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Complexity Is Not Our Friend

 by George Rossano


(14 October 2013)  I can always count on a commentary from Sonia Bianchetti to put a thought in my head that can only be released through the keyboard.  This time it concerns the complexity of IJS and the effect it has had on skating.

It is a well know principle of philosophy, logic and problem solving that the best solution to a problem is the simplest one with the fewest assumptions.  This is fundamental to the scientific method as it has developed over the past 400 years.

This principle of "parsimony" often goes by the name of "Ockham's Razor," and over time has been expressed in many ways; for example,  entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity), or  pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate (plurality should not be posited without necessity).  In the 14th century Ockham himself wrote, Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora (It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer).

With that in mind, I offer "George's Razor" for IJS:

The simplest scoring system that correctly determines the result of a competition is the best scoring system.

Or in basic terms, when it comes to IJS:

Complexity is not our friend.

When first released into use, IJS was woefully unready for it's purpose.  But over the years many of the weaknesses in the original version of IJS have been corrected, and even IJS skeptics have to admit it "sorta" works despite some underlying mathematical weaknesses that still remain.

But those remaining weaknesses are not the most serious thing that ails IJS today.  That has been overtaken by the ever increasing complexity that is harming skating in multiple ways.  This complexity does not add to the ability of the system to better determine the results of competitions - and it is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.  Rather than help, complexity has, instead, harmed skating in several ways.

By offering hundreds of ways to earn points in a program, IJS complexity actually makes the results less reliable than more.  The best skaters earn points in most of the ways offered, and the worst skaters earn points in few.  The vast majority of skaters in the middle (2/3 - 3/4 of competitors), however, are all capable of finding different combinations on the vast menu of points to suite their individual strengths, such as they are.

Basically, with so many ways to earn points, everybody in the middle can find some combination of ways to earn more or less the same number of points as everybody else.  Add to that the uncertainty in the judging due to the wide range of opinions the judges put forth, and the bottom line is that the complexity of IJS makes the results in the middle of the pack a convenient fiction, and only a vague approximation of the truth.  The complexity of IJS doesn't make for a better result, it makes it worse.

Complexity adds to the cost of competitions.  In domestic competitions, the greatest cost driver is the cost of ice.  Every second a skater is not on the ice is money wasted that drives up cost.

The greater the complexity of the system, the more time it takes for reviews to analyze every nuance of the skater's movements to decide how many points they have earned.  Complexity also adds to the time it takes the judges to assimilate everything they have seen and to enter their marks.  At my rink, every extra minute spent in a review or in judges forming their opinions drives up the cost of the competition by about $60 per hour, or nearly $1000 a day.

Complexity results in a boring product for the audience.  As complexity adds to the time needed between skaters, it increases the time the audience is sitting there watching nothing.  When it comes to the elapsed time spent to view an athletic competition compared to the official time of play, skating is the worst of all sports.  One cannot expect to hold the attention of casual fans, and entice then into an arena, if three out of four hours are spent watching nothing happening.

Complexity has resulted in a learning curve that makes it too difficult for new fans to understand the sport.  Die hard fans who have stuck with skating in spite of everything over the years, have made the effort to understand IJS and have somewhat of a handle on it.  They know a good score from a bad score, and they have some vague idea of the rules for jumps at least.  Even die hard fans, though, still have a hard time with the rules for features (or identifying them) in spins and steps.  And as for knowledge of the Program Components -- don't get me started.

What understanding die hard fans have of IJS they acquired through hard work over many years, exerting more effort to learn the rules than any other sport requires.  In baseball, football, basketball, hockey, etc. anyone new to the sport can figure out what it takes to win in a few minutes.  Even children can do it.

With the hundreds of ways to earn points, and the multitude of rules for what one can and cannot do in a program, it is impossible for a potential new skating fan to figure out what is going in a competition without making an extensive effort to be educated.  Most people just don't want to work that hard to understand the rules of a sport.  When it comes to complexity, IJS is the poster child for fan-unfriendly rules that make it increasingly difficult to attract new fans.

Finally in this regard, one should keep in mind that many a skater was first attracted to the sport by being taken to a competition or show by parents who were only casual fans.  Fewer fans ultimately means fewer skaters.

Time to start over?

I think not.  But over the past few years, even some IJS true believers have quietly expressed the idea that IJS needs a comprehensive review and overhaul, with simplification a common theme.

At my club we use a simplified version of IJS for all events below U.S. Juvenile.  It works great, and while I would not use exactly this approach to IJS at the higher levels, it demonstrates (to me at least) that IJS can be simplified for the entire sport, to give a better competition result, reduce the cost of competition, engage the audience and remove an impediment to bringing new fans and skaters to the sport.

IJS has been more or less locked down since 2012 to provide some stability in the rules leading up to the 2014 Olympics.  The 2014 ISU Congress will be the next and perhaps only chance to overhaul IJS in the near future - since no major changes would be likely in 2016, two years before the 2018 Olympics.

The time is now to fix this.  Will the ISU apply itself to the task, or let skating continue to die a slow and agonizing death through neglect of this problem?

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Copyright 2013 by George S. Rossano