Before the NCAA season begins, I promised to go into more depth about how NCAA routines are put together and how exactly the judges arrive at their scores for those who want to understand it better. So here we are.
For the full experience, be sure to check out the first post about uneven bars. Today, it’s my dear child the balance beam.
Composing a routine
- At minimum, an NCAA routine must include 3 A-valued elements, 3 B-valued elements, and 2 C-valued elements.
You don’t have to worry about this part. It’s very, very basic and every routine you see in NCAA will have met this standard without having to think about it too much.
Gymnasts must also, however, fulfill a series of special composition requirements, each worth 0.2. On beam, those five requirements are
1 – One acrobatic series. This means two acrobatic flight elements, directly connected, at least one being C value or higher. Or, more accurately, “directly connected.” We’ll get to that in a second.
The most common acrobatic flight series you’ll see is the back handspring + layout stepout series (or loso series). It’s the classic NCAA series, and we see it way too often because it’s the simplest real acrobatic series that can be used to fulfill the requirement. It’s the baseline.
Typically, an acrobatic series must generate connected speed in one direction, as the bhs + loso series does, but much to the chagrin of the gymnerd community, forward + backward series may also be used to fulfill the acro requirement. By far the most common of these is the front aerial + back handspring series.
To a purist, this is not a series, no matter how well executed. It is a skill, followed by an arm-wave pause, followed by another skill. It exhibits neither the continuous rebounding movement, nor the fall risk, of a true acrobatic series. It’s just two skills near each other. Nonetheless, it can be used to fulfill the requirement.
Some gymnasts make a real meal of the pause in between the two elements, but NCAA judges tend to be unwilling to deny credit to this as a series, even with an obvious pause, because the two-tenth penalty for not having an acro series is so comparatively extreme. When everyone in a meet is scoring 9.8+, a two-tenth penalty for no acro series is basically like awarding a fall, and they don’t want to do that for a relatively minor pause. The idea of “mean judges” in NCAA is a myth. They’re so damn nice to you.
As a result of constant complaints about this, a new rule has been added for 2018. The Beam Ain’t For Wusses Rule states that when a front aerial is used in a back handspring acrobatic series like the one above, it is considered a C element instead of a D element for the purpose of awarding connection value. Translation: while the combination still fulfills this acrobatic series requirement, and the aerial still gets a bonus tenth for being a D skill, the aerial + back handspring series counts as C+B instead of D+B, and C+B receives NO connection bonus. D+B receives two tenths.
The idea is to force gymnasts doing this series to add a little more content and take a little more risk elsewhere in the routine because this isn’t cutting it.
Another relatively new rule regarding the acro series states that a dismount combination cannot be used to fulfill the series requirement. The series must finish on the beam itself.
2 – A combination of dance elements. This is similar to the acrobatic series requirement, but with leaps and jumps instead of acro flight skills. Gymnasts must perform two leaps/jumps together, without pausing in between, one of which must be a C skill.
Among the most common leap series you’ll see in NCAA is the switch leap + split jump combination because it is the easiest way to fulfill the requirement that also earns bonus. Gots to get that bonus.
While one skill must be a C, there is no requirement for the difficulty of the other skill. That means you will see gymnasts who aren’t necessarily looking for bonus tack on fairly simple beat jumps and hitch kicks to meet the requirement.
3 – One skill showing 180-degree split. This goes hand-in-hand with the leap combination requirement, as most gymnasts will get this out of the way with at least one of the skills in the combo.
Add this to the list of areas where gymnerds feel the judges can be too forgiving. Judges will award credit for the requirement as long as a gymnast attempts a skill showing a 180-degree split, even if that same judge is also taking a deduction for not fully hitting said 180-degree split. This is an inherent contradiction we’ve all decided to just be OK living with.
5 – Minimum C dismount, or B dismount directly connect to a D acrobatic skill. The majority of gymnasts will perform a C dismount (the layout 1.5, the layout 2/1) or greater (the double tuck, the double pike), but the B dismount in combination is also quite popular, particularly the side aerial + layout 1/1 combo. We get a lot of that.
