A Visit With Deidre Baumgarten, Coach and Judge

"As a judge, I have to say ‘well that back walkover was cleaner than that back walkover’, but I don’t ever want to compare children, saying that one child is better than another."

"As a judge, I have to say ‘well that back walkover was cleaner than that back walkover’, but I don’t ever want to compare children, saying that one child is better than another."

Deidre Baumgarten has had years of experience from many different perspectives in the world of gymnastics. She is a former competitive gymnast, a coach, a judge, and now the mother of a young competitive gymnast. She was also the office manager at a large gym. In this interview, she shares her personal gymnastics history, her approach on coaching, judging, and what it’s like for her to now watch and even sometimes have to judge her daughter at her gymnastics meets. I invite you to get to know this warm, intelligent, and amazing lady!

When and how did you get involved with gymnastics?

When I was four years old my parents enrolled me in a tumbling class, and it just progressed through the years to where I was in both the tumbling class and a competitive gymnastics program. I was in the gym six days a week when I was about nine years old. I did that until I was thirteen years old. Then my family moved to Australia and I did competitive gymnastics there. When we moved back to the United States I continued on for about one more year before my coaches ended up leaving, so that was the end of my competitive gymnastics career. But I still was participating in tumbling and cheerleading for a while. After high school, I went to Sweden as an exchange student, and I joined a synchronized gymnastics team and did that for a year, which was a lot of fun. 

When did you begin your coaching career?

It was when I was in Sweden. I had started doing tumbling coaching for cheerleading squads. I returned home to the United States in 1997. Then in 2000, I was watching the Sydney Olympics online, and I saw a job opportunity and since it was a local phone number I inquired. That is how I started working at Redwood Empire Gymnastics, in Petaluma, California. I started out with a mix of recreation classes and pre-team classes. Then my husband and I started a family and I was out on maternity leave for a while. When I came back from that, I didn’t feel like I was quite ready to start coaching again. I wanted to be more involved in working in the office, which worked out because they needed help in the office at the time, so they put me at the front desk. A year later I was out on maternity leave again and when I came back I stepped in as the office manager. 

How do you feel being involved with gymnastics contributed to your personal growth?

For me gymnastics was a basis of physical strength, agility, athleticism, and coordination. And because gymnastics is a very hard sport, it taught me how to stick with something and persevere through the hard times. It also taught me great time management skills as well; juggling school, homework, after school sports and clubs, in addition to my regular gymnastics workouts. It taught me the ability to trust the people around me. My coaches had confidence in me. I learned to trust that they knew what I was capable of and would be there to help me get through whatever I was working on. 

You’re currently a compulsory girl’s judge. How did you get involved with judging?

I got involved with judging on a dare from a friend, and former co-worker. She said we should take the judging course together and that it would be a lot of fun. So I said okay, and I studied for the test. When test time came though, she said she hadn’t been able to study, so she wasn’t ready to take the test.  I ended up taking the test alone and that was the year I became a judge. After I passed my original judges exam, my mom asked me if I had remembered saying to her when I was nine years old that I was going to be a judge some day. I had completely forgotten about that! Anyway, I started judging compulsory gymnastics in California, as well as some optional,up to level eight. I’m working on passing level nine at this point. My family and I are currently living in Oregon. I judge all the events and travel around the state to various competitions. I have to put my availability in several months in advance and then later we get our schedules. I don’t always know what my daughter’s competition schedule is going to be when I have to submit my availability. Sometimes I’m scheduled to judge at a meet where she’s competing, and other times I have the weekend off. That never really becomes apparent until very close to the beginning of the season. I make a point not to watch her practices, unless she has a specific request, so it’s not an issue to judge her.

Can you please explain how the judging process is handled? What is happening at the judges table when you’re judging an athlete?

There are two judges at each event. Sometimes there is a third person there who is training to be a judge, but their scores don’t count. One of the judges is the head judge. He or she is the one who is running that event, making sure that the teams are following the rules. They are making sure the limits are being met for the athlete’s warm up time, that the event is safe for all the athletes, and to keep things flowing smoothly, etc. Typically, we judges sit side by side, and we all judge the athlete’s routines on their execution. Our paper is blank when we start. Not only do we write down the deductions that we’re taking off, we also write down the skills as they perform them so our pen is always moving. The two judges each come up with their own score. They each might see something a little differently and that’s why we’re not expected to have the exact same score, but we do have to be close. Then we average the two scores and that becomes the gymnast’s score. 

Did you have a hard time learning to trust yourself and be confident as a judge? Did you worry about making a mistake and how that would affect the gymnast?

Yes, when I judged my first meet, I was so nervous because I was afraid of exactly that. But that is why you have a head judge. As a new judge you are not put in charge of the final say. The head judge can look at the new judge’s score and if it is really low or high compared to his or her score, they will talk through the deductions with you and make sure everything is accurate. 

Do you feel being a judge has made you a better coach?

