What judges want to see – straight from the ICU judges course

Reading time: 20 minutes.

What a weekend! I flew out to Glasgow this past weekend to take the ICU Judges Education course. Though I don’t want to start judging in the near future, we do need the information provided to build strong routines with our teams, which is why I’m sharing what I learned. I’m trying to be as precise as possible, but it was a lot of information to take in, so I cannot give you a 100% guarantee that everything I write is completely accurate. If there’s anything you think sounds weird or wrong, be sure to double check with an ICU certified judge. Equally, I’d be very happy for judges to sound off in the comments if they can correct certain points or elaborate on them in the comments. This post is going to be VERY long, and probably not very interesting for most athletes – but I still think the information is invaluable to coaches.

Note: Everything written in this post only applies to competitions with ICU scoresheets (such as SFO or Swiss Nationals). Allstar cheerleading for example follows a completely different set of criteria.

Other note: I’m trying to give you the best insights into the system that I can. I will also include some direct quotes from the course so you can get a feel for what ICU is aiming for. I’m not going to discuss whether I think the system is fair or accurate – it’s what we have, it’s not going to change, and I’ll try to explain as best as I can to give you some pointers on how to deal with that. All the information below is publicly available and usually shared through associations or event organisers.

How are ICU judges trained?

There are different types of judges in ICU competitions. The safety judge is responsible for everything that’s in the rulebook; he checks for legality. The safety judge does not give out any scores other than deductions for illegal moves. The other judges create the scores you see on your scoresheet, and that’s what this course was about.

We started out with around 6 hours of theoretical inputs: What to look for in cheer, stunts, pyramids and so on. We also watched videos and discussed specific parts to learn how we would score them. On day two, we spent 3 hours in the morning to go over some more details and then focused on watching a few full routines, each of us scoring it, then discussing our scores and why we gave those exact numbers. In the afternoon, we had our big test: We judged twenty full routines (from videos) like we would in a competition setting, in real time and with only around 3 minutes between routines. At the end, we handed in our master scoresheets which are now being evaluated by ICU. If we did well, we’ll get a certification and can immediately start judging all over the world (except World Championships) with no further training. The certification is valid for 4 years, after that the same course has to be taken again with the same test to continue judging competitions.

We only looked at level 5 and level 6 teams – this is the only education available at the moment. To judge the lower levels, you take the same principles and scale down the scores to suit the level. It is the responsibility of each individual judge to know which skills are considered “difficult” at what level. It’s also their responsibility to know about local adjustments to the ICU rulebook (there are some in Switzerland, we don’t have the exact same rulebook as ICU, but it’s almost identical).

Apart from me and two coaches from HBC, there were two Norwegian and one Welsh judge, all three of them retaking the course because their license had expired.

General info

ICU judges each assess the whole routine (unlike USASF, where one judge would only assess stunts, another one tumbling, and so on). They then give out a singular score, not separating difficulty from execution, for each part of the routine. At Swiss Nationals, we usually have 5 judges in a panel, of which the highest and the lowest score would be deleted, so you get three scoresheets with a grand total of 300 possible points.

There’s a head judge who is responsible for the other judges on the panel to score accurately and consistently. If there’s an inquiry about a score, the coach would speak to that head judge. Mind that the judges will never discuss the ranking with you, but the head judge will explain why you scored low in a part of the scoresheet if you go and talk to him after competition. Each judge takes a ton of notes during routines and writes down what they saw and why they scored it in the way they did, so they can give feedback if somebody comes asking.

ICU judging is comparative. You assess the first team as a kind of benchmark, then see if the next team was better or worse than that. This is part of the reason why scores aren’t given out right after the routine is finished: If they realise halfway through the competition that they scored the benchmark team way too high or too low and cannot accurately sort the following teams into a fair ranking, judges will go back and adjust, consulting their notes to do so.

Setting the tone: what a judge should do

From here on, I’m just repeating (sometimes in quotes) what was said at the course. If I add in my own opinion, I’ll point it out.

