The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Things Are Happening – December 9, 2021

A. Tom Forster Goes To Farm Upstate

Congratulations, you can now officially go back to having no opinions about Tom Forster and thinking about him never. No one is happier about this than Tom. The internet is in 2nd.

Yesterday, Tom Forster announced his resignation as High Performance Coordinator after a three-and-a-half year tenure marked by printing out the all-around results and standing there. While Forster successfully cleared the extremely low bar of not being an active criminal, he ultimately proved ill-suited to the strategic, technical, interpersonal, and public-facing requirements of the position. This had to happen.

It now falls to USAG to try to fill this nuclear sludge barrel of a job once again. Expectations are low. USAG may be best served at this point by hiring an elite national team head coach—one whose purview is routine feedback, coach development, and a non-abusive culture but who is explicitly not involved in team selection—then hiring a literal Excel document to select teams, and establishing a separate injury-petition committee made up of definitely-not-the-coaches to intervene on judgement calls that a spreadsheet and extensive documentation can’t manage.

But if USAG maintains the same structure, there are a few things that can be done to avoid some of the recent pitfalls.   

–Rewrite all selection methodology from scratch, making sure it is clear, detailed, and explicit for every single spot on any competition team or national team. Make sure it is published many months before selection, and make sure it is actually followed when selection occurs. Also, make sure it’s not just “the all-around standings” because that has no bearing on team score in 3-up, 3-count. It has to make sense.

For better or worse, I think we’ve moved beyond “the remaining spots will be at the discretion of the selection committee.” That’s not to say it doesn’t work—just ask Valentina, whose “I will pick the ones I like the most because I have eyes and obviously, and you all can shut your stupid fart nozzles” strategy proved the most successful by far this year. But that’s no longer an option for a USAG that might occasionally have to answer for its actions and should be trying to be…not horrible to everyone all the time? There will continue being no trust in the new national team coordinator, so every decision needs to be justifiable with evidence.

So if it’s not going to be “THE COMMITTEE’S DISCRETION,” while still trying to win and select the best teams, the system should be detailed, mathematical, and complicated. Math is not a vice. Complicated is not a vice. It’s how you can arrive at the actual most successful team while covering all the bases for all possible weirdies that might happen and trying to maintain some semblance of fairness in a process that is always going to be at least a little bit unfair.

I will obviously have a problem with it, and I’m not alone in that (hello, beloved gargoyles), but when you can point to, “See, this is the method, this is what we said we would do, and we stuck to it” things go better.

–Clearly communicate expectations to the athletes using human words. Secrets help nothing. This isn’t a reality show, much to the chagrin of NBC. You don’t need to create a dramatic reveal. No one should be surprised that they didn’t make the national team, or why. They should be in constant communication with the national team coordinator and know exactly what they have to do (where they have to place, what events they need to show and at what level) well in advance of any competition.

–Fully reconstruct national team camps as a learning experience rather than a proving-yourself experience—and completely separate them from public, full-routine, scored selection competitions. None of this verification camp business. Verification as a concept is an unhelpful holdover from the previous regime. National team camps should be a place where athletes and coaches learn from each other and get feedback from a national team staff that is empowered to intervene and qualified to provide expert skill analysis, as well as judges who can say “hey, Donatella just did a Zoom where she said that leap is XXXXXXX, so you shouldn’t do it,” rather than being a pressure cooker of secrets.

Experience trying to hit under pressure is also valuable, so by all means have more public competitions that are used to select teams for meets (we like watching gymnastics, and there’s no pressure like a camera), but that should be a completely separate thing from a training camp.

–Get smarter and more humble. The US is not the best team in the world, but should try to be again. Look at what the team that’s beating you is doing better than you instead of just assuming that you’re the best and that any time you don’t win is unfair or out of your control. Follow the trends and try to gain every tenth. Based on experience and precedent, I’m half-seriously worried that the US is going to show up in 2022 doing a bunch of side jumps on beam with the old technique, and that’s a problem.

–Select someone who is media savvy and good at handling criticism. This is a criticism-based job at which 90% of people will hate you at any given moment. You’re always the Big Bad. Be good at dealing with that instead of pissy about it.

–Also, still, don’t be an abuser or general criminal of any kind. I mean it shouldn’t need to be said, but this is USAG, so that winnows out at least 87% of the possible candidates.

B. Fun Stuff?

OK, this is mostly about Tom, but here’s something else to lighten the load.

It’s college preview season, and several of the teams are making their events available to your humble self before the season kicks off with opening day between Kentucky and Arizona State on January 5th. Here are the upcoming events you can actually watch so far:

Thursday, December 9
7:00pm ET/4:00pm PT – Michigan, Central Michigan, Western Michigan Exhibition (Stream – $) (Scores)

Friday, December 10
6:30pm ET/3:30pm PT – William & Mary Preview (Facebook)

Saturday, December 11
3:00pm ET/12:00pm PT – Georgia First Look (SEC+)

Friday, December 17
9:00pm ET/6:00pm PT – Utah Red Rocks Preview (Free stream)
9:00pm ET/6:00pm PT – Arizona State* (this used to have a stream listed but doesn’t anymore, FYI)
10:00pm ET/7:00pm PT – UCLA Meet the Bruins (P12N)

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