The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

What Even Was This Season?

So…it went…better than it might have? All things considered, this COVID season has been effectively muddled through. Well, at least, it happened. And we’re now just two days away from it having finished happening.

No one will pretend it was ideal. We had Michigan State stopping its season, Stanford training under a bridge on a lily pad made of smoke, Auburn and Temple withdrawing from the postseason, and a number of teams not able to start at all. But it’s a win insofar as…no one died yet despite most team’s best efforts in mask usage, and it looks like a champion will be crowned?

Before that happens, some reflections on how things ended up playing out this season. (This was supposed to be a team final preview, and I still say Florida is the favorite if Thomas is able to do all four, with Oklahoma very close, and Michigan a legitimate, believable spoiler, but that’s about the extent of it. We don’t really know anything until after the semifinals, anyway. End of preview.)

My primary reflection on the COVID season: the quality of gymnastics wasn’t worse. This year was supposed to be worse, with abbreviated preseasons and various COVID delays and protocols and health measures and distancing, but you would not have known that based on the routines we saw, which were on par with a normal season. There’s probably a lesson to be learned there about over-training and over-scheduling and the importance of breaks, but when has gymnastics ever been interested in learning that lesson?

We have a team like Cal, with one of the more constrained preseasons and a competition season that didn’t start until January 30th…that is also enjoying its best year ever and finished the regular season ranked 5th. Food for thought. Teams that were able to train ended up making it work, and while we had obvious examples like Stanford that didn’t have the required preparation for a normal season, there were fewer issues in competitive equity than I expected.

The scores certainly didn’t seem to reflect any struggles this season, with team totals noticeably rising again, the scores on each event increasing over last season and 2019, and the cutoff score required to make regionals (195.769) coming in at its highest point ever. Now, we all know the scoring isn’t necessarily the most reliable indicator of actual routine quality (hiiiiii), but it’s still worth noting.

The high scores this season do indicate, however, that this wasn’t a great year for the “large crowds influence the judges” hypothesis. We didn’t have the big crowds, and the judges were still clearly very pleased by what they were seeing, with those big-audience teams remaining at the top even without their audiences.

I also thought the SEC schedule format was a win. Not the conference-only part—that was a necessity, but obviously not ideal—but having an 8-meet season before championships with a couple strategic weeks off placed in there seemed about right. It didn’t feel abrupt or too short and would seem reasonable even in a normal year.

Condensing the regular season could also provide room in the calendar to retain the same basic shape of the postseason but spread the competition out over a longer period. Meets where it matters who wins are more interesting than meets where it doesn’t. #analysis

The 4-score NQS was an understandable 2021-only adjustment to allow teams that might barely be able to go to have a ranking, but it’s way too few scores to tell us anything about actual season performance and needs to go away forever. NQS will return to 6 scores in 2022, which I still think is too few for how many meets the teams have each season (“this one doesn’t count, also this one doesn’t count, also this one…” isn’t exactly compelling sport), but if you also condense the regular season, you start getting close to a sweet spot.

The postseason seeding procedure was a big miss and needs resolving. Should the play-in meets be retained? I don’t actually hate them but understand that they’re a tough sell and make for a very long “weekend”—but also understand that expecting the college coaches to vote for fewer teams advancing to the postseason is an even tougher sell.

If the play-ins are to be retained, it needs to be explicitly dictated that the teams ranked 29-36 go into the play-ins. Otherwise what are we even doing and why do we even have rankings based on scores?

As for the distribution of teams into each semifinal, 1-4-7-8 and 2-3-5-6 continues to be just the dumbest, especially for a format where it doesn’t matter if you win, you just have to be top 2. It gives the #4 team a better draw than the #2 or #3 teams. Again, what are we even doing and why do we even have rankings based on scores?

Switching the distribution to 1-3-6-8 and 2-4-5-7 would help a lot. The #3 team does still technically have a better draw than the #2 team, but you kind of have to do that otherwise things get really lopsided and uninteresting competitively. Putting #4 and #5 in the same semifinal is the important part. It’s both fairer and more exciting.

Ideally, they should just seed all 36 teams and do away with geographic distribution. You sent Temple to Utah, don’t give me any of these fake NCAA geographic rules.

I mean, my ideal ideal system would see fewer teams qualify to a postseason composed entirely of well-spaced single-elimination dual meets, but that’s not happening any time soon.

As for the actual routines, for some reason I had fewer composition complaints than usual. My main preference for changes after this season regards the postseason format rather than routines. Maybe I’m just bored of my own same opinions. But I’m still team same-bar release, am tired of faked switch side + popas on floor, and think the other events need to meet vault where it already is—where the normal thing most people do is a 9.95 start, and only those going above and beyond in difficulty start from a 10.

It’s always worth noting that when we went to the 9.95 start for a Yurchenko full, or went to a 9.4 base start value instead of 9.5, the sky did not, in fact, fall. People have been able to adjust effectively, and these changes have actually…had less of an influence on scoring than I would have liked. Believe it or not, 10s still happen, and the lower-ranked teams are just as competitive as they always have been.

The actual hope would be that separation between scores could be enforced through evaluation of execution, but that’s a pipe dream that never happens. So until it does, the only possible solution is start value rule changes.

In terms of things to remove, we got a lesson in the up-to-level floor requirement of a 3-element series courtesy of Haleigh Bryant, and learned that it’s dumb. Gymnasts already must do a combination pass, which I think is sufficient. Immediately punching into difficult front tumbling is way cooler anyway.

And I will say the 2-pass routines were getting out of control this season. It’s fine for the COVID season, save yourselves, but the expectation for college gymnastics should be a 3-pass routine. If it’s going to be a 2-pass routine, one of those passes needs to be an E. There should be something that differentiates the 2-pass routine from the content of a typical 3-pass routine beyond just more dance elements that don’t get deducted. It shouldn’t just be a 3-pass routine that ends before the third pass.

So that’s where we are. Nationals tomorrow. It’ll be a thing.

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