Stab Magazine | The State Of Judging, According To Mick Fanning, Jordy Smith And More

The State Of Judging, According To Mick Fanning, Jordy Smith And More

Mick Fanning, Jordy Smith, Dane Reynolds, Julian Wilson, Josh Kerr weigh in on scoring.

news // Sep 14, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 9 minutes

*This article featured on Stab a year ago, following Mick Fanning’s victory over Adriano de Souza in the 2015 Lowers final. With the recent judging backlash we’ve seen at Lowers 2016, the subject matter is more relevant than ever, and we felt it pertinent to throw it back in the discussion…

Being a World Tour judge defines what a thankless job in surfing is. You’re either hurting a career and infuriating fans, or making a surfer rich and thrilling fans (but, you’re the last person they’ll thank for it). The judging panel is an eternal dartboard. But, negative vibrations rattled more loudly post-Lowers than at previous events this year. The general vibe: Lowers is a skatepark, and two surfers who aren’t known for groundbreaking aerial surfing ended up in the final, beating some of the best bouncers (Gabriel Medina, Filipe Toledo) en route.

It also revived the broader picture issues when it comes to scoring waves; worn-out questions around trends, subjectivity and bias.

“There’s no bias,” believes three-time World Champ Mick Fanning, the sport’s most consistent (and consistently-scored) surfer. “Sure, you talk to them and you’re friends with them, but when it comes to the job, they’re very clear cut on standing by their scores. They don’t look at the surfer or who’s leading the title. They score it as they see it.”


While he struggles to even comprehend the concept of putting a number value to someone’s style of riding a wave, Dane Reynolds thinks the judges get it right for the most part. Photo: WSL/Kelly Cestari

“I think they get it right,” agrees Dane Reynolds. “It’s pretty well-balanced, I’d say. It’d be weird though, when you’re judging the way somebody rides a wave it’s always going to be tricky. I think they do a good job. But, the wording of the criteria compared to what’s actually scored isn’t always the same.”

Though he made it during a reluctant interview we did last year about competitive surfing, I find Dane’s last point salient. In 2014, Julian Wilson learned this the hard way when he nearly fell off tour. Jules surfed as critically as possible, but his perception of critical turned out to be too intricate. “I guess I was being stubborn,” Jules told Stab after turning it around to re-qualify and win Pipe. “I wanted to win. But, did I want to do it the way the judges wanted to see it, or the way I wanted to do it?”


Last year, Jules got to a point where he was frustrated every time he paddled out for a heat. The way he fixed it was by dumbing down his surfing. That just isn’t right. Snapper, earlier this year. Photo: WSL

Surfing Australia head coach, Andy King, helped guide Julian back to the top. “In his mind, the criticalness of the turns and airs that he’s doing are way more critical than most of the other aerials and grabs – and they are,” Andy told Stab. “But they weren’t on theme with what had been scoring. Our conversation was basically like, you’re doing this kind of surfing, but only you and John John (Florence) and Jordy (Smith) actually appreciate it because the judges, and ourselves, we don’t understand the criticalness of it. We’re looking for those basic things like obvious grabs and height.”

And so, how did Jules change it? “I got to a point where I was frustrated every time I went in the water, because I didn’t know how each wave was going to be scored, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence or clarity on what needed to be done in each situation,” says Jules. “There’s some battles you need to take on, there’s others where you need to get in line. So I swallowed my pride and thought, right, it’s time to do it the way I’ve done it for years. Back to basics.”


Filipe proved that so long as it’s fully rotated and you flow out of it, aerials can pull big scores. Even at Bells! Photo: WSL

But, is it on Julian to dumb down his surfing “back to basics,” or on the judges to comprehend his level? I’d assume the latter.

I ask Josh Kerr if the penalising of non-traditional (for lack of a better term) surfing has crushed any creativity. “Yes and no,” Kerrzy says. “Sometimes I’m more reserved when it comes to getting above the lip, but only because at this point in my life I’m just as excited to do turns. It’s more of a fun challenge for me. Like, at Lowers, I did three turns and got an 8.5! I never would’ve thought I could do that. It’s a different challenge for me after all the days of getting high scores for doing airs.”

When it comes to the confusion around how the Filipe Toledo style of surfing is judged, Mick Fanning believes that it isn’t just on the judges. “I think it comes down to whoever’s commentating to explain it better to the audience,” says Mick. “Especially with things like Kelly (Slater)’s 4.17 backside air, I feel the commentators should be really educational and nip it in the bud before it turns into a big media storm. I think there’s a point where it’s their responsibility.”


Mick? Most consistent surfer in the world RN with fourth world title coming this year. Understandably, he thinks the judges do a good job. Since surfing’s so wonderfully subjective, there’s nothing to say Mick’s wrong. Photo: WSL/Sean Rowland

But, it is also the commentator’s job to create a more interesting viewing experience. You’re in the booth because you’re an expert analyst of the sport. So, let’s dispense with guarded opinions for fear of biting the hand that feeds. Disagree with the judges. Watch a game of AFL and you’ll hear the words “Appalling Decision” when discussing an umpiring call. Surfing needs this. And we’re back in…

“We look at something and think it’s amazing,” continues Mick, “but if you’re not doing full rotators, those airs aren’t as gnarly as they once were. These days you’ve gotta do them with functionality and flow straight into the very next turn. Filipe is probably the best at that, where he’ll do a full rotator and not miss a beat into the next turn, which is why he gets a high nine. And the judges know that. But with the power surfing, you’ve gotta be pretty perfect. If you start grabbing rails and stuff, they’ll cruel you pretty quick.”


