schools close and makes it fun, but it’s tricky.

“There are times you give someone a 10.0 because they deserve it based on what you currently have to work with, but then someone comes and does that same vault even better in the same meet and there’s no way to acknowledge or reward that in the current system.”

Still, Judge X pointed to the usage of National Qualifying Scores (NQS) as a way to ensure consistency in scoring. As a team or individual’s highest score of the season is not counted, it prevents any scoring anomalies from having an impact beyond the meet itself.

Is judging evaluated after a meet?

Yes. The judges are asked to provide feedback for the other judges they worked with, and the meet referee is asked to do the same. Coaches are also encouraged to evaluate the judges after the meet. The information then becomes available to a small group of the National Association of Women’s Gymnastics Judges (NAWGJ) leadership, the governing body, who will bring any concerns to the specific judge if the situation warrants it.

Backing up for a moment — there is a universal governing body for NCAA gymnastics judges?

Yes. The NAWGJ is responsible for assigning judges to every NCAA meet — for all divisions — and the organization oversees all of the rules and changes related to scoring. The NAWGJ is also involved in elite gymnastics, as well as at the Junior Olympic level and below.

Do judges pay attention to any criticism that may arise?

Judge X actively avoids reading or watching anything related to college gymnastics, and the NAWGJ bars its members from participating in social media during the season. But none of them are completely immune to hearing criticism, especially when it comes to events like the Tennessee Collegiate Classic.

Ultimately, Judge X hopes fans know judges love the sport as much as they do and are trying to make it as fair as possible.

“The time that officials spend to be prepared to do their job is astronomical,” Judge X said. “And the years that they’ve had to spend to even get to that point. But also we came from the sport, we came from gymnastics, and we have that appreciation for the sport and the beauty of gymnastics. We’re not doing this for the money, it’s not lucrative, it’s really a labor of love.”

What type of preparation do judges do ahead of meets?

According to Judge X, quite a bit. Judges know ahead of each meet what event or events they have been assigned to and typically that means participating in video training in the days leading up to each meet. As judges often are working together for the first time, Judge X said she will do some mock video judging with the other judge (or judges) assigned to the same event.

For example, if she will be judging vault at a dual meet, she and the other judge will come together, often over Zoom, and evaluate older vault routines available on the NAWGJ website. They will both score each selected vault — which wouldn’t include anyone from either of the teams they will be seeing that weekend — and then talk through why they gave the score they did and what deductions they saw.

What are judges looking for during a routine and how does the scoring process actually work?

For floor, beam and bars, there are required elements and a minimum number of skills needed and everything has an assigned point value. There are also bonus elements and deductions. Judge X explained the process like a math problem.

“Every skill has a shorthand symbol, so while a gymnast is performing, we are taking all of these notes — without looking down — and putting together almost an equation which includes what skills they did, what the value of each is, the deductions if there were any, and by the end, you really have a good idea of the score,” Judge X said. “Then we go back and evaluate what you’ve written down to come up with the final score.”

Judge X said it typically takes less than 30 seconds for most judges to determine their score, with extra time often needed for newer judges.

For vault, which happens “in a blink of an eye,” Judge X said one must be familiar with all of the intricate phases of each specific type of vault in order to properly score it.

“You have to know what it’s supposed to look like when done perfectly and then take the appropriate deductions,” Judge X said. “It usually comes down to the little things, like a shoulder angle on the table, or if it’s lacking height, or body position when they land and if they needed to take a step.”

Ultimately, with no opportunity to watch a replay, judges have to trust their own eyes and instincts. Judge X admitted they are not always going to be able to see everything.

“Where you sit is what you see,” she said. “There are sometimes where you might give credit for a specific skill and the other judge doesn’t and it truly could be an angle or vantage thing. And sometimes it can just be an honest mistake and a mathematical error because you’re trying to go really fast.”

But, as each judge independently determines a gymnast’s start value and score, there is a system in place to catch inaccuracies before the score is finalized. If the scores between the judges are far apart, a conference is held to talk through the start value, what was in the routine and where any discrepancy may have come from.

What defines a perfect 10.0 from a judging standpoint?

For Judge X, it’s not just meeting every requirement and not earning any deductions, it’s the execution of everything and no detail is too small.

“It really comes down to doing the ultimate of all of the skills,” Judge X said. “For example, how high was that release on bars? Did it have a lot of flight and rotation or did they just skim the bar? It’s those little things that separate a 9.9 from a 10.0. It’s really about the complete package. On floor, it’s all about the performance and the intangibles. In addition to all of the tumbling being high and landed, and with legs together, are you living that routine with her because you can’t take your eyes off of her?”

What type of training is required?

Most involved have some type of background in the sport, either as a former gymnast or coach (or both) but testing is required to judge at any level. To judge collegiate competitions, one must have acquired a Level 10 rating or above from the organization. With some exceptions, based on experience as an athlete, judges are required to have passed the testing for the previous levels before attempting the exams — written and practical — for Level 10.

A judge needs to earn 80% or better on both tests in order to be accredited for Level 10. Once they have successfully fulfilled these requirements, they must complete professional development credits annually in order to remain eligible. It is a part-time, side job for most judges. While the pay varies per meet, and colleges have different pay scales, the minimum fee is $125 per meet.

“It’s not a full-time job for anybody that I’m aware of,” Judge X said. “We’re all independent contractors and you certainly could stay busy for a long time judging at all of the different levels, but it’s just not a full-time occupation. But we’re all passionate about the sport and committed to staying educated.”

How are judges assigned to meets?

In the past, schools were able to reach out directly to judges to inquire about their availability for specific meets, but the NAWGJ switched to a far more formal — and strict — process in 2004 which prevents such communication.

Once an individual has been cleared to judge at the NCAA level, they are able to log on to the NAWGJ’s website in August and enter all of their availability for the upcoming season. Each person can state which days they are able to work, how far they are willing to go, whether they would prefer to travel by car or plane and if they are able to stay overnight in a hotel or if it needs to be a one-day trip. One can even say the specific times they are available on each day. Coaches and schools also enter their home meet schedule and the number of judges needed for each event.

From there, NAWGJ assigners are responsible for scheduling every judge for every NCAA meet for the season and which event(s) they will work on. During the regular season, dual meets have four judges and quad meets have eight judges, both with a meet referee — essentially the head judge — overseeing. During conference championships and regionals, there are 16 judges (four on each event) and the NCAA championships have 24 judges, with six on each event.

Working with the specific parameters judges have set for themselves, the assigners then have to abide within strict limitations and restrictions to ensure fairness. A judge is not allowed to work at a school in which they have any affiliation and can only score a meet at the same Division I school twice during the regular season (and can see that same team two additional times on the road). The schedule is typically set for the entire season by October.

So, there’s no such thing as an “SEC judge” or certain judges that always work at the same school?

No. This, according to Judge X, is one of the biggest misconceptions in the sport. In fact, most judges are at a different school and often in a different conference every week. She thinks that is crucial for guaranteeing the most accurate scoring.

“It’s so important because this way you don’t have any preconceived notions of how good someone is or what they’re going to do [in their routine],” Judge X said. “I don’t know everyone’s name, I don’t know what they did, or scored, last meet. It’s just based on how they did today in this meet and nothing else.”

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