The fancy way to fall is littered with the remains of fragmented teams. For those on the inside it is a familiar story - when quizzed about why they no longer compete an ex-member will often offer up “The judging doesn’t make any sense,” as their first port of call. So, what are the problems and what can be done about it?
It takes a great deal of time and effort to compete at the highest level in skydiving. Support is not easy to come by and invariably requires proven commitment and previous form before anyone will help you out with some free shit, or whoever holds the purse strings and controls the interests of your national air sports governing body will consider handing over a bit of cash to help out. There is a yawing chasm of desire and credit card debt between entering your national championships for a bit of fun, and getting all dolled up in your matching gear to go on the hunt for some shiny medals. The sheer amount of work involved means it can really rustle your jimmies when the points you are awarded for all that graft add up to bamboozlement. I have been there, doubtless upon landing that the jump was the best we had ever performed and certain of the points bump we were about to receive, only to be given fewer.
It would present a much clearer conundrum if the questions and complaints all flowed in the same direction - everyone getting low scores and wishing for more - but the telling factor is that equally as often you can make a total shash of something and spend the time waiting for the scores to appear in total hang-dog dejection that you have ruined everything only to get away with it entirely - as if the judges had watched a different performance altogether. With the bafflement coming in from both directions at the same time throughout a competition, the result can be aircraft filled with grumpy faces resigned to playing out their part in a wonky game, feeling powerless to do anything much about it.
Don’t You Know Who I Am?
I am a member of a competitive team called Varial Freefly, formed in 2010 by a trio of fresh tunnel instructors hungry to keep pushing forwards. Over the years we have acquired some medals - indoors in D2W and D4W and outdoors in Freefly and Freestyle. As of 2015 we are double British champions after winning gold in both artistic categories. Recent logistical considerations and the absence of a suitably committed fourth member meant that (with the other two Varial kids training together) I became at a loose end when it came to competing in the tube. I work as a freefly coach and freelance journalist so have suitable cause and concern to remain involved at the pointy end of what is happening in skydiving, so for a while I had an eye on an alternative - offering up my time as a judge. Indeed, there are personal benefits for doing so - any insight into the process might help my team toward better results and the contacts I gather and maintain by attending top level events can only further my own affairs. However, I also felt it was the right thing to do - I have done more than my fair share of complaining about it and I felt it might be time to use the skills at my disposal to help.
So after a bit of manoeuvring I stood in judgement at three indoor skydiving competitions throughout 2015 - early Spring was the 10th World Challenge at Bodyflight Bedford, the Summer took me to Flystation in St. Petersburg for the White Nights tournament and then finally to an Autumnal Prague and the Hurricane Factory for the 1st (kinda) World Indoor Skydiving Championships. Also, in the days preceding White Nights in Russia I completed the formal judging course and now hold FAI ratings for both indoor and outdoor artistic events.
(I would like to add here that while I have been in many outdoor competitions I have not yet acted as a judge for one. All my current experience is for tunnel events).
Alright. What is the Problem?
Throughout the Freefly and Freestyle skydiving community there is the collective feeling that the free round element of any given competition is decided very early on - that the score you receive at the beginning of the meet is pretty much what you are going to get for all of the rounds in which you perform your routine. If you nail it you might get more - but just as likely get fewer points. The same thing applies for any mistakes other than that of total catastrophe - you should get fewer points but maybe don’t. The overriding opinion is that these competitions are decided in the compulsory rounds - teams settle into an order of quality based on the first couple of free routines - then any battles that take place and have the potential to re-arrange the scoreboard will be resolved in the two rounds that teams spend much less time focusing on. There have been repeated discussions about re-structuring the competition format to something different (More compulsory rounds? Less compulsory rounds? Different compulsory moves etc. etc.) to try and iron our people’s grievances. For me though the problems are more procedural rather than structural - with the effect on the scores happening in very natural human ways.
How Does This Happen?
The panel of judges watch all of the performances while making notes in any manner they choose and then privately record a score for each. At the end of the round they then retire to somewhere quiet where they share their results, subsequently amending and adjusting their opinion and final stance based on the collective deliberations of the group.
There are a couple of things about doing things this way that are reassuring as a judge. It means that when the decisions are being made the collective experience of the group is available to call upon - an important advantage in a discipline evolving as quickly as ours that requires high levels of precision, very small changes in body position and other complicated malarkey such as what might be the most fashionable way to fly right now. It also means that each judge is aware of everyone else’s opinion - the final decided scores are sent forth from the panel as an entity rather than individuals, which is comforting when you are new and feeling the pressure about having just plucked a bunch of numbers out of thin air to reward all the hard work people have put in.
However, the problem is doing things this way causes precisely this gathering of the scores that confounds and frustrates the teams.
