Before the NCAA season begins, it’s time for the now-annual venture into the murky world of NCAA scoring for those who might want to know a little more about what’s actually going on behind that bonkers 9.950 that just got thrown. Fair warning: you’ll be happier if you don’t.
For the full experience, be sure to check out the posts on vault, beam, and floor.
Composing a routine
- At minimum, an NCAA routine must include 3 A-value elements, 3 B-value elements, and 2 C-value elements.
That is a very basic standard that college gymnasts are able to achieve quite comfortably. You don’t have to worry about it. Gymnasts must also fulfill a series of special composition requirements, each worth 0.2. On bars, those four requirements are
1 – Two separate bar changes. This means that you can’t just start on the low bar, get up to the high bar, and then dismount. At some point in the routine, you have to transition from low to high, and from high to low.
2 – Two flight elements, not including the dismount. Flight elements include same-bar releases, as well as transition skills in which the body is not in contact with either bar at some point.
Gymnasts will typically fulfill this by using their two transitions (e.g., a bail handstand and a toe shoot; a Pak and a Shaposh), or by using one of those transitions skills along with a same-bar release. Gymnasts do not have to perform a same-bar release, and you’re supposed to have a really strong opinion about that one way or the other.
The two flight elements typically must be at least C-value skills, but one B-value skill can be used to meet the requirement as long as the other element is D- or E-value.
3 – A turning element, minimum C value. Turning elements normally make us think of pirouettes, but that does not have to be the case. Turning pirouettes do fulfill this requirement, but so does any skill including at least a 1/2 turn at any point. That means a skill like a bail handstand can be used to meet this requirement. It’s not the spirit of the rule, but it does count and is taken advantage of all the time.
4 – A dismount, minimum C value. This special requirement is a lie. NCAA gymnastics absolutely does not want you dismounting with an isolated C element, despite what the requirement says.
You can, but if the C-level dismount is preceded by two giant swings, as most dismounts are, you lose 0.1. Plus, if the C dismount is not performed in combination for bonus, you lose an additional 0.1. So basically, you can’t dismount with a lone C. (In 2020, this specification was extended to D dismounts as well, but the language reverted back to the old one in the 2021 rules update, just concerning Cs.)
The requirement should just say a dismount, minimum D value, or C-value in direct bonus combination. That’s what it boils down to anyway.
Missing any one of these four requirements is a 0.2 deduction from the start value. Every routine you watch will have been composed specifically to ensure that doesn’t happen. Any gymnast with a routine that includes 3 As, 3 Bs, and 2 Cs, and that fulfills the four requirements above will begin with a 9.40 start value.
From that 9.40 start, gymnasts will attempt to get up to a 10.0 start value by earning six tenths of bonus. Bonus is earned in two categories.
1) Skill value
-Each D-value pirouette, transition, or dismount earns 0.1 in bonus
-Each D-value same-bar release earns 0.2 in bonus
-Each E-value pirouette or dismount earns 0.2 in bonus
-Each E-value same-bar release or transition earns 0.3 in bonus
2) Connection value
C+C = 0.1 (but only if both elements show flight or turn, OR if both elements begin from the clear-hip, toe-on, or stalder roots)
C+D = 0.1
D+D = 0.2
To earn the full six tenths of bonus, at least one tenth must come from each category (skill value and connection value), so you can’t load up exclusively on one category or another.
But, as long as you get your six tenths of bonus, and fulfill all the requirements above, you’ve got your 10.0 start!
Up to level
Unless. There are several possible routine-composition deductions in NCAA routines, but the one you’ll about the most during the season is the “up to level” deduction (UTL).
This deduction is a flat .10, taken from any routine that does not fulfill the standard of being “up to the competitive level.”
What does that even mean? Good question. On bars, a routine is considered up to the competitive level, and therefore avoids this deduction, as long as it fulfills ONE of the following areas.
1 – A same-bar release of D value (e.g., Jaeger, Gienger, or Tkatchev)
2 – A release element of E value (e.g., Ricna, Van Leeuwen, or Bhardwaj)
3 – Two D releases (e.g., Bail handstand AND Maloney)
4 – Two E-level skills (e.g., Stalder 1/1 AND Double layout dismount)
Achieve any one of those, and you’re good.
“Up to level” is also where that 0.1 deduction for performing a C dismount without bonus connection that I mentioned earlier comes in. It’s classified as an “up to level” deduction.
Judges must display if they have taken an up-to-level deduction on a routine. So in a meet, if you see a judge flash a card that says “UTL” next to the start value, this is what has happened.
Now lets go through an example routine, one that contains way more than the required amount of bonus, and does so without a same-bar release, to see how all those rules work in practice.
1 – Two bar changes – Ramler includes three bar changes in this routine, the toe-on Shaposhnikova (Maloney), the Pak salto, and the toe-on Shaposhnikova 1/2 (Van Leeuwen), though only the first two are needed to fulfill this particular requirement.
