Demystifying the Judging System: Roles, Rules & Report Cards (Part 1 of 3)

The “new” judging system for synchronized skating isn’t so new anymore. The first time it was used at the World Championships was in 2005, meaning 2018 ushers the judging system as we know it into its teen years. Despite its age, it’s still often met with misconception and confusion, and can be downright confounding for parents, skaters, and coaches who are new to the sport.

In giving feedback to teams throughout the season, I’ve found there are still a lot of misunderstandings about who does what, where to find the right rules, and how to interpret report cards. Consequently, I’ve written a three-part series that will hopefully bring some clarity to these aspects of the judging system. This is the first instalment; watch for the others in the coming weeks.   

Part 1: Roles

Overview

At every synchronized skating competition, there is a panel of officials located near the middle of one side of the rink. People refer to this as “the Judges side” and teams use it as a point of reference to situate their programs during practice and competition. The height of the Judges stand varies at different competitions. It is generally elevated from ice level, though not to such a height that officials can’t see whether teams are skating on correct edges. The Judges stand has moved closer to ice level over the years, as the emphasis in synchronized skating has shifted from creative formations to skating quality.

The higher the level of competition (i.e., ISU World Championships), the more people you tend to see on the stand. But even at smaller local events, there can be quite a few bodies present. You may have wondered at one time or another, “Why on earth there are so many people up there, and what are they all doing?” I’m here to clear that up.

Who’s on the stand?

  • Three to five Technical Panel officials. The Technical Panel is usually situated near center ice and includes the Technical Controller, Technical Specialist, and Assistant Technical Specialist. If a computer system and video replay are being used (which is ideally all the time, but some small local events don’t have this equipment), then the Technical Panel is flanked by a Data Input Operator and Video Replay Operator. At some events, the Technical Panel is located above and behind the Judges.
  • Three to nine Judges. The Judges may be in a single row, or may be split into two parts — one on either side of the Technical Panel — depending on the rink set-up.
  • One Referee. The Referee is usually located with the Judges and close to the Technical Controller in case they need to communicate. It’s important for the team captain to note where the Referee is sitting in case they need to talk to them about an interruption, adverse ice conditions, etc. At smaller competitions, one person may fulfill the role of both Judge and Referee at the same time.
  • Two Data Specialists. Data Specialists are usually situated at one end of the panel.
  • Depending on the size of the competition and set-up of the arena, the music player(s) and/or announcer(s) may also be situated on or close to the Judges stand.

Add to the number of people the fact that each official needs sufficient space to be able to do their job, and not interfere with the person next to them who’s trying to do their job, and you can see why the panel can be sooooo very loooong at some competitions.

The number of people and length of the stand can contribute to variations in Judges’ marks. Since Judge 1 and Judge 9 can be many, many meters away from one another, they may have had very different views of an element depending where it took place on the ice. One may have seen errors that the other didn’t. Keep this in mind when looking at report cards.

Now that you know who’s on the stand, here’s what each of us is doing.

Technical Panel

The Technical Panel wears headsets with microphones so we can verbally communicate with each other to identify the difficulty levels of elements while teams are skating. These difficulty levels are determined by specific criteria the ISU publishes every year. The Technical Panel also applies deductions for technical violations. Each member of the team has specific duties:

Technical Specialist

  • Often informally called “The Caller” because they identify and verbally call out the difficulty level for each element as the team is skating. They call out the name of the element when they see it form, then they call out the difficulty level by the time the element finishes, based on what the team executed. It sounds something like, “Pivoting Block…pause while they watch the team perform the element…Pivoting Block Level Two.”
  • Also calls out falls and deductions, including for illegal or non-permitted elements.
  • Can say, “review” after making a call if they realize they misidentified something and want to correct themselves after the team is done skating.
  • Does not write anything down while the team is skating or during reviews.