“We want you to have your own opinion and we want you to share it, that’s why we want you as a judge.” It isn’t the goal of the ICU to give an exact grid to judges; they give a lot of leeway. What they’re trying to do with the ranges (will explain later) and this course is for judges to have a “guided opinion”. The head judge for example stated: “I’m a bit of an execution judge, others might be more difficulty-focused, and that’s perfectly fine”.

I can hear the internal screaming of every coach reading this, but bear with me.

ICU doesn’t want you to build routines based on a scoresheet. They want you to build the best possible routine for your specific teams, and they want you to show them your individual style. Some countries are more flashy, like Thailand, and some are more down to business, like Germany. ICU doesn’t want to force them all into the same style. In some countries, tumbling is a central point of the sport, like in the USA, and in others, there’s barely any tumbling, like in Switzerland. You will see later in the post that with this kind of scoring system, many of these countries can still compete against each other in more or less equal conditions.

Though the judging isn’t completely objective or quantifiable, it’s pretty sound within itself. It’s just very hard to understand from a coach’s or athlete’s perspective. But that’s a whole other discussion (that I’d love to have with you, if you do wish so 😉). Now let’s get into it!

Difficulty ranges

ICU made a conscious decision not to assign specific difficulty values to skills because they don’t want the creativity of the sport to be lost. If they announced that a full around is worth 5 points and a TicToc is 7 points, nobody would even be learning full arounds anymore, and they’d all do the same thing. But then how is difficulty assessed?

Let’s establish some jargon first. When I say “Majority”, it means ½ the team +1 person. The long-standing myth that you need 85% of your team doing the skill is completely false – I specifically asked, and the head judge who lead the course has never heard of such a rule. There is, however, another terminology for something similar: The “Obvious Majority” means that you can see at first glance that basically everyone is involved. If you have a team of 25 and you run a group tumbling pass with 20 of them, that would probably be an obvious majority. I say probably because, as in all other areas, there is no fixed number you need to hit. It’s up to the judge. If of your 25 athletes, 15 run a pass, that would still be a majority, though probably not an obvious majority. Make sure to remember the difference.

The absolute number of athletes on the floor has no impact on any of your scores. Everything that matters is that you hit the majority or obvious majority.

Then there’s the low, mid and high range of points. These ranges exist for every part of the scoresheet:

Low Range Mid Range High Range
Cheer 1-4.5 5-7.5 8-10
Partner Stunts 10-14.5 15-19.5 20-25
Pyramids 10-14.5 15-19.5 20-25
Tosses (Baskets) 1-6.5 7-10.5 11-15
Tumbling 1-4.5 5-7.5 8-10
Overall Impression 1-4.5 5-7.5 8-10
Flow of Routine 1-2.5 3-4 4.5-5

These are the points that show up on your scoresheet, by the way, so if you have one handy you can go get it and assess it with the following info.

Your difficulty dictates into which point-range you’ll fall. So if you have a routine where all stunts have medium difficulty, the maximum amount of points you can get for stunts would be 19.5. No matter how perfectly you perform them, you won’t get into the twenties because you lack the difficulty. Now let’s get into detail of what is considered “difficult”. Again, there are no set numbers. It’s really the “guided opinion” of the judge if he or she considers something difficult enough for the high range or not. But I can give you a rough idea.

As we know, scores vary from judge to judge, but they should always be within 2 points of each other and they should all be in the same range (low, mid or high). If you feel like one or several judges got your range wrong, definitely go talk to the head judge. A judge might decide to put you into the mid range even though you showed high difficulty, but they’d need to be able to give a good reason for that: this could be serious execution issues or several falls, for example.

Note: What exactly needs to be in your routine isn’t written down anywhere. To be able to get into the high point range of every part of the scoresheet, you should divide the time you dedicate to each section according to the number of points you get:

  • 25% on stunts
  • 25% on pyramids
  • 10% on tumbling
  • 15% on tosses (yes, that’s a lot of tossing)

The rest of your 2:30 can be used to improve the flow of your routine or to emphasise something you’re really good at, for example another pyramid or stunt.

