Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Team Finals: A Reflection

The 6-3-3 final is the ultimate test of competitive readiness and mental fortitude. For many of these girls, making the world team is quite an achievement. While it may be their first World Championships, many of these gymnasts are experienced competitors who aren't new to international competition. Tatiana Nabieva and Aliya Mustafina are finally members of the Russian World Team, but they have been groomed for years.

There are competitions and then there are finals where medals are on the line. The 6-3-3 Team Final is similar to All-Around Finals and Event Finals in that those who wish to win gold medals need to not only 'hit' their routines or stay on, but they need to find the cojones to go for every handstand, take their releases higher and go after stuck landings. While going after the extra amplitude is daunting, most gymnasts tend to make mistakes when they hold back. There are many different ways of describing this mindset, but it becomes apparent early on whether or not a gymnast can hack it under the bright lights.

The European gymnasts are lucky to have the European Championships to experience a pressure situation similar to World Team Finals. Many other teams are not afforded the same opportunities for such experience. The Pac Rim Championships just don't cut it when Team USA knows that they deserve to swim home from Melbourne if they make enough errors to allow another team to take the title. In reality, this creates a culture where mistakes are not and cannot be readily forgiven. The National Team Coaches and Coordinators have a job when selecting teams and it involves making and breaking dreams. The decisions are harsh but necessary. If mistakes are forgiven, it creates a situation like Team Australia where a girl like Emily Little or Lauren Mitchell can afford to make mistakes because they know they will be given another opportunity due to a lack of depth. The level of intensity in training, competitions and selection camps change when failure is literally not an option. (Unless they are okay with finishing in sixth place.)

Mattie Larson's Olympic Dream ended today. It isn't a dramatic statement, it is just how the system operates. Deferring until 2012 was risky given comeback attempts being made and juniors on the rise, but Mattie is not a vital asset and is ultimately replaceable. Martha Karolyi has long appreciated Mattie's international look and Russian/Bulgarian coaching, but she has been wary of her injuries and competitive mettle. The European Tours provide Martha to analyze how the American girls handle being away from home for multiple weeks, how they train and how they compete. Martha analyzes everything and noted that Mattie watered down routines, was beyond shaky on balance beam and made unnecessary errors on her best event (floor).

The difference between champions and talented elites other comes down to the ability to handle pressure. While Mattie is a charismatic performer and one of the most popular gymnasts around, she has not proven herself to be able to perform at a level that is necessary to win Team or Individual gold medals at international competitions. While some of her shakiness is often nerves and tension, Mattie displayed great mental weakness by bombing her best event at Worlds. A favorite for floor finals entering the meet, Mattie could've made a strong case for herself for 2012 had she brought home an individual medal. Instead, Mattie struggled and botches three out of her four tumbling passes at Worlds. These were not mere issues with a skill, they were mental lapses that simply can't happen. Fight or flight baby. Unfortunately, Mattie will not be forgiven.

It has been a while since Martha excommunicated a gymnast. One notable example was Hollie Vise. When she finally became a senior, Hollie's body and mindset began changing. Martha questioned her focus and commitment. Falling immediately after forgetting to put on her number was unforgivable in Martha's eyes. Hollie's own personal coaches turned their attention elsewhere following Anaheim because they knew it was over. Hollie subsequently won a World Title, but it didn't matter because she tied with another American for the win and the team was already incredibly deep on the apparatus.

Many will want to draw comparisons between Mattie and Alicia Sacramone. Ms, Alicia was once in a bit of a pickle when Martha announced that she was "through with her" after she fell at 2004 Nationals. After accepting an invitation to a World Cup event, Alicia earned herself an unlikely spot at the World Cup Finals, where she earned a gold medal and more importantly, respect in the eyes of Martha Karolyi. By the time Alicia reached the 2008 Olympics, she had only missed one routine of the twenty she had competed at World Championships. She was a proven medal winner and attacked her routines with the intensity of an individual event winner.

