January 17, 2012

On Scoring and Subjectivity

This past weekend, we saw a number of high team scores awarded and a number of 10s awarded to individual routines by at least one of the two judges.  These 10s all had varying degrees of believability, but my intention with this post is not to break down the scoring or continue harping on the routines because, regardless of your feelings on them, these individual scores do not warrant more than a few sentences either way.  Well done on your good score, now go to class.  Instead, I want to use these scores as a jumping off point to discuss attitudes toward scoring in general.

Too often in collegiate gymnastics we define a 10 as an absence of deductions.  We see that a gymnast's legs were together and that the landing was stuck, and because there were no overt faults, the routine becomes a 10.  But really, a 10 should be defined by much more than that.  A 10 routine should be something rare and tremendous.  It should not be defined by what it lacks (finite deductions) and rather should be defined by what it brings, an unrivaled quality that makes the routine not just better than what anyone else is doing but better than what anyone else can do.  Some of the best gymnasts should look at a 10 routine and say, "I can't do it like that," or "I didn't even know it was possible to do it like that."

A large part of the reason we don't see this attitude taken toward 10s is a fear of subjectivity.  The routine quality that I described above fundamentally cannot be measured and will never be agreed upon by two different judges, coaches, gymnasts, or fans viewing the same routine.  That scares people.  They are afraid of incurring criticism for inconsistency or favoritism and therefore revert to that which is objective because objective qualities can more easily be defended from that same inevitable criticism.  We see this all the time when people discuss their favorite and, more often, least favorite gymnasts.  They will point out flexed feet on a Tkatchev or crossed legs on twists as reasons for disliking a gymnast because those are objective qualities that can be supported visually, but in actuality, because gymnastics is such an aesthetic and artistic sport, our true reasons for liking and disliking gymnasts tend to be far less tangible and far more inexplicable.  Often our opinions are more about a feeling or an attitude, one that cannot always be supported visually or verbally but is no less valid because of that.  

I would argue that this fear of subjective measure is the single biggest contributor to the recent devolution of elite gymnastics.  Panic over incurring controversy caused the FIG to change the elite code, and in so doing they attempted to make elite scoring more objective and, therefore, justifiable when the inevitable controversy does arrive.  This change has had the most negative influence in the area of artistry scoring, something that cannot and should not be evaluated with objective guidelines.  The Women's Technical Committee has deemed that the awkward pointed-toe running to indirectly connect dance elements is objectively artistic.  That very phrase is an oxymoron.  Dictating that a person must move in a certain way is the opposite of artistry.  Artistry cannot be written down; it cannot be prescribed.  In the same way, the qualities of a 10 cannot be prescribed.

Every viewer will bring different values and biases to the evaluation of gymnastics.  One person's 9.9 is another person's 10, and that's fine.  That's good, as long as the people in question truly think the routine was deserving of a 10, rather than resigning themselves to a lack of deductions.  It shows that the sport is vibrant when it is provoking that kind of disagreement.  When everyone values the same things and is viewing routines in the same way, there is no need for discussion; there is no need for evaluation.  When gymnastics fails to embrace its own fundamental subjectivity, it loses its defining quality and becomes just another sport where "getting it done" and "winning ugly" are valued characteristics.  Aesthetic opinion is something to be valued and cultivated rather than eliminated and ignored.  We must encourage judges to incorporate aesthetic opinion into their judging and trust their experience and expertise to know how to apply it correctly.

In gymnastics, success can't just be about getting it done to the satisfaction of an established set of specifications.  It has to be about doing more, flying higher than anyone expected, moving in a way that no one wants to stop watching.  Evaluating one routine as better than another because of an unquantifiable quality is not a vice.  It is to be encouraged.  It is what makes this sport special.  We don't have a specific judging category for inducing wonder, but we should always have a way to reward it.  And that's what a 10 should be.


  1. While I agree with your overall assessment of the futility of trying to write artistry into a code, I respectfully disagree with your assessment of the perfect 10 in collegiate gymnastics - in part because of that very impossibility of legislating artistry.

    The beauty of the 10 in NCAA is the very fact that it *is* achievable. The fact that any gymnast who performs a flawless routine has the opportunity to earn that 10 is what makes NCAA gymnastics the sport that it is. It is the opposite of the depressing mathematical orientation of elite scoring; it says that any gymnast who achieves, or exceeds, this standard can earn this score! College gymnastics is not about difficulty, it is about execution. If a gymnast executes a routine that legitimately does not have even a single small deduction, then that routine deserves a 10. As long as the routine starts from a 10, additional difficulty - or, additional artistry, because really that's what your talking about, adding something on to the base level required - should not be mandated. (As a sidenote though, most college judges will not give a 10 for a routine that merely meets the bare minimum for a 10 start value.)

    Sure, that means some 10s will be more exciting/artistic/etc than other 10s - but that's ok in NCAA. The alternative is to either not award 10s, which the fans and, I daresay the gymnasts, would not go for, or to go to an elite-style scoring system. If you are going to base a scoring system around execution (NCAA) rather than difficulty (elite), you have to allow for perfection. And, in a sport all about the excitement and the team and the fans and the show, the perfect 10 is a key, defining component.

    The very achievability of the perfect 10 is one of the strengths of NCAA gymnastics.

  2. I don't College Gymnastics is "just" about execution and I don't think Elite Gymnastics should be just about difficulty.

    Speaking just for myself I don't feel cheated if I go to an NCAA meet and don't see a 10.0... That doesn't mean I think NCAA judges should never give a 10.0, but I do see a danger in giving them out too freely.

    Frankly I would like to see NCAA Gymnastics institute some concepts of the old ROV (Risk, Originality, Virtuosity) scoring system.

    I worry a lot about "fairness" in NCAA scoring, but I think that the attempt to remove "subjectivity" in order to get "fairness" is a fools mission and it has the effect of under-weighting Artistry and Originality.