Editor's note: The following article was first published on College Gym News.
Thanks in no small part to larger broadcasts and high-profile gymnasts like Sunisa Lee and Olivia Dunne converting online followers to fans, college gymnastics is growing out of its niche and reaching more mainstream audiences. In fact, after ABC bumped last season’s national championship to an earlier time slot to accommodate a regular season NHL game, the gymnastics broadcast outperformed that game by over a hundred thousand viewers. There’s no denying that college gymnastics has officially made it.
Watching a gymnastics meet can be fun regardless of your level of knowledge about the sport, but actually understanding what’s going on certainly adds to the experience. So, to give all of the sport’s new fans a warm welcome, we created a how-to guide for understanding NCAA gymnastics, complete with references to the ball sports we all grew up watching. We’ll assume you’ve already read our comprehensive breakdown of the Code of Points (COP) explaining mundane things like the rules, meet format and common skill names and jump straight into the fun stuff.
Need to Know
These are key words and phrases you’ll want to know to follow NCAA gymnastics at an enjoyable level. Familiarize yourself with these terms, and suddenly it won’t sound like the broadcasters are speaking a foreign language anymore.
- All-arounder: A gymnast who competes on all four events as opposed to a specialist.
- Elite: The highest level of competitive gymnastics in the world. In the United States, elite gymnastics is a non-professional sport but is the level of gymnastics seen in the Olympic games. In NCAA gymnastics, many gymnasts were elites prior to their NCAA careers, some pursue it in addition to competing collegiately and now some even choose to take the elite path when their college eligibility is up.
- Hit: When a gymnast performs a routine well and provides a usable score, she’s said to have hit (as opposed to missed). The score for a hit routine varies per gymnast, like how a 15-point game could be great for some yet average for others.
- Level 10: The highest level of the women’s developmental program (formerly known as the Junior Olympic program and also known as the club program). The majority of NCAA gymnasts competed at level 10 prior to college. It’s the gymnastics equivalent of playing high-level AAU basketball.
- National championships: Formerly known as the Super Six, the championship meet switched to a four team final format in 2019 colloquially known as Four on the Floor.
- MAG/WAG: Men’s artistic gymnastics/women’s artistic gymnastics
- Olympic order: The specific order in which the events are competed at the Olympic Games: vault, bars, beam, floor. In a regular season dual meet, the home team starts on vault and rotates to bars, beam and floor in that sequence; the visiting team starts on bars and rotates to vault, floor and beam. In meets with more than two teams (like the postseason), everyone starts on a different event but rotates in Olympic order.
- Rankings: Unlike ball sports, NCAA gymnastics teams are ranked by math instead of by polls after the first week of competition. For roughly the first half of the season, a team’s average score is used for its ranking, with a more complicated National Qualifying Score (NQS) taking over in the latter half to determine postseason qualifiers.
- Rotation: The gymnastics equivalent of an inning or quarter; there are four rotations — one for each event — in a standard meet, though byes may be added if more than four teams are competing.
- Salute: The official start and end of a routine. Everything in between is judged, like how a whistle in basketball determines when the ball is alive and dead.
- Specialist: A gymnast who competes on, and usually only trains on, three or fewer events. Commonly referred to as a “(insert event here) specialist.”
A Brief History
As of 2022, in the 41 years of women’s gymnastics as an NCAA sport, only seven programs have won an NCAA gymnastics team title: Utah, Georgia, Alabama, UCLA, Florida, Oklahoma and Michigan. After a five-peat from 2005 to 2009, the Gymdogs hold the most titles of any school with 10 and the Utes fall just behind with nine. Utah hasn’t won a natty since the ’90s but did win the first five national titles and has never failed to qualify for the NCAA championships. Modern day, the Sooners are the Alabama football dynasty parallel at the moment, having won five championships over the past 10 years.
Lineup Strategy 101
The typical lineup strategy in NCAA gymnastics — where six athletes compete on each event and the highest five scores count — is comparable to the beginning of a batting order or a relay composition. Without wading into the various issues inherent to a subjectively judged sport, scores tend to build as the rotation progresses, so lineup order does matter.
- Leadoff: Like a leadoff hitter is expected to consistently get on base, the first gymnast up in a lineup must consistently provide a usable score. A leadoff fall leaves no room for error for the rest of the lineup, meaning this is where you want your “rock.” UCLA’s Grace Glenn was the first and only one of two gymnasts in NCAA history to score a leadoff 10 (Michigan’s Reyna Guggino managed the feat on vault in 2022).
- Second, third and fourth spots: These are your role players. Their main goals are to hit routines and keep scores trending up, but this is where a coach may take liberties, like getting a newcomer some experience or taking a risk with an inconsistent gymnast who could make a difference on a good day.
- Fifth spot: Typically a gymnast with high scoring potential and a proven track record of hitting under pressure, thus setting up the anchor for a big score.
- Anchor: The last spot in a lineup is traditionally reserved for a team’s highest scoring gymnast on that event — like a team’s fastest swimmer typically finishes off the sprint relay. If everyone else in the lineup hits, the anchor can go for broke and — if all goes well — bring in the best score of the rotation.
