Friday, November 19, 2010

Opinion: The Thing that is Wrong with Judging

Judging and the Code of Points (COP) are controversial, and many have talked about how they need changing. Andy Thornton has developed an alternative COP, which is very interesting, but I do not know whether it would be possible to come up with so many parts of the score in competition. I think that the difficulty plus execution formula is perfect. It can, and probably does, currently put too much emphasis on difficulty at the moment, but execution deductions can be increased in value to change this and/or difficulty scores can be reduced. In my opinion the main problem with judging is the execution score is not transparent or challengeable. This needs to change for several reasons: to ensure objective judging, to be fairer on judges, to minimise controversy and most importantly to give gymnasts and coaches information about why they get deductions.

There is always speculation in the commentary about deductions. As an audience, we learn that this step will cost 0.1 or 0.3, or that the routine was flawless and deserves no deductions. Sometimes, the scores are in line with the commentary. Sometimes, this is not the case. When there is a fall, we always know where the deduction comes from. But I don’t know where the deductions came from in Nastia’s vault in 2008, or Vanessa’s floor routine in the latest world championships. There is no reason why we, and dare I say Nastia and Vanessa should not know. There is no reason why the judges cannot list the deductions and their values along with the D-scores, which can then be challenged.

When Lauren Mitchell won the floor, Peggy Liddick said “Statistically, it was you turn, they just had to give it to you!!” Link here. Um, please don’t get me wrong – I am not of the “I support New Zealand or anyone playing Australia” school of thought – but Mitchell should have earned that gold because she was the best on the day (and I think that she did!). Is it really true that judges give out medals based on it being someone’s turn or feeling sorry for a gymnast? There is certainly some talk that this happens, and it is not the first time that Liddick has mentioned it. Sometimes, I like the poetic justice of a gymnast winning after struggles, but if gymnastics should be fair. I cannot imagine any referee in tennis or basketball giving out penalties or goals because it is “their turn” or they are sorry for a competitior/team.

Many blogs say that Lauren should not have won. I do not believe this is fair on this hard-working gymnast or the people judging her. Judging must be very hard, and judges are subjected to so much scrutiny. If we had a list of the specific list of deductions of each gymnast, maybe there would not be this level of controversy and criticism of judges. I am not an expert on gymnastics, but Mitchell’s routine was awesome, and it is possible that the judges had very good reasons for putting her in first place.

I know that controversies would come up, but I think they would be lessened with transparency, because even when one doesn’t agree with a call, they may at least understand the rationale. Being able to appeal would also add transparency. If gymnasts, coaches or fans disagreed with a deduction, there may be scope to change things, which could improve the judging.

It could also improve routines and gymnast’s skills. If a gymnast knows they are being marked down for an ugly skill, it may encourage them to make their routines more artistic, and take out the ugly skill. Clearer communication about where a gymnast goes wrong could improve artistry in the sport. At the moment, assumptions are made around reasons why scores are the way they are. More specific communications could help gymnasts improve.

When I was at University, getting an assignment back that was a B instead of an A without any reasoning annoyed me. I can imagine that some gymnasts may get this feeling on seeing their D-scores. They may have no idea why they have been marked down so much. Of course, they would have some idea, but in the end, they may not be aware that a given skill would have built in deductions. Of course, it is up to the coach and gymnast to make the gymnast as perfect as possible, as it is for any sports’ coach. But this may be difficult – a coach may be able to see many things wrong. If they knew the exact deductions, they may be able to decide which area to work on the most, or which skills to add or take away.

Of course, having a list of deductions may be time consuming, especially when appeals happen. However, if appropriate limitations are put around these appeals, they should be manageable. People will get used to the extra time. Ultimately, I think the cost will outweigh the benefits.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Genre of Gymnastics #1: The Thriller

I hate watching the thrillers shown at the movies. If I go to them, I end up burying my head in my hands or in the shoulder of the poor soul who has decided to view the movie with me.

However, for me, the thrilling routines of gymnastics are fantastic. For one thing, they are over in a matter of minutes, which I can stand much better than the 2 hour + offerings from the cinema.

Most viewers of gymnastics appreciate that the skills done by gymnasts are very difficult. They can end in falls, and slips and you are holding your breath a lot of the routine willing the gymnast not to fall off. Well, I always am. I want the gymnast to perform well, regardless of where they come from. I don't like seeing falls, especially where the gymnast is seriously injured.

