The Balance Beam Situation

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WTF is College Gymnastics Scoring – Vault

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.


Vault values

Unlike on the other events, where we have skills and letters values and composition requirements and bonus rules, on vault we simply have a set of predetermined start values.

You can check out the full list of vaults and their values, but the most pressing issue on vault is the quest to have a 10.0 start value. Because the omnipresent Yurchenko full is valued at 9.95, having a 10.0 SV can provide a decisive advantage. A lineup of all 10.0 vaults would begin with a margin of .250 over a lineup of all Yurchenko fulls.

Here is a list of some 10.0-value vaults that you may or may not see in NCAA. The golden geese of vaulting.

NCAA 10.0 Vaults
Yurchenko 1.5
Yurchenko 2/1
Yurchenko 2.5
Yurchenko 1.5 tucked
Round-off 1/2 on, front tuck 1/2
Round-off 1/2 on, front pike
Round-off 1/1 on, back tuck or pike
Tsukahara 1/2
Tsukahara 1/1
Handspring pike 1/2
Handspring tuck 1/1
FHS, Handspring front pike

Deductions

With the values set, all we have left to deal with are the deductions. Just those. 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 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. Since only 1 element is being performed on vault instead of the normal 8, there are theoretically fewer areas in which to take deductions. As a result, deductions for issues like body position on landing or a fake stick—things that might be forgiven at the end of a bars routine if they’re minimal—are less likely to be forgiven on vault. So let’s start with those landings.

Landings

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 for, though in practice what constitutes very small movement tends to be evaluated loosely, especially for those teams going 9.9 for every routine, and a lot of landing issues—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 a flat .20 for each step individually (maximum .40). Like anyone is out there with a yard stick. In reality, it often ends up taking more like a “bouncing forward into the next state” kind of landing to get any kind of significant deduction. The only way to avoid any landing deduction at all is by sticking.

What is a stuck landing? A stuck landing is when the feet hit the ground and then do not move at all in any way. That—and only that—is a stuck landing. A small rebound upward in place is not a stick, and “stuck landing” is not a synonym for “good landing.” Do not do that. A stick is an actual specific thing.

So, what is a “college stick”? College stick is a term invented by grimy little jackals like me to describe the situation where a college gymnast—fully of newly adult savvy and three days of Acting I before she dropped it because there’s no way she could maintain that schedule—will realize that there is zero chance in the holographic universe that she’ll be able to hold her landing under control for any length of time, so she just pretends like she already stuck hours ago and you simply missed it. Like when your parents would ask whether you washed your hands before dinner and you were like, “…yes.” The gymnast will land and then pretend like the absolutely necessary step she physically had to take afterward is merely a post-stick celebration, just like all the cool kids do after their definitely real sticks that happened. This is not a stick.

“Landing short”—for instance, not completing the full flip on a Yurchenko full and therefore coming into the mat with a piked angle in the hips and the chest too far forward—will be deducted in addition to any ensuing step, so gymnasts in those cases aren’t getting away with just the .05/.10 step deduction, there’s supposed to be an extra .10 added onto the step deduction for a short landing, he said sarcastically.

That’s why you will typically see (or should see) Yurchenko fulls with a step forward score lower than Yurchenko fulls with an equivalent-sized step backward. The vault with a step backward will have been fully completed and landed with the chest up, so would then incur only the step deduction. The vault with a step forward, however, was not 100% completed because the step forward indicates that the gymnast came into the mat short, probably having to pike down and lose the layout shape as well. All of which are additional deductions.

Piked shape and bent knees

Most vaults you see in NCAA will attempt a layout position. On those vaults, the best athletes will show a completely straight body shape throughout, like a muscly little broomstick. Ideally, gymnasts will go even further than that and show a slightly open shape with a little arch toward the end of the vault, going beyond the straight position just because they can, Shannon Miller-style.

If performed in NCAA, the above vault should receive a perfect 9.950 (the maximum for a Yurchenko full).

You’ll hear about the best vaulters “flaring” a vault, which means they’re opening and extending their arms at the end to slow their rotation coming in for landing. This both looks pretty and provides evidence of a gymnast who has way more than enough time to complete her vault and land in a non-Hunchback-of-Notre-Dame shape, so she has to slow herself down to avoid overdoing it.

