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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The problem with backloaded programs

"Max Aaron isn't the only one in figure skating who knows how to backload a program. Pairs do pretty well with it, too."

This was the first sentence of Ice Network's recap article of the pairs event at the 2013 US International Figure Skating Classic (who came up with that name, anyway?), with a headline to match. My reaction was "and you say that like it's a good thing!" But it certainly appears as though backloading programs is the way to go these days: one week earlier, Nathan Chen won the Junior Grand Prix event in Mexico City with a strange free skate layout that included two (solo) first half double Axels against six jumping passes in the second half. In 2010, Evan Lysacek's jump layout helped him defeat Evgeni Plushenko, whose jump content was harder but not as strategically distributed.

Why, exactly, are these unbalanced programs considered a good thing?

The reason so many skaters perform backloaded programs is simple: second half jump elements receive a 10% base value bonus, which can work out to several much-needed points. The ISU's rationale in rewarding this is theoretically sound: it is to try and ensure that skaters do not stick all their difficult jumps in the first half, then cruise through the later parts of the program. The problem, of course, is in the execution - the bonus for any jump element performed in the second half has led to many programs in which skaters reel off their two or three most difficult jumps to begin, then take a breather for a minute and more with spins, posing, or that well-known marker of quality programs, Transitions. Once the clock strikes midnight hits the halfway mark, off go our skaters to execute their remaining jump elements, saving perhaps one triple (an easier one, most likely) for the final minute.

Nathan, you are awesome. But please don't do this again.

The backloaded program layout is not particularly appealing (to me, at least), and, I would argue, is no more difficult than a more balanced once, as evinced by the fact that so many skaters are able to execute it more or less successfully. It is not truly differentiating the best skaters or even the really good ones from the rest of the pack, so what's the point, exactly? The jump-pose-jump-jump layout has also infected the SPs, where a similar bonus was introduced at the beginning of the 2012-13 season (the solo quads with no steps going into them are also a problem, but that's a matter for another post).

This needs to stop. While I do not want skaters to start frontloading their programs, I do think a good program should be balanced, with the different elements well-distributed throughout. Rather amusingly, the second half bonus appears on scoring protocols under the title "Credit for highlight distribution", when it's often not well-distributed at all. How, then, could the goal of difficult yet better balanced programs be accomplished?

If it were up to me, I would mandate that at least one third of the jump elements must be performed in each half of the program. That still leaves some room for maneuvering and perhaps actually matching the content to the music. And since skaters will have less opportunity to differentiate themselves by tacking on second half jumps, they might have to do so by tackling more of their difficult jumps near the end of the program, rather than just more jumps in general. For the multiple quad brigade, how about one quad to start things off and another in the second half? In addition, I would consider a sliding bonus scale: 5% for a second half jump, but 15% or more for one performed in the final quarter. A triple Salchow throw at the halfway mark doesn't carry the same wow factor of a closing throw triple Axel, nor should it be rewarded in the same way. Especially if it is preceded by nothing more demanding than some angsty face making.

Wow ending to a not-very-wow program

As fans, we should applaud not just difficulty but also quality. Backloading a program may be the former (sometimes) but it is often not the latter. So, dear ISU - please do something about it.

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