Sunday, 17 April 2022 23:42

Season Wrapup: Impressions of a Record Season

Written by
OU's KJ Kindler OU's KJ Kindler (c) 2019 Lloyd Smith, Used by Permission

Oklahoma won the 2022 NCAA Team title, fending off Florida in the final round, after a superb comeback from a shaky first round in the finale.  Here's a few impressions from the season.

Boomer Sooner! All Hail the Champions

The Oklahoma, and MVP KJ Kindler against expectations and won yet another National title.  After the loss of key gymnasts to graduation and injury, some had expected OU to fall back a bit this season.  They were sorely misinformed.  The Sooners suffered a weak first round on the Floor Exercise, with two gymnasts going out of bounds.  With the mistakes and some lower levels of difficulty (that may have drawn enhanced scrutiny), OU found themselves behind the rest of the field.  They came roaring back on VT, using big 10.0 start value vaults and stuck or near stuck landings to easily surpass Florida's mark on the same event by 0.3125.  They then built their advantage on UB, using precise execution and stuck or near stuck landings to post a huge 49.725 on the event.  Similar clean execution and clean landings led to a 49.625, holding off the Gator's late charge on FX (49.725).  Our MVPs of this match goes to the Head Coach KJ Kindler, her husband Lou Ball and Tom Haley.  The coaching staff has perfected a system that continually generates top results from their athletes, at the end of the season, and under pressure.  Like all secret recipes, it is closely guarded and not widely spread.  It appears to based on some combination of hard work, self-belief, focus on technique and details, high levels of conditioning, smart skill selection and a competitive mindset.  And there is clearly something else, as the rest of the NCAA has found elements of the model to chase, and yet they are still falling short.    

SV and Execution, Execution, Execution

The top teams "got the memo" last season when Michigan won, boosted by some outstanding 10.0 Start Value (SV) vaults.  More NCAA Final teams added the 10.0 Start Value vaults to the lineup, but still fell short to the Sooners.  The key difference here is that these 10.0 SV vaults also have to be performed cleanly, with the proper dynamics and be stuck or only suffer the smallest of hops forward.  Steps back are especially bad, as there is supposed to be a flat 0.1 deduction for under rotation.  Several teams with 10.0 SV vaults with scores in the upper 9.7s to low 9.8s after costly landing mistakes.   

Execution and landings matter on every event.  The Sooners simply hit more landings than the other squads on UB and BB, with sticks or very small hops.  These 0.05s add up over the course of the competition. 

Defending is Tough

Michigan started the season very strong, after a strong preseason of training.  The impact of injuries and the pressures of defending their title appeared in their performances by the post season, well before the Semi-Final round at Nationals.  Did they peak too early?   Not likely, as last season they started fast and were able to carry through to the final victory.  It is simply tough to defend a title, especially in the added pressure situation of the NCAA Finals.  In addition, injuries hampered the Wolverines, a team that has depended heavily on a core set of AAers.   

Scoring Variation Worsened

Once again this season, with the advent of online streaming and mainstream coverage, the variation in scoring became widely apparent to fans and ethusiasts.  Overscoring can occur at any location, on any event and at every Division level in the NCAA.  It has been accentuated during these "COVID" seasons due to limited travel budgets for teams and judges, which serves to amplify regional variation in judging "strictness".  In some areas or in certain meets, it can become more prevalent, even to the point of skewing the relative rankings during the regular season.  This all comes to a head in the the post-season, when judging panels become more mixed and evaluation stricter.  (The latter is not supposed to happen but is a natural consequence when high level gymnast establish a higher bar, forcing judges to take deductions to maintain separation).  As a result, certain teams post marks below their qualifying averages (even after accounting for falls).  The NCAA and the Judges Association have put in a lot of effort in the offseason to standardize on levels of judging "strictness".  However, the system has a fundamental flaw:  there is no independent accountability .  Evaluations of judges are handled by the very people that benefit from a system that produces high scores.  Until some level of independent accountability is implemented, we'll continue to face problems.  Judges are human, and do make mistakes, but the level of issues being seen is systemic.  

Time for a Rule Update

The NCAA Code Modifications are variations off an underlying code of points published by USA Gymnastics for the Development Program (formerly known as the Junior Olympic program).  This DP Code is revised roughly every four years.  The update for 2022-2026 has just been released.  During these updates, the NCAA sometimes implements broader updates to the NCAA Modifications.  The most significant was way back in 2005.  That update raised the level of difficulty required and also drove a reduction in scores.  It was in reaction to the two prior years, where teams and individuals were setting new program records at a rapid pace.  These records held in most cases until.... 2021 and 2022.   