Assistant Technical Specialist

  • Tells the Technical Specialist what the next element is going to be.
  • Says “review” after the Technical Specialist calls out a difficulty level, if they disagree with the call. They aim to specify exactly what they want to review, so the Technical Panel can operate efficiently while watching the video replay (eg., “Review counter turn in second series”).
  • Writes down the difficulty levels called by the Technical Specialist, and any changes made to calls during the review process.

Technical Controller

  • To be an International or ISU Technical Controller, one must also be an International or ISU Judge, respectively. 
  • Manages the Technical Panel to ensure things are running smoothly and everyone is adhering to their designated responsibilities.
  • Conducts pre- and post-event meetings for the Technical Panel.
  • Writes down the difficulty levels called by the Technical Specialist, and any changes made to calls during the review process. Though the Assistant Technical Specialist also writes down calls, the Technical Controller’s record is considered official.
  • Like the Assistant Technical Specialist, says “review” if they disagree with a difficulty level the Technical Specialist has called.
  • Runs the review process after the team is done skating:
    • Identifies which element is under review, who called, “review,” and why.
    • If the TS and ATS can’t agree on a call, the Technical Controller “breaks the tie” by stating what they think the call should be.
    • If any calls are changed during review, the Technical Controller instructs the Data Input Operator to make changes on the data input screen.
  • Reviews the calls with the Data Input Operator and gives them permission to finalize the data input.
  • Provides feedback to the coach about the calls their team was given, if requested after the competition.

Data Input Operator

  • Enters the calls made by the Technical Specialist into a computer screen.
  • Makes changes authorized by the Technical Controller during the review process.
  • Finalizes the data input at the direction of the Technical Controller.

Video Replay Operator

  • “Marks” the start and end of elements on a video screen as the team’s skate is recorded, so they can quickly find any elements the Tech Panel wants to re-watch during the review process.
  • Depending on the computer system being used, either the Data Input Operator or the Video Replay Operator operates the video replay system during reviews.

Judges

  • Independently evaluate the quality of elements according to specific criteria published by the ISU each season. Judges do not know what difficulty levels the Technical Panel has assigned when they put in their marks.
  • Assign each element a Grade of Execution (GOE) from -3 to +3.
  • Assign each performance five marks for Program Components (PC). Program Component marks from 0.25 to 10.00 are given for Skating Skills, Transitions, Performance, Composition, and Interpretation of the Music/Timing.
  • Independently vote on costume and make-up violations. Costume and make-up violations are only applied if more than 50% of the panel thinks the team violated the rules.

Referee

  • Like the Judges, the Referee assigns GOE and PC marks.
  • The Referee’s marks are not shown on the report card the team receives, and do not count towards the team’s score.
  • However, in the case that the Referee is also acting as a Judge, then their marks are shown on the report card (usually as something like J/Ref), and they do count towards the team’s score. This is often the case at smaller events, to allow the size of the judging panel to be larger.
  • Manages the Judges.
  • Conducts pre- and post-event meetings with the Judges.
  • Monitors the condition of the ice.
  • Times the team’s entry to the ice, warm-up, and time to take their starting position.
  • Times falls and applies deductions for excessive interruptions when falls are lengthy.
  • Times program lengths.
  • Makes decisions about interruptions related to music problems, ice conditions, injuries, etc., and applies any relevant deductions and/or stops the program by blowing a whistle.
  • Provides feedback to coaches about their teams’ GOE and PC marks, and any Judge or Referee violations applied, if requested.

Referee’s Assistant at Ice Level

  • An official located near the entrance to the ice surface, who communicates with the Referee via radio.
  • Permits the team to enter the ice.
  • Monitors ice conditions and informs the Referee if there are any problems.
  • Stands with the coach and one alternate as the team is performing.
  • Can send an alternate onto the ice to retrieve anything that presents a hazard to the skaters.
  • Does not judge or take notes.

Data Specialists

  • Use computer software to calculate the scores and results, based on the marks the Judges put in and the calls the Technical Panel makes.

I hope this brings some clarity to the responsibilities of each official at competitions. More detail on each role is available in the ISU Special Regulations and Technical Rules.

Read Part 2: Rules.

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