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Friday, March 22, 2013

Rewarding A, Hoping for B

There is a classic management article called "On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B". For those who don't feel like looking it up (although you really should!), the argument, in a nutshell, is that reward systems are often geared to provide incentives for behavior that they might actually want to discourage, while not really encouraging the desired behavior. I recently reread this article, and began to wonder if perhaps the IJS and its development over the years reflects a process by which the ISU is rewarding A, and then C, and then D, and later on K, and maybe A again but slightly different, while hoping for some sort of vaguely defined B.

The goal of the judging system, as I understand it, is to reward the best combination of difficulty and execution possible - ideally, the sort of program that would pass the Bolero test, and barring that, at least a very good program. How does one accomplish this? What is the best way to balance the two? It seems clear that the ISU is still trying to find that elusive balance, and the constant tinkering is the result of a realization, time and again, that once again it has rewarded something other than B. An obvious problem is one of the factors named in the article as underlying the wrong-reward phenomenon: the emphasis on objective and more easily observable things. But not everything can be quantified and measured objectively, certainly not in a complex sport with both a technical and an artistic component.

Some of the changes we have seen over the years include added combinations, higher base value for quads, lower value for quads, higher again, bigger negative GOEs for quads, back to regular negative GOEs for quads, reduced GOEs for triples, the choreographic step sequence, the pattern-less step sequence, the abolition of the spiral sequence, various restrictions on what sort of spins can be performed, the addition of the 3A (for women) and second quad (for men) as possible SP elements, the SD, the SP second half bonus, numerous clarifications of how to judge PCS, encouragement to use the entire positive GOE range, variations in downgraded jump values, and probably many other changes that I have missed. The result has been consistently the same: difficulty is emphasized over execution, and everyone gets upset (Jeffrey Buttle's quad falls, the marks for certain medalists at this year's Worlds), changes are made, execution is emphasized over difficulty, and everyone gets upset (the great Quad Controversies culminating in Vancouver), so changes are made. Repeat ad nauseum.

Can these be considered "B programs"?

I don't know how to devise the perfect scoring system, and certainly any change can have unintended consequences. That said, perhaps after Sochi the ISU powers that be and the various technical committees can figure out more precisely what exactly is the B that they want to reward, rather than simply revising the rewards and punishments piecemeal and on an ongoing basis.

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