Missing any one of these requirements is a 0.2 deduction from the start value. Any gymnast with a routine that includes 3 As, 3 Bs, and 2 Cs, and that fulfills the five requirements above will begin with a 9.50 start value.
From there, gymnasts attempt to get to a 10.0 start value by earning up to five tenths of bonus. Bonus is earned in two categories.
1) Skill value – Each D element earns 0.1 in bonus, and each E element earns 0.2.
2) Connection value – There are a number of formulae through which gymnasts can receive connection bonus on beam.
B+D = 0.2 (dismount combos not eligible)
C+C = 0.2 (dismount combos not eligible)
B+B+C = 0.1 (dismount combos eligible as long as dismount is C)
B+C+C = 0.2 (dismount combos eligible as long as dismount is C)
B+B+D = 0.2 (dismount combos eligible as long as dismount is D)
Dance/mixed connections (dismount combos not eligible)
A+D = 0.1
B+C = 0.1
B+D = 0.2
C+C = 0.2
A+C = 0.1
Series bonus (dismount combos not eligible)
B+B+C = 0.1 series bonus in addition to acrobatic CV bonus
Layout stepout and front aerial exceptions
As mentioned above with the front aerial, the layout stepout is also a D skill in NCAA and therefore receives 0.1 skill bonus for being a D. However, both the layout stepout and front aerial are considered C skills for the purposes of awarding connection value when directly connected to back handsprings.
To earn the full five tenths of bonus, at least one tenth must come from each category (skill value and connection value), so gymnasts can’t load up exclusively on one category or another.
But, as long as you get your 5 tenths of bonus, and fulfill all the requirements above, you’ve got your 10.0 start!
The “up-to-level” compositional deduction is not quite as big a deal on beam as it is on bars, but there is one key point to it. If a gymnast does not earn any connection bonus for her acrobatic flight series, the routine must include another D acro (or E dance) element somewhere else in the set, otherwise it will receive a .10 deduction. This isn’t a huge issue for most gymnasts.
Routines must also include a backward acrobatic element and a forward/sideward acrobatic element at some point. Miss either either, and lose .10. This really only becomes an issue for gymnasts who have Ol’ Dead Back (it happens) and can’t do back handsprings anymore.
Let’s go through an example routine, where I’ll point out exactly how it meets each of the composition and bonus topics outlined above. I picked this one specifically to illustrate how the change in aerial rules will affect routine composition in 2018.
1 – One acrobatic series –Kennedy’s front aerial + back handspring series fulfills the acrobatic requirement.
2 – A combination of dance elements – Kennedy’s straddle jump + split jump 1/2 fulfills the dance series requirement.
3 – 180-degree split – Kennedy’s straddle jump fulfills the 180-degree split requirement.
4 – Full turn – Kennedy’s opening wolf turn fulfills the full turn requirement.
5 – Dismount, minimum C, or B in combination –Kennedy’s dismount is a B element, but because it is directly connected out of the side aerial (D), it fulfills the dismount requirement.
Kennedy would have fulfilled up-to-level last season with her front aerial + bhs acrobatic series alone because it did receive series bonus in 2017. Now it does not. That means she needs an additional D acro element, which she has in the side aerial, meaning this routine still fulfills the up-to-level requirement.
She also fulfills both the forward and backward compositional requirements in her acro series with the front aerial (forward) and the back handspring (backward).
Kennedy opens with a single wolf turn, which is a B skill. No bonus there, but it does get her turn requirement done.
Then, we have the front aerial + back handspring, D+B. Last season, this would have received 0.1 skill bonus for the D element, along with 0.2 combination bonus for a B+D acro combo. Now, it still receives 0.1 skill bonus for the D element, but for the purposes of connection bonus, it is considered B+C, which receives no combination bonus. 3 tenths of bonus becomes 1 tenth.
