Germany to NCAA

For those of you who have kept up with my blog during my time in Germany, this will be a slight deviation from talking about my normal life so bear with me!

This weekend, I had the opportunity to finally reunite with one of Michigan’s former gymnasts, Alex Bubnov. Alex’s final season was my first season with the team, the season where we won the NCAA title at home – something that I’ll remember forever.

He, as well as former Penn State gymnast, Matt Felleman, are now competing in a professional circuit in Germany. Going into the meet I didn’t know what to expect, what the scoring would be like, or even the level of the athletes. After watching the meet and taking some time to reflect on the concept of this program, I believe there are some valuable takeaways that could be transferred to the American NCAA system to potentially rejuvenate a dying sport.

Here are some articles detailing the declining status of men’s gymnastics.

NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Update From Coach Mike Burns

Men’s Gymnastics to Face Temple for Final Time

In this dual-style meet, unlike in NCAA where each team has a set order to each rotation, this is a head-to-head battle and you don’t know if and/or when you will compete til right before you are about to perform. It’s not always about utilizing your full difficulty but beating in a clean manner.

This program has found a way to marry the older “perfect 10” system and the new FIG code of points. The gymnasts are still scored using the FIG system however that exact score is not what determines who wins points for his team. The gymnast can earn 0-5 points for his team based on difficulty/final FIG score.

For example…Matt Felleman went head-to-head with Lars Sauerland on Pommel horse.

Matt Felleman Lars Sauerland
5.3 D score 3.8 D score
8.05 E score 7.1 E score
13.35 Total 10.9 Total

Matt won 5 points for the team and it was incredibly exciting! A 5 flashed across the screen and the arena erupted in cheer. (Side note – even if he had won only 3 points the other team still receives 0. There are not 5 points total to be won and you split them. You either win or lose the round and then if you win the round you win either 1 – 5 points, if you lose, you always get 0 points added to your total.)

2015-10-17 16.43.40 2015-10-17 16.43.42

It made me wonder if this is the way to ‘save’ NCAA men’s gymnastics. It was apparent that the fans were not avid gym nerds, but they could tell the difference in Matt’s routine v.s. some of the others. Not only are his skills more difficult but the height and flair in his routines exceeded that of his competitors. The same can be said for Alex. Alex only performed 9 skills (typically gymnasts perform 10,) in his rings routine, and still beat his opponent by over 2 FIG points, which his a huge margin. *This is important because it allows athletes to not always use their full difficulty if they don’t need to. I’ll expand on why this is important later on.*

So why not make the switch? It goes back to using a number system EASY enough for everyone to identify with, yet still implements the FIG system to be competitive with the intermixed elite season. I think it’s worth noting that a member of their team, Philipp Herder, is currently in Glasgow about to compete for Germany at the World Championships. This alone is proof that you CAN maintain an exceptional level of gymnastics while competing under this system. 

One of the other issues associated (In my opinion,) with the decline of men’s gymnastics is the length of the meets. You will be hard-pressed to find someone who loves men’s gymnastics more than I do, but even so, I find the NCAA meets to be exhaustive in length at times. This head-to-head battle cuts the time in half. Now instead of having up to 7 gymnasts (depending on what point in the season, AA, exhibition, etc.,) competing per event per team, you only have 4.

The arena was packed. People had to resort to finding standing room. Many NCAA teams now are lucky to sell a couple hundred tickets.

So why can we not do the same? Is it just that the Germans do it better? I think not. Yesterday, I saw routines from the other team that would’t even make it onto our club teams in America – hear me clearly, that is not a slide as I was a collegiate club gymnast myself – I say this only to demonstrate the immense talent right in our backyard that is being pushed away due to a complicated system, or so some claim. This system is not going away, so why not work WITHIN the system?

From what I can see, this format could potentially lessen injury as well. You are matching individuals in a team setting on each apparatus. So let’s take Michigan for example. Last year, Stacey Ervin would usually put up monster scores on floor and that would always be valuable because perhaps Michigan might struggle later on high bar and his score on floor would balance out where the team may be weak in other areas. So let’s say Michigan competes against team X who has a highest potential score on floor of 14. Stacey could  water down his routine and avoid such intense landings and therefore decrease risk of injury. Or, perhaps Michigan could rest him and utilize Anthony Stefanelli who also generates high scores on floor, knowing that either score they put up would demolish a 14.

I am not an expert. I have no power. I do not know the correct solution to the problem looming in front of us is. What I do have is a belief in men’s gymnastics and would like to see some action taken to not only to preserve the state of this incredible sport, but also to increase participation, appreciation, and opportunities for these amazing athletes. Working with Michigan Men’s Gymnastics has given me opportunities I never thought possible. I have worked championships across the country, both national and international, and now even get to head to Glasgow later this week to work the 2015 Artistic World Gymnastics Championships. This sport doesn’t only affect those competing but also inspires, creates opportunities, and changes the lives of those around it. It is for that reason that I am so passionate and driven to help find a solution to this problem.

There is never going to be a perfect solution because perfect doesn’t exist, but it’s clear a change is needed. Perhaps taking a lesson from our friends ‘across the pond’ might be the answer we’ve all been looking for.

Happy Sunday!




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