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.
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 basic standard that most college gymnasts are able to achieve 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 with another element for bonus, you lose 0.1 (see “up to level” section below). So basically, you can’t dismount with a lone C.
The requirement basically 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
-Every D-value skill earns 0.1 in bonus
-Every E-value skill earns 0.2 in bonus
-E-value releases (same-bar or transition) and D-value releases (same-bar only) receive an additional 0.1 added to the skill 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 hear 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-value dismount without connection bonus mentioned earlier comes in.
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, it doesn’t mean “Urination Took Long” and she missed the beginning of the routine. It means an up to level deduction was taken.
Now lets go through a fairly straightforward example routine, the co-national championship winning set from Maya Bordas, to see how she fulfills the necessary requirements and gets to a 10.0 start value.
1 – Two bar changes – In this routine, Bordas performs an overshoot from high bar to low bar, followed by a kip to stand on the low bar and grab the high bar, which fulfills the need for two bar changes, going from both high bar to low bar and low bar to high bar.
2 – Two flight elements – Bordas performs a straddled Jaeger (1) directly connected to that overshoot (2), fulfilling the requirement for two flight elements.
3 – A turning element, minimum C value – Bordas performs a giant swing with full turn directly before the dismount, which checks the box for a turning skill.
4 – A dismount, minimum C value – Bordas performs a double tuck dismount, which is a C value. By connecting it out of the giant full, she avoids the deduction for an isolated C dismount.
Up to level
Bordas fulfills UTL through the first option, a same-bar release:
1 – A same-bar release of D value – straddled Jaeger
2 – A release element of E value
3 – Two D releases
4 – Two E-level skills
Bordas starts with a blind change, a C element in college gymnastics, directly connected to a straddled Jaeger, a D element. The connection of a C skill to a D skill earns 0.1 in bonus, the D skill itself also earns 0.1 in bonus, and this D skill earns an additional 0.1 for being a same-bar release. So with those two elements, Bordas has already notched 0.3 in bonus.
She goes on to connect the straddled Jaeger to an overshoot. Not to be confused with a bail to handstand, which has to reach a vertical position on the low bar, this skill is not intended to reach vertical. Typically this overshoot is a B element, but when directly connected out of D release like a straddled Jaeger, its value is bumped up to C. That means that Bordas earns another 0.1 here for connecting a D element and a C element, bringing her total bonus to 0.4.
Her remaining bonus is earned in the dismount combination, where she connects a giant full to a double tuck. The giant full is a D element, earning another 0.1 for a D skill, and the double tuck dismount is a C element, so that’s yet another 0.1 connection for a D skill + a C skill. These final 0.2 in bonus for the dismount combo bring her total bonus up to 0.6. Add that to her 9.4 base start value, and she’s up to a 10.0 routine.
Here are the major skill values you’ll want to know for bars. Note: Links go to the elite skill database, and some elite skill values are different from college.
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 or the instructional videos the NAWGJ put out each year which are a nice pipe dream and immediately forgotten by everyone 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 score like 8.950 and 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 smallest landing deduction the judges can take is .05. This is supposed to be reserved for only the very smallest of movements, like when a gymnast allllmost sticks but her momentum forces that little slide backward, or she has that tiny hop in place where the feet don’t even really come up but it’s also not a stick. That’s what the .05 is allegedly for, though in practice what constitutes very small movement tends to be evaluated quite loosely, especially for those teams going 9.9 for every routine, and a lot of things—even discernible steps—tend to get away with just .05 instead of a full tenth.
The written rule is that if it’s a clear step, it’s supposed to be a .10 deduction, and if it’s larger than a yard, it’s supposed to be .20 for each step individually. In reality, I think we see more like .05 for a regular step and .10 for a large step.
In addition to stepping/hopping/lunging, there will be landing position deductions for issues like an egregious squat (some squatting is good to absorb a landing, but deductions come into play if the thighs are below parallel to the mat) or leaning way forward to try to hold a stick. A stuck landing does not mean the landing is free from deductions. Leaning 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).
Lack of control is also a separate thing on landing, so if a gymnast steps once and then does that little move where she turns around and kind of bounces and salutes and never really stops moving, that can be a .05 in addition to the step.
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 being “y’all better be vertical.”
Here is a vertical handstand for definitely, absolutely no deduction:
Meanwhile, here is a handstand that comes up 10 degrees short:
This second handstand is going to look pretty close to a vertical handstand in real time and is pretty much 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 full-tenth land as well as risk losing the value of the skill, but most of your “oh, she was just 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 never is. Finishing a pirouette short of vertical is the same problem as casting to handstand short of vertical, though the evaluation is way more forgiving, with gymnasts allowed to finish 20 degrees past vertical for no deduction. That’s a frustration of mine because 20 degrees is verrry late to be considered deduction-free. We see a lot of late cast 1/2 turns on low bar that are escaping without deduction because you could theoretically maybe say it was within 20 degrees.
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 doesn’t count as vertical. The position is going to be judged by the feet, so this position probably isn’t getting credit for the skill being in handstand.
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. 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.
A major source of potential leg form deductions are giant swings before the dismount, where softening the legs as they pass by the low bar can be a .05. Sometimes a gymnast will ditch the traditional two giants before her dismount if she can, even though it doesn’t do anything for her start value, and you think, “well then…for why?” and it’s probably because her leg position on giant swings is a deduction trap.
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 really 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.
On the topic of 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.