The 6-3-3 situation has a way of exposing a gymnast's legitimacy. It was not shocking that Nabieva or Huang Qiushaung made major errors. Both have been prone the the headcase label. Both can be excellent or a bit of a mess. In Mattie's case, she is very good on floor but average on the other apparatus. Another telling sign of Mattie's competitive mettle is that she did not take advantage of Bross' injury and win the All-Around at either of the two world selection camps. Frankly, it proves that she does not have the ability to capitalize on the mistakes and misfortunes of others. Gymnasts like Lavinia Milosovici and Gina Gogean made careers out of capitalizing on others' mistakes.

Martha Karolyi did not hide the fact that Mattie lacked mental toughness when questioned by the press after the meet. There was no sugarcoating. While many will whine that these girls are only teenagers, it is important to remember that these are the fiercest competitors in the World. If they were male and football players, (or just Russian), it would be acceptable to speak frankly and openly about such matters. Just ask Tony Romo.

On the flip side, Aly Raisman proved Martha right. She is not popular among hardcore fans by any stretch of the imagination, but Martha intuitively chose and groomed her over the last 18 months. Many emotional fans will try to excuse Mattie's lapses this week by saying that two tenths could've been made up anywhere. It is true, but those errors were often incredible saves made by other athletes. Alicia Sacramone missed a foot on beam but willed herself to stay on. Raisman and Bross proved just how tough they actually are.

Rebecca Bross is one fierce fugly gymnast. Mommy Dearest called her "awkward" but that little thing was injured and busted out full difficulty and hit. Bottom line, Rebecca cemented her status as a backbone of the American Team. Alicia and Aly are also included in that category.

As we look at Martha's former team, it is important to note that Belu is creating a new army of soldiers. They may have just missed the podium, but Porgras, Chelaru, Haidu and Izbasa delivered. The core of another strong team is building.

For Russia, even Elfi didn't hide the fact that Ksenia Semenova's gymnastics is incredibly uninspired. We will not see her on another team. Nabieva's chances are slim once the juniors emerge.

For China, they "Chinesed" it like good 'ol Yang Bo. Shame.

A final thought: Why is it acceptable for Russians to be blunt divas but not Americans? Screw political correctness. I want to be part of any press conference where the rookie team star calls out the mistakes of her countrywomen. Fierce Aliya Mustafina, fierce May you go on to win many individual titles this week.

One interesting note about Team Finals is that the top qualifier to each final (aside from floor) posted the highest tally in that event. Mustafina leads AA and VT, He Kexin leads UB, Porgras leads BB, and Afanasyeva and Mustafina continue to duke out 1-2 on FX.


  1. Great analysis. The sad thing is, I really liked Mattie. Her floor on day 2 at nationals was a highlight of the event for me--2nd only to the return of Sac. After what I just (finally) got to watch, though, I'm done.

    Bross, on the other hand? That kid can have fugly needs and terrible form on her twists all she wantsif she's going to keep handling herself like she has here while injured. She keeps proving herself enough to get some major respect.

    ....and Mustafina's bitchface on beam was perhaps the best I've ever seen. I would love to see her have a bitchface-fest with Khorkina and possibly even miss Nastia. Damn.

    Also, if any of your awesome followers out there know where I can get a download of some Eurosport coverage of the event, I'd be very happy.

  2. This opens the door for ASac to bring her mega bitch-face and thigh rubbing BACK to floor! Hopefully she can come back on floor like she did on vault!

  3. Nastia was a much better analyst thousands of miles away from the other gymnasts. She also seemed to know that some of these bitches are headcases and can be beaten. She was a much better analyst tonight.

    I lived for Tim and Elfi being blunt about Martha's shortcomings.

  4. Is there any way Mattie can enroll at UCLA in December? Besides, can't you only defer one year at a time, so at the very least we should see her in the 2011-2012 season. I love Mattie yet I knew it was over when she landed her double pike on her knees. No mention of the reigning all-around world champion? Bridget did well, but I wonder if we will see her next year.

