NCAA judging: the last, most subjective frontier of them all.
NCAA gymnastics takes pride in the idea that—with only a few, relatively clear deductions taken overall—you don’t have to know much about gymnastics to get what’s going on. It’s a great jumping-off point for new fans.
And yet, what if you want to know more? Those who do are often left behind because nothing is explained in any technical detail, and unless you own a JO code of points, you probably don’t know where these scores are coming from. Gymnastics is for more than gymnasts.
So, this season I promised I would go into more depth about how NCAA routines are put together and how the judges arrive at scores for those who want to understand it better. We’ll begin with uneven bars.
Composing a routine
You’ll often hear that NCAA gymnastics uses “a modified version of the JO code of points.” This is partially true. When it comes to composing routines, NCAA gymnastics uses the JO code of points with a few small changes. When it comes to judging the execution of routines, however, the NCAA gymnastics standard is, “We take the JO code of points, and then just ignore all of it. The end. Here’s your score. Fetch.”
That execution part gets a little dicey, so we’ll start with the objective part, the routine composition.
- At minimum, an NCAA routine must include 3 A-valued elements, 3 B-valued elements, and 2 C-valued elements.
You don’t have to worry about this part. It’s very, very basic and every routine you see in NCAA will have met this standard without having to think about it too much.
Gymnasts must also, however, 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 go 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 usually must both be 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.
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 it’s not performed in a combination that earns bonus, you lose an additional 0.1. So basically, you can’t dismount with a C.
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 requirements is a 0.2 deduction from the start value. Every routine you watch will have been composed 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 9.50 start value.
From there, gymnasts attempt to get to a 10.0 start value by earning up to five tenths of bonus. Bonus is earned in two categories.
1) Skill value – Each D element earns 0.1 in bonus, and each E element earns 0.2.
2) Connection value – There are a few formulae through which gymnasts receive connection bonus on bars.
C+C = 0.1 (if both elements show flight or turn)
C+C = 0.1 (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 five tenths of bonus, at least one tenth must come from each category, so you can’t load up exclusively on one category or another.
But, as long as you get your 5 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 me talk about through the season is the “up to level” deduction.
The wording in the code of points is “Choice of elements not up to the competitive level, 0.1 flat deduction.” Thankfully these days, specific expectations have been delineated to define exactly what being “up to the competitive level” means.
To avoid the 0.1 up-to-level deduction, routines must fulfill ONLY 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, Shap 1/2, or Bhardwaj)
3 – Two D releases (e.g., Bail handstand and Shaposhnikova)
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 a C dismount without bonus connection that I mentioned earlier comes into play. It’s classified as an “up to level” deduction.
Let’s go through a simple example routine, where I’ll point out exactly how it meets each of the composition topics outlined above.
1 – Two bar changes – Kyla opens with a Shaposhnikova + bail handstand + toe shoot, which is three bar changes already.
2 – Two flight elements – Same. Kyla opens with a Shaposhnikova + bail handstand + toe shoot, which is three flight elements already.
3 – A turning element, minimum C value – Kyla does not perform a pirouetting skill in this routine, but the bail handstand qualifies as her turning element.
4 – A dismount, minimum C value – The double layout dismount is an E.
Up to level
Kyla fulfills up-to-level using item #3, two D releases, which she achieves with her Shaposhnikova + bail combination.
The opening combination earns all the bonus Kyla needs. The Shaposhnikova + bail handstand + toe shoot is D+D+C, in which Kyla receives 2 tenths combination bonus for the D+D, another 1 tenth combination bonus for the D+C, and 2 tenths skill bonus for two D elements. Done!
The double layout dismount is also worth 2 tenths of skill bonus for being an E element, bringing Kyla up to 7 total tenths of bonus, but she needs only 5.
There are those (and by those, I mean me) who believe that it’s currently too easy to get a 10.0 start value on bars and therefore the NCAA code isn’t really separating the top bars workers from everyone else. Kyla being able to do a routine that is laughably easy for her ability level and still earn more than enough bonus in the process illustrates that.
Requiring a same-bar release is the simplest, most commonly proposed solution to this, but I would also throw in downgrading some of these dismounts to D (like in the elite code).
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
This is where things get rougher. There’s not a great guide to NCAA deductions out there right now, and that includes the actual JO code of points. The reason being that there’s a tremendous amount of subjectivity in NCAA, including an unwritten understanding about which deductions from the JO code actually “count” and which magically don’t.
So, in this section, I’m going to deviate from the letter of the code (deviate from = completely ignore) and instead discuss the actual reality of what I think I see getting taken in routines from meet to meet from my perspective of piecing together where the judges must have found their deductions.
