NBCOlympics.com asked longtime commentators Ted Barton, Tanith White, and Ryan Bradley what fans of figure skating can do to make sure they’re the smartest ones in the room when watching the sport. Plus, learn how to explain scoring and strategy to your friends with helpful analogies from other sports. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tanith White is the 2006 Olympic silver medalist in ice dance with her partner Ben Agosto. She also placed fourth with Agosto at the 2010 Vancouver Games. White is now a figure skating analyst with NBC Sports, and is covering her third Olympics in PyeongChang.
Ryan Bradley is the 2011 U.S. national champion. He is now a coach and a figure skating analyst with NBC Sports.
Ted Barton started as a figure skater in his youth and competed at the world championships, eventually coaching 12 national team members. In the ‘90s, he helped create and train judges on the television replay system to review skating elements. Then, Barton got in on the ground floor of developing the International Judging System for the International Skating Union (ISU) back in 2002. He is a commentator for the ISU on the Junior Grand Prix series, and is Skate Canada British Columbia/ Yukon’s executive director, managing 20,000 skaters across 120 clubs.
What to know about skaters falling:
Ted Barton: When a skater falls, there isn’t a choice for a judge to not deduct [one point]. It’s automatic, they have to. I think the audience or an uneducated audience sometimes thinks “hey, how come that person won when but they fell twice? And another skater didn’t fall at all?” Well, the other skater did double jumps and the other skater did triples and quads, right? So the falls automatically are deducted. It’s not a judgement thing there. It’s just completely automatic and pure math. There was a time where people would complain: “Oh, that person shouldn’t win.” They got deducted for the fall, but they just did three quad jumps which are worth a lot more than the other guy, right? So I think that’s a simple thing to clarify. You can win with a fall based on the difficulty of the remaining part of the programs and the quality.
[Don’t] think there’s anything nefarious here. Judges have to put their scores in, and they don’t even know really where it relates to anybody else. It’s not like it used to be, where the American judge would put the Americans first and the Russians would put them fourth. It’s not like that.
Ryan Bradley: You could make up for a fall based on the quality of how you do everything else. A fall is only technically worth one point, depending if it’s on an element or not, it can be up to four points. But you can make up four points in other ways in the program especially if you have higher technical content.
Tanith White: So here’s the caveat, right? Just because a top skater falls, doesn’t mean they can’t still win – except in dance. That’s the asterisk. In dance, you’re at the top and you fall? You’re not gonna win. That’s it! There’s so few falls. It’s such an interruption in the performance, which is such a key part of an effective dance program, that the whole mirage of whatever they’re trying to create in terms of a theme is shattered.
What to know about other deductions:
Tanith White: I think one of the key things in ice dance, when you see a deduction come up with the scores in the absence of a fall it’s almost always for an extended lift. There’s only a certain allotted amount of time for each lift. That’s one of the number one questions that I get: ‘Why is there a deduction?’
Another common deduction, most often in singles, is a time violation.
What to know about under-rotated jumps:
Tanith White: I think under rotations are a huge thing. When people skate clean and their scores come up, and everyone’s like, ‘huh? Where did the numbers go?’ You compare two performances, even if you happen to know the jumps, same jump content, strikingly different scores. Same jump layout, and you know, the under rotations are huge because they’re so hard to see.
Ryan Bradley: You could see somebody go out and skate perfectly – what appears to be perfectly – and then that technical score will just plummet. It will drop like 20 points from the end of their program to their protocol. The things that you want to look for are the spray on the landing. When you see the snow coming off the toe pick, that’s a pretty big sign that their weight is forward. They could potentially be short. If you watch the feet in somebody’s landing, even in real time, if you see that heel flick around, that happens because when they’re rotating, it’s so fast that you’re not gonna notice the heel turning at a different time than the body. But when they’re rotating and they hit the ice early, it slows down just enough that it looks fishy. If you’re watching in real time and you see something funny with the feet it’s probably under.
If you see that glint of light off the heel of the blade – that’s what the specialists are looking for. If they see that, ‘they’re like, uh oh, go to the review screen.’ If you’re sitting there watching your favorite person skate, and they skate great, and their scores don’t come up right away, that’s a pretty bad sign.
What to know about a skater’s speed:
Ted Barton: If you, as a viewer, sense that a skater is going faster, if they’re more aggressive, if you’re watching that on TV, that’s probably true. Therefore, if they look – not if they entertain you more, that’s another aspect – faster, or if they’re stronger, if they jump higher, if that’s what you’re sensing, that’s probably true. You’re seeing them on TV, then that’s gonna be worth something. You can get a sense from that. They were fast, they’re strong, they’re doing all the difficult elements, and you can hear that in the crowd, and hear that in the commentators, that’s a pretty good bet this is a really good skater.
Tanith White: If you’re astute enough that someone is getting from one end of the ice to the other quicker, and their patterns are bolder and broader, they’re probably covering more ice. Something I always look for is, when you’re pretty familiar that someone is setting up a jump, let’s say from one end of the ice to the other, and they’re gonna jump on the other end of the ice, some skaters will do five crossovers, and some will do two. That’s a really easy to gauge.