    Tim and Elfi weren't blunt, they were beating around the bush. We all know what they wanted to say but they couldn't come out and say "Marta is overworking these girls and causing injuries" instead it was "they work so hard and there are really hard mats in the training gym at Worlds."

  5. "It isn't a dramatic statement, it is just how the system operates."

    Nah, it's a dramatic statement. I appreciate your analysis and coverage, but fans do tend to take things to the extreme. You did the same thing with Bridget Sloan, announcing her chances for Worlds were "over" after she looked terrible at Nationals. And guess where Bridget is now despite still not at full strength? On the World team and in a final at Worlds on an event in which the US has absolutely no depth (meaning Bridget is back in the picture as a potentially useful member).

    Bottom line is, Marta is a very "What have you done for me lately?" type of person. Things can change incredibly quickly, especially with the injury rate among this US team (is Jordan Wieber ever without a major injury for more than a couple months?). As you mentioned, Marta doesn't give a darn about any of Alicia's previous errors when she has been spot on THIS YEAR. It doesn't matter that Bridget could not hit a bar routine since last October because she has been hitting THIS WEEK. Similarly, Mattie would be capable of winning back Marta's respect with good performances next year. Marta's interview was immediately after Team Finals when emotions and frustration were very high.

    For Mattie, the hardest thing for her going forward will be her relative lack of difficulty (which you also touched on). She is very average on bars and beam so far, and her vault would never be used in Team Finals either. Her start values are FAR more crucial going forward than any perceived "headcaseyness".

    Hopefully, Mattie will get a chance to redeem herself next season, whether it be on a major international team or simply at Nationals. She is a better gymnast than what she was able to show here at Worlds, and I hope that she gets to show that off.

    I think her chances going forward are just as good as anyone with similar scoring potential. She's a middle of the pack/"bubble" type of gymnast no matter what her mental toughness is like. I don't think it's a given at all that a bunch of Juniors and "comeback kids" will steamroll over her... Reality is that most Juniors never truly develop the start values they need to be realistic contributors as Seniors... And I will wait for the "comeback kids" to actually be routine ready before I worry about them making World teams.

    One more thing about Mattie... She is very frail looking. It is no surprise that a strong girl full of muscle like Raisman gets through her floor sets with no problems. Maybe Mattie could use a little more weight to her?

  6. Nastia's poof was out of control and wild. She did a good job commenting though.

    Aliya is a little snot for saying, "It wasn't me who messed up, it was my teammates". All you have to say is "The team made some mistakes that can be fixed". It's easy!

    Bross is so fierce and you can hardly tell she's even injured. She also did a helluva floor set after looking visibly worried after Mattie's botched set.

  7. Very good analysis. It's not just that I agree with you, but that you raised several points I had not thought of. (e.g. Mattie not capitalizing on Bross not doing AA at camps).

    I agree that Tony Romo has been doing some really bad things lately. He somehow slithered out of the blame for throwing that pass at the end of the half against the Redskins. but it was an improvisation and a VERY stupid one. Not only was it the last play of the half, but it was also technically a LATERAL. So there were a lot of things that could have gone wrong with it. He has continued fucking up several other games and people are now finally starting to call him out.

    Oh...and Marta wants to pick the team that is most likely to win. This is not an exact science and there is always an element of luck. but that is what she wants. She had a really good insight one time, responding to a remark from Sam Pezzek about team chemistry and supporting the team, where she said, delivering your score is the best way to support the team...

    I really thought we had a decent shot at this thing. I know the Russians have more difficulty, but we knew they would have several falls. Our team was supposed to have less falls. Counting two falls from Mattie was just too much.

    Especially with a hurtie Bross and Sloan, we needed Mattie to do her part. At least the injured vets delivered and did pretty decent, if unable to totally blow the doors out because of injuries.

