What does 8.9 really mean?

This is my final post of reflections on this year’s World Kuk Sool Association Midwest Tournament. My hope is to address the perennial question that I hear both at and after tournament:

“My son usually gets scores like 9.8 and 9.9. How come that judge (imagine angry finger pointing here) gave him an 8.9?!”

So here is the truth about scores at tournament:  they don’t mean a darn thing.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Scores do mean something, but it’s really, really limited in what it tells you. As little as I like starting with the negatives, I’m going to give you a list of all the things scores at tournament DON’T mean.

1. A score of 9.9 does NOT mean a competitor executed a near-perfect performance. Unless you’re Kuk Sa Nim or his direct student, it’s safe to say you (or your child) are not doing things anywhere near perfectly. Let it go.

2. If I score a competitor 9.3 and the judge beside me scores her a 9.1, it does NOT follow that I “liked” or “thought her performance was good” more than the judge beside me.

3. A judge who scores consistently in the mid-9s in the hyung division and then in the high-8s in the techniques division does NOT necessarily “score harder” on techniques than hyung.

4. The judges at ABC Tournament are NOT meaner/more biased/harder than the judges at XYZ Tournament.

Here is the problem with all those ideas:  scores have no objective meaning. They can’t be compared between tournaments, they can’t be compared between judges, and they can’t even be compared with the same judge in different divisions. An 8.3 is not an objectively “bad” score; a 9.8 is not an objectively “good” one.

There is no universal, standardized system that all WKSA judges follow (at least below Pu Sa Bum Nim competition — the “Olympic” judging style at WKSA tournaments for 3rd and 4th degree competitions is as close to a standardized system of judging as there is).

Each judge has an individualized system that he or she uses. Maybe she starts with all available points (9.9) and then deducts points for mistakes. Maybe he starts with the lowest score (8.0) and adds points for parts completed or things performed well. Maybe she offers a certain number of tenths of a point for particular standards, like “stances low and supple,” and then awards either one, two, or three tenths of a point depending on how low and supple a competitors stances are. Maybe this judge uses all available points (8.0-9.9), and maybe that judge only uses some of the points (9.0-9.9). Maybe a judge realized that how he judged in a previous division didn’t work well, and so he makes a change in how he judges in a later division to try to improve. The variables are endless, and that effectively makes finding any objective meaning nearly impossible.

Here’s what points DO mean. If, in a single division (e.g. 6 year old white belts performing Ki Cho Hyung) I score Judy 8.8 and Jenny 9.3, I thought that Jenny performed the hyung better than Judy. That’s it. That’s all you can safely say about what those scores mean. You can’t involve another judge’s scores, and you can’t even involve another division that I score. You can only compare a particular judge’s score with that particular judge’s other scores in the same division.

One of the best things school owners and instructors can do to prepare students for a tournament is teach this. When students go into tournament thinking that 9.8 means something (besides that that one judge thinks that a 9.8 performance in this division was better than a 9.7 and not as good as a 9.9), they get hung up on interpreting that meaning, sometimes with the result of hurt feelings and (very occasionally) accusations of judges being “unfair.”

Why would we want students taking nearly-meaningless numbers and creating a meaning that results in bad feelings? Is it just because of the occasional times when we can create a meaning that results in self-satisfaction? (“I got 9.8, 9.7, and 9.7. I MUST BE AWESOME!”) Nope. Not worth it. Feeling self-satisfied is not the same as having real self-worth. Self-worth is the ability to perform and know what you did well, know what you need to work on, and to know both that that knowledge can’t be boiled down to a number and that your worth as a person or even as a martial artist is so much greater than that.

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