Imagine a dartboard with a red “bulls-eye” that represents a “perfect ten.”  Each gymnastics performance can be viewed as a dart thrown toward the bull’s eye, and each will fall in a different place.  The darts that land right next to the bull’s eye are like 9.7’s, 9.8’s and 9.9’s, the next tier might represent 9.4’s, 9.5’s and 9.6’s…a couple tiers out represents scores in the 8’s, the next represents scores in the 7’s, and so on.  The whole point of the dartboard is that it doesn’t move, and the bull’s eye remains in the exact same place for each thrower.  All things are equal, and after all throwers have completed their attempts, darts can be seen all over the dartboard – representing scores ranging in the 6’s, 7’s, 8’s, 9’s, and even one or two bull’s eyes, or PERFECT TENS!

Now imagine that instead of keeping the bull’s eye in the center, the bull’s eye is shifted to the left a bit, precisely to the area of the dartboard that represents the score “8.5.”  The throwers still throw towards the perfect ten, but it’s no longer considered the red bull’s eye; the red circle has simply been shifted to a new location.  Now also imagine that every time a player makes a throw (still aiming for the perfect ten), the dartboard actually MOVES in an attempt to make the dart land precisely on the new bull’s eye, or the “8.5.” Sometimes darts land right on the 8.5 and sometimes they don’t, but they almost always come close.  When the dartboard moves, darts headed for a 9.8 end up landing around a 9.0, and darts headed for a 7.5 end up landing at an 8.1.   Because the target moves with each throw in an attempt to make them all land in the same place, the end result is a dartboard with all the darts clumped together – all around an 8.5.  A couple manage to land in the 9-range and a couple in the 7-range, but all the rest land between an 8 and a 9, with several hitting exactly an 8.5.  No darts land on the perfect ten.

This is what I like to call The Moving Target Phenomenon, and I think it is a great example of what gymnastics judging is like today.  In the spirit of the regression to the mean mentality that seems to overtake today’s gymnastics judges, the “bull’s eye,” or execution standard, is subconsciously changed from a perfect ten to some mediocre score like an 8.5.  Often without even knowing it, judges will “move the target” for each gymnast – or change the way in which he/she judges – in order to make the final score as close to the new mediocre target as possible.

The regression to the mean and moving target phenomena basically mean that we CHANGE THE STANDARD by which we evaluate a routine in such a way as to bring it closer to what we consider “average.” For example, if a judge considers an 8.5 an “average score,” that judge will tend to judge each routine in such a way as to bring it closer to the 8.5 than it actually should be.  So, when that judge is suddenly confronted with “9.6” level gymnastics, the judge will begin to nitpick the routine to justify scoring it lower than a 9.6.  If the judge is confronted with “7.2” level gymnastics, the judge will then become lenient in certain areas in order to score it higher than a 7.2…because, after all, a 7.2 is “too far” below an 8.5.  If a gymnast presents mediocre gymnastics (which in this judge’s mind is an 8.5), the judge will take a middle-of-the-road approach to his/her judging and come up with a score right around an 8.5.  To summarize all this, regression toward the mean causes judges to adjust their standards to match the level of gymnastics they are presented with!

I know at first this might sound a bit wacky, but I wholeheartedly believe this takes place in all levels of judging – including at the world and Olympic level.  Let’s look at a hypothetical example that isn’t all too different from what I see happening all the time in gymnastics today:

“Gymnast 1” does a mediocre women’s bar routine with some minor form breaks, slightly bent arm casts, and slightly short handstands…nothing spectacular in terms of execution, but also nothing really terrible.  The judge will take a mediocre approach and take small and medium level deductions (0.1 and 0.3) and come up with a very average score, which we’ll say is an 8.3.  “Gymnast 2” comes along and does a bar routine with almost perfect form, better casts, and better handstands than the previous gymnast…showing overall MUCH better execution and body line.   The judge will then judge this gymnast more harshly to get her score closer to the first gymnast than she actually deserves! The judge will start looking for more minor feet separations and will deduct for them.  The judge will take off a little more for body positions on the casts, something that was ignored with the previous gymnast.  The judge will find a nitpicky “rhythm” deduction to write down.  And when this second gymnast has a single short handstand, the judge will suddenly deduct 0.5 rather than the 0.1 or 0.3 he/she took from the first gymnast.  Finally, “Gymnast 3” comes to the event and FALLS on a release skill…thus receiving a full point deduction.  According to the regression toward the mean/moving target phenomena, the judge will then evaluate the rest of the routine MUCH more leniently than he/she normally would in order to prevent the score from dropping too low.  Let’s say the rest of the routine had some minor deductions that were about equivalent to the first gymnast, but instead of deducting 0.3 for some of them, the judge will only take 0.1.  The judge will also overlook a couple of body position errors, because, after all, the gymnast has already received a large 1.0 deduction.  The end result?  “Gymnast 1” scores an 8.3, “Gymnast 2” scores an 8.5, and “Gymnast 3” scores a 7.9.  All three did happen to end up ranked in the correct order, but all three scores ended up within 0.6 of each other!!!  How did that happen?