We've seen the current code become too easy for the level of talent throughout the NCAA.  As a result, over 50 teams hit season highs of 196 and above.  The 9.8 used to be a good score and a 9.9 something truly exceptional.  Now, anything less than a 9.8 signifies a major problem occurred in the exercise.  In one Regional this year, we saw one session record 17 of 24 scores at 9.9 or higher, and only one below 9.85.  There is a broad reluctance to mirror the stricter evaluation that was demonstrated in the preseason judges training videos.  While judges may be reluctant to throw out 10s, we see a reluctance to take deductions that result in a score of 9.75 or below, unless there was a major error.  We have dubbed this the "soft bottom".  Scoring has tended to get less rigorous as the deductions push the score below a certain minimum level, in the absence of a major error.   

This score compression overemphasizes landing deductions and above all, the elimination of falls.  Difficult, interesting skills and exciting composition have become too risky, for fear of a deduction.  And despite programs to reduce major injuries, overemphasis on landing deductions can actually serve to increase wear and tear during training.  Routines and skill selection have devolved into certain "golden" combinations, focusing on the highest level of execution and the lowest risk of major error.  Routines begin to look like a set of advanced "compulsory" exercises.  At some point, it begins to impact fan enjoyment and the excitement of the competition.  It is inarguable that the parity and high scores are good for the sport and for fan engagement.  However, as the level of skill mastery increases, major errors like falls will become even more rare and steps will even begin to disappear.  The current code modifications simply do not provide enough tools for judges to clearly separate routines without stricter evaluation of increasingly esoteric deductions.  If outcomes begin to rely on too much on more subtle execution criteria or scores remain tightly clustered around a 9.9, it can be challenging for fans to understand why one team won and the other lost.

However, let's be clear.  We are not advocating for elite like difficulty.  We are simply noting that the NCAA Code Modifications, which modify basic requirements in the DP L10 Code, have become too watered down.    

Restoring the Balance

The NCAA Code Modifications introduced a lower start value a couple of years back, marking a significant break from the structure used in the Development Program.  This lower start value, 9.4 (down from 9.5), was intended to raise the competitive bar.  However, new bonus formulas were added to each event, weakening the value of lowering the start value and creating a number of loopholes in the process.  Coaches and athletes had little problem adapting to the change, even without adding much in the way of difficulty.  The biggest impact has been the addition of an occasional extra jump on FX and a few extra beat jumps and hitch kicks in combination with D acro elements on Balance Beam.  The teams have become adept at exploiting the weaknesses in the code to maximize their scoring potential, while minimizing the risk of any costly error.  

A simple solution would be to adopt the DP L10 code with no modifications.  Judges would not have to deal with two sets of codes, helping with consistency of evaluation.  However, this solution would be highly unpopular.  The DP code may create too much separation for the lower ranked teams, and reduce parity by too much overall.  It is simply a lot tougher, in particular in the area of required composition (extra high level skills and other composition deductions) required start from a 10.  Missed special requirements are also 0.5 in the DP code, a much harsher penalty than the NCAA's 0.2.  And there is also a 10.1 bonus system in the DP L10 code (versus the lower start value of 9.4 in the NCAA modifications) that might be confusing to casual gymnastic observers.  In the DP L10 code, a gymnast can take a step and still get a 10 because her start value is 10.1.  That is the least palatable difference between the two set of rules, but one that could be easily removed.       

Since that solution (using the unaltered DP Code) is unlikely, here are a few ideas:

Vault:  The current system balances between variety of vaults and recognizing a few more difficult vaults.  The only alternative would be to align to the DP L10 Code, making their 10.1 SV vaults a 10 in NCAA and their 10.0 SV vaults a 9.95.  But this would derate some of the more unusual vaults like the full-on back pike off and reduce the variety of vaults being performed. 

UB:  The NCAA Up to the Level (UTL) deduction for UB elements and dismounts should be strengthened.  The top deduction could mirror the same level of difficulty required in the most stringent level in the DP L10 code (the "no deduction" level).  An additional level could be added for a new 0.05 UTL step.  This chart explains this proposal: 

Deduction Current NCAA UTL Our Alternative Based on 2022-2026 DP L10
Special Requirement

Minimum 2 C releases or B and D release

 Use the same as current NCAA
No UTL Deduction

A single bar release of D value

OR a release element valued as an E

OR a minimum of two D release

OR minimum of two E level elements (excluding dismounts)

AND Dismount of C with bonus connection or D or higher

Two D releases, one being a single bar release

AND Dismount of D or higher or C with D/E connection

0.05 UTL Deduction No criteria

D release directly connected to a C release

OR two D release (any type)

AND Dismount of C with any bonus connection

This proposal drops the exception of the two E level skills, an effort made by the NCAA to reward variety in difficulty.  In reality, this would have no effect.  The E level skills that are not dismounts or releases are very difficult and not common (the most common is the toe-on to handstand full pirouette).  This means that the other choices are an easier and less error prone way to avoid this compositional deduction.  In effect, this current exception for two E skills (not releases or dismounts) is simply not useful.  Although this proposal strengthens the requirements slightly, it would help increase separation in the routines.   

