Why Figure Skaters Fall: A GIF Analysis

Not all falls in skating are created equal. So we asked former national team member Katrina Hacker to really explain in plain English what goes wrong, where it goes wrong, and what we should be looking for in the next week as skaters take the ice for the pairs, men's, and women's competitions. 

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There is no sport in the 2014 Winter Olympics that breaks hearts and takes breaths away like figure skating does. And there's no more wince-inducing moment in sports than watching a figure skater fall.

To the naked eye, it seems simple enough — the skater just didn't land right. But breaking it down further, and knowing just how much goes into each attempt makes each successful jump much more impressive. And it makes you realize that not all jumps are created equal, and ergo, not all falls are the same, even though each fall is worth one point of a skater's total score. 

A tilt here and there and the skater can go off-axis, not enough height can wreak havoc on rotations, and there's always that mind-game going on in skaters' heads as they debate between landing a safe double or going for the risk. With a flick of physics and a split-second decision, a jump can go from great to disastrous.

We asked former national team member Katrina Hacker to really explain in plain English what goes wrong, where it goes wrong, and what we should be looking for in the next week as skaters take the ice for the pairs, men's, and women's competitions.

So we sorta know (from our last post) all the things that go into a jump. And now we want know why skaters fall. First off, do skaters have preferences between edge jumps and toe jumps? Like could the Lutz be easier for someone than say, a Salchow even though the Lutz is considered more difficult?

Kim Yu-Na's triple lutz is her go-to jump.

Hacker: Definitely, jump preference varies skater by skater. One skater's favorite jump might be a triple loop, or another skater might prefer all the toe jumps to the edge jumps. You are correct in saying that even though the Lutz is worth the most points, it's not necessarily the hardest for every skater. Different skaters just "get" certain jumps more easily. But, even though certain jumps might not be