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  • Writer's pictureKathi-Sue Rupp

At My First...

A judge shared their judging experience from last weekend with me. It was their first time as a D1 judge at a regional championship competition, and it was unlike anything they had ever experienced before. But the thing was, it wasn’t. They had judged this level of regional championships before as a D2 or E juror and had even been a D2 at a national championship competition. They had been in a D1 role at many other competitions (dual or three-way meets and lower-level regional competitions), but now, that same role in a different setting made everything feel new. The stress and pressure of this qualifying competition was in the air. The coaches were on edge and ready to inquire for every tenth possible (whether it was deserved or not). The gymnasts knew that this competition could mean going to Nationals or their season coming abruptly to an end. The arena was loud and filled with energy.

But this judge wasn’t the only one to share such a story with me last week. The other was an FIG Brevet judge with decades of experience who recently had their first experience as a D1 at a high-profile FIG competition. This judge had plenty of D1 experience at national, international-friendly, and even at smaller FIG competitions. But the added pressure in this big-name setting, knowing they were fully responsible for the final score and the accuracy of the entire panel made it a stressful competition, even for this very experienced judge.

Don’t get me wrong, both of these judges were ready for their new situations, and due to their thorough preparation and previous experience, they did a fine job judging the competitions. However, even one mistake would be too much for such important competitions and the perfection we expect from the judges there.

I have known newer judges who were very eager and impatient to move up the judging assignment ladder without really realizing how important and meaningful experience is. When people tell me their judging stories of when they made errors or realized they succumbed to bias, they almost always start with the same three words: “At my first…” For example, “at my first state championships,” “at my first meet as D1,” “at my first national championships,” and “at my first international competition.” It would seem like the only time unexpected things happen is when it is your first time judging at some different level. And to some degree, that is correct. Unexpected things DO occur in new situations, because as much as you may have prepared, it is unlikely that you will have anticipated everything that a new judging situation requires. Whether it is a different computer scoring input system, having the D1 responsibility of managing a judging panel and giving final approval of the score, or experiencing the atmosphere of a large, enthusiastic crowd, nothing compares to being there and experiencing it yourself. The experience becomes your own and each person will gain something different from it.

Acknowledging these firsts is important because when judges are in new or stressful situations there is a greater possibility for noisy errors and biased judgments to occur. When faced with ambiguous decisions (e.g., borderline angle judgments), people instinctively and subconsciously look for other information to help them make their decision. These other sources of information can be previous judgments (e.g., subconsciously thinking of how the gymnast has performed before or a different gymnast who did it better), the reputation of the gymnast (e.g., would anyone really not give Simone Biles credit?), other judges on the panel (or what you think the other judges on the panel will do), or the people around you (e.g., the crowd is erupting and the coach and the gymnast are certainly reacting as if it was a stick). This interference from other information sources is amplified in new, stressful, and time-pressured situations, and many times, we are not even consciously aware that it is happening.

First experiences can be unnerving and more prone to errors, even for experienced judges. However, first experiences are essential to learn and grow as judges, all the while limiting those 'firsts' mistakes as much as possible. So, what can judges do to be as accurate as possible even in an “at my first…” (or any stressful, pressure-filled) moment?

First: be prepared for the assignment. It should go without saying that if you prepare more, you will have more confidence and make fewer mistakes. Study and thoroughly practice for the role you will fill.

Second: breathe. Take a deep breath before each routine and another deep breath before you score the exercise. The deep breaths will help you to stay calm, focused, and regulate your heart rate.

Third: don’t rush. Even if you are in a time-pressured situation, take the extra second to double-check your work or consciously think through a decision before submitting your score. Some of the judging errors that weigh most heavily on my conscious are errors that I made because I didn’t take an extra second or two to review my work a little more carefully. (And yes, they occurred "at my first...")

Last: new judges, have patience with moving up the judging ladder. You won’t truly realize how valuable each judging experience is until after you have experienced it. Gaining experience through incremental steps is putting you in the best position to be successful at each step along the way. Judging assigners, consider the small progressive steps that judges should take as they move up the judging ladder and give those judges who will have an “at my first…” moment a supportive, experienced judging partner to work with.

The fact of the matter is that even at the Olympics and World Championships there are judges who are there for the first time or in new roles at that level and it is their “at my first…” moment once again. When you stop having “at my first…” moments, it means you are stagnant and reached a plateau in your judging career. But just as athletes prepare to have success at their first Olympics or World Championships, judges can prepare to have success at each of their “firsts” in their judging careers too.

Have you had an “at my first…” moment?

How have you prepared for your “first” moments or how would you prepare differently now? Feel free to tell me about it through the feedback form below.


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