  8. Sloan's chances were pretty much over. Martha pretty much placed her on the team because she believed in her...not because she earned based on her performances. She saw improvement in her at the camps. The relative weakness of the rest of the field helped her. I did say Sloan was in a very tough spot, which is and was absolutely true. I said there was no shot of defending her AA title, which turned out to be true.

  9. Oh...and please explain to all the people who think Mike Shanahan is too tough on Albert Haynesworth and the like, why Devin Thomas's 2nd round pick ass, got CUT! Shanny wants gamers!

  10. Mattie is done. 100% done. AJ is right. There are TOO many consistent gymnast, elite and juniors, that have proven themselves over Mattie. Martha can't take every girl to London in 2012 and given Mattie choking, her fragility, lack of difficulty on the other 3 event, etc. there's no way to justify a spot for her on the team.

  11. I don't think Mattie's tumbling passes suit her. She's tumbling like a power gymnast when she should be doing passes like the less powerful Mustafina... Arabian double front, some forward combo tumbling, triple twist...

    Mattie's 2.5 twist- front lay has looked wonky all year. Her not being used to this floor at Worlds just accentuated that issue. She's much better suited for a 2.5 twist split leap combo!

    And to keep things in perspective, this girl has been mostly missing since she got injured in 2008. She has next to no competitive experience in recent memory. If she rushed her double pike here because she was overly excited, oh well, it happens. It was a great learning experience for her. I'm sure she'll understand that ultimately Worlds is just like any competition when you really think about it.

  12. I do agree with nonny above that, Mattie can still redeem herself. If she comes v]back and wins Nationals again, Marta will definitely invite her to the ranch. She's actually pretty fair that way. She just wants the girl who is most likely to perform

    Note: this is not to excuse or minimize Matties flaws...I honestly think team USA should beat Russia 7 times out of 10 based on their better execution and consistency. And Mattie cost us that, tonight. And I don't think there is anything wrong with analyzing where the key mistakes were. This is not trashing Mattie. Just being direct. Just like football.

  13. Ask Hollie Vise about redeeming yourself with Martha. Her team even won gold!

  14. I agree. Mattie messed up, no excuses. But she's not doomed. If she is hitting floor next year at Nationals, she'll be at the camps. If she's hitting there, Marta will consider her. Marta hasn't been one to hold grudges against gymnasts who under perform. I think even she realizes they are human. She may have been "done" with Alicia in 2004, but Marta just wants the girls who can score best NOW... By 2005, Alicia was winning World medals.

    As for Hollie Vise... She was severely injured by 2004, couldn't perform all 4 events, and was messing up on the events she could perform on (or at least beam) heading into the Olympics. Hollie knocked herself off that Olympic team. It also didn't help that Marta was frightened of Romania's vaulting and decided to stock up on vaulters (we were very strong on bars already).

  15. Alicia wasn't a mature athlete in 2004. She needed more time to develop and to "learn" how to compete. I think Mattie is in a similar boat right now... The only difference is that Alicia had more potential than Mattie. Mattie has a chance to improve now, but she is also very fragile and tiny, so they have to be careful with upgrades.

  16. Marta wants all the gymnasts to try out and then she wants to run a filter to select the best ones. She is happy having the girls competing with each other. If Mattie suddenly did something to justify being on teams (lets say grew a 6.5 vault), Marta would have her.

    I think the big mistake was having Mattie in the lineup when she was off in training. Look how the men pulled Cameron from FX prelims. But even then, I don't think anyone imagined a 12.5 implosion.

    P.s. How was the 8-10 coverage? Did they have the trio instead of the BBCers? More discussion of American stuff? The BBC coverage was less annoying in terms of play by play, but had a lot of watchin waiting around or of missing US routines.

  17. I actually find Marta quite fair.. tough, but fair. People always make it out to be some drama about how she picks teams, thinking she just picks who she "likes" and who is on her "good side". She really just picks the girls who are scoring best at that time. I believe that's why she waits until the last possible moment to select teams... She really gives everyone a chance even if they looked like HELL a year or even a month ago. I like Marta for that.

