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Judge me, judge me not

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The great majority of sporting events are defined by their final score and who came out on top. Sure, an incredible comeback can provide a game with a thrilling storyline, but if that shot at the buzzer doesn’t go down, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. All too often we find excuses for the outcome – perhaps a missed penalty in the third period, or a shooting foul that should have been called on the ground. As the saying goes, the referee is always the away team. But what if instead of calling the game, the referee decided the scores? Enter the world of competitive gymnastics at the high school level.

The outcomes of both boys and girls gymnastics are dependent entirely upon the scoring of judges. The scores are supposed to directly relate to the technical points an athlete earns for their routine, less deductions for certain errors. But because of the incredibly fast rates of the sport – think of the handful of seconds that a gymnast has in the air off of a vault – an element of subjectivity enters the judging process.

So, what are the judges looking for? According to assistant varsity boys gymnastics coach Myles Laffey, the judges are looking for a number of skills. “The scores derive from combinations of requirements that each gymnast must complete, with six counting parts in a varsity routine,” Laffey said. Each of the six requirements is graded on a scale from A to D, with A being the worst possible and D the best.

The final score does not merely reflect what moves were completed, but also the degree of excellence for each skill. “Almost half of the points you stand to gain are through form and execution – are your legs straight, are your toes pointed, is your back arched – that’s a deduction – those kind of things,” Laffey added. While minor deductions can appear arbitrary, such as the extent to which an athlete’s knee is bent, judges are typically consistent in their scorings with extremely little overt favoritism.

When judges do submit scores that are noticeably different, the cause is usually differing opinions of an athlete’s form. “Some of those subjective elements come in with execution, and how well the skill is done,” Laffey said. “One judge will say, well he finished the skill – he made it. The other judge will say – well he made it but I took a deduction while he was trying.”

Gymnasts can also earn bonus points for stringing together moves that receive high marks on the A to D scale. “When gymnasts complete a certain number of difficult skills back to back, they enter the range of bonus.” Laffey said. “They can also add 1/10 of a point bonus for sticking their dismount without moving.”

Senior gymnast Tyler Leahy has earned his share of bonus points en route to two school records and a 1th place finish in vault for the state of Illinois last year. “A lot of the criteria is meeting the element groups and hitting your routine without falling or any large form breaks,” Leahy said. “Most times the score you think you’ll get and the actual score are fairly accurate, although there are sometimes when the judge’s score can be way higher or way lower depending on the judge as well as what type of meet it is.”

On the freshman level, Coach Laffey has seen significant fluctuations in scores from time to time. “In a dual meet, a kid might score 2.5 on the pommel horse, but at an invitational will score a 4.0 and suddenly think, wow I really leapt forward. Then the next week he is back down to a 2.8,” he said. This variability does appear to be fairly contained to the lower levels of gymnastics. “At the varsity level, partly because you may have more experienced judges, you do see much less fluctuation,” Laffey said.

The personal element behind judging is perhaps unavoidable, yet on occasion, it does become problematic. On the girls side of gymnastics, three-year gymnast and school record holder for the vault Kristen Grilli, senior, has seen the unfortunate side effects of judging on occasion. “There are definitely times when I felt that the scores were unfair. For example, the Lyons Township gymnastics coach always tries to talk and be nice to the judges before her girls compete, and it seems like they always get over-scored,” Grilli said.

Such occurrences are rare, however, as each score remains a reflection of the completion of technical skills in a routine. “If a coach feels that a score is too low, she can go talk to the judge and see where she deducted points. If the judge made a mistake, then the score can be changed,” Grilli said. Judges are held accountable to some extent for their scores since they can be asked to show the specific aspects of a routine where deductions are made.

Certain events in gymnastics lend themselves to judge error more than others, particularly with girls gymnastics, where overall performance is accounted for. “This is especially true for floor,” Grilli said. “At the end of the routine for floor exercise, the judge also critiques the general performance level, and can deduct if the gymnast does not ‘show off’ their routine. This event was always my weakest because I wasn’t a good dancer, so I always got deducted.”

But do these inconsistencies necessarily set judged sports apart from their counterparts that are decided by runs and goals? There is certainly a human element behind every sport, from an umpire calling balls and strikes, to a volleyball referee calling net. In gymnastics, there are safeguards in place to curb the effects of human subjectivity. According to Grilli, “After a gymnast competes on an event, the judges must compare scores. If the judges end up with a score that is more than three tenths apart from one another, then they must compare their deductions. Having more than one judge creates an average that is more representative of the performance.”

Leahy values the way a gymnastics competition is scored over the scoring systems of traditional fan-favorite sports because gymnastics meets cannot be won by a single stellar performance. “In sports with runs or time keeping you can depend on one person to carry a team. Whereas in a sport with judges, each tiny action done by the performer is under observation and can be the deciding factor between winning as a team or taking second or lower,” Leahy said. This is particularly true for gymnastics where three athletes for each team contribute to the team score in each event, placing a premium on depth.

“While often viewed as a sport of a bunch of individuals, in high school gymnastics, it is all about the team’s final score and not individual places – so in the end it’s the same as a sport decided by runs or ticks of the clock,” Leahy said. Gymnastics has much to offer for the strong competitor who isn’t quite the superstar; every athlete has a role to play and a job to do.

What truly does separate a sport like gymnastics from the rest is the focus on personal improvement rather than comparison to other gymnasts. “There is no defense in gymnastics,” Laffey said. “The Hinsdale motto is ‘Hit, Form, Win,’ and win is the last word because it is more important that you hit your set and you hit it with form. It is all about quality. The things we ask you to do as a gymnast, we want you to do in life, do it with quality, and don’t be excited that you got some great reward. Yes, in the heat of competition, and in the state meet, scores are really important, but we also teach our athletes not to look at the other team and what they are doing, but to look within ourselves.”

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