Demystifying the Judging System: Roles, Rules & Report Cards (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second instalment in a three-part series about Demystifying the Judging System. Read Part 1: Roles here.

Part 2: Rules


Like the other figure skating disciplines, synchronized skating is governed by rules and regulations created by the International Skating Union. The bad news is, there is no one single rule book that contains everything a coach or official needs to know. The good news is, all the documents that make up the rules are available online, for free. It just requires a little effort to find and organize them.

With so many different documents being published at different times during the year, it can be hard to know where to start when you need to look something up. I’m here to help point you in the right direction. 

Special Regulations & Technical Rules

The ISU Special Regulations & Technical Rules are published every two years. You can download the current edition for synchro here, or you can purchase a bound copy here. You’ll often hear officials refer to this as “the yellow book” because the cover of the version the ISU issues is, predictably, yellow.

This document is only published every two years because ISU Congress is only held every two years, and that’s where the ISU makes decisions about the rules that end up in this document. You can read about past Congresses here. (Get comfortable…the meeting minutes from 2016 are 189 pages long.) Congress is held in June, so this document is published afterwards. The 57th Ordinary ISU Congress will take place from June 4 to 8, 2018 in Sevilla, Spain.

When you want to understand a rule or requirement, the Special Regulations & Technical Rules is where you start. This is where definitions for Elements, Features, and Additional Features live. If an attempted Element doesn’t meet the basic definition of that Element, it won’t be given credit by the Technical Panel. So it’s pretty important to make sure your Elements meet the requirements described within.

The Special Regulations and Technical Rules also include information about:

  • Call to start, warm-up times, re-starting programs, interruptions
  • Music, make-up, and costume violations
  • Illegal and non-permitted elements
  • Program Component definitions
  • Marking and scoring
  • Competition organization and requirements for officials (for International and ISU events)

This is a large document, but it’s worth printing to be able to reference it quickly. I see teams make costly errors every year that could have been avoided by a quick double-check of a basic Element definition before making what they think is a small change to their choreography.

ISU Communications

Every year, the ISU publishes documents called Communications that specify the new season’s requirements. (Communications are published to share other kinds of information as well, but I’m just focusing on rules-related Communications here.) These are shorter than the Special Regulations and Technical Rules and go into greater detail about difficulty levels, GOE requirements, and more. The Communications tend to come out in roughly this order each year:

  • Well Balanced Program Content
  • Technical Requirements and Calling Specifications
  • Guidelines for Judges
  • Scale of Values

First, Well Balanced Program Content is published. The 2017/18 Well Balanced Program Content (ISU Communication 2084) was published in April, though next season’s requirements may come out later than that since decisions made at Congress could affect the WBP. The WBP Communication specifies what Elements will be required for ISU categories. Some countries also publish their own WBP requirements for their categories that are different from those the ISU offers, but they often still resemble the ISU requirements to a large extent (which is a great help to Technical Panels who often need to learn multiple sets of rules!).

After the Well Balanced Program Content requirements are out, the next Communication to watch for is the Technical Requirements for the season. This year, ISU Communication 2091 was published in May. However, corrections and clarifications to it were published in ISU Communication 2114 in August, and then both of these documents were combined and replaced by ISU Communication 2121 in October. The publication of revised and combined documents is relatively common, so it’s important to check the ISU website for updates frequently to make sure you are referencing the most current requirements.

In a nutshell, the Technical Requirements document tells you what you have to do to get credit for a difficulty level. This document has an Appendix (it’s sometimes published as a separate Communication) that explains how the Technical Panel will penalize errors if any of the requirements are executed incorrectly. These are called the Calling Specifications (they are found in ISU Communication 2121). I think of the Technical Requirements as the “What do I have to do?” document and the Calling Specifications as the “What happens if I don’t?” document.