Whether it’s right or not, this is what we expect of Kerrzy every time he paddles out. A fistful of World Air Titles will do that. Interestingly though, at this point in his career it’s more of a fun challenge for him to clock excellent scores without getting above the lip. Rio de Janeiro. Photo: WSL/Daniel Smorigo 

Kerrzy agrees with Mick that, regardless of what’s said, good surfing is scored well: “As long as you’re doing a really, really good air you’re getting a good score. Medina did two airs and got an 8, but those airs were kinda forced. These days, 12-year-olds have forced airs on lock. So the judges have done well weeding out what a real air is rather than those forced little flicky things.”


Mick has the best technique in surfing – even if it doesn’t always involve the biggest airs. He sure can get rad in the lip though. Even at Bells! Photo: WSL

According to Mick, the first few heats of the event – and the way in which you watch them – are crucial to understanding the judging. “It all depends on the event,” says Mick. “But the thing you’ve gotta remember is, watching it live and watching it on TV are two totally different things. That’s where people get lost in it all. If you watch from the beach on the first day, see what the judges are looking for, you can get a really good handle on it. That’s where they set the scale. It doesn’t translate on a screen 4,000 miles away. If the biggest waves are the best waves and you’re on them, then you should be scored. If the medium one are the best scorers, then there’s no reason why you can’t get a 10 on the medium ones. You get the biggest scores at the gnarliest waves. But in saying that, Gabriel did a really good job last year of getting the long runners at Teahupoo and threading them for big scores, even though they weren’t necessarily the gnarliest ones.”

Wave selection is a subject upon which Kerrzy really lights up on: “What I will say is that they’ve been scoring the wave itself too high. There’s too much emphasis on wave selection. If you get a really, really good wave and just surf it pretty well, it’s automatically an excellent score. But it puts too much luck back into the already luck-driven nature of surfing. They’re encouraging people to wait for the really good waves which might not come. As spectators, we just want to see people rip on the waves they can get, rather than watch them wait. It should be that regardless of whether or not the wave you’re on is really good, you’ve still got to rip the shit out of it to get a high score.” 


Theory: Kolohe suffers from over-exposure to the judges. Perfected and familiar motion on the Gold Coast. Photo: WSL

Now, shifting gears for a moment, there’s a theory that’s been swirling around a lot of late. It’s about expectation, and goes something like this: If a judge happens to be on the beach at Snapper Rocks between 6am and 7am on any day of the waiting period, they’ll see Kolohe Andino ride up to 15 waves. The human mind becomes conditioned very quickly. Familiarity breeds comfort, and a 7.5 is a comfortable score. If Kolohe keeps making himself so visible, he’ll need to go well above and beyond in a heat to get anything above a 7.5. Which is just a theory, but one that Jordy Smith believes has value:

“If some aerial guy comes out and does an outrageous air in a freesurf, then their heat scores can get knocked down because the judges are expecting that sort of air,” Jordy tells Stab. “Or if a guy who’s not an ‘air guy’ does an air, they get higher points because the judges aren’t used to seeing them do airs. It doesn’t really work like this with carves or basic surfing though, because those are the fundamentals. The guys in the middle of the pack seem to benefit from it the most. When one of them surfs out of their skin, they get really rewarded, whereas Mick or a top five guy who does crazy surfing every time he stands up doesn’t get as rewarded because it’s standard for him.”


Jordy kicks out of an underscored wave. Kidding! Photo: WSL

If the expectation theory is real, then Jordy – who produces some of the best clips out – is undoubtedly a victim of it. And he also has a suggestion on how to up the consistency:

“I don’t think there should even be a head judge anymore. They’re supposed to be the best judges in the world. There needs to be some sort of accountability for the judges. The judge who’s scores are continually furthest from the average should be kicked off tour at the end of the year. Because all the competitors are out there putting it 100 percent on the line, whether it’s battling on the QS or trying to keep a spot on tour, and the judging needs to be as spot on as possible. A bad result can result in us getting kicked off tour, therefore bad judging should have the same results.”


Mr Smith sure does excite in the soup, jersey or not. Sliding under a Rio lip. Photo: WSL/Daniel Smorigo

Jordy also throws in this little gem: “Claiming definitely helps scores. It shouldn’t, but it does. I’m all for claiming. I don’t know about on two point rides and four point rides… But, there’s a lot of money on the line, and it could be a 10 grand difference or making your heat. Claiming is huge. Anyone should claim a wave for an extra six or 10 grand.”

Meta moment: Has Jordy just fucked himself by admitting that? Judges, are you reading this? Will you score Jordy worse now if he claims? Or, better if he doesn’t?

We can speculate all we want. But unfortunately, we’re trying to find objectivity in something that’s inherently subjective. Speculation sure is fun though. And if you ask Mr Fanning (who will certainly win the world title this year), the story always ends as it should: “To tell you the truth, the judges make calls on heats, and people can get really nitty gritty about scores, but as long as you’ve got the right result, that’s all you need. Every now and then there’ll be a result that everyone thinks is wrong. But I think 99 percent of the time they get it right. And if they feel like they’re getting questioned for it, they always have an angle for why they made the decision that they did.”

Adriano de Souza. Photo: WSL/Sean Rowland

Talk talk talk. Meanwhile, Adriano de Souza is second in the world. Reckon he’s got time for any judging talk? All he cares about is making ’em happy. Which he continually does. Photo: WSL/Sean Rowland

So, are these opinions still relevant? 


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