Yes. As a coach, once you understand what the judges are looking for you will have a better idea of what’s important, and what’s maybe not such a big deal, and then you can make more informed decisions for your gymnasts. For instance, on floor, gymnasts are taught to stay in bounds. I’ve seen kids get so close to that white line that they squish their back walkover to try to fit it in bounds. They undercut the skill, they pike it down, they close their shoulders for a tenth, they pike it down for a tenth, they probably bent a leg for a tenth, and maybe they didn’t point their toes for another half a tenth, so they have all these deductions that are building up. Whereas, if they had done a beautiful back walkover and had just stepped out of bounds, it only would have been a one tenth deduction. There are definitely times when the confidence of the gymnast is more important than the score, so when having a child do something that might require help from the coach during competition, it’s good to know how that will affect their score. Then it’s not a big deal and there are no surprises.

As a former gymnast, you understand what a young gymnast is experiencing as she steps up to compete. She’s most likely nervous, especially if she’s new to competing. How do you balance doing your job as a judge and showing compassion for each child?

We’re giving them an opportunity to step up in the spotlight and come out there with their hair all done up, looking pretty and glittery and perform. They’re so cute, they just make you smile! They do make mistakes sometimes but they do the best that they can and we judges get to reward them for the things they do great.  We have to be neutral, treating everyone the same so we try to be as nice as possible. That day, as a judge, I have to say ‘well that back walkover was cleaner than that back walkover’, but I don’t ever want to compare children, saying that one child is better than another. They’re never going to be their teammates. The important thing is they can take their scores for that day and compare their performances to themselves for the next week. The Judges Open meet that we do in Oregon is often a critique meet. That’s where we will fill out a comment card for the girls and write down what they did great, and one or two things that they can work on throughout the season to help improve their scores. Their coach’s role is to support and encourage them, and then help them apply this information at practices for the next competition.

You are a parent of a gymnast. Have you ever been in the position when you were judging her during a competition? Was that difficult for you?

I have to judge her on a regular basis. Over the last couple of years, I have made a choice not to be in the gym to watch her practice, unless she asks me to come and watch a specific thing she’s working on. I don’t watch so I don’t have any premonitions of what she can do or what she can’t do, so that when I get to a meet and I have to judge her, I am absolutely one-hundred percent, no questions asked completely unbiased. At a meet where I’m not judging, as a parent sitting in the stands, it’s really hard because I do know what she’s capable of. I think I get more nervous than she does. So if I see that she’s not at the top of her game that day I just have to be mom and sit back and keep my mouth shut, and you know, it is what it is. But we do film all of her routines and later on if she wants to have that feedback from me, then we can watch them a week later and go through and evaluate them to see where we can fix things. But I only do that if she asks. Then at meets when I’m not judging and just a mom watching from the bleachers, I get a lot of parents who sit around me and want me to explain what the judges are doing. They want to know if the score that their daughter got was a good score, or if the scores seem low to them they ask me why, etc.They tend to pick my brain a little bit as a judge and they all want to know what I’m thinking. And while I can explain the scores, I always remind them that the scores are fair and consistent for this meet.

I think we can agree that all sports have great value in the lives of children who participate in them. What, in your opinion, makes gymnastics one of the most beneficial sports for children?

Gymnastics uses every part of the body. Certain sports will focus more on the legs or on the upper body, etc. Gymnastics uses muscles that you didn’t even know you had! It’s so inclusive that I think it’s a whole body sport. And that, to me, is important for life because you need balance, coordination,and strength in your whole body. Then at some point gymnastics shifts and becomes ninety percent mental. Once you’ve trained your body in the muscle memory of how to do something it will repeat those actions, but then it becomes mental and so now you have to be mentally prepared to be able to do gymnastics. Gymnastics compliments any sport out there because it has such fine motor control. You have to be able to control those small muscles in such fine detail that if you go to do another sport you’re going to have the quick reflexes, the reaction time, the balance that you need whether you’re doing soccer, baseball, volleyball, or football, you’ve already trained those muscles to be responsive to you and to your body, and how to make them work for you. Mentally, you’re going to be able to work through any road blocks, and to be one-hundred percent prepared that day whether you’re at practice or a performance. With gymnastics, you learn that if you’re thinking about other things while attempting it, and you’re not absolutely present, it can be dangerous. It trains you to be able to let go of whatever may be bothering you or whatever else you may be thinking about, and to be able to focus on what’s here and now and in front of you, and understand that this moment is the most important thing. That becomes a skill in itself, to be that focused. To be able to take that out into real life is important. For example, as an adult, when you come home from work and walk in the front door, you have to leave your work day behind and now home and family is the most important thing. Or if you’re a student and you’re going to take a math test, you need to forget about that science test you just took that didn’t go so well, and now you have to sit down and focus on the new task at hand. The ability to let other things go and be one-hundred percent present in what you’re doing can relate to anything in life.

Thank you, Deidre, for sharing your personal gymnastics experiences, insights, and wisdom with us. We wish you continued success with your coaching and judging careers, and wish your daughter the best of luck with her gymnastics!