BB:  The NCAA UTL deduction for elements should be strengthened to mirror the DP L10 criteria for 0.0 and 0.05 deductions"

Deduction Current NCAA
Our Alternative Based on 2022-2026 DP L10
Special Requirement

Minimum two flight elements in series, one minimum of C with or without hand support

OR A non-flight element in series with an E acro element

Minimum of C dismount or B preceded by and directly connected to any D acro element

Use the same as the current NCAA
No UTL Deduction

A flight series with bonus connection

OR a flight series without bonus connection and a second D+ acro element (including mounts and dismounts) or E dance element. 

Second D acro cannot be directly connected to the dismount for UTL. 

Back layouts and front aerials are not treated as Ds for bonus purposes.

A two flight series with C salto or three series acro (with or without flight), a second D acro and minimum C salto or D/E flight element

OR, two series acro with D salto and second D acro

 

0.05 UTL Deduction No criteria

A two flight series with a C salto and a second D or E flight element

OR, two flight series acro with D salto and additional C salto

This proposal simplifies the connection rules and rewards crowd-pleasing acro skills on the BB. The disadvantage of this proposal is that is removes the exceptions for E dance elements and D+ dismounts and that ensure that a second D is not in combination with a dismount.  These exceptions could be added back, but would make the proposals largely equivalent at the "non deduction level".  The compositional deduction for 0.1 tenth in bonus from dance and acro (each) should remain.  The DP L10 Code also has a composition deduction for choice of dance elements.  This would provide more opportunities for separation and more interesting routines if it were implemented, without significantly increasing the risk of injury. 

FX:  The two pass routines have spread like wildfire in the NCAA.  The popularity of the two pass routines between the Coaches' and the public are moving in opposite directions.  Coaches have found it preferable not only for the health of the athlete, but to avoid opportunities for deduction.  Fans in the public have found the resulting routines lacking in difficulty and excitement, and find it harder to identify the good from the great (routines), without detailed knowledge of the code.

Another stated criteria to the rule structures was to enable routines that would showcase difficult and exceptional dance.  In reality, we've seen routines so stripped of elements that the NCAA Rules Evaluator had to send a reminder to ensure the judges count all the B, C, D/E elements to ensure there were at least five.  At times, athletes were missing a "B" skill because only the minimum level of dance and acro skills were being added. 

A minimum level routine could include a Rudi to stag jump and a round-off, back layout one and half twist to front layout and switch leap to wolf turn 1 1/2.  This routine would meet all the tumbling, dance bonus and compositional requirements for a 10.0.  Done perfectly, it would earn the same maximum score as a routine with a full twisting double layout, a full twisting front layout to double tuck and a double pike dismount.  

There is also a major loophole that remains in the current Code Modifications.  An athlete gains a bonus tenth for doing a double flipping or E salto in their final acro pass.  However, there is no stipulation on when the final acro flight must happen in the routine.  Thus we see routines that end all tumbling after 30 seconds and include non-value dance elements for another 30 seconds, with only a dance combo (usually C+C) to add interest.  The only potential deduction in many of these cases would be for progressive distribution of 0.05 (due to the grouping of the most difficult elements in one section of the routine).  This loophole could be closed by only granting bonus for double saltos or E saltos performed in the last 10 seconds of the routine.      

The NCAA Up to the Level (UTL) deduction could also be reset in alignment with the "no deduction" and "0.05" deduction in the DP L10 code.  This would look something like this:

Deduction Current NCAA
Our Alternative Based on 2022-2026 DP L10
Special Requirement

One acrobatic series with two saltos OR two directly connected saltos
Three different saltos
Last salto performed as the last isolated salto or within the last salto connection must be minimum "C"

Use the same as the current NCAA
No UTL Deduction

One E element, acro or dance
OR two different D elements, once of which must be an Acro
One acro series (3 elements) with C salto or better
Acro dismount with a C minimum salto in bonus or D minimum

2 Pass Routines:

Minimum D element in one of the passes and minimum of D or 0.2 connection value in the other pass

3 Pass Routine: 

D/E in each pass

OR D/E Salto in 2 passes, C+B direct or C+C indirect in third.