  18. Martha absolutely takes competitive history into account.

  19. Here's how the men's team handled a member who had issues with the floor equipment, something for the women to learn from?

    "Chris Brooks on the decision to compete floor

    I was not going to floor, but Chris Cameron was having a really rough time adjusting to this floor the entire first week here. It came down to Chris straight-up telling me, "I'm not confident, are you?" I was like, "I can hit a set." The coaches talked, Chris and I talked, and we made the decision to put me in. It wasn't beautiful. It wasn't my best work, but I got through it."

  20. Which Russian is the little shortie that looks like a junior?

    Oh...and Nabieva (and even Afan) have some lats. check out the width below the underarm. that's some musckle...

  21. "And to keep things in perspective, this girl has been mostly missing since she got injured in 2008. She has next to no competitive experience in recent memory."

    Neither did 16 year old Bross going into 2009 worlds on just a national championship and 2 camps. While she did have 2 falls, she came back and nailed each event she had issues with. Mattie did not do that. She fell again.

    Mattie also talked about redeeming herself, and when you talk like that, it makes people want to believe you will do so. You have to deliver, or else it makes matters even worse. She was obviously not confident going into her 3rd pass, and was probably a wreck before the last pass knowing she had screwed up, and ultimately, she rushed her element and went crumbling down.

    She won't be back, even if she got mentally stronger, she has nothing going for her besides floor, where we have other people that can score the same or higher. If Mattie weren't struggling all week, maybe this wouldn't have been as big of an issue, but she was struggling all week, struggled at camp, and struggled in TF, that's no good.

  22. You missed prelims. She struggled there, too.

  23. Mistakes are forgiven on the US team all the time if the girls are a necessary part of the eam. Nastia amd Shawn messed up on BB in 2007 and Chellsie fell on UB in 06. Beiger's VT too. It all has to do with the depth of the team and ability to hit more often than not. Unfortunately for Mattie the U.S needs UB and BB girls.If there were a deficiency of floor and VT girls I could see her getting ONE more chance. Frankly the girls a headcase and doesn't deserve it

  24. I've been telling myself for years that Mattie Larson would only break my heart, just like Shantessa Pama and Shavahn Church and countless other pretty injured headcases. I think Mattie is probably done. She got really lucky getting to compete in finals after her mistake in preliminary but Marta gambled that if Mattie hit, she'd outscore whatever Bridget or Macko could put up. I don't know if she can head to UCLA by December unless Val has the cojones to finally pull Alison Taylor's wasted scholarship from her. Alison can still cheer on the team, fetch water and bomb bar routines without a scholarship, right?

    Bridget's a good example of an athlete taking advantage of other's errors. Had the team been more healthy or more had more depth on bars then Bridget might have been left off the team. Once they got to Rotterdamn she might have been the alternate if Chelsea Davis hadn't messed up her knee. As it was, Bridget really worked her bar set and delivered both days and is the alternate for bar finals. I was worried she screw up that ugly front toe on she has on the low bar but she hit it both days. She delivered, where as Mattie did not.

    Gymnast will make mistakes but Nastia, Chellsie and Shawn had enough of a competitive history to show that they were not headcases who couldn't handle the pressure. In fact Chellsie fell on UB in 2006, tore her labrum and finished the rest competition. Essentially she won the silver medal for the team because the TF alternates couldn't compete because Kathy Kelly forgot to name them to the roster. Later on she wanted compete AA on a torn labrum but had to pull out because she couldn't raise her arm up high enough to tie in a ponytail. There's a good chance Chellsie Memmel is Chuck Norris's sister.

  25. I love Mattie but I do think the writings on the wall for her. I have this awful feeling in my gut when they put her in the FX line up. I wanted her to hit but even I wasn't confident. I think for her own sake she needs to re-evaluate. She is a beautiful gymnast and is surely mentally tough enough for the NCAA. This experience may have shown her this is a little above her head and what she's comfortable handling. It's unfortunate it played out on the World Stage.

