During the 2012 Summer Olympics, American gymnast and vault specialist, McKayla Maroney, performed a near perfect vault during team finals. Her vault, called an "Amanar" (a yurchenko vault with a 2 1/2 twist, named after Simona Amanar), was one of the most difficult vaults being performed in the competition, and viewers from around the world were outraged when McKayla did not receive a perfect score. Why? Why did the judges not give her a 10.0 for execution? McKayla's vault was indeed impressive, and made the jaws of even the most seasoned international judges drop, but McKayla's vault was not perfect. She had a slight leg separation coming onto the table, and did not show complete "control" in her landing (as you can see in the photo, she is really digging her toes in and leaning slightly forward so that she doesn't take a step). These are all very minute deductions, only visible to the trained eye. But McKayla's vault raises an important question that is echoed by coaches, parents, and gymnasts around the country: what are the judges looking for? The answer to the question can be quite complex, but I hope I can shed some light on the answer.
Here at Spectrum, we employ two judges: myself (I hold a Level 8 rating and I am currently the youngest judge in the state of New Hampshire who does), and Diane Cote-Burk (a very seasoned, well-respected judge with 30+ years of experience and who holds a National rating). The tests required to become a judge are rigorous and difficult, requiring hours of memorization and implementation. With gymnastics being a subjective sport, judges are often seen as "the bad guys" when it comes to scoring.
So what are judges looking for? Why did that gymnast score the way she did? In order to tackle these questions, it is important to understand that every judge is different, and every level of gymnastics is different. What one judge may be particularly picky about, another one might not view it to be as important. What may incur a large deduction in one level may not at another. Every judge must know and abide by a basic set of deductions. However, many of these deductions are "up to .2" or "up to .3", meaning that while one judge might take a .1 or .15, another may take the full .2 or .3. Most meets have a two-judge panel, and the scores of the judges on the panel must be in range (within a certain mount of tenths) in order to average the score. Contrary to popular belief, judges do not come up with a score on a whim; their score is a mathematical calculation of deductions, and a judge must be able to recall why he or she took those deductions.
With compulsory gymnastics (levels 4-6), each level has their own routine on each event that each gymnast in that level performs, and the gymnast is judged based on how well she performs the routine to its specifications. If her casts are not at the right degree, if her leap and jump amplitude is not big enough, if she doesn't get enough height and distance on her elements, if the angle of repulsion on her vault is not where it's required to be, if her choreography is not performed as it shows in the text, if she is too piked or too arched on an element, and if her arms or knees are bent when they should be straight, are all instances when a judge will take a deduction, (just to name a few.)
With optional gymnastics (levels 7-10), the gymnast has certain requirements to fulfill on each event (that increase in difficulty as the levels get higher). If she is missing a major requirement, the gymnast is docked .5 from her start value (the maximum score she can get). Compositionally, she is required to have a certain number of certain level skills in her routine (gymnastics skills are given a letter value based on difficulty, with an "A" skill being the easiest and an "E" skill being the most difficult). For example, a level 7 gymnast is required to have 5 "A" skills and 2 "B" skills, in addition to the special requirements on each event. Any deviation from her requirements or her composition results in a deduction from her start value, in addition to deductions in form and execution. Make sense? Are you all still with me?
In addition to execution and composition, artistry (how "pretty" it looks, how well she performs the choreography) and dynamics (is it strong and powerful? Does she make it look easy or does she appear to be struggling?) also play a part in determining the score.
In order to give credance to the above theories, I'll provide an example. Consider a level 6 bar routine. Let's say the routine looks great; the gymnast's arms and legs are straight, her toes are pointed, and she performs all the skills she needs to with fluidity and effortlessness. But she only scores an 8.1. Why? That looked like a 9 to the audience! Well, this particular gymnast in question performed both casts and her free hip circle to horizontal. In level 6, the gymnast is required to have her casts and her free hip to 30 degrees above horizontal. Every time the above skills are at horizontal, she gets a .3 deduction. With two casts and a free hip each getting .3 on amplitude, she loses .9 total. If the gymnast performed everything with correct amplitude, she would have scored a 9.0. Get it? In short, even though the routine may look good, the gymnast might still be missing her requirements, whether it's an entire skill, or just the required amplitude.
As I previously stated, the question of what a judge is looking for is incredibly complex and is, in many ways, unique to the judge, the level of the gymnast, and the gymnast herself. A score is not merely the result of how straight her legs and how pointed her toes were. It involves angles, height, shapes, distance, special requirements, composition, artistry, and dynamics.
I leave you with this clip from the movie Stick It (in the first 3 or so minutes) that, I feel, accurately sums up what many people think about judging!
As a judge, it is all a numbers game, but as a coach, I try to emphasize performance, rather than score. A score is not something a gymnast can control, but she can control how she performs. An improved performance from one meet to another means more to me than an improved score, and I encourage my gymnasts to think the same (though as a former gymnast I know it is not that easy!).
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!