Lower levels

Levels 1-4 were not directly discussed at the course. You can assume that the highest skills allowed in the level (according to the rulebook) will get you into the high range. As it’s up to the judge to decide which stunts are hardest in the respective divisions, it’s also up to you as a coach to assess the difficulty of your stunts. I will be talking about levels 5&6 in the following as these are the only ones I can give more or less definitive answers to, but if you’d like to talk about lower levels I’d love to have that conversation (as I coach level 4 myself, I also have an interest 😉)

Cheer

The main purpose of the cheer portion is to lead and engage the crowd. Good crowd leading ability alone can get you in the high range here, there’s no need to throw amazing skills for that. Skills performed during the cheer do not count towards your routine. If you do an X-Out basket in a level 6 cheer for example, that doesn’t improve your basket score at all. The only time where the difficulty of skills performed in cheer comes into play is when there are two teams with the exact same crowd leading ability: then you’d get a half point or so more for your difficulty.

Other than that scenario, what judges want to see in the cheer is the effective (and maybe creative) use of signs, poms, flags, megaphones, voice etc. to enhance your crowd leading ability. Waving a flag just to wave a flag won’t get you far either. Everything you do has to either help the crowd follow along with your words, or get them to shout with you (even if they don’t start shouting, it’s about how you as a team try to get them to do it. Swiss crowds are shy, but that won’t knock points off your score.)

Another important aspect is your voice: is it constant throughout the cheer, or does the volume drop as soon as you start stunting? The words you say are extremely important. If they cannot be clearly understood, you lose a lot of points. A cheer should be very easy for the crowd to follow and participate in, even if you choose to use your native language instead of English. Everything said in a native language needs to be “explained” to the crowd with a visual cue: if you say “rouge” instead of red, hold up a red colored sign. Make it idiot-proof.

Motions are another very important part. They have to be extremely sharp and synchronised and serve a purpose (random motions and movements won’t get you anywhere). Holding up a sign is also considered a motion. If you use signs, try to keep them up at all times, even when dismounting stunts, so the crowd knows that the word will come up again. If you flip your signs, flip them before your word comes up, so the crowd knows what’s coming.

If you choose to perform skills, make sure they support your message. A basket back tuck might not be as effective to give punch to a word as a basket toe touch would be. Also, use stunts that are rock-solid; wobbles distract from your message and you lose crowd attention. If stunts or pyramids are too complicated, the crowd will also be distracted because they’re busy watching. Personal note: Imagine the crowd is a toddler, and you’re trying to keep its attention on a colorful toy. If you keep shoving chocolate in its mouth while you wave the toy in front of it, the toddler won’t care about the toy anymore, though it might be enjoying the chocolate – but that wasn’t your goal.

Lastly, make sure to cover the whole crowd (also those at the sides of the stands) and spread out across the floor as much as you can, even if you have few athletes to work with.

Tumbling

For level 5 and 6 teams, you’re looking for team-layouts and fulls to get into the high point range. Without at least a majority of layouts, you shouldn’t get above 7.5.

Jumps count towards tumbling, but you’d either need a series of 2 or more advanced jumps (pike & toe touch are considered advanced) for them to really add anything at all to your score (but that alone won’t get you into high range). Timing and motions on jumps need to be flawless. If you have poor jump technique on your whole team, it might not even be worth doing them at all, especially if you can’t connect them to standing tumbling.

The more synchronised tumbling you can do, the better, even if it’s at a lower level. More people going at the same time in perfect sync equals more points; but not if timing and execution are off. As no team in Switzerland can get into the high range in tumbling because we lack the skills, focus on flawless execution and flawless timing in group tumbling if you want to scrape another point or two.