Usually not long after the Technical Requirements and Calling Specifications are published, a Communication comes out detailing Grade of Execution and other Judge and Referee Guidelines for the season. This is what the Judges reference to assign GOEs to each Element the team performs. This season, this is ISU Communication 2095. I find coaches often (unwisely) overlook this Communication. They are understandably trying to get a handle on all of the technical requirements to choreograph their programs to the appropriate difficulty levels, but there are many points to be gained for teams who pay close attention to the GOE bullets and Program Component criteria. Coaches (and skaters) should learn the GOE and PC criteria just as well as you do the technical criteria to plan strategically and maximize your scores.

Another document that doesn’t get nearly as much love as it should is the Scale of Values. Those numbers on your report card do come from somewhere, and this is it. The 2017/18 Scale of Values are in ISU Communication 2116. Appendix A tells you exactly how many points each difficulty level of an Element is worth, before the Judges apply their GOEs. In other words, this is how many points you get just for executing a difficulty level correctly.

Appendix B lets you work out the math on what that Element will be worth after the Judges apply their GOEs. For example:

  • Appendix A tells you the Base Value for PB2 (Pivoting Block Level 2) is 3.0 points.
  • Appendix B tells you that if every Judge on the panel gives you -1 for your PB2, the value of the Element will be reduced by 0.5 points. So you’ll receive 2.5 points for the Element in total.

This. Is. Important. This document tells you how many points you’ll get for executing a lower difficulty level well, versus how many points you’ll get for executing a higher difficulty level poorly. Choose wisely.


The ISU also publishes some Handbooks that are quick reference guides. The Technical Handbook is published after most of the technical Communications are out. It’s a quick reference guide for mistakes and errors. Similar to the Calling Specifications, it’s a “What happens if I don’t?” document. For example, “What happens if I don’t cover the minimum amount of ice; execute a turn correctly; start the pi rotation before the team begins to intersect…?” etc.

If there’s a discrepancy between something in the Technical Handbook and something in a Communication, the Communication generally takes precedence (and the Special Regulations and Technical Rules precede those). The Technical Handbook is great because of its short, easy-to-use format, but ensure you are referencing the Communications and Special Regulations regularly as well to avoid overlooking important details about requirements.

Questions & Answers

But wait, there’s more! Last but not least, the ISU also publishes some Questions & Answers documents every year. These are answers to questions that come up throughout the season; they are not corrections to rules, but rather clarifications about how to interpret them. Sometimes they will be applicable for more than one season; check the ISU website to see which ones are still posted. Check often, because these can be published at any time during the season. The most recent Q&A document was published just a few weeks ago and answers questions about Group Lifts, the No Hold Element, and the Pair Element.

Organizing Your Reference Tools

We officials all have different methods for keeping these documents organized. Though it kills a lot of trees, we do have to print these documents in case we need to quickly reference a rule while we’re on the stand, and the Judges stand is an electronics-free zone (aside from the computers we use to input calls and marks). I also like having printed copies of everything so I can mark them up. My documents are covered with highlighter, notes made in coloured pen, and colour-coded sticky tabs. Marking up my documents helps me visually recall where certain rules are; it’s just the way my memory works.

Some years, I have an individual duotang for each set of rules (eg., one for ISU Communications, one for the Technical Handbook, one for Skate Canada requirements). This season, I kept all of my documents in a single binder, in the chronological order they were published, separated by tabbed dividers. Next year…who knows? I know I’ll print them, and I’ll have some organizational system that works for my needs.


The number and length of these documents (not mention some of the wording) can be overwhelming. But if you can organize everything in a way that makes sense to you, you’ll likely find things a lot more manageable. It can be detrimental to reference the rules so frequently that you start to over-think your understanding of the most basic concept, but you should reference them often, and especially any time you make a change to your program. It’s surprisingly easy to make a change to try and gain points, and inadvertently lose a call you’ve been getting all year because you overlooked a key phrase.

Most officials are more than happy to help clarify wording in these documents, or tell you where to find something, but we do like to see that you’ve done your homework before coming to us. When you can show that you’ve looked up a rule and done your best to interpret it before asking for help, we are a lot more receptive than if you just email and ask, “Can you explain to me how the Pair Element works?”

I hope this has helped you understand what all of these documents are for, and how you can make better use of them going forward. 

Read Part 3: Report Cards.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s