    I do want to commend the other newbies Aly & Macko. Those 2 actually went out and nailed it. Macko up 1st on both her events and scoring higher in both then in prelims. Aly just solid as a rock. Her floor actually reminds me a lot of Carly Patterson. Clean, nothing fancy but hit every time.
    These 2 showed the mental toughness necessary to earn Marta's respect. Job well done ladies.

    What I love more then anything is that this team looked to be enjoying themselves. It's the first time I've actually seen TEAM USA actually smiling as well as getting the job done.

  26. I hate to say it but even though Mattie choked, some of the blame has to go to coaching. Do they seriously never practice subbing a double salto pass in routines in case they actually mess up at a meet? You absolutely have to plan for the unexpected even when you get the reps in.

    Any smart gymnast knows if they are missing a special requirement and what to do to make up for it. Mattie did not have to double pike her last pass, there are any number of easy passes she could have done to get the special requirement that would have shown me she is mentally mature and won't fall apart if something goes wrong. Correct me if I'm wrong but FIG (like JO)fx double salto pass does not have to be a directly connected salto, that's just for more bonus.

    As a coach this is unacceptable from my lower level optional gymnasts, they know what to do to get the highest start value possible. It should go without saying for an elite.

  27. I agree with that last comment. Mattie choked and a smart, experienced gymnast knows how to cover a mistake and how to insert a skill that was left out or f***up (they do it all the time on beam)! Watching her floor routine, i think perhaps she thought she would go OOB but she didn't think on her feet to insert a punch front or front lay somewhere and then she ate the double pike. I honestly don't think she can redeem herself after this one on an international stage. She was shaky in prelims, practice and finals, she had no business competing floor. Sloan may not be in the best of shape but she has the balls not to choke like that. Mattie is done in Marta's eyes!

  28. I adore Mattie, but she should be done. She's only team finals useful on one event, and thats an event she's not consistent on. Sure gymnasts make mistakes all the time. But there's a difference between an Alicia, Shawn, Nastia, or a JYY who do multiple events for their teams, and hit most of those events in team finals, making a rare mistake. And a gymnast who is asked to only DO ONE routine.
    As for Semenova, yes her gymnastics are uninspiring but she's on teams because she's reliable, and Alexandrov had to take enough headcases this year.

  29. I think I like reading all the Monday morning quarterbacking as much actually watching the TFs. It is part of the drama of sport seeing how some athletes really rise to the occasion and other let the pressure get under their skin. That's why Marta can seem to some so tyrannical. But how else to test who will shine and who will crumble than to put the heat on the athletes in training and selection? I think the pressure got to Larson and she started overthinking and lost the flow. But, I would like to think that her future is not predicated on this one event. If she can dig out from all the flack she is taking and her own disappointment, hopefully she can embrace Nietzsche's quote, "What does not kill me, makes me stronger." Marta's no dummy. Larson will be embraced back into the fold if she can prove she can get back up after getting knocked down.

  30. I find it very interesting that mere hours after this disastrous competition for Larson, she's posting on diff't US gymnasts pics on Facebook and being all happy giddy girl. Enjoy college, honey. That's the best it's ever gonna get for you. Crossing my fingers you don't balloon like Vise, McCool, Worley, etc. Of course, you ARE going to UCLA. Val will beat the living shit out of you if you even LOOK at a candy bar. Maybe she can teach you how to compete.

  31. Give Sloan credit. She hit when she competed. That is the true spirit of a champion. I have no doubt she would have hit floor big time if she had been allowed to compete.

    She is not dead in Marta's eyes.

  32. It's easy to sit on the couch and not believe these girls deserve more chances. It was just one competition. If Mattie does well next year, she'd be right back in the thick of things. It will just be tough for her if she does not upgrade on bars or beam.

  33. Martha announced that she will retire in 2012. She said Valeri would be a good replacement. Either way, the next generation of U.S. girls can look forward to 2013.