Parity on the Rise
We've seen an influx of talent in the NCAA and the impact of many top seniors utilizing an extra year of eligibility to produce some of the deepest, most talented squads in years. At the top of the rankings reigns Michigan, the defending champions. Despite a smaller squad and some injuries, they've proven that a hard working, talented squad can be tough to beat, no matter how many elites are on the roster. Close behind are the talented squads at Florida, OU and Utah. After a slow start, LSU has closed the gap on the leaders. While we've seen some strong performances from the likes of Minnesota, Alabama and Cal, we're also seeing strong performances from the likes of Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri, Denver and MSU. And it is too early to count out UCLA, and many other teams still have a shot to pull a surprise in the post-season.
We're also seeing a maturing set of NCAA code modifications and some relatively relaxed judging that together has created some record high scores and has increased the amount of parity we are seeing. At this point in the season, the race for the top 36 slots in regionals is going to be intense. While there are a few teams at the top that are separating from the crowd, we'll like see a few surprises heading into the Regional finals.
Injuries Still a Factor
Despite the added depth most teams are experiencing, injuries and illness have played a factor this season. There's been way too many Achilles' injuries and an injury to a key athletes can still really hamper a team's prospects. We are also seeing gymnasts cycle in and out lineups, as COVID protocols still may require a gymnast to miss some time. We can only hope, that unlike last season, that all the teams that qualify for the post-season can compete when the time comes.
Olympians Make Their Impact
The NCAA's new approach to Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) has opened up new professional opportunities for NCAA athletes without sacrificing their eligibility. This has resulted in more Olympians and World Championship medalists now entering college, and adding their fame and great gymnastics to the mix. Interest in NCAA Gymnastics is perhaps at an all-time high in mainstream sports coverage, including the first regular season meet on broadcast television. And these top elite athletes are delivering, delivering some big gymnastics and showing a joy that they never found in the elite world. Gymnasts like Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and Leanne Wong have already made a big impact.
Scoring Variation Clouds the Picture
There's been a a lot of 10.0s this season. Even casual fans are noticing the prevalence high scores, and even the most ardent of fans are noticing that sometimes the high scores are coming at the expense of overlooked errors.
We watch meets at all levels of competitions, from across the country. Overscoring occurs in every part of the country, in every Conference and you can be assured every team is going to see lax scoring sometime this season. We've already seen teams swing by two or three points in team score from week to week, without the impact of falls. The early season was filled with "upsets" as teams encountered a different standard of scoring, scored less than their lower ranked competitor, and ended up losing in head to head competition. This effect is amplified in some areas where teams, due to budget and COVID constraints, travel in a tight geographic radius (even instate). This results in a higher frequency of lax scoring impacting a single team's average.
The unfortunate outcome of this is that some teams won't quality to post-season competition solely due to scoring variation. Like last season, the Regional fields could be altered and distorted. Lax scoring will cause some programs to experience significant scoring drops in the post-season, creating an "easy" Regional for a top team to advance. Last season, we also saw some Regionals with lax judging panels. Lax panels tend to "wash out" medium errors and errors in technique, and overemphasize steps and falls. This in turn can influence the final result, and in the extreme could cause the wrong team to advance. Advancement to Nationals should not be swung by the judges selected for a particular Regional location.
This season we've also seen multiple instances of missed out of bounds and even a grab of a beam completely missed. There have been 10.0s with hops and wobbles and other obvious errors. Mistakes do happen, but the incidents are rising above the level of human error and threaten to damage the sport's tremendous progress. Unless there are changes in accountability, we will never truly address these problems.
Unintended Consequences: Two Passes
The two pass routine has taken the NCAA by storm this season. Provisions for two pass routines have always existed. However, the most recent code changes brought changes that reward certain types of routine construction with extra difficulty bonus. The intent of the change was to mitigate the requirement for an extra tenth of bonus that was being required by providing bonus opportunities that also recognized difficult dance and provided difficulty bonus for certain tumbling combinations and dismounts. The unintended effect was to incentive two pass routines that could meet the extra bonus structure and reduce the number of skills that could incur a deduction. Another major side benefit is the ability to reduce wear and injuries in the athletes. Now that the coaches are confident they can still score 9.9 with such routines, the incentive to compete anything more has vanished.
Unfortunately, we're now left with routines with minimal tumbling and one dance series, and a lot of choreography that runs the gamut from excellent to uninspired. The present code allows so many loopholes that benefit a two-pass floor routine that any incentive for tumbling has been nullified. A Rudi to a leap and a back layout one and a half twist to front layout along with a D leap combination is all it takes to start from a 10. Even routines with tougher tumbling won't take the risk to perform a third pass because it is simply not worth it. Sadly, routines that lack dynamic tumbling skills in addition to great dance are at risk of losing fan interest. Identical scores for wildly different routine compositions are confusing casual and experienced observers alike.
Just like we first noted two seasons ago, this season there are quite a few floor routines that stop all tumbling roughly 30 seconds into an exercise. A double back is strategically placed in the second pass to garner an extra 0.1 in bonus, somewhere around the 30 second mark. Then the gymnast proceeds to mark the next 30 seconds doing dance with no skill difficulty value before finally doing a C+C dance combo. Routines like this have earned 9.9 or higher this season.