Tosses (Baskets)

The number one priority of a toss is height. It’s well worth adding a front spot to the toss if that generates more height. To get into the high range, you need at least 2 tosses that are performed by the whole team. They need to be of the highest difficulty, and ideally of different styles.

For level 5, a kick double is probably the easiest toss to get into the high range. Others would include switch kick doubles or toe touch full twists. If you want to get towards the higher end of the high range, your two baskets should be different (not a kick double and then a switch kick double for example).

For level 6, straight back tucks would be the easiest skill, so that won’t get you close to the high range. To get into the high range, you’re looking at X-out full, full twisting or double twisting layouts, arabian fulls and so on. A simple arabian or front tuck full might not get you out of medium range, though that depends on the judge.

If you do opt for two similar-style baskets, think about adding in a third basket to add variation, even if that one is of lower difficulty. Again, your main concern is height and execution in the air. Coed teams are expected to throw way higher than allgirls. Try to get your baskets to all be the same height and work on perfect timing. Getting your girls to do kick fulls isn’t the hard part: Getting them to kick and twist at the exact same time is the tricky part.

Partner Stunts (includes all stunts)

Here’s where the biggest distinction between allgirl and coed is made. To get into the high range, a coed team is expected to put up extended, truly single-based (no assist) partner stunts with the obvious majority of the team. It doesn’t matter if there’s only one male athlete on the team. There’s no other way to get into the 20+ point range. Generally, coeds are expected to perform stunts with fewer bases/spotters than allgirls.

For all girl, the rule is somewhat similar, though the single-based stunt can be assisted, and you can also get into the high range through other things. The difficulty of stunts is assessed by looking at mounts, body positions, dynamics of bases (number and positioning/grips), dismount and sequencing or combination.

Generally speaking, the easiest stunts you can do are straight mounts or dismounts with no releases, such as liberties, show and goes, cradles etc. Next are spins, then releases, then inversions. This is the VERY general rule of thumb that’s given at the ICU course, and personally I think it’s not all that useful. I’m not sure I would consider a high-to-high TicToc harder than a high-to-high full around, and as I could very well be a certified judge soon, I might decide that on a competition day. Inversions are usually considered to be harder the further they travel up; a handstand on the bases shoulders to prep would be an easy inversion, a back handspring up to extended level would be harder. Add spins, and it gets even harder.

This is really more about common sense and your own (or the judge’s) experience with stunting. If a stunt is hard to do for the best teams out there, it’s probably a high-range stunt. If the stunt is already legal at level 3 and you’re performing it in level 5, it probably isn’t.

So for the high range in level 5, we’d be looking for inversions that land extended, one-and-a-half-ups or double ups, TicTocs that spin more than ¼ turn, something around that. Remember, these should be performed with the obvious majority of your team. Also, we’re looking for true single based stunts in coed and assisted single based stunts in allgirl. Double down dismounts will boost your score as well.

For level 6, we’re talking rewinds to the top (rewinds to sponge won’t get you into high range, but rewind to prep immediately pressed up to extended might, depending on the judge), back tuck or arabian dismounts, all kinds of hard inversions and so on. Also, most everything I mentioned for level 5 would probably get you towards the high range as well. The more variety you show, the better.

I stress again that there is no list of stunts that are considered hard. All examples above were discussed at some point or another at the ICU judges course and considered hard, but it always depends on how you do it and in what combination.

Body positions are easier: Liberty, heel stretch and arabesque are considered easy. Scale, Scorpion and Bow & Arrow are hard. Your execution will matter though.

To assess execution, judges look for unnecessary movement of the bases or how solid they are, how easily flyers seem to be hitting their stunts and body positions, if things land where they’re intended to go or if they need to be pressed up, and how much of a fight athletes put up before dropping a stunt. Of course they also look for generally bad technique, like crossed legs in twists. A slight wobble might lose you some 0.5 points per judge, a controlled fall around a point, a flyer dropped to the ground around two points and really dangerous drops anywhere from 3-5 points. Also, if you don’t hit your stunt at all (it comes down before there’s even the chance of a fight), you won’t get credit for doing that stunt and you might lose your “obvious majority”.

