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Who's judging judges?

Diving is one of few high school sports scored by unsanctioned officials with no formal training.

By LAURA LEE, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2003

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
At pool's edge, judges, from left to right, Ernie Whalen, Brian Vaile, Tim Holme, Bill Walker and Tony Perriello scrutinize a district meet dive.

Madeline Dent used to go by the feeling in her gut; a simple process of determining if a dive was good or bad. After seven years of watching son Kyle dive, she thought she had a pretty good idea of what a dive was worth.

So when Berkeley Prep diving coach Jay Goldstein asked her to help this season, she agreed.

"Having watched diving so long, he figured I was halfway there," Dent said.

Goldstein gave her a sheet of paper with an abbreviated list of judging criteria. He watched dives alongside her and evaluated her scores. Then he handed her a scorecard with numbers from 0-10 and a poolside seat next to two coaches.

And with that, she was a diving judge.

Diving, one event of 13 in a swim meet, is one of the few sports in the Florida High School Athletic Association with no sanctioned officials. That leaves volunteer coaches and parents to judge the sport, even at the state championship level.

They must subjectively decide if a dive was unsatisfactory or good - or if it was even the right dive.

In most other sports, officials belong to an association that offers training and monitors performance. In football, for instance, referees are required to pass a test before they're allowed on the field, and then usually start at the junior varsity or middle school level.

Joe Greenwell, general manager of Brandon Swimming and Tennis Center, coached former state champ Chris Caldwell and volunteers as a judge. He sees a problem, especially at some dual meets where "there is no qualified person judging."

No championships are on the line in a dual meet, but with only three judges, every score counts. At district meets and beyond, five judges do the honors, and the state meet uses a rotating panel of seven. At those meets, the low and high scores are thrown out.

At dual meets, divers are lucky to get two diving coaches (not every school has one). The third judge can be a swim coach, who may have little experience with diving, or a parent. Parents are rarely on panels at larger meets, where more schools are involved.

Most coaches say parents would rather not judge, but sometimes it's the only option.

"It's hard to be objective if it's your own kid," said Osceola coach Ernie Whalen, who was a competitive diver in college. "It's tough as a coach sometimes."

That's why Goldstein, who continues to dive in the masters' division, trained a few of the parents on his team, such as Dent.

"I was very nervous with my son being a diver," Dent said. "I didn't want to favor him in any way. I probably think I err on the side of being harder on him. I try very hard to pretend he's not my son."

While divers and coaches want to believe judges are fair, there can be questions of bias.

"There's no question the sports that are subjective there will always be that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,' " Goldstein said.

On a few occasions, he said, he has seen judges who were not fair. It's harder for bias to show up at bigger meets where there are more judges with credentials, such as being associated with U.S. Diving. While most agree judging is usually fair, other problems arise.

Coaches can be harder on their divers, said Seminole dive coach Jarrod Mills. Mills, also a club coach with West Florida Lightning Aquatics, said when a coach has seen a diver do something better in practice, he wants to critique the diver.

"Some coaches use it as a coaching tool," Mills said. "We forget we're judges, not coaches. We're there to judge, not critique or improve."

Other coaches would rather not have their attention taken away from coaching.

"You wish you could have an official diving judge there so you can be working with your kids," said Jerry Mancuso, who volunteers as the Gulf diving coach.

Because diving involves mandatory deductions and attention to things such as approach, height, entry into the water and leg and arm position, some swim coaches are uncomfortable in the judge's seat. They know they are unaware of what they're watching when Jane Diver walks onto the springboard to do a 303.C, a back somersault tuck.

"The twist dives are the worst. Which way should they be facing when they dive? Is that the right dive? Because it looks dreadful," said Dunedin swim coach Matt Hess, who judges sometimes but has the benefit of having a diving coach who can serve.

Not knowing how to judge is usually balanced by judging everyone the same way, said Tim Holme, swim and dive coach at Crystal River.

"If you're consistent, it always works out," Holme said.

Many coaches agree, but it can severely penalize a diver at the district meet when he or she needs a minimum score to qualify for a spot in the state competition.

"In the long run, 95 percent of the time, the best diver will win. Every judge can judge a good dive. Every judge can judge a bad dive," Mills said. "It's the kid that's in the middle that may get fifth instead of third, which at the district level, that could be the difference of going to state or not."

The FHSAA has tossed around the idea of having sanctioned officials. In the meantime, coaches are focused on educating and creating consistency in judging.

To address questions of bias, Greenwell said there could be just two judges at dual meets, a representative from each school and a third score would be an average of the two.

Some coaches are working on their own to educate judges.

The sheet of judging guidelines Goldstein gave Dent of criteria from the National Federation of State High School Associations is something he distributes at every meet. He hands them to all of the coaches, even if they're not judging, to foster understanding of the sport.

Mills and Whalen held a free coaches clinic at the Southwest Complex, WFLA's home facility in Largo, at the beginning of the season. One of the goals was to improve judging.

Only two coaches showed up.

Mills blamed the turnout on the rain, and said they will try again next year.


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