Unlike elite gymnastics and NCAA MAG, which use an open-ended scoring system, NCAA WAG still uses the traditional 10.0 system. While the significance of a 10 speaks for itself, we’ve rounded up some primetime sports contexts for scores from top-tier WAG teams and individuals (i.e., the ones whose meets you’re likely to see on TV and are legitimate postseason threats) on a scale from “legendarily embarrassing” to “a once in a lifetime occurrence.” Note: All of these scores are based on the quality of performances unaffected by injury.
|TEAM TOTAL||TEAM EVENT||INDIVIDUAL ALL-AROUND||INDIVIDUAL EVENT|
|Germany beating Brazil 7 – 1 in the 2014 World Cup||sub-193.000||sub-46.000||sub-37.000||sub-8.000|
|The Butt Fumble||194.000||47.000||38.000||8.500|
|SportsCenter NOT Top 10||196.000||48.500||39.000||9.500|
|SportsCenter Top 10||198.000||49.500||39.500||*9.900|
|Pitching a Perfect Game||198.500||49.700||39.750||*9.950|
|Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game||199.000-plus||49.900-plus||40.000||*10|
*In theory, a score of 9.900 is a worthy reward for the majority of excellent routines while a perfect 10 is the rarest of scores, reserved for the absolute best performances; in practice, they’re not all that rare, and they’re not all created equal.
How to Sound Like a Seasoned Fan
The nuances and jargon are part of what makes the sport extra fun. Basically, this is what you need to know to differentiate yourself from the casual observers and four-year fans (see four-year fan definition below).
- Bridgeying: Exploiting the tendency for scores to build by having a gymnast with a lower scoring ceiling go later or even last in the lineup in hopes that they’ll earn a higher score than they “should.” Named for Florida gymnast Bridgette Caquatto, this lineup strategy defies the traditional anchor approach and is often debated. However, it has proven effective in practice — the Gators won three-straight NCAA team titles during Caquatto’s tenure in Gainesville.
- Carol scoring: Originating from the 2018 Oklahoma at Florida meet [TW: The original broadcast of this meet features a segment on Larry Nassar] where scores were generous even by SEC standards, particularly those of a judge named Carol. Naturally, gym fans concluded that Carol and her cohorts must have been some combination of intoxicated or on the take. Turns out there are a lot of conspiracy theory/drunk Carol GIFs, and thus an enduring gymternet meme was born. TL/DR: If a score is obviously inflated, just roll your eyes and mutter, “Ugh, Carol…”
- College stick: Unlike a true stick, a college stick occurs when a gymnast quickly salutes and celebrates immediately after dismounting to cover up an uncontrolled landing. It has roughly the same success rate as flopping.
- Floor party: A term originally coined by UCLA to describe a floor rotation made of up energetic, upbeat and typically high-scoring routines designed to engage the crowd.
- Four-Year Fan: WAG’s analog to an armchair quarterback, these are self-proclaimed fans who typically only watch gymnastics during the Olympics but tend to have a lot of opinions on the sport for the remaining three years and eleven months.
- Gymternet: The nickname for the gymnastics fanbase on social media.
- Gym Slam: Earning a perfect 10 on every event at least once during one’s career.
- Leo bonus: Short for leotard bonus, the belief that historically successful teams and gymnasts receive higher scores than those from lower-profile programs regardless of the actual quality of their performance.
- Splatfest: A meet where a seemingly high percentage of gymnasts experience falls or other obvious errors. See also: beam-plosion, bar-pocalypse.
- Stick the landing: This term is already in the ball sport ether, but it’s frequently used incorrectly by neophyte gym fans and non-gymnastics savvy media regarding any skill that a gymnast successfully puts to their feet. A true stuck landing is one that is fully controlled with no extra steps or movement once the gymnast’s feet hit the ground.
- Tight/loose scoring: Refers to how strictly the judges are enforcing the COP at any given moment. Generally speaking, the tighter the scoring, the lower the scores. It’s appropriate to complain about scoring being either too tight or too loose depending on your desired outcome.
- Vault start values (SV): It’s safe to assume that most routines from top-tier programs and gymnasts start from a 10.0 SV when performed correctly. However, because vault is functionally a single skill versus a full routine, it’s far more common to see lower start values on the event. One of the most commonly competed vaults — a Yurchenko full — has a 9.950 SV, meaning that if the gymnast competes it perfectly, they will receive a 9.950 score (this does happen).
What NOT to Say
If you want to sound like that annoying person who claims that Stephen Curry is overrated but has obviously never watched a game of basketball, you can skip this section.
- Any non-technical body commentary: It’s totally appropriate and expected to comment on a gymnast’s excellent toe point or badly flexed feet during a skill (talking about technique and execution are fair game). What we’re not going to do is comment on how someone’s body looks, especially by using coded terms like “classic style” or “European look.” These are high-level athletes, and your opinions on their appearances are irrelevant.
- Event names: Nothing screams, “I am unfamiliar with this sport,” quite like calling the apparatuses by their full names. Vault stays vault, but everything else gets shortened.
|SAY THIS||NOT THIS|
|Bars||Uneven bars/asymmetric bars/uneven parallel bars|
Please note that extra deductions will be incurred for using the words “bar” and “beam” interchangeably.
- “Is she going to the Olympics?”: The short answer is, “probably not” (and in a few cases, “she already did”). Past and current NCAA gymnasts continuing their elite careers is a fairly new phenomenon and still the exception, not the rule. Like American and Canadian football, elite and NCAA gymnastics have completely different rules, requirements and points of emphasis; success at one doesn’t ensure success at the other.
- “So much personality!”: Performance quality and showmanship are not indicative of personality, and personality does not — or, at the very least, should not — inform scoring. It’s the NCAA gym equivalent of telling someone to smile more. See also: “They should smile at the judges!”
- “That didn’t look very hard!”: It was, trust us. She just did it so well that she made it look easy — the same way Curry can make a 3-pointer from the logo seem effortless.
- “Where were the deductions?!”: Unless you’re intentionally setting up someone to describe every possible deduction in excruciating detail, don’t tug on that thread.