You want to stunt – where possible – without a front spot (in stunts, not in tosses). You’d be better off having left-over athletes do a tumbling pass or just choreography if you can hit your stunts without the front spot. Also: Don’t hide left over athletes behind your stunt teams, judges are actively looking for them and they’ll find them. Have them do choreography or put up another stunt if you can.

Pyramids

Drum roll please… There’s actually a quantifiable part in pyramids! I know, exciting. You want to hit more than 2 structures in your pyramid – the more, the better. Having more structures than your competition will help you a lot. A structure is any stunt at the highest allowed level that is connected to another stunt. For level 5, that means every extended flyer that’s connected to any other stunt or person (for example a liberty with the free foot being held by a shoulder sit). For level 6, it’s a flyer standing on top of another flyer. For each person at the highest level who’s connected to someone else, you get 1 structure. So lib-elevator-lib-elevator-lib would be 3 structures in level 5, and none in level 6. A Swedish Fall pyramid would be 1 structure in level 6.

To get into the high range, you should have two separate pyramid sections instead of one very long sequence. (Note: This is the opinion of the head judge who gave the course, and he trained every judge currently active across the world. The other judges present agreed, but didn’t seem entirely sure when I asked about it until the head judge gave his ruling. In my opinion, not every judge will remember this “rule”. As you certainly don’t lose points for having two separate sections, I advise to do two just to be safe.)

Your difficulty is measured by the amount of structures you show, the difficulty of those structures, the variety of structures shown, and the difficulty of the mounts and dismounts into your structures. Creativity in transitions also helps your score.

For level 5, most of your structures will be liberties connected to something, so try to be creative in how you get there. Have a variety of connections, for example a hitch, hand-hand, heel stretch or arabesque connection. Everything considered “hard” in stunts will also be hard in pyramids, so doing a high-to-high full around straight into a hitch or inversions for example will score you some points. The hardest mounts would include inversions from the ground to the very top while holding one middle layer, like a rewind held on one side. Combine flips and twists for difficult dismounts, but be careful with your execution, as poorly performed dismounts might be a rulebook-concern (illegal downward inversions). Be creative with fly-overs and moving pyramids, and try to give your pyramid some depth instead of just lining up all your stunt groups next to each other. Don’t forget to hit your structures and leave them up for a few seconds.

For level 6, you can assess the difficulty of a structure by asking the following question: If a middle layer misses her grip or falls, will the whole pyramid collapse? In a 4-2-1 pyramid for example, if one middle layer catches a really bad grip or fumbles, the other middle layer can hold on to the flyer for a bit without the stunt immediately collapsing. In a Swedish fall though, if the middle layer at the torso of the top flyer falls, the pyramid comes straight down, so it’s considered hard. The exception to this method would be a high split, which is considered easier, because the weight is more evenly distributed between middle layers. Some of the hardest pyramids would be extended flat back pyramids, as the top flyer cannot do anything to save the pyramid if it wobbles.

Tossing your level 6 pyramids straight up into your structures or even having flyers step over from a liberty onto a hitch won’t get you into the really high points; twisting and flipping up without a middle layer guiding the top flyer improves your score.

The number of bases under a middle layer don’t have a direct impact on your score, but the more people you need to hold up your middle layers, the less you have to build structures or transition freely.

In pyramids especially, synchronisation is key. If your pyramids has two sides, make sure they’re in perfect sync.

Flow of the routine

As this is only a 5 point maximum, it’s very hard to get out of the mid range. I can’t give you any detailed advice, because we weren’t given information on how exactly to give a score – it’s up to the judge.

One aspect is the pace of your routine: Are there a lot of downtimes where nobody is moving? Does it look hasty and stressed or can your athletes move from section to section efficiently without running frantically? Does your routine look like distinct “images” and you just move from one to the next, or did you make an effort to connect your stunts to your jumps or tumbling or pyramid? All of that counts towards flow.

