8 Myths about Gymnastics Judges Busted


Can you write in a wholly unique symbolic shorthand language, without once looking at the paper, while watching a moving target and having music blasted in your ear?

And can you do that while keeping in mind the specific rules and requirements of the 140 different sets of policies that might be applicable to that moving target?

Also, can you do all of this while you recall the hundreds of general and specific penalties that need to be applied should the moving target falter?

Then, can you add, subtract and divide faster than a calculator all while keeping in mind that the next moving target is about to launch?

Finally, can you do this between 64 and 98 times in a three-hour period, four times a day, twice a weekend?   (For which you will be paid on average somewhere in the neighborhood of $28 an hour, and be given all the Subway sandwiches, donuts and lukewarm coffee and diet cokes you can consume during your 20 minute breaks, so there is that added bonus…)

Oh, but wait there is more: practically no one will appreciate your work. In fact, you will occasionally make young girls cry, even sob, and their coaches and parents will complain about your job performance.

If your are lucky, they will do that behind your back, but occasionally they will actually yell at you as you try to use the restroom during one of your micro-breaks or as you stumble to your car at the end of a 12 hour day.

And all of those rules you need to know? No worries. They are constantly being changed, so you are never really done learning them! Plus, you get a snazzy blue blazer made out of polyester…and by “get” I mean you get to pay for one.

You will get to the point that you loathe the color blue.

If all of this sounds like a dream come true, do I have a job for you: gymnastics judge!

Sports officials in general probably have one of the most difficult and least appreciated roles in youth sports. And those in gymnastics are no exception.

I have been on all sides of that folding table. As a gymnast knowing that I am going to make myself vulnerable by trying to do something very difficult and am inviting someone to judge me.

As a judge passing out scores that I hope are accurate and fair.

As the parent of a gymnast trying not to vomit from the anxiety of putting my child out half naked to have someone assign a number to her efforts.

And, as a coach who from time to time believed that my athlete was genuinely given a score that did not match her performance. I know that none of this is easy or straightforward.

Now, as a gymnastics club owner, I have yet another role: trying to explain to upset children, distraught, even angry parents and discouraged coaches that contrary to what they might think, the judges are not out to get them!

Are judges perfect?

Of course, not.

But they certainly are misunderstood. So here it goes, my myth-busting list about judges and judging gymnastics:

  1. Judges live to crush the self-esteem of little girls. Actually, most judges themselves are parents, coaches or teachers in their “real life.” They love the sport of gymnastics and give back to that community by being the officials at gymnastics competitions. They care about kids and allowing them to experience the joys and challenges of being a competitive athlete. As many of these judges work in the same area year after year, they watch our gymnasts grow up from newbie athletes to confident young women and feel a sense of pride that they were part of the journey. Some of the most caring educators I have met are these folks in the bad blue blazers.
  1. Judges must be completely impartial. Of course they are not completely impartial. No human is ever completely impartial. We all have our likes, dislikes, style inclinations and personality preferences. And yes, even the curmudgeon of a judge’s heart melts a little when a toothless little sprite who cannot see over the beam salutes to begin her routine. Judges do, however, strive to perform their job in an impartial manner.   They take that obligation seriously and tend to do a very good job. Remember, just because someone isn’t impartial does not mean that they cannot act in an impartial manner.
  1. Judges make a lot of money. Judges make okay money, but for all of the expertise, education and on-going learning that these folks are required to do (plus the lack of gratitude and the giving up of their weekends), I am not so sure that I would call it “a lot.”
  1. Judges just “give out” scores. Yeah, no. As I mentioned, there are well over 100 different sets of rules that govern the various organizing bodies of gymnastics all of which have multiple levels within their organization. In addition, there are specific deductions for execution errors, for failing to execute certain requirements and, on the more advanced levels, bonuses for performing certain levels of difficulty or for connecting certain types of skills.
  1. Judges just pick the routines they like best. Again, no. In fact, they can sometimes really “like” a lower scoring routine but because of the way the rules are written, another routine receives a higher score. Really, it’s not about “liking” or “not liking.” It’s about meeting the requirements of the level with the best execution of skills.
  1. Judging should just be easily explained to parents. Often I get parents who wonder why I can’t just explain judging to them in five minutes or less. Parents can learn quite a bit if they are willing to spend some time learning about judging. The National Association of Women’s Gymnastics Judges (www.nawgj.org) has all sorts of great resources and articles. And, if your daughter competes in USAG Levels 1-5, “there’s an app for that!” Really, there is. Go to the Apple store and look up “USA Gymnastics Women’s Compulsory Program.” Will this make you a judge? No, no it will not. But it will give you a little more perspective on the complexity of judging.
  1. Judging is so inconsistent. Yes and no. Common question: “Last meet Susie got a 9.1 on the floor. This week she did even better and only got an 8.7. The judge messed up!” Possibly, but not likely. Judging in gymnastics is an art as much as it is a science. Many of the deductions are “up to” deductions, which mean the judge has the discretion to as many as, for example, 0.3 for an error of execution. Much like a test graded on a curve, some meets have a higher caliber of performances that could result in a lower score than at a meet with a lower caliber of performance.
  1. Judging makes no sense when a routine with a fall scores higher than one without a fall. Another common question: “Sally fell off the beam and Susie didn’t. But Sally got a higher score. Why?” Falls are a .5 deduction, which is large to be sure. However it is quite possible a gymnast who falls but otherwise executes cleanly will score higher than a gymnast who stays on the beam but has bent knees on 5 major skills. At .2 for the bent knees, Susie lost 1.0.

Bottom line: Judges are professionals who spend time studying, practicing, obtaining licenses, professional memberships and certifications so that they can spend their weekends helping your children have the experience of being a competitive athlete.  They are not the enemy. They are an ally in the youth sports movement and should be thanked for their efforts, not criticized for their (perceived) errors.

While we are at it, let’s extend this courtesy to our children’s coaches and teachers. To the parents and coaches of opposing teams. And, to each other. Think how much nicer life would be if all assumptions were of good faith and gratitude was the default attitude.