Thriller routines mainly involve very difficult skills. These skills can be well executed, but not all elements of good execution are necessary to make the routine a Thriller. Height is a good thing to have, but pointed toes are not needed, for instance. Thrilling routines are also made more thrilling when the less “steady” gymnasts pull them off. The higher the probability of a fall, the more thrilling the routine becomes. Liking the gymnast or their team can also make routines thrilling, because the stakes of a fall are higher for the viewer.

I think any apparatus can have thriller routine depending on the skills that gymnast performs, the probablility of a fall, and how well liked the gymnast is. But for me, three pieces stand out as offering the most thrilling routines: Men's High Bar, Women's Uneven Bars, and Women's Beam.

The most thrilling men’s event is without a doubt, high bar. The difference between catching the bar and not catching the bar can be very small. When a gymnast misses their rhythm or gets their swing wrong, they usually fall.

The most thrilling routines are filled with releases, and lack somewhat in the pirouette department. The first routine that comes to my mind is Jonathan Horton’s high bar in Beijing. That was a tremendous routine, which I enjoyed watching more than any of the other men’s routines in Beijing.

Yes, he deserves a biscuit!

It follows that the ladies’ uneven bars event will also be thrilling. Again, the most difficult routines for this apparatus contain a lot of releases. For me, there is no better example than the routine of Beth Tweddle. It is full of releases, and is very difficult. Sometimes, Beth misses, as she did in last year’s world championships. This year, she was right on and we were in for a treat:

Another nerve racking apparatus for women is the beam. The difference between being on and off is tiny in terms of space and massive in terms of consequences. Some of the people with the best routines are as steady as anything. Patterson and Johnson stand out to me as examples, and even they missed at times. Yet some of my favourite performers, such as Anna Pavlova, are far less steady, and when they pull their routines off, it is all the more thrilling.

This is one of the reasons why I love gymnastics. I like to watch athletes overcoming the forces of gravity and space in order to land breathtaking routines. To me, it is a thrill.

Introduction to my Genres of Gymnastics

There are many arguments about gymnastics, and what artistic gymnastics ought to look like. Do we want graceful ballerina gymnasts, or do we want gymnasts who throw difficult tricks. It seems to me that some people we only want one type of gymnast of the other. I think that there is room for both.

The current code of points encourages the use of clean difficult tricks connected as much as possible. This provides the highest starting score, along with the highest execution score. In the 2004 Olympic commentary, there was a mention of the Code of Points allowing deductions for lack of artistry. This is no longer the case. Apparently, the new Code of Points based on difficulty and execution allows less room for subjectivity. I am sceptical of this assertion, but I will talk about that another time.

In today’s post, I want to assert that I like all gymnastics. That’s right. I enjoy the power gymnastics and the graceful routines. I think that there is room for many kinds of gymnasts. I want to describe the many types of gymnastics “genres” that I believe exist for me as a viewer. Some routines fit into more than one genre. Others specifically belong to one type of genre or the other. I will use examples of routines that I believe fit into these different types of genres.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Why I Love Gymnastics Part Two: Watching It

In 2000, Andreea Raducan was (briefly) the Olympic Champion. I was very excited for her, and was gutted about what happened afterwards. My favourite routine of hers was the floor routine to some music that I liked a lot: Riverdance’s Reel Around the Sun. I liked Khorkina’s bar routine as well. It is still one of my absolute favourites. I was keen to keep involved with high-level gymnastics, but this was not possible.

Those days were the days of painfully slow low volume internet, and I was not able to download videos or any gymnastics routines because it put the internet usage over our quota (I was 16 at the time). There were many other competing things at the time such as school and hobbies. So gymnastics fell by the wayside.

In 2004, I watched the Olympics again. I was cheering for the Romanians. There were many great gymnasts at those Olympics: Ponor, Rosu, Patterson, Pavlova, Kupets, and the indomitable Khorkina. But again, time had to be spent on other things as I was in my final year of university.

The 2008 Olympics drew me into watching the sport. I watched the all around, and was cheering for Liukin as well as Johnson. I still think that both of them are fantastic; to me each epitomises a different reason why I like watching gymnastics: grace and power.

There are so many reasons to be amazed at what gymnasts do. They defy gravity, and basic human instincts in order to perform spectacular tricks which take my breath away. Now, the distance between gymnastics and me has disintegrated into a single mouse click. I can watch past and present routines thanks to Youtube. I can read fantastic commentary thanks to the bloggers.