2 Pass Routine:

E Salto in both passes

OR E Salto in one pass, two directly connected saltos in 2nd, one a D

0.05 UTL Deduction No criteria

3 Pass Routine: 

 D/E Salto in 2 passes, C+A direct or C+B indirect in third

2 Pass Routine:

D+A/B/C direct or indirect in both passes

OR E Salto in one pass, D indirect with another salto in second pass

This would be a significant strengthening of the tumbling requirement and would increase separation of the routines.  This would also mitigate the puzzling outcomes where very simple minimum difficulty routines (as described above) with relatively unexceptional dance get rewarded with a higher mark than an routine filled with exceptional tumbling and dance but suffer an additional oversized lunge on a single pass.    

Tweaking the Post-Season Format

It is time to acknowledge the fact that scores rise throughout a competition, and that evening sessions tend to outscore the afternoon sessions.  This isn't bad on a team basis, where teams are combined in a Regional Final.  But it makes it very difficult for an individual to qualify out of a first round session (although it happened).  This is particularly true of the AAers, where four scores are counted and the potential that rising scores influence influencing the final result rises by 4x.  A simple solution would be to take one AAer from each session, after tiebreaks.  Some may argue that these athletes would not be in contention for titles and All-American Awards.  But with increasing parity across the NCAA and the rise of superstars like Jade Carey on non-advancing teams, too many top athletes are being left out of consideration for top honors.  

The Regional tiebreaking methodology should be changed.  The current mechanism for individual events favors a single judge who posts the highest score.  This means that intentional or even unconscious bias can enable an individual judge to throw out a very high score for certain athletes, such as in-state familiarity.  As the first tiebreaker counts all four scores, this leaves the individual event slots highly subject to an individual judge.  An alternative would be to go directly to the National Qualifying Score as the first tie-breaker and then use the session as the 2nd tiebreaker.  The third could be the tally of all four scores.  This order could be modified for AAers, as the exposure to individual judge scores is less.  At the Regional meets, there are not the same concentration of judges from the same states as there is in the regular season (where it can be 50%).         

Growing the Championships

This season, the Women's Championships saw increased TV viewership, despite an unfavorable time slot.  The broadcast outdrew the NHL Saturday package that bumped the Championships from a better time slot on ABC.  The Championships also recorded record social media impressions for the ESPN family of networks.  The new format and bracket style of competition is fan and tv friendly.  However, attendance at the Championships was less than packed, to say the least.  A variety of reasons helped contribute:  COVID, odd session times, a day's break in the Championship flow, increased travel costs and the Easter weekend.  The location in a gymnastics hotbed devoid of Division I programs didn't help.  A more central location with good transit connection and some tie to NCAA Gymnastics would help.  When the current series of contracts end, alternatives should be explored.      

Another potential solution is to combine the Men's and Women's Championships in the same weekend, in the same location (versus different ones).  This could provide a full weekend of events for both sports, without detracting from each other.     

Coaching Changes

Every off season, we see a variety of coaching changes.  Sometimes, coaches' contracts are not renewed or they are encouraged to resign.  Other times, they find opportunities outside of collegiate gymnastics or in another line of work.  When a Head Coach departs, the assistants are not automatically guaranteed of retaining their positions.  This causes a a game of musical chairs, particularly among the assistant coaches, throughout the off season as new coaches get hired, new coaches enter the ranks and others leave to other pursuits.  Key openings have occurred already:  the Head Coach at UCLA (plus assistants) will create a waterfall effect that will last for months.  Plus there are a number of new programs starting up and still completing their staffs, including the remaining staff at Division I Clemson and the new opening at Utah State (with the hiring of Amy Smith to Clemson).  Stay tuned over the next several months, as a lot of change is underway.       

The Transfer Portal

Changes in the NCAA rules make it easier for athletes to transfer between programs.  One key step in doing this is to enter the NCAA Transfer Portal.  All sophomores, juniors and seniors (plus some super seniors) are carrying an extra year of eligibility due to the 2021 season, where all athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility due to COVID.  However, next season, the teams do not have the ability to award extra scholarships beyond their current limits.  However, these programs may have already signed a full complement of incoming athletes.  Thus, gymnasts who have completed their undergraduate programs but still want to compete under scholarship are now entering the transfer portal.  This activity may continue all the way up until August.  Already, one athlete has made their transfer public:  Josie Angeny will attend graduate school at UGA and compete for the Gym Dogs next season.  There will be more.  On the other hand, many senior athletes have already announced their intention to compete another season, at their existing schools.  

More in this category: « Mid Point Check: On a Record Run
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