2 – Two flight elements – All three are also flight elements, and once again the requirement is fulfilled with just the first two. Done and done.
3 – A turning element, minimum C value – Ramler does not perform a pirouetting skill in this routine, but she does not have to because the Van Leeuwen with its 1/2 turn satisfies the need for a turning element.
4 – A dismount, minimum C value – The full-twisting double tuck dismount is an E skill.
Up to level
Ramler fulfills UTL in three of the four areas, though only one of the four is required to avoid deduction:
1 – A same-bar release of D value – NO
2 – A release element of E value – Van Leeuwen
3 – Two D releases – Maloney and Pak
4 – Two E-level skills – Van Leeuwen and full-twisting double tuck dismount
The Maloney earns 0.1 bonus (D-value transition), the Pak salto earns 0.1 of bonus (D-value transition), and directly connecting the two earns an additional 0.2 in connection value, so that Maloney to Pak combination earns 0.4 bonus in total.
The Van Leeuwen is an E transition and earns 0.3 bonus. (E elements have always received 0.2, and as of the 2020 season, E flight elements and D same-bar releases were bumped up an extra tenth.)
The full-twisting double tuck dismount is an E skill, so that earns another 0.2 in bonus. It is performed in combination out of a toe circle, which earns another 0.1 in connection value (C+E).
That brings Ramler’s routine up to 1.0 in bonus. Only 0.6 is required to get up to a 10.0 start value. The rest is just because she can.
Here are the major skill values you’ll want to know for bars.
Tkatchev – D
All other Tkatchev entries (Ray, Hindorff, Ricna, etc) – E
Jaeger straddled – D
Jaeger piked – E
Gienger piked – D
Khorkina – D
Comaneci – E
Shushunova – E
Shoots to high bar (toe, Stalder, etc) – C
Shaposhnikova (all entries) – D
Shaposhnikova 1/2 (all entries) – E
Bail handstand – D
Overshoot, not to handstand – B
Overshoot, not to handstand, connected out of D release – C
Pak salto – D
Bhardwaj – E
Straddle back to handstand – D
Cast handstand – B
Cast 1/2 – C
Giant circle – B
Giant 1/2 – C
Giant 1/1 – D
Toe circle – C
Toe 1/2 – C
Toe 1/1 – D
Clear-hip circle – C
Clear-hip 1/2 – C
Clear-hip 1/1 – D
Stalder circle – D
Stalder 1/2 – D
Stalder 1/1 – E
Giant forward – C
Giant forward 1/2 – C
Giant forward 1/1 – D
Full-twisting double tuck – E
Double layout – E
Double front – E
Double Arabian – E
Double tuck – C
Double pike – C
Double salto, pike-open – D
The most important thing you need to know about NCAA deductions is ‾\_(ツ)_/‾. Keep that in mind at all times.
NCAA pretends that it follows the Level 10 code of points, except it obviously doesn’t. There is a tremendous amount of subjectivity remaining in NCAA scoring, including an unwritten understanding regarding which deductions from the Level 10 code actually count and which ones magically don’t for the purpose of scoring NCAA routines. The standard is, “We take the Level 10 code of points, and then just ignore all of it. The end. Here’s your score. Fetch.”
So, in these sections, I’m going to deviate from (deviate from = completely ignore) the actual code of points we’re supposed to follow and instead discuss the reality of what I see getting taken from meet to meet.
This is not an exhaustive account of deductions but rather an overview of the main things to look out for. On bars, those main things are handstands and landings. If you sometimes feel like those are the only two areas that ever get deducted on bars routines, welcome to the club.
Falls are 0.50 each time. Pretty straightforward.
Sometimes, you will see a gymnast fall on a routine and then receive a number like 8.950 and you go, “Wait, the half point for the fall doesn’t account for that whole deduction-scape.” In these cases, the gymnast likely also lost connection bonus and/or skill value for falling on a compositionally critical part of the routine, so the start value was no longer 10.0.
The best rule of thumb for landings on bars is that small steps will get .05 off and individual larger steps/lunges will get .10 off. What defines a larger lunge is fairly ambiguous (psh, 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), though typically you’ll see the .05 treatment also applied for very small hops, little bounces in place, and baby slides back with both feet. Not a stick, but so close to being one: that’s a .05.
In addition to stepping/hopping/lunging, there will be landing position deductions for issues like an egregious squat or piking way over in a lean to try to hold a stick. A stuck landing does not mean the landing is free from deductions. Leaning all around or doing the butterfly to try to stay planted are deductions, and if the gesticulations are significantly wild, they can end up being a larger deduction (say, .10) than the small step they’re serving to avoid would have been (.05).
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.
Gymnasts are supposed to be deducted for landing with their legs too far apart and staying there (they are supposed to land with their feet a little bit apart because of safety, then quickly bring their heels together on salute to show control). But, after about half a season of deducting for it, everyone basically forgot about that deduction—unless your legs are in a full straddle split when you land.