Another aspect of gymnastics that I have an interest in is the mental component. I watch the faces of the competitors, and marvel at the strength that I see in them. I wonder about what drives them and how they train their brains to pull these routines off. I guess this shows my enthusiasm for psychology as much as my enthusiasm for gymnastics.

For me, watching a beautifully choreographed routine can lift my spirits when I am having a bad day. Watching gymnastics adds to the riches of my life, and inspires me to get up and do something. If Sandra Izbaza can do a triple full, I can go a fitness class. If Shawn Johnson can do a double double, I can do weights, (even if they are small weights).

Some people claim to love ‘power gymnastics’ or ‘artistic gymnastics.’ I believe there are many kinds of gymnastics and reasons why gymnastics can be so entertaining. I plan to detail these on coming blogs.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why I Love Gymnastics Part One: Doing it

Not many people know that I like gymnastics. To be fair, I am not all that vocal about it. In New Zealand, there are not all that many people to discuss gymnastics with. My partner lives with me, so he is VERY aware of my obsession, and has been asked to watch a lot of routines. But lots of my friends don’t know that I like it.

Well, when I was actually doing it, the thing I liked the most was the fact that being tiny was actually an advantage. The popular sport for girls in my country is netball, in which height is a massive advantage. Netball is pretty much a mutated form of basketball. In theory, it involves less contact. In practice, contact is permissible if referees don’t challenge it. Rugby is another popular sport in my country. Again, being small is not good for this sport. In gymnastics, being small was not only ok, it was seen as a good thing.

It also did not require being picked for teams, (at least at my level). By that I mean, I never feared being picked last in sports classes at school. I went to a very cliquey all girls school where bullying was rampant, so this was a big thing for me.

I also loved the feeling of getting a skill. I did not achieve anything that challenging, but when I did achieve something, it really made my day.

Now, I have decided to do gymnastics again. I am 26 years old now, but there are a few gyms around my city, where I hope to do conditioning and possibly get back the few skills that I used to have. This will be an uphill battle for many reasons:

Firstly, I am naturally a person who does not put on muscle easily. In fitness classes, I am always the one with the smallest weights. A lot of the time, people new to weights classes are stronger than me. I especially struggle with upper body strength.

Secondly, I have not done gymnastics for 14 years. My body has changed a lot since then.

Thirdly, I am coming back from a condition called glandular fever. In other English-speaking countries, I believe it is called infectious mononucleosis (“mono”). This condition has meant a ten minute walk has tired me out which means I have not worked out for several months. So the muscle that I did have is most likely much less than it was.

I won’t be good at it. But that doesn’t matter. I think having goals involving a sport that I have enjoyed so much will benefit me a lot as a person, and help me to get fit and well again. We can get hung up on how good we are at things, or we can look at what they will do for us. Not many people get to the top of their sport, but that sport can still benefit them.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A few changes in Romanian Gymnastics

One of my favourite gymnastics bloggers, The Couch Gymnast, has covered the changes in Romanian gymnastics coaching in detail over the last few days. Nicolae Forminte's decision to quit the team has been met with negative remarks from her and the gymnastics coaching blog. This is because, unlike some coaches of old, Mr.F seems to care about his gymnasts and try to shelter them from the less positive aspects of the sport. I say seems because I have never seen a gymnastics competition live, nor do I know what goes on at Deva.

Forminte quit because two former Romanian coaches, Octavian Belu and Mariana Bitang, have been appointed as consultants to the team because they Romanian gymnastics team has had less than perfect results lately. Forminte believes that this shows little confidence in him, so he has stepped aside. I don't blame him. In my opinion, the problems with Romanian gymnastics cannot be wholly blamed on him.

I think that there are lots of factors that have contributed to the current state of Romanian Gymnastics. This is a list of problems that I can see in Romanian gymnastics along with possible solutions.

1) Lack of resources

The Romanians don't have resources for things like hand grips, and importation of new coaches. They are losing great potential coaches such as Catalina Ponor to other countries because they just can't pay them as much as the likes of the United States.

Maybe Romanian Gymnastics can try to get a corporate sponsor to provide hand grips and/or more money. They have a marketable image. If Nadia got involved, it would be even better. However, we would need to tread carefully here. We don't want corporate sponsors compromising the programme. Gymnasts and gymnastics need to come first.