Next is the straddle jump + split jump 1/2 series. This is a B+C dance series for 0.1 combination bonus.
Kennedy finishes with the side aerial + layout full, D+B. It receives no combination bonus, but it does get 0.1 in skill bonus for the D element.
So, what used to be 5 tenths in bonus and a 10.0 start value last year would now be 3 tenths in bonus and a 9.80 start value this year, necessitating some additions to the routine for 2018 to get back up to 10.0. Kennedy is planning to add back her double wolf turn for one more tenth and connect into her side aerial with a cat leap for the other tenth. Many gymnasts will have to make similar minor adjustments to stay at a 10.0 start in 2018.
Here are the major skill values you’ll want to know for beam.
Leap and jumps
Split leap – A
Sissone – A
Split jump – B
Split leap/jump ¼ – B
Split leap/jump ½ – C
Split jump ¾ – D
Split jump full – E
Straddle jump – B
Straddle ¼ – C
Straddle ½/¾ – D
Switch leap – C
Switch leap ½ – E
Switch side – D
Switch ring – E
Sheep jump – D
Hitch kick – A
Beat jump – A
Back handspring – B
Roundoff – B
Back tuck – C
Back pike – C
Layout stepout – D
Layout, pike down to two feet – D
Layout to two feet – E
Front aerial – D
Side aerial – D
Kickover front – D
Front tuck – D
Side somi – D
Front pike – E
Onodi – E
Rulfova – E
Arabian – E
Back tuck full – E
Gainer pike (end of beam) – C
Gainer full (side) – C
Front layout full – C
Back layout full – B
Back layout 1.5 – C
Back layout 2/1 – C
Back layout 2.5 – E
Double tuck – E
Double pike – E
Double front – E
Double Arabian – E
As with bars, in this section I’m going to deviate from the letter of the code (deviate from = completely ignore) and instead discuss the actual reality of what I see getting taken in routines from meet to meet from my perspective of piecing together where the judges must have found their deductions.
This is not an exhaustive account of deductions, but rather an overview of the main things to look out for. On beam, that means wobbles, splits, and landings.
Judges are given quite a bit of leeway in evaluating movements to maintain balance, anywhere from .05 to .30 for each one, meaning there’s also always quite a bit of controversy in terms of how strict they’re actually being (or not being). FYI, complaining is a HUGE part of NCAA gymnastics.
Small balance checks, leans, and general hesitations when finishing skills are all going to be .05 each. Wobble deductions tend to get up into the .10 territory when there are two small adjustments together, perhaps side to side, or when a leg starts to move out away from the body to retain balance. These days, the higher end of the three-tenth range for a single wobble tends to be reserved for only the very largest breaks, the arched-back backstroke to somehow magically stay on the beam as the leg flies up, or theoretically a significant bend at the hips to maintain balance.
There’s some discrepancy over the bend at the hips, though, because to me that constitutes a major break that should warrant multiple tenths taken, but I’ve seen routines in the last two seasons or so where only a tenth max was taken for a significant bend at the hips.
Actually grasping the beam to maintain balance is a flat .30 deduction. That means you typically won’t see the full .30 wobble deduction taken for those who avoid grasping the beam, to give them some manner of reward for their fight.
As always, falls are .50.
Leaps and jumps
Oh, split positions. The hill we’ll all die on. On elements requiring a split, which include not only switch splits and split jump, but also the sissone and straddle elements like the switch side, we’re looking for the full flat 180-degree angle in split, legs fully extended and at minimum parallel with the beam, toes pointed and continuing the line made by the leg.
Judges have the purview of taking up to .20 for an error in lack of split, though we mostly see .05 being taken for each split error unless it’s RIL bad. Missing the 180 position in either or both legs is a deduction. Watch the back leg in particular, which is the telltale leg.
Because gymnerds are the way we are, no deduction is deemed large enough for lack of split. We basically want to take full points for missing 180.