Overall impression

We were told that this is “your personal opinion on the routine”. It’s very subjective. Some judges might like Allstar-style routines, some prefer the ICU style. It’s not completely controllable for you as a coach, but your athletes can do a lot to convince the judges.

First, all of the in-between stunts or baskets you sprinkle in between team stunts or team baskets count towards the overall impression. If you add in some “show” stunts during transitions, make sure they are absolutely rock solid – you will get deducted for wobbles and falls, but they don’t add to your stunt score if it’s only one stunt group doing something.

Dance, as it’s not a separate section of the scoresheet, is scored in the overall impression. It’s only worth showing a dance portion if your team is good at dancing, and you might get an additional half point for a good dance or a full point if it’s super amazing. If your team can’t dance, use the time to put up another stunt or pyramid or basket, wherever you think you might scrape another point.

Athletes shouldn’t be bumping into each other during formation changes, they should always walk with purpose and in an organised manner as opposed to a beehive. Try not to have athletes or stunt groups crossing the middle of the floor without reason.

Judges should not take off points from the overall score for stunt or pyramid falls, because they’ve already taken them off in the respective section. Still, the more overall solid your routine is, the better the impression after the routine will be.

What’s clearly visible is if your athletes seem stressed and worried during the routine or if they appear confident and look to be having fun. It makes a difference if someone is screaming towards the crowd out of pure joy in the moment, or if they were choreographed to do so. Their behavior and expressions should appear natural.

Playing your strengths

Use your time on the mat wisely. Know the strengths of your team and play them; that’s what the ICU scoresheet is built for. If you’re really good at pyramids but don’t have the best tumbling, show the tumbling you have in as little time as possible. You might lose a point, but maybe you can make up 2 points in your pyramid if you have more time to practice it to perfection. Know that jumps and dance aren’t a requirement. If your team jumps well, show off those jumps – if you can’t get them synchronised, maybe they’re not worth the mat-time.

Personal notes

I want to give huge credit to every judge currently active across the world: This is a super stressful job and I don’t think I could sit through a whole competition. While I still disagree with the scoring system in a lot of ways, I can see some fair points after taking the course. Nevertheless, I think it’s very problematic to basically have one person in charge of every single judge in the world; it’s all really just one opinion. I also think the lack of further education for judges is a huge issue. There should be a course dedicated to levels 1-4, and there should be courses that go into further detail for more experienced judges. But in the end, this is what we have, and we have to deal with it.

I know that this post contained a lot of information and I’m sorry for the length of it, but I wanted to share every bit of info that I took home. This information is usually shared through associations or event organisers, so the ICU expects every coach to be informed at least about the different ranges and what they need to put into their routine.

After thinking about all of this, I came up with the following tips for you guys to build the best possible routines:

  1. Know the strengths and weaknesses of your team and assess, using the information above, where you want to invest your time.
  2. Know your range. If you know you can’t put up high-range stunts with the majority of your team, pick your mid-range stunts and try to get those 19.5 points for them. If your scores have continuously been at the top of the low or mid range, think about upping your difficulty for the next season, as you won’t get any higher than the top of your range with those same stunts.
  3. Focus on a good cheer. These are the absolute easiest points to get; with enough time and dedication, every team can get into the high range. It doesn’t take any physical skill that require years of training to engage a crowd.
  4. Make sure your athletes are confident and comfortable with everything they perform at competitions. They will make fewer mistakes, and the energy and happiness they convey to the crowd and the judges will up their overall impression score.

If there’s anything I didn’t include in my post (though I think I was pretty thorough 😉), feel free to leave a comment below and we’ll discuss it – this way, everyone can profit from the information, and maybe a certified judge can weigh in as well. Again, if any judge reads this, feel free to correct any mistakes in the comments or add information if you have further knowledge.

I wish everyone a very happy season and I hope this helps you and the sport to move forward over the next few years!

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