Gymnastics is a subjective sport, which sets it apart from many mainstream sports like basketball, football, or soccer (though all sports which feature referees all have at least a small element of subjectivity). Because of the complexity of gymnastics, it is often very difficult for parents and spectators to understand why gymnasts score what they do, especially when these scores vary from one competition to another. Luckily, in addition to coaching gymnastics, I also judge gymnastics. Judging in addition to coaching gives me a special perspective and I hope this post can answer the questions about gymnastics that parents and spectators might have. But first, it is important to explain the types of competitive gymnastics.
Four branches of USA Gymnastics Competition
Compulsory: there are two types of competitive gymnastics that exist under the Junior Olympic umbrella, the first of which is "compulsory". These are levels 3-5.
Optional: the second part of Junior Olympic competition is known as "optional". These are levels 6-10
Elite: Elite gymnasts are the best of the best. These are the girls that compete at the Olympics. A gymnast who is highly proficient at Level 10 might have the option to test as an Elite.
Xcel: USA Gymnastics most recent branch of competitive gymnastics is the Xcel program, defined as "a broad-based, affordable competitive experience outside the traditional Jr. Olympic Program to attract and retain a diverse group of athletes"
Compulsory gymnastics is the easiest and most straightforward to understand, in my opinion, because everyone at that level performs the same routine. The gymnast is then deducted on how much what she performs varies from the prescribed text (the compulsory book with the descriptions of the routines is referred to as the "text"). These deductions can be taken off in errors including but not limited to hand or foot placement/position in choreography, lack of required amplitude in skills (like a vertical handstand or horizontal cast on bars), knee or arm bends, falls, or omitted skills. The gymnast starts out at a 10.0, and errors are deducted in tenths of points.
Becoming an optional gymnast after having been a compulsory gymnast is a very exciting time, because this is when the gymnasts all perform different routines, and here is where scoring gets complicated. In optional gymnastics, every level has a set of requirements on bars, beam, and floor that they must fulfill. These requirements, known as "Special Requirements" are worth .5 each. In addition, the gymnast must have a certain number of skills in their routine. In gymnastics, skills are given a letter in terms of difficulty. The easiest skills are given an "A" value, and the most difficult skills (as seen in Elite gymnastics) are given an "F' or "G" value. Levels 6-8 are required different amounts of A's and B's, and levels 9-10 require "C" value elements. These skills are also given a number value. (A = .1, B = .3, C =.5). Still with me? In levels 6-8, if a gymnast fulfills all of her special requirements and has all of her value parts, her score starts from a 10.0. This start score is called the Start Value, and all coaches and gymnasts want 10.0 start values. The start value is the score the gymnast could get if executed perfectly (hence, the "perfect 10"). In levels 9-10, the gymnast must earn "bonus" to get a 10.0 start value. In level 9, the gymnast gets a 9.7 SV is she has all her requirements, and must earn the remaining .3 by connecting different skills together. In level 10, if the gymnast has all her requirements, she starts from a 9.5 and must earn the remaining .5 in connections and in performing D or E level skills. Fun facts: High school gymnastics in New Hampshire is judged by modified level 9 rules, and all college gymnastics is judged by modified level 10 rules. When it comes to optional vaults, levels 6 and 7 automatically start from a 10.0, and for levels 8-10, vault start values change with difficulty level.
Xcel is very similar to optional scoring. Xcel levels are Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond. Each of these levels, like optional levels, have a set of requirements that the gymnasts must fulfill on bars, beam, and floor. If the gymnast fulfills the requirements, she will have a 10.0 start value. But value parts (remember those A/B/C skills?) do not become part of the requirements until the gymnast reaches platinum. All vaults from bronze-platinum are given a 10.0 start value, and the value values change based on difficulty at the diamond level.
If you're still following all my confusing babbling, you might be thinking, "If the highest score is a 10, how are the girls in the olympics scoring 14's and 15's?". Elite gymnastics has what is called "open-ended scoring", meaning that there really is no limit on the scores, unlike the types of gymnastics above. Elite gymnasts receive two scores that are combined for her final score. The first part of the score is the "difficulty" score, which is calculated based on the difficulty of the elements performed in the routine and the connections of the elements. The second part of the score is the "execution" score which starts at a 10.0, and is deducted for execution errors. For example: Gabby Douglas has a difficulty score of 6.6 on bars providing she performs all the elements she was supposed to. During the All-Around finals at the Olympics, she was awarded a 15.733 for her bar routine (6.6 difficulty + 9.133 execution).
Miscellaneous scoring facts
Don't hate the judges!
Remember that gymnastics is a subjective sport, judged by human beings like you and me. Judges have to pass very difficult exams to be certified to judge (I studied MONTHS for mine). They have to process a lot of information in a very short amount of time. They must abide by a code of ethics and professionalism, and they do not purposely judge certain gymnasts lower or higher than others. Interpretations of elements and performances might differ from judge to judge and meet to meet, but that is the nature of the sport. Scoring is not something the gymnast, coach, or parent can control. I try to teach my gymnasts to generate pride from performances (which they can control), not from their scores.
I hope that this answers many of the questions parents and spectators might have about gymnastics, and feel free to ask me any questions you might have in the comment section or on the Spectrum facebook page.
Peace, love, and gymnastics,
Spectrum Gymnastics Academy
26 Buttrick Rd
About the Author
Coach Sarah is a former Rhode Island College gymnast, NCGA National qualifier, All-American, current gymnastics coach and judge, and contributor for the gymnastics news source, The Gymternet. Find out what's going on at Spectrum and learn more about the incredible sport of gymnastics!