2) Improvement of other programmes

Look at the UK. Their programme has changed a great deal and now their teams are doing better. The UK won that silver medal just as much as the Romanians lost it. The Russian programme is also experiencing a resurgence. After communism fell in Eastern/Central Europe, the shape of the gymnastics world changed because resources were diverted away from gymnastics and other sports. But the reverse has happened in Australia and the UK because when these countries get better programmes, their governments can afford to give them more money.

The Romanians cannot do anything about this. They need to focus on their own programme.

3) Lack of competition

One of the reasons that the USA system works so well is that there are a number of good gyms and each gym produces different types of gymnasts with different specialisations. For example, Mary Lee Tracy seems to train awesome bars workers while Mihai Brestyan trains excellent floor and vault workers. WOGA seems to train great all rounders, and Chows has trained one too. Anyway, my point is that the national programme does well at training beam workers, but less well at training bars workers, and there is no other gym providing bars training and or great bars workers who can fill the gap.

Also, the fact that many gymnasts can only normally come out of Deva also means that many potential gymnasts may be put off because of having to move away from Mum and Dad. Not every gymnast is hungry for success from childhood. This could be contributing to a shortage of Romanian elites, which means that injuries can devastate the whole team.

Maybe Deva coaches could also support gyms in other parts of the country (in terms of equipment and coaching and keep looking at the talent that comes out of them. If an athlete is happy in a gym away from Deva, they could let them keep training there. This could deepen the team. Maybe there could be camps each month like the US and Australia has so that these athletes can bond with Deva members.

4) Lack of coach immigration

Another reason why the USA programme is so great is that it has imported a number of awesome coaches who are attracted by the money, and the prospect of living in the USA. This has been very good for USA gymnastics. Ditto Peggy Liddick for Australia. China has used outside help for chore graphing floor, which has done a lot for floor routines. As far as I know, Romania hasn't done this.

If they could get a great bars coach to come in and teach the other coaches to coach, this could help the Romanians. Otherwise, a Romanian coach could have an internship at a good bars gym in Russia or China. They could then teach the other Romanian coaches how to coach good bars.

5) The Bars and the New Code

The bars is an Achilles heal for the Romanians, and has been for a long time. Bars routines have higher potential scores than other apparatus. This has been the case before. However, under the old code, the impact was tiny. At most lower difficulty meant 0.5 points less. Now it means 2 points less. Bars matters more and with Romania being up against the UK, which has one of the world's best bar workers, it is not surprising that there are problems.
I have already stated a possible solution to this one in (4)

This is just my opinion. I don't know the ins and outs of the Romanian programme. I have just been thinking about this a little over the past few days and I thought that I would put down my opinions.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My secret

New Zealand is a rugby playing nation. When there is a match by our rugby team, the All Blacks, the country almost stops to watch it. For a few weeks, it is the default topic of conversation for everyone. When the All Blacks lose, the newspapers and magazines are smoothered in black ink, and the reasons the loss are debated all around the country. Was it the coach, the team, one single player? Is it a defect in New Zealand's national character? They say that the economy nose-dives, and that incidents of domestic violence increase when we lose a rugby match. I can believe it. As a country, we seem to define ourselves by rugby.

I am a New Zealander.

I have a secret.

I don't like rugby. I have tried to watch matches many times without success. I always end up reading whatever is nearby instead, whether it be an advertising circular, accounting textbook, or chocolate bar packet. The rugby world cup is next year, and I am seriously contemplating leaving the country while it is on, because between the media hype and the conversations at work, it is already starting to bore me.

I prefer gymnastics.

I did do gymnastics once. I wasn't that good at it. Unfortunately, gymnastics required a number of qualities that I did not have. Co-ordination was one of these. My best skill combination was a cartwheel plus cat leap on the beam. Most of the time, I ended up off the beam rather than on. I would cat-leap off, or land my cartwheel at the side. But on rare occasions, I landed both skills on the beam. I was proud of this, but my proudest moment was getting first on the floor(out of 6 girls), and an orange certificate. I quit for some reason. It was just an unspoken thing at my school that only 11 and 12 year olds did gymnastics.

A couple of years ago, I found out that you can watch gymnastics videos on Youtube. When I first started, I did not know the names of all the skills, or who the gymnasts were. Now through a combination of blogs and youtube videos, I am learning. Yet there is a certain distance between me and the sport I love to watch. Unlike rugby fans, I don't rate my chances of finding a competition of my favourite sport in my backyard. This blog is an attempt to connect with other gymnastics fans and express some of my opinions.