Judges should also be evaluating whether the knees are bent and whether the toes are pointed, and deducting accordingly, though the 180 tends to be the main standard for NCAA deductions on split elements.
There are many other deductions that should be taken for dance elements depending on the skill. Issues to watch out for on common skills include a lack of parallel position on a switch side. Some gymnasts will achieve 180 degrees on a switch side, but it’s angled in the wrong plane, which is a deduction. The 180 in straddle needs to be parallel to the beam.
The sheep jump is also typically a disaster in NCAA. A sheep jump is technically expected to show closure of feet to head and an open angle in the hips.
No one in NCAA does this—deductions on sheep jump form tend to be pretty charitable so there’s little incentive—but those who really don’t come close to foot-head closure, show a leg separation, or maintain a closed hip angle can get deducted.
Evaluation of landing steps on beam should be the same as on bars, with the added factor of crossed legs in twisting dismounts, which I’m not convinced is being deducted as much as it could be.
The best rule of thumb for landings is that small steps will get .05 off and larger steps/lunges will get .10 off. What defines a larger lunge is fairly ambiguous (like you’re out there measuring someone’s “shoulder width”—you can’t even see it from your angle), but I like to think of it this way: if the step looks larger than that person’s natural walking stride would be, it’s a .10. If it’s a normal walking step or smaller, it’s a .05.
In general, hops will be punished more severely than steps because they demonstrate less control (two feet moving, rather than one foot moving and one foot planted), but very small hops, little bounces in place, and baby slides back with both feet will typically just get the .05 treatment, which is fine. A hop in place is not a stick and should be (slash usually is) deducted.
College sticks. The college stick occurs when a gymnast hasn’t actually stuck a landing but has enough control to pretend she stuck the landing, trying to cover up the step by sliding into a salute at the same time. This tends to get .05 off, even if the step itself ends up being pretty large, to a degree that would normally warrant a full tenth.
Awkward landings, like coming in short and jarring the body on landing, or landing lock-legged, won’t get the forgiving treatment, even if the ultimate step is quite small. Those will be punished more severely because there’s more wrong.
Landing errors can go up to .30, though we tend to see that large of a landing deduction taken only in multi-step, I-do-the-triple-jump-now situations.
While this is under the purview of the start value rather than deductions for execution, actually getting the intended connections is something we watch with bated breath when it comes to evaluating what a beam routine will score. Everyone is always one balance check away from starting from 9.8.
Wobbles in between two dance elements are devastating because they can result in a loss of necessary connection bonus as well as a loss of two tenths for the dance combination requirement. This is why every gymnast will have a dance combo backup plan, i.e., an extra beat jump that they know they can throw in after their intended dance combo if there’s some question as to whether it was quick enough to get credit. Without that series, the score will be unusable, so they MUST have a backup plan.
We also see this in the fake-o acro series like front aerial + back handspring if the gymnast has a wobble on the aerial and cannot immediately connect to the back handspring, jeopardizing the two-tenth acro series requirement.
Because it’s quite a bit more difficult to have a backup acro series, you’ll typically see gymnasts in this position attempt to repeat the intended series to ensure they receive credit. There is no penalty for repeating a skill, but the gymnast will nonetheless be penalized for the wobble that caused her not to be able to perform the back handspring in the first place, as well as a likely rhythm deduction as she takes a moment to improvise a little doodly-doo to get back in position to do the front aerial again.
Rhythm and pause deductions are not as big of a deal in NCAA right now as they have become in elite in recent years, but they do exist. Everyone is expected to get to steppin’ and not pause for more than two seconds. Also in the ambiguous category are artistry deductions, which do technically exist in NCAA on beam (up to .30), but…are you taking them? And for what? Unclear. I don’t think you are.
Amplitude of skills is another area that can be taken, rewarding those who really get some air off the beam versus those who are scraping along, but it’s not one of the major influencers in current beam scores. Those are wobbles, splits, landings, and connections.