The Transformation of a Gymnastics Meet

Once upon a time, long, long ago…

We had the honor of hiring and bringing to the United States two World Champion tumbling coaches. Why they came here is another interesting story that perhaps we will tell sometime later, but we can’t wait to tell this story.

When they came to the United States, all they knew of English was “Hello.”

I’m giving them the tour in English, since I speak no Russian, “On our right over there is the Empire State Building.”

“Hello.”

One word, that was it. After 18 hours of flying, we certainly didn’t expect them to coach, but our team and team parents were waiting to meet them at the gym. Within two minutes of walking in the gym, they were out on the floor coaching (and coaching effectively) using hand signs and body language. That’s the kind of coaches they were.

At our first tumbling meet (our teams competed in USAG, USAIGC, ATTA and USSAF meets – we believe in competing) of the year, they still had very little English at their command. I always ended up as the translator for everything they wanted to get across, but didn’t have the words for yet.

The meet had been progressing, as so many gymnastics and tumbling meets do, with a series of depressingly low scores. The Russian coaches were talking heatedly between themselves in rapid Russian. As looked around the gym, it was just a sad and disheartening sight.

Parents who had driven 2 & ½ hours to the meet, paid a large entry fee and sat on hard benches (when there were any seats available) for hours to watch their child perform, were being treated to scoring in the range of 5’s to 8’s. All in all, the gym and meet environment was as discouraging and negative as any meet we’d ever been to. And that’s really saying something.

The Russian coaches were going up to each one of our gymnasts after they competed and consoling them and telling them in their own way that they were much better than the score they received. And you could see them getting angrier and angrier with each score whether it was for our team or another team.

The final straw was when our Senior Elite tumbler went up and performed a pass – round-off two whips to a full-in, full out in open position and received an 8.35 score. I saw our two Russian World Champion coaches headed for the judges.

They stopped in front of the judges on the tumbling floor, in essence, stopping the meet and proceeded to begin to lecture the judges (in Russian, of course).

As soon as they saw they were having no effect because of the language difficulty, they motioned me over from where I was trying to hide. Now this was before tumbling became part of USA Gymnastics, but there were still rules against talking to judges during a meet. And there certainly would have been rules against stopping a meet in the middle, if anyone had thought that someone would actually have the nerve to even attempt that.

Now they still spoke very little English and I never learned much Russian, but we had been living and coaching together for some time by now and we had worked out our own system for communication. It actually worked rather effectively (mostly because we had very similar coaching styles and attitudes toward the sport).

I introduced the coaches to the judges. I let them know these two coaches were responsible for two World Champion tumblers in the last three years and were also ranked International tumbling judges with years of judging experience.

I explained that they were most upset about the impact that the unjustified low scoring would have on the self-esteem of the gymnasts and on the motivation of parents to continue to pay for training and competitions. They told the judges to look around and see the negative effects they were responsible for causing. With two or three very young gymnasts still crying and the crowd taken completely out of the event, it was not hard to see.

They emphasized that there was no need or justification for such low scores. First, scoring in tumbling is simpler than in gymnastics. Small, medium or large errors or at most a .5 deduction for a fall pretty much covers the scoring. Simply put, if a young gymnast did only a five skill tumbling pass, even if she fell on every single skill (and, of course no one had), she could not receive below a 7.5 on that pass since the maximum deduction would be five .5 deductions.

Moreover, such severe penalties were not necessary at a small to medium size meet like this to determine the winners (or for that matter at a huge International meet). The right gymnasts would still win the medals and the other gymnasts would not have to be embarrassed by the scores they received.

They told the judges that they had no business judging meets for children if they did not take into account the effect of their scores on the gymnasts and the sport.

At that point, they walked away. I was quite proud of my translating efforts, which only slightly minimized my worries about sanctions for having completely disrupted and official competition. When I walked away, however, I was still not in the least expectant that any positive result would occur from our actions in terms of scoring.

Within the space of a few more gymnasts, however, we saw our first nine of the meet and the crowd went wild. Long, loud applause for a bright smiling young gymnast. Two gymnasts later a standing ovation for a gymnast from part of the crowd who knew the girl had done her best pass ever and had been rewarded for it with a 9.4.

The rest of the meet was as different from the first part of the meet as it could possible have been. Smiling gymnasts, huge applause, a crowd that was entranced with the meet, well-deserved 9.0+ scores and respectable scores for everyone. I was amazed at the transformation and at the successful audacity of the coaches I had brought over.

Now I tell this story, not to celebrate the gymnastics civil disobedience that these coaches displayed, but to emphasize the type of meet experience gymnasts, coaches and parents should demand. Both gymnastics and tumbling judges should re-evaluate their judging attitude in light of the effect their low scoring has on gymnasts and the sport.

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