"Judging was only a little bit better than last year's (Nationals). Only because it couldn't be worse." Ted Wagner at the U.S. National Skydiving Championships 2000.
Many competitors and judges simply do not understand each other. They certainly don't agree on some of the scores that end getting posted. And maybe too often, judges miss making accurate calls, which ultimately determine some teams standing worldwide. This situation is not new to just skydiving; it's prevalent in many other sports. But observing the outcome of this year's Nationals and the numerous busts that the judges missed in their multiple viewings brings up the questions on how judges are trained and how they address their work task.
In talking with Ted and Tim Wagner, both who have designed and revolutionized the sport with their scoring system, Omniskore, and Rob Work, who was a judge at this year's Nationals, they all agree that certain modifications would not only help everyone, but are desperately needed. All three are also former competitors and Golden Knights, so they're very aware of the views from both sides of the fence.
Fifteen years ago, skydiving did not have full-time teams. Now, there are many, but there are still no full-time judges. Judging has not kept pace with the evolution of the sport.
At the Nationals, the judges get paid a mere stipend of $40 a day. Tim suggests that maybe if they got paid $100 a day plus all expenses, the demand for the position would be greater.
"Make it competitive. Sign up 15 judges, put them through boot camp before the Nationals and whoever pushes the buttons the best, put them in the meet," Tim says.
He feels that teams that are already paying tens of thousands of dollars will be more than cooperative in paying more in entry fees just to get a higher caliber of judging. It is these very judges, who score their performance at the Nationals for example, who determine if they get to go to the World meet. This is not taken lightly by either side; however, competitors have more to lose from a false ruling or inconsistencies.
The judges also need to practice more throughout the year. The Wagner brothers designed a piece of software a couple of years ago that mimics a judging panel, called the Omnitrainer. People can play the skydive on their VCR and practice pressing the buttons.
More important is "knowing the dive pool inside and out like the chief judge needs to know the rules," says Ted Wagner. This is a valid reason why competitors make better judges and need to get more involved in the other side. Judges miss grips placed on the wrong leg or a jumper turned a 180 degrees in the opposite direction all the time.
Tim brings up the theory of "perceptual judging vs. analytical judging." He compares it to reading a book. When one looks at a word in a book, one knows what it means as a whole and also knows instantly if it is misspelled. One is not dissecting its parts, or letters. Judging needs to more like that. More instinctual, instantaneous and less analytical.
Rob Work defends the other side by saying that when he got into the judging room, he found it to be "an eye-opening experience." He notes, "They are doing their job better than I expected."
Rob says that competitors don't understand all the elements going on inside the judging room and should experience it for themselves, if only once. Skydivers need to see how many things judges are actually looking for at the same time and the details that go into preparing a judging round. The judges can't talk to each other or shake their heads if a blatant bust occurs, and they only know a team by its number, not by its standing. Overall, it's hard, hard work.
The judging volume at this year's Nationals of "47 skydives in a hour for 10 hours straight" does make it challenging, and human error does creep into the picture. With two panels of five judges, "hopefully, the majority catches (the bust)."
Tim Wagner is putting together a Judge 2000 Training Tape. He did another video like this with the '98 Nationals. He compiles 40 to 50 of the more challenging skydives from the Nationals on a tape and proceeds to analyze every jump with a 30-40 page manual. He points out what the judges should look at and how they should judge, often comparing the results to how they were judged.
He does have "the advantage of being at home, alone, with his VCR, without the pressure they're feeling here." But his goal is to supply judges with a competent tape and a full summer season in 2001 to practice.
"The biggest obstacle is the concept of pushing the point button until they see a penalty," says Tim. "They should hover over the penalty button until they see a point, and that should be the modern concept."
He continues, "You're not doing you're job if you don't have a lot of red marks. With fast teams like Maubeuge, you have to be on your toes. You have to be really fast."
Because as Rob Works notes from his coaching and competitor background, it is a well known practice to try to "blind them with speed. The judges get into a button pushing mode and are not going to see it."
"Judges are afraid to offend," says Ted, and Tim adds, "A really good judge is not there to make friends."
But they need to know their job really well. So instead of taking a defensive stance when they're confronted by glaring, demanding competitors, judges can come back with a confident and informed response, "Show me your tape, and I’ll discuss in it what I saw or what I didn't see."