Why Are They Better...
Don Peters

USGF Gymnastics, Jan/Feb 1981. In the USA vs. China dual meet held on October 21st (1980) in Peking our women's team fared pretty well. We lost by 2.4 points, and 1.7 of those points were lost on vault (an event that we beat the Chinese on earlier this year (1980) in Hartford). This was due to our teams' problems in adjusting to a wooden board. Had this problem not occurred, the meet would have been very close and quite possibly we could have won. We had only one major break on bars and only one fall from the beam. Sounds like we're almost on a par with the Chinese - doesn't it? Well, I'll not delude you; we are not on a par with the Chinese. In fact, they are much better than we are right now, and three years from now they will have left us far behind. So will the Russians, East Germans and Romanians unless we make some serious changes in our program now.

When you watch our girls here at home, they look pretty good. When you see them in the same training gym with the Chinese, you immediately see that we have one very obvious weakness. Execution. We do not strive hard enough for perfection with each individual element of our girls' routines. We have made difficulty a higher priority in our training systems and as a result we are not spending the time to perfect each movement, and it shows itself in the form of sloppy, unstable routines. Those coaches who have tried to emphasize execution with their gymnasts find their efforts thwarted by a judging system that places a higher emphasis on difficulty and fails to deduct the many execution errors that our gymnasts make. Many of these coaches have given up and jumped on the difficulty bandwagon; and mark my word, our national team will suffer for it in the years to come.

I predict that if nothing is done about this problem we will not place higher than sixth in Mexico City. It will not be because the international judges will deduct more severely than our judges, because they will not. They use the same scoring system. We will lose to the Russians, the Romanians, the Chinese, the East Germans, and the Hungarians because we will not "hit" as well and at least two of our best gymnasts will be injured at the time of the competition!

In recent years (since the push for greater difficulty started) we have always had at least two key injuries on our team at every major competition. In Fort Worth, our best gymnast missed the competition completely, one girl dropped out after compulsories, and three others competed with painful injuries. You know the result. This year our dual meet with China was scheduled six months in advance and all the girls trained very hard for this meet. Two of our top four missed the meet due to injury and one did watered-down routines because she was recovering form a serious injury that occurred two months earlier. Our national team has an annual injury rate that exceeds one hundred percent (counting only injuries that interrupt training for three weeks or more).

These injuries often occur because we do not train our gymnasts well enough on basics and we allow them to compete with movements that are in many cases marginal at best. Many times they have no "reserve" with a dangerous skill. There is no margin for error to protect them if they are having a bad day. We shouldn't allow a gymnast to do a skill unless she does it so well that if she does a "bad" one she can still make it.

We have got to ease the pressure for more difficulty and force our gymnasts to execute better by improving their basics. I am not suggesting that we change the rules. The rules are fine. I am suggesting that we strictly apply the execution deductions so that sloppy work does not get rewarded. Our girls have to be shown through their scores, the most meaningful way that we have available to use, that a low double back loses .3 (even if they make it), and if they have to "cowboy" they lose .3, and if their toes aren't pointed on every trick they lose .1 each time, etc. Then, and only then, will we effect a meaningful change towards better execution in the individual programs throughout the country.

I hope that I don't sound like I think difficulty is not important, or that I think execution is more important than difficulty. I do not. Both are equally important to a better team score. I do, however, think a greater emphasis on execution will, in the long run, result in both better execution and great difficulty. Here is why. In order to execute better you have to improve your basics, and better basics allow for more difficulty.

Take the following example: Presently, none of the girls on the national team can do a full-in on floor. I'm sure most of them can do the movement on trampoline or off mini-tramp, so it's not the skill that is holding them back. They can't do it because they don't tumble well enough. Their round-off flip-flops aren't strong enough. If our judges required high double backs with legs together and toes pointed, then these girls would have to work hard on their round-off flip-flops and in time I'm sure that they would improve enough to be able to suply the forces necessary to do a full-in. Now, when our gymnast gets her full-in but she has to cowboy to make it and maybe it's not very high. Should we deduct for the execution errors? Yes! We must, because if we encourage her to use this trick when she has no "reserve" we will be asking for an injury to happen. She should be encouraged to use the full-in only when she can safely make her bad ones. Remember, our team cannot do well unless all of our team members are healthy and able to perform to the best of their abilities.

Earlier in this article I predicted a poor finish in the World Championships because of injuries and not "hitting." To hit (to not have any major errors) in a major competition involves technical, physical and psychological factors. Technically, you must have reserve on all of your skills (you must be technically proficient) so that a minor error does not become a major deduction. Physically, you must possess enough endurance to be strong at the end of your routines (reserve endurance) so that if you have to struggle through some minor problems during the routine, you will still have enough left to make the dismount. Also, physically you must be free of serious pain so that you do not have to override normal defense reactions (flinching, etc.). Psychologically, you must be confident, both in your ability to perform your routines and in your ability to do it when it counts. The former comes from successful repetitions in training (made possible by technical proficiency), and the latter is learned through "successful" meet experience (also made posible through technical proficiency).

All of these factors are vital. But the one that is most important and which we as administrators, coaches and judges have the most control over is technical proficiency. And since these factors are inter-related, a shift to better technical execution may improve the two other factors involved in "hitting." (Freedom from pain by reducing injuries, greater endurance from the ability to "hit" more routines, and greater confidence from the knowledge that you can "hit" your routines even on a bad day.)

If we had a selection system similar to the Russians, our coaches could handle this problem themselves. They could simply stick to their guns and demand better execution from their gymnasts. If we had a national coach, he could handle the problem just by ordering the personal coaches to make greater execution demands. But we have neither. Our kids make the team based both on how they perform and how they are scored. So, if the judges are rewarding difficulty, no matter how poorly it's done, then most coaches will permit their gymnasts to do marginal skills if it improves their chances of making the team. And we do not have a national coach with authority over the individual coaches. Consequently, our only hope is with the Technical Committee and the Judges Association. If they emphasize execution in their judging at all levels, maybe by 1984 we can get this whole turned around.

P.S. After reading this article, I'm afraid that some readers might take this as a criticism of the girls who competed in China. I assure you that is not the case. The girls who competed in China (Amy, Julianne, Kelly, Lisa, Marcia and Tracee) performed better than any U.S. team in recent years. They were wonderful to work with and I am very proud of them. My article criticizes a trend in U.S. gymnastics that is making success more difficult for these girls, and in no way reflects nor should it be interpreted to reflect on the valiant efforts of these gymnasts.