During these little after-action symposiums it is all too easy to defer to the more experienced members - because you don’t want to be singled out and grilled by an upset competitor who wants to know why you took half a point from them or some other involved detail that happened many, many details ago. It is also very easy to be swayed by the popular vote and make an adjustment to bring your score in line when everyone else’s are consistent and yours seems somewhat off. As far as my experience goes there can also be a strong desire to not rock the boat. Judging is for the most part long on effort and short on thanks - people don’t get all up in your face if things are going well for them. It is easier to feel that you are getting it right if you are not the one who gave the really low score or the really high score that time - even if you really wanted to and believed in why. As a newbie on an experienced panel there is a strong compulsion to aim for your score to be somewhere in the middle of everyone else’s, which means you are assessing the other judges performance and much as that of the people in the competition - which is, y’know, wrong.
Another way this desire to play it safe leads to stasis in the scoreboard is the reluctance to punish or reward accordingly. Knowing how hard things are to get right makes one reluctant to mark someone down too much.
What is the Solution?
After doing this a few times I believe that live judging is the answer. The immense pressure of presenting scores right there and then would make volunteering for service as a judge a very daunting prospect, as you would be on display as much as the competitors themselves and with no closed door and no group dynamics to hide behind. Doing it live would speed up the whole process and remove the current isolation of the judging panel. What you give right away is what they get - you have to stand by it and they have to fucking like it. The logistics involved for this in skydiving would involve complicated commitment from everyone and a big re-structuring of how things are run at them moment, but for tunnel events it would be a great deal easier - the exponentially growing indoor scene is proving more and more popular for spectators and the immediacy of the dynamic flying format is proving itself successful over and again.
For live judging to work the panel would need sufficient time to practice before the competition so they have confidence in one another when everything kicks off - that each member will automatically defend the position of another judge even if they don’t agree with it. A way to approach this might be much the same as the main element of the FAI judging course, where everyone re-judges a previous meet as if it were the real thing - considering and deconstructing as much of the necessary considerations of the imminent event as possible. The goal is that when the event begins all the huskies run in the same direction.
It boils down to confidence. The people doing the watching need the right eyes. Judges need to come from a background of proper credentials and experience, then boosted by a combination of education and practice. There is a lot of loyalty in the flying community and it shows. With transparency of process and some good old-fashioned effort to the point where one and all have confidence in their abilities to do a fair and faithful job of it. An important part is consistency of thought - the panel need to all be dancing to the same tune so the different elements of the competition are being weighed up with a through line of standards and considerations.
If someone messes up they should feel it - don’t shave a little bit from their score, chop some off! The flyers should know from the very beginning that if they slip on a banana skin then you are going to notice and there will be consequences - they fluffed it and with a wave of your hand like an evil wizard they will burn! The same thing of course applies the other way around - one of the most frustrating parts of competing is knowing that even if you kill your routine you are not going to earn any more points and cannot catch that team you have been chasing all the way. If someone does it clean, don’t just sprinkle - lay it on like you are icing their birthday cake. Do you know how much time they spent practicing this shit? You do? Let them see that you do. Let’s have the table switching around! Why not? We need teams writhing in hope and anguish, feeling that if they do stick it they could get the gold, or if they mess up they could go home with nothing at all.
It also needs to be worth the while of the appropriately qualified people. The most appropriate people qualified to judge what we do have a fairly good chance of actually being in the competition. From there you slide down the ziggurat of expertise. There isn’t nearly as much glory available being a judge as there is in being in the hoodang itself and we are a vain bunch. Also when it comes time to sweep up you may well be left with a blood-from-a-stone expenses process to deal with.
Since getting involved in this I have developed a much greater respect and understanding for exactly what judges do. The free-holidays attitude of many people is not accurate. Sure - you get expenses money for it but you are not going to do any sightseeing. You will spend fifteen hours each day watching rounds, talking about rounds while trying to wolf down a plate of food and find time to go to the loo.
Having been competing for a while now I have learned that the most important part of doing well means finding the correct compromise between the raggedy edge of your skill and what you can actually achieve consistently when everyone is watching. From a personal perspective as a judge I favour those that are willing risk more - gambling their abilities on big moves for big points. It opens up the competition and I find it easier to assess. Medals have been lost on that gamble though. Everyone is different and there are those that value doing less better than cramming it in and getting scrappy. Being a good judge seems to me to be about seeing this in the flying. Separating raggedy edges of skill envelopes from reliable grace, and doing it quickly and consistently. It is impossible to please everybody- you have to juggle a lot of things in order to feel like you are getting it right and in the end somebody gotta lose anyway.
Being a judge is a rewarding thing to do if you are interested and invested in the future of competition flying. People are getting good fast. The scene grows and the support structure needs to keep up. We need a continual supply of fresh volunteers to contribute to the process.
All this is, however, just my opinion.