Handstands are THE THING on bars.
When gymnasts cast to handstand in NCAA, we’re told the judges are expecting them to be within 10 degrees of vertical to receive no deduction. This “degree” stuff is super ambiguous (the human eye cannot tell the difference between 9 degrees and 11 degrees on a handstand), so the rule basically ends up as “y’all better be vertical.”
At least, if you’re not completely vertical, I’m going to sass about it in a live blog.
Here is a vertical handstand for no deduction in NCAA gymnastics:
Meanwhile, here is a handstand that comes up 10 degrees short:
This second handstand is going to look close to a vertical handstand in real time and is basically as far from vertical as you can go while hoping to escape without a deduction. Any further from vertical will receive a small deduction on each instance.
Much shorter than vertical will get more severely deducted and start going into 0.1 land, but most of your “oh, she was a little short on that handstand” issues will be .05.
We tend to focus on the vertical position when gymnasts cast to handstand, but it is equally important on pirouetting skills like a giant full. On those skills, watch the point at which the gymnast ceases turning. At that moment, the vertical position should still be maintained—and rarely is. Finishing a pirouette short of vertical is the same problem as casting to handstand short of vertical.
Catching short of a vertical position on a bail handstand is another a pretty common NCAA deduction.
Judges are also likely taking for bent elbows on the catch in this case because it’s pretty obvious, but bent elbows are a significant point of argument when it comes to NCAA scores and don’t get taken as often as they might be.
Keep in mind that if the torso is perfectly vertical but there’s an angle in the hips so the feet aren’t vertical, that’s no good. The position is going to be judged by the feet.
There are many, many other little deductions that will (or more accurately can) be taken on bars, but one of the remaining significant ones is leg separations.
This often gets ignored in NCAA because the judges can’t necessarily see leg separations from the side view—and are also probably looking right up into the arena lights (you know, definitely the best position from which to judge things). But, the legs are supposed to be pasted together on pirouettes, transitions, and dismounts—basically for the entire routine unless you’re performing a release element with straddle or straddling up to handstand. If the legs lose contact with each other unintentionally, that’s a deduction—typically a .05 unless we’re verging into crazy-legs territory, where one of the legs looks like it’s about to fly off, then it can be more.
So, if the legs flash apart for a second on top of the bar in the middle of a full turn, or you see daylight between them on a bail handstand or double layout dismount, or the two legs are in uneven positions in the air on a full-twisting double tuck dismount, those are all going to be .05 deductions.
The knees are also expected to be perfectly straight on bars at all times. Basically, the legs should be forming a straight line throughout the entire routine unless it’s during a tucked dismount.
Flexed feet is another point of contention when it comes to NCAA judging. Ideally, the feet should be pointed at all times during a routine. See the first handstand image above. That’s what we’re looking for.
In reality, my impression is that flexed feet aren’t getting deducted if the feet become flexed on, say, a single challenging same-bar release skill. But, if the foot flexion is pronounced and present throughout the routine, a small overall deduction will be taken.
Lack of amplitude is another key area of possible deduction. If a release skill or dismount is flat (e.g., a Tkatchev that clears the bar by only an inch or two, a Jaeger or dismount where the hips don’t rise above the height of the bar in flight), it should be deducted.
You’ll have observed that the scores in NCAA are still pretty high despite all these potential deductions. So, a good rule of thumb is that for any single instance of any one of these deductions, the judges are probably only taking .05 unless it’s egregious.
Besides amplitude, another deduction you’ll see on releases relates to catching close. A gymnast intends to catch a same-bar release with extended elbows, maintaining the same rhythm through to the next element. Catching too close to the bar, typically with bent elbows, impedes that rhythm and typically shows up in a stall/pause or a muscled cast handstand out of the skill.
This can be hit pretty harshly in terms of the form errors on the actual catch, the form errors that will inevitably ensue as the gymnast tries to get back on track, as well as a general break in the rhythm. Bars routines should show continuous rhythm in the swing. All these little deductions add up.
Being too close to the bar can be a problem on dismounts as well. As on vault, the gymnast intends to go both up (hips over the height of the bar) and out (so that your foot—or face—doesn’t almost clip the bar). Coming terrifyingly close to hitting the bar on the dismount is a deduction because of terrifying.
Keep in mind a tendency in NCAA to judge holistically, taking into account the overall sense of a routine. If a judge sees a little bent elbow rhythm hesitation coming out of a toe-on skill, then some small leg separations in giant swings before the dismount, but nothing else to deduct, they may take all of that into account and simply say, “OK there were 2 or 3 things that are borderline deductions, none of which I HAVE to take as a pure .05, but that also combine to mean this wasn’t a 10. So, I’m going to give it 9.950.”
That’s the level of subjectivity we still have in NCAA gymnastics, which can be frustrating to those familiar with the elite code or who want specific receipts of all deductions to maintain transparency and continuity across all judges. It’s not going to happen any time soon. YOU’RE WELCOME.