Jan 24, 2010

Understanding competition placement

I was saving this post for the Olympics, but the controversial (for some reason) awarding of the US Ladies Singles title to Rachel Flatt, I dug this post idea out of my drafts list.

Competition placement ranks second only to changing coaches in anxiety production among figure skating parents and, if Twitter is anything to go by, figure skating fans. And just like bad calls in team sports generate weeks of recrimination, figure skating scores just never seem fair to the fanboys and -girls.

There are currently three judging systems being used in figure skating:

The big leagues: The International Judging System, or IJS (also referred to as NJS, new judging system and CoP, Code of Points) is used in all national and international "qualifying" competitions and in local, non-qualifying competitions for Juvenile through Senior that act as training competitions and feeders for the qualifying ones. This is the system that has those incomprehensible point totals (TES of 50.12, TCC of 21.87 and PCC of 29.02 for a total score of 101.01). The judges at these events must qualify through judges training and rigorous exams. As someone whose non-competitive (at singles) daughter once had to compete in the same flight with Alissa Ciszny I can tell you this system is nitpicky and brutal, but it really covers the bases and tells you how you skated. ( For more about qualifying and non-qualifying competitions, check out usfigureskating.org. )

Update: here's a great article at About.com explaining scoring in IJS.

The bush leagues: U.S. Figure Skating also sanctions competitions for beginning skaters, with such skill/level designations as "Beginner," "Limited Beginner," Basic 7, etc. These competitions still use the old 6.0 scoring system. Qualification to judge at Basic Skills competitions is, I believe, just membership in U.S. Figure Skating and age (you must be 16). In practice, judges at these competitions are local coaches or coaches from the sponsoring club.

The crosstown rival: The Ice Skating Institute, which is a strictly recreational skating association, also runs hundreds of local, national and even international competitions. Judges for these events again are local and participating coaches or interested amateurs that have taken the judging exams, available on line. These competitions are mostly run by skating schools rather than clubs.

Every single one of them will turn in results that seem incomprehensible, if not downright unfair. I have never been to a competition where some parent or coach did not insist that the judges "cheated," or that the rink "held up" its own skaters, or that some program "sandbags" its kids and on and on.

Salt Lake City notwithstanding, I believe in the basic integrity of all three judging systems, if for no other reason than that I have been through judges training and testing in all three systems and it is very very hard. The people doing this take it seriously, and they know that at the higher levels there is a lot at stake.

Dealing with disappointment
The gold and silver medal coaches from yesterday, Frank Carroll and Tom Zakrajsek, are madly spinning their skaters' scores and style today, and at that level it's expected. At non-qualifying competitions, at Basic Skills and ISI competitions, and even at Regional and Sectional competitions, that kind of talk should be kept within the skating family: skater, coach, parents. It is only destructive to complain about marks.

The best measure of how your skater did at a local competition is whether they achieved a personal best, or landed a new jump in competition. You cannot possibly ever demystify the individual decisions that went into the marks, especially in a system as on-the-fly and complex as the IJS. All three systems have mechanisms for protests, but they should be used sparingly and only in the face of overwhelming and obvious ill intent on the part of judges.

At the 2010 U.S. Nationals, Olympic berths and future careers are at stake. The controversy there is basically whether the system should reward technique or artistry, and in fact as it stands the system actually favors artistry--in the event of a tie, the higher component, or artistic, score (the so-called "second mark") wins. But judges can, and do, reduce component scores for poor technique, which is what happened at yesterday's Ladies Free Skate. It was a judgment call on the part of the panel, but that is why we call them "judges" and not "computers."

At local competitions, just don't worry about it. Ask your coach, or a judge, how scores are arrived at generally. Ask to have the relative placement of skaters in a flight explained, again, generally. Never berate a skater for their placement, as they have very little control over it. Ditto the coach, for the most part.

How can I learn more?
Both the Ice Skating Institute and U.S. Figure Skating have been running a series of articles on understanding their two judging systems. The latest one from ISI is in this quarter's Recreational Ice Skating magazine (available on line here) on page 27. A very clearly written series on IJS has been in the last several issues of Skating Magazine, U.S. Figure Skating's member's magazine. (I would be grateful if someone can find a link to Skating Magazine. U.S. Figure Skating has revamped their site and now I can't find anything. If you find the link, please post the URL in the comments.)

Monday morning quarterbacking is a blood sport to skating fans. I feel bad for Rachel Flatt, who gave a brilliant and flawless performance, won the gold, and had to wake up this morning to "Mirai wuz robbed" headlines.

How much worse for your little skater to feel like she did her best and an evil world conspiracy (in the person of those incompetent judges from that other rink) withheld the marks.


  1. Hi! You can find it at the USFSA website, under the "About Us" tab. Here's a direct link: http://www.usfsa.org/Magazine.asp?id=29.

    By the way, I've been following your blog for a few months, so hi!! I've never posted before. I enjoy reading your posts. You are very smart, and you have a great perspective about skating IMO. I am an college-aged figure skater who has been skating for about 2 years. Being somewhat new to this sport, I enjoy reading your opinions on things. :)

  2. Thanks SCG, and thanks for the link! Unfortunately, they don't seem to have the IJS articles on line. There is a treatise about IJS on the USFS site, but it's dry as dust and written for people who already know something about it. Next task-- everyone write to USFS and tell them to for heavens sake put those articles up!

  3. Hi Xan, I love your blog (I think I've read the whole archive). I'm a teenage-starter skater who's in the Basic Skills levels, or their equivalent in my country - one foot glides, snowplough stops, stroking etc.

    I was wondering how much I should be skating each week if I want to progress? Due to school time/distance to rink, I can only get to skating twice a week at present. I've previously been doing two 90 minute group classes (3hr/wk), but the classes are now 60 minutes, so it's only going to be two hours a week now.

    There's a public session that's two hours in length that I'm thinking of substituting for the second lesson. It's not super-crowded usually. My mum's worried that if I do this, it'll be bad because I'm not having a lesson then, but I'm more concerned that if I go to the two lessons, my skating time will be too minimal for me to progress anywhere.

    Is it better to have one hour of group lesson and one hour of practice per week, or a half hour group lesson and 2.5 hours of practice?

  4. @anon-- I wrote a post for you! And thanks for the kind words.