The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

First Meet History

The first meets of the season are in the books (for almost all the teams), and since everyone has decided based on only that who the Super Six teams will be, we should probably just fast forward to regionals, right? We have all we need to know.

Last night, Stanford performed a catastrophic floor rotation, a clunky beam rotation, and a surprisingly OK vault rotation to score the traditional first-meet 1.100 in a show of true compassion for Georgia. Stanford’s 193.250 is its lowest first-meet score in over a decade, and yet my general impression was, “Could have been worse.” So there’s that. Stanford would like us to know that starting slowly is all part of a cunning master plan that works almost a third of the time. UNSTOPPABLE.

Considering various teams and their general trends of starting slowly/quickly and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing or even matters, I plotted the first-meet scores of the eventual champions for each of the last 10 years.

champions

What this tells us is that there’s not a rule. You could be Oklahoma in 2014 and start high, stay high, and end high (team motto?), or you could be Alabama in 2011 and start in the garbage before pulling it back. The good news for teams that struggled in the first meet this year is that apart from that Oklahoma 2014 number, these aren’t overwhelming scores. (But they’re also not 193s, Georgia and Stanford.) Champions don’t have to be champions in the first week and often aren’t.

That’s also reflected in the average first-meet scores for the six ultimate Super Six qualifiers.

super-six

In 2014, the good teams all started well and remained excellent right through to the end, but that’s sort of an outlier. In 2015, Stanford and Auburn were trash in the first meet and came back to make Super Six. In 2011, none of the six final qualifiers scored higher than 195.700 in the opening meet. Scores were lower as a whole in 2011, but not that much lower. So it can be done.

During Florida’s years of success, the first meet was usually good, but not crazy. In fact, Sunday’s 197.100 is Florida’s best start since 2008, which I definitely wouldn’t have called without looking it up.

florida

Likewise, Alabama usually starts with mid-196s, and it has seemed to work out.

alabama

But…

One thing that isn’t reflected in first-score history is this idea that starting well is some kind of handicap, or that teams that start with good scores will burn out toward the end of the season. Florida and Alabama have had their share of overcoming weak starts and ending successfully, but the occasions on which they did start in the 197s haven’t exactly been all alms for the poor.

In recent years, Oklahoma and LSU have made an identity out of starting quickly, and I sort of feel like that has maybe worked?

oklahoma

lsu

These two are currently making pretty compelling arguments for the idea of starting well being…you know…a good thing (BREAKING NEWS) and that startling slowly is more playing with fire rather than a cunning path toward later success. For as much as Stanford would like to talk about this…

…the one other time in the last 10 years that Stanford started with a 196—the 2008 season—was Stanford’s best season of all time. That part didn’t make it into the tweet. Weird.

stanford

You can’t really use Stanford’s history to make the argument that starting well is a mistake or forebodes doom…or forebodes anything at all. The truth is, we’re all over the place. Good starts end well. Good starts end poorly. Bad starts end well. Bad starts end poorly.

Utah’s best start of the last decade ended in its best finish, and its worst start ended in…also making Super Six.

utah

Michigan’s best start of the last decade ended in a regionals beamtastrophe…

michigan

…while UCLA’s title in 2010 came from one of its best starts. Then its 2nd-place finish the next year came from one of its worst starts.

ucla

And Georgia, well, Georgia is entering brand new territory this season.

georgia

What all this means is, don’t read too much into the start. Unless it’s great. 197.7s aren’t a trick. 197.7s don’t disappear.

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