Those who exhibit a closed hip angle—less than 180 degrees—on a layout vault will face a deduction. This is typically a small deduction, depending on the degree of the angle and when it occurs. If the pike is significant or present throughout the entire vault (not just coming in for landing), gymnasts will be docked more than .05. When the chest is just a little bit too forward on landing at the very end but everything else is fine, that often escapes without a deduction.

When a gymnast could eat a full dinner off her knees on landing, that’s when body position becomes a major problem and moves into .10+ territory.

Vaults that are intended to be piked are held to a similarly strict shape standard, but in their case the requirement is showing a 90-degree hip angle instead of 180. Tucked vaults need to show less than a 90-degree hip angle and less than a 90-degree knee angle.

Both layout and piked vaults are expected to exhibit straight legs, without any bent knees or hint of vestigial tucking. A “soft” position means the legs have a little bend in the knee throughout, which is typically a .05 but can increase based on severity.

Amplitude

Height/amplitude is evaluated far more critically on vault than on the other events. Gymnasts need to show repulsion off the vaulting table (going UP and OUT, not just out) and need to complete the vault while still in a high position in the air. Otherwise, they’ll come in short and be in line for the landing deductions discussed above, as well as an amplitude deduction. Deductions don’t exist in a vacuum. One creates the next.

There is no specific height standard that gymnasts are expected to reach. Instead, a vault that avoids an amplitude deduction is one where the entire vault, all necessary flipping and twisting, is completed with at least the chest, if not the entire body, above the height of the vaulting table. Then, as the gymnast passes the height of the vaulting table, all she has to do is prepare for landing.

The height deductions get quite intense for flat vaults that shoot out horizontally. These are not the little .05s we see for minor form breaks. A vault that lacks height is considered a much more significant error than a vault with soft knees or small landing movement. The judges are actually able to take up to .50 for height, which they never come close to because college scoring, but there’s a lot more freedom to deduct for height.

Meanwhile, “heighth” is not a word.

Distance

As mentioned above, vaults are expected to go both UP and OUT, so a vault that goes only up—and not out very far from the vault—will be deducted with nearly the same severity as one that goes only out, and not up.

Distance, too, is judged without a specific reference point, despite how easy it would be to put a line on the vault mat if someone actually wanted to. This makes distance deductions pretty ambiguous. “Did she go far?” is not an acceptably distinct standard for judging, but that’s more or less where we are.

Basically, gymnasts are expected not to make the judges scared that they’re going to hit their head on the vaulting table. If a judge screams at your vault, that’s probably bad. At minimum, gymnasts need to be far enough away that hitting themselves on the vault cannot physically happen. Ideally, a gymnast would have enough room to be able to lie down flat on the mat between her landing position and the vault. You know, a really scientific standard.

Direction

Gymnasts are expected to land in line with the center of the vaulting table, not deviating too far to either side. In elite, the vaulting mats have guidelines for the judges to be able to evaluate this. They do not in NCAA, once again because of helpfulness.

For that reason, the direction deduction is taken less frequently in NCAA than it should be, or would be if there were a specific guide on the mats. Vaults that start veering to one side or another, as long as it’s not too egregious, often escape without deduction. But technically, there should be a penalty there. Unlike in elite, where a gymnast stepping out of the area after landing is deducted, college gymnastics evaluates direction based only on where the gymnast initially lands, not where she then steps.

Leg separations

Also on the topic of deductions that are not evaluated as harshly as they could be in NCAA gymnastics, leg separations on vault. The legs are supposed to be pasted together in the air on all vaults. To be actually deducted in college, however, leg separations must occur in post-flight (after leaving the vaulting table) and be somewhat obvious—i.e., we’re seeing actual daylight between the legs.

A minor crossing of the feet in the air is one of those things that’s technically a deduction but will be forgiven without penalty in college gymnastics, as will basically any and all deductions in pre-flight (the time between hitting the springboard and contacting the table) or in repulsion (the time when in contact with the vaulting table), except for perhaps an egregious back arch. Typically, the excuse is the position in which the judges are sitting, from which they cannot see straddled legs on the table. Then maybe the judges should sit in a better position.

A similar approach is taken to shoulder angles and bent elbows on the vaulting table (the arms and trunk should create straight line in every viewing plane), which tend to be only theoretical deductions. They aren’t deducted as much as they could be in and of themselves, though issues like that typically lead to a lack of amplitude and distance, which is where gymnasts will be penalized.

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