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, welcome to the club. We have jackets.
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 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 larger steps/lunges will get .10 off. What defines a larger lunge is fairly ambiguous (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), but very small hops, little bounces in place, and baby slides back with both feet will typically just get the .05 treatment, which is fine. A hop in place is not a stick and should be (slash usually is) deducted.
-College sticks. The college stick occurs when a gymnast hasn’t actually stuck a landing but has enough control to pretend she stuck the landing, trying to cover up the step by sliding into a salute at the same time. This tends to get .05 off, even if the step itself ends up being pretty large, to a degree that would normally warrant a full tenth.
-Awkward landings, like coming in short and jarring the body on landing, or landing lock-legged, won’t get the forgiving treatment, even if the ultimate step is quite small. Those will be punished more severely because there’s more wrong.
-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, 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 it’s egregious and the legs are super far apart on landing.
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 also quite ambiguous (the human eye cannot tell the difference between 9 degrees and 11 degrees on a handstand), so it basically ends up being “y’all better be vertical.”
At least, if you’re not completely vertical, I’m going to sass about it in a live blog. None of this 10-degrees nonsense. OCD ain’t got time for that.
The SEC Network began providing us with a handy little handstand protractor last season to help everyone judge this particular deduction.
Here is Lexie Priessman hitting a vertical handstand for no deduction in NCAA. (JO might care about a little arch here, but NCAA doesn’t and will consider that an ideal handstand. It only becomes a problem in NCAA if you super-arch and nearly go over the other direction.)
Here is Rachel Schick coming up 10 degrees short.
That Schick handstand is basically going to look like a hit handstand in real time, or very close to it, and can escape without deduction, but any shorter than that cannot.
Far shorter than vertical will get more severely deducted, especially on cast handstands, but a lack of vertical finishing position is also a critical NCAA deduction on skills like giant fulls and bail handstands.
On a giant full, watch the point at which the gymnast officially ceases turning. It’s supposed to be completely vertical and is more often closer to completely horizontal. This is a deduction.
Catching short of vertical on a bail handstand is also a pretty common NCAA deduction.
Judges should also be taking for bent elbows on the catch in this case, but bent elbows are a significant point of argument when it comes to NCAA scores. I don’t really see bent elbows getting taken (especially on skills like giant swings) unless they are symptomatic of other, larger errors.
Keep in mind that if a 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 routines, but one of the remaining significant ones is leg separations.
This does not get deducted enough in NCAA, an excuse often being the weird-ass angle the judges have to evaluate routines from, depending on the venue. From the exact side view, or looking directly up into the lights, they can’t always see the separations. But, leg separations on pirouettes, transitions, and dismounts should all be deducted, usually small deductions unless verging into crazy-legs territory.
We’re talking legs coming apart on a giant full or a bail handstand, legs flapping apart on a Gienger, legs straddling on a double layout, cowboying a double tuck, or shins splaying apart on a full-twisting double tuck.
You’ll also hear references to mushy, loose, or bent knees on skills when the legs are intended to be straight. This is a similar but separate deduction. Basically, the legs should be making a straight like the entire time unless it’s during a tucked dismount.
Flexed feet is another point of contention when it comes to NCAA judging. My impression is that flexed feet don’t get taken if the feet are flexed on, say, a single release skill. (This came up when assessing Bridget Sloan’s 10s on bars, when her flexed feet on that Ray were not taken.) But, if the foot flexion is pronounced and present throughout the routine, a small overall flexed-foot deduction will be taken.
A lack of amplitude is another key area of possible deduction, if a release skill or dismount is flat (meaning a Tkatchev that clears the bar by only a few inches, or a Jaeger—or dismount—where the hips don’t rise above the height of the bar in flight).
Besides those three key areas, another deduction that you’ll see taken 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 impedes that rhythm and shows in a stall/pause or a muscled cast handstand. This can be hit pretty harshly, for both the body form errors that will inevitably ensue as well as the break in the rhythm. Bars routines should show continuous rhythm in the swing.
Being too close to the bar can be a problem on dismounts as well, when the gymnast will intend to go both up (hips over the height of the bar) and out away from the bar (so that your feet don’t almost clip the bar). Coming terrifyingly close to hitting the bar on the dismount is a deduction because it’s terrifying.
There is also 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, 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 absolutely HAVE to take, 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 and an account of all deductions to maintain transparency and continuity across all judges. It’s not going to happen any time soon. YOU’RE WELCOME.