But what about the exceptional dance, people may cry? Too often, the dance is not exceptional. It is ironic that competitive dancers do skills of value throughout their performances, including leaps, turns and yes, acro with dynamic highs and lows and musicality. Changes that were made to reward dance difficulty in lieu of tumbling have resulted in routines with very few dance skills (two, to be precise).
What can a judge do? For starters, of course, they can deduct properly for tumbling execution, leap amplitude, artistry, and proper footwork. They also have a deduction available to them called progressive distribution. A routine that has a single jump combo for over half the routine and all the difficulty placed in the first part of the exercise should earn the mandatory 0.05 deduction for progressive distribution. Another routine we've seen has a 46 second stretch of choreography with no skill of value. Once again, that is not proper distribution of difficulty. But what else can a judge do? The current code leaves them little leeway in this regard other than the measly 0.05 of progressive distribution. There are artistry and dynamics deductions, but these are more subjective and judges are likely not going to take them in this context.
There are changes that are possible. As we first advocated two years ago, the next code should only provide a bonus tenth for the double salto or E acro if the final pass occurs in the final 15 seconds. A simple fix is possible for this glaring loophole. Is it enough? No. There is a chance, however, in the off-season to make some meaningful changes as the both the NCAA Modifications and the underlying code go through modifications. Requirements for two pass routines should be strengthened, with a higher level of minimum tumbling difficulty or incremental dance difficulty required to start from a 10.
What's Supposed to Happen: Standards in Scoring
The Judges Association and the Coaches Association made an effort in the offseason, as always, to provide standards and instruction for the judging community. They held a series of seminars and published detailed videos with the intent to establish uniform standards of judging evaluation. They also increased a focus on landings, and adjusted deductions to accommodate safer landing positions. This was done with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, we've seen some high variation in how the rules have been applied. Above all, let us make it clear that this is not the athlete's fault. The athletes continue to focus on doing their best, and unfortunately, the variation in judging can make the difference between winning and losing. For their sake, let's hope this gets straightened out by the post-season, and if not by then, next year.
We'll end here with a brief reminder of what is supposed to happen on each event:
Training Video: Link
You'll note the emphasis here on all phases of the vault: the preflight, the block, the post flight and landing. Form in the preflight, the shoulder angle on the block, early twisting, pike downs on layouts, low chest on landing and a lack of height and distance are all highlighted as possible deductions. The instructor states that "dynamics" separates the great vaults from the merely good. These are vaults that are big and make you go "wow". Lesser vaults without amplitude in the video are tagged with deductions for dynamics (and often as well, for distance). The flat 0.1 deduction for an underrotated landing is also highlighted and emphasized by the instructor. A step forward on a Yurchenko Full is worse than a step back, and should show up in the final score.
Training Video: Link
Many fans are used to watching routines and noting deductions for the angle of the handstands and the steps on dismount. If anything, these faults are overemphasized by many commentators in TV broadcasts or live video streams. This video explains how the deductions extend far beyond handstands and steps: Are her arms bent during the skill? did she catch her release too close to the bar? is the release high enough and showing proper counter rotation? is the kip smooth and the body fully extended? Is the handstand position reached and held without arch and with proper extension? is the Pak salto caught too late, after the body has rotated too far? Is the swing "muscled"? does the dismount pike down? is there excessive arch in the element like the counterswing in a Maloney? what was the angle of the body when the hands contacted the lower bar during the overshoot? was the body fully extended or slightly piked? The potential deductions go well beyond steps, handstands and leg separations.
Training Video: Link
The balance beam is an event where obvious wobbles, knee bends and steps (or worse) can be identified as causing a lower score. But as this video reminds you, there are other considerations. A routine without obvious wobbles can still score below a 10: was her leap high enough? was the turning jump completed? Did she hit 180 in the split? did her head show full release and the knee bend in that ring leap? did the heel drop in the full turn? was the front toss too low? And perhaps the most easy to overlook, did the gymnast pause over two seconds? Was there a wobble, stop of movement or a deviation from the line of motion during a connection (hence breaking the connection and losing the connection value)?
Training Video: Link
The floor is more than steps out of bounds and insecure landings. In fact, gymnasts have plenty of opportunities to earn deductions throughout the routine. This video reminds the judges of other key deductions: are the leaps high and splits at 180? are they rotated 180 degrees or was one of the leap overrotated, cheating the next leap of a full 360 (and possible loss of value)? Did the second salto in a direct connection show lift? Was her chest too low on landing? were the feet staggered on landing? did the feet cross during the twist? was the toe point maintained throughout the leap? was there sufficient amplitude? was the foot form maintained during non-value dance and footwork? was the movement not in relation to the music (artistry)? The scores in the video may surprise you with the amount of potential deductions.
Some argue that these deductions shouldn't be taken. Others may argue that the judges score their favorite too heavily. In the ideal state the judges would arrive at a common level of judging "strictness" and hold that level all season long. In reality, scoring tends to level out during the season as the judges intermingle and score new meets and teams.