It happened in an instant: a resounding crack and the bottom half of French gymnast Samir Ait Said’s leg was dangling like a marionette’s, his face contorted in pain. At the Rio Olympics, Said had just performed a thrilling triple backflip on the vault. When he landed, his leg snapped on impact. Said’s shot at grace, his relentless pursuit of perfection, had ended in horror.
The injury came just minutes after German gymnast Andreas Toba landed awkwardly after a twisting somersault during a floor exercise, wrenching his knee. His teammate, Gabian Ham, spoke out. “It’s a pity that gymnastics has developed the way it has. Everyone is chasing more and more difficulty, more risk. Everyone wants new records so it’s getting dangerous.” Ham called out the culprit: the open-ended scoring system.
In the past, gymnastics’ scoring system was based on a single variable: execution. Gymnasts began with a start value, determined by judges, based on the level of skills to be performed. The top start value was 10. Gymnasts were penalized for their mistakes. Or not. In 1976, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci famously earned the first perfect 10 in the Olympics. Numerous gymnasts earned 10s in the 1980s.
An uproar at the 2004 Athens Olympics brought the scoring system to a breaking point. On the high bar, Alexei Nemov, a legendary Russian gymnast, performed a routine of spectacular moves that thrilled the crowd and TV announcers. Yet he was awarded a lower score than the U.S.’s Paul Hamm, who executed a less daring routine, but one that included fewer mistakes. The controversy didn’t stop there. Three judges were suspended for a scoring mistake in a routine by South Korean gymnast Yang Tae Young, denying him a gold medal.
Following the scandal, the open scoring system was introduced in 2006. A gymnast now earns a score based on two scales: execution and difficulty. On the execution scale, each gymnast starts with 10 and is deducted points for mistakes in the execution of elements and skills. On the difficulty scale, each gymnast starts with 0 and is awarded points for performing difficult elements and skills. The final score is a tally of the two. The system is open-ended because a gymnast could string together as many difficult moves as she or he could fit in a routine. (For a more detailed overview, see the Olympics’ website.)
In her recent book, The End of the Perfect 10, which examines the history and consequences of the scoring system, Dvora Meyers explains that with the sky the limit on difficult moves, “injuries have been on the rise, especially tears to the ACL and Achilles tendon. Nearly every top-shelf female gymnast has been felled by one or the other at this point. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ an elite gymnast will face a potential career-ending injury.”
Can a scoring system push athletes too far?
As Meyers shows, many gymnast insiders and athletes believe the open system favors difficulty over form, execution, and consistency, and is unfair to athletes with strengths in the other areas. At the same time, the new system represents an essential element in sports—what motivates athletes and excites fans—and that is the human drive to transcend limits and reach new physical and emotional heights. Which prompts the question: Can a scoring system push athletes too far?
Robert Andrews, a sports psychology consultant and founder of the Institute of Sports Performance in Houston, Texas, thinks so. Andrews has worked with many Olympic gymnasts, including current women’s team members Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez. He believes that gymnastics is a sport with unparalleled psychological pressure, and the open scoring system is pushing athletes out of mental balance and disrupting their skills.
The scoring system, Andrews says, “is based not on what you did right but what you did wrong. It’s negative feedback.” That negative feedback spurs gymnasts to try and be more and more perfect, and that drive, paradoxically, works against them. Although fans might think the difficulty aspect in scoring takes the pressure off athletes to be perfect—they can score points for executing, if not perfectly, daring elements—that doesn’t turn out to be the case.
“With the difficulty aspect, there’s pressure to put more difficulty into your routine,” Andrews says. “Often, my gymnasts will be trying and falling and falling because they’re trying to integrate difficulty into their routine when they’re not ready, so their execution values suffer. I think the bad part of it is that it causes gymnasts to try to compete outside of their base talent level. Some may stretch themselves too far.”
For gymnasts, perfectionism is an occupational hazard. It stirs up a hornet’s nest of self-criticism. And that incessant buzz, Andrews explains, is anathema to “flow state,” the deep state of immersion named by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Otherwise referred to as “being in the zone,” flow is characterized by a deep focus in which mind and muscles work in harmony, block out distractions, and form motor skills that become implicit. When athletes enter the flow state, they can train for longer than when they are less focused. In contrast, when critical thoughts flit into an athlete’s head before, say, a difficult vault routine, they jar athletes out of the zone. The result can be injuries.
This problem has existed in gymnastics as long as the sport has rewarded flawlessness, Andrews says. But the open system makes the problem worse because dangerous maneuvers exacerbate gymnasts’ tendency to overthink. Flow state is achieved when a person hits what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development,” a challenging but conceivable goal. A routine in this zone is like an apple dangling just out of reach, a trick that makes you stretch yourself a little further. The open scoring system, Andrews says, puts the apple too far out of reach, and this plants gymnasts in a less helpful mental state. “You can’t overthink about what can go wrong,” Andrews says. “That’s a really bad way to approach gymnastics.”
Finding the zone where gymnasts can push themselves and excel is an ongoing process, Andrews says. But at some point, he adds, the gymnasts have to stare down the open scoring system and decide where they best shine. Perfection, as often said, is the enemy of the good. “As a gymnast, you have to be critical, but not to the point where you can’t make mistakes,” Andrews says.
Susie Neilson is an editorial fellow at Nautilus.