Ted Barton: Nathan Chen is a perfect example. He has now created a world that may have been unwanted by the other guys. Doing two quads was a big thing. Doing five quads? How do you beat five quads? Now you either gotta do five quads, or you best do three with unbelievable better skating skills. Nathan doesn’t have a lot of transitions because he’s doing a lot of quads. You’re gonna have to do three quads with unbelievable skating skills. Or you’re gonna do four quads, you’re gonna get yourself close to him, but beat him in other points. It’s like a football team winning the game on field goals. They didn’t score any touchdowns, the other team scored three touchdowns, but the winning team scored 15 field goals. Right? So your strategy to win now is much different. There is strategy to win. So that’s what’s so interesting about the system. But also complicated for the Olympic figure skating [viewers] – a person’s not gonna pick that up quickly. But if you like figure skating, and you follow it, you begin to pick that up.
I think too often we speak in figure skating terms. We can speak in other sporting terms and they can get it. Every coach now says “okay, my ball game is four and a half minutes long. I get four and a half minutes to show my stuff. I’m weak in this, I’m weak in this, but I’m really strong in that. So I’m putting that one up front.” Or, “My kid is in such good shape, they can do the difficult elements in the second half of the program.” Whereas somebody else says, “After two minutes, my guy’s sucking wind here! I gotta get those difficult elements up front and then perform for two minutes in the second half.” It allows for so much more strategic options, which may suit a particular skater differently.
What is ‘back loading’ a program?
Tanith White: Skaters who are capable of putting their big-ticket items in the second half of their program are rewarded generously for them. Two clean performances with a different layout can have strikingly different scores.
Ryan Bradley: The old school of thought was to front load, which is why that rule became a thing. People like myself would do all three jumps in their short in the first minute and then just play for the last minute and a half. They changed that rule to stop that from happening; now they’re getting the complete opposite.
Ted Barton: That’s why that term came up, a “well balanced” program, because it was front loaded. A person would go out there, pound out the difficult elements for the first 45 seconds or a minute, and then stand and dance for the next two minutes. We said, ‘ah, that’s ridiculous. We need a well-balanced program throughout.’ One of the things that we did was, one of the things we had come up with, was that, look. If you’re skating for four and a half minutes, and you’re gonna do a triple-triple combination at the four minute mark, physically, that’s unbelievably difficult, let alone a quad.
So that has to be valued, valuable in the athletic aspect of the sport if you’re doing that difficult element – it’s like fourth down, fourth quarter, five seconds left, and you’re 40 yards away. You need a touchdown, not a field goal. So, getting that one pass at that one moment is far more difficult than getting the 40-yard pass in the first quarter, because if you miss it, it’s not a big deal. At this point, the pressure’s on. My point is, in a free program, you get to the fourth minute and you’re gambling on getting the extra point in the fourth end of the program. It’s far more physically difficult and far more risky. Because if you don’t get it, first of all you don’t get the points, and you’ve destroyed the last images, if you will, of the performance for the judge. So that’s why the value of the second half was important. But the athletes are getting so good now that they’re able to do the elements near the end of the program. They’re more efficient, physically.
As a figure skater, how can you make an audience fall in love with you?
Ted Barton: They may fall in love with your skating, but if you get off the ice and you’re a pig – or you’re just not very nice, or you’re rude, or you don’t pay attention, or you’re self-centered, or whatever the case may be – there will be a smaller portion of people that will engage with you. If you skate well and you capture the imagination of that human moment, and the effort that you made and the appreciation that you have as a young person, then they fall in love with you. It’s not about what you do on the ice, but what you do off the ice. And you can teach people that to a certain degree, but some people are just naturally caring and naturally communicative.
So that’s how you do it. You do it by doing a great job on the ice and making people feel “oh, that was so beautiful.” And you come off the ice and you’re as charming off the ice in an interview as you were on the ice in your performance. Or as dynamic off the ice in an interview, as dynamic as you were on the ice. It doesn’t have to be just charming and nice. It can be hilarious, with bags of personality. What it can’t be with is a negative approach to life.
Tanith White: Don’t discount the way the program makes you feel. That’s still very much a part of figure skating, or at least it’s intended to be. We talk so much about the factoring and the scores and it’s very technical, but at the end of the day, the artistry is still intended to be half of your score. Not exclusively artistry, but the performances. Those intangibles still factor into that number. If you don’t know anything about figure skating but you watch a performance and feel moved emotionally, that should still be reflected in the scores. That’s the subjective component that still exists. I’m glad it does, because it’s the inspiring part, too.
It’s like art, too. Everybody likes something different. That intangible connection that you make to a skater or a performance is valid and worth something. If your favorite skater isn’t at the top, that may just be because that part of them that you connect with and that you like is only part of their score. There’s a lot more to it than that.
Ryan Bradley: Just because you connect with somebody doesn’t mean everybody connects with them, which is a difficult thing. For me as a skater, it was difficult for me to connect with different audiences. In the US, it was very easy because culturally I understood things. I’d go to Europe and fall flat. What I found entertaining, they didn’t necessarily. You can see the discrepancy from competition to competition because of things like that.
Know your own experience as a figure skating fan:
Ted Barton: If somebody [has] charm and presentation, you just happen to like them, you need to question, I wonder if they skate fast enough? I wonder if they have enough steps? I wonder if they have really the difficult elements, because I don’t really know as a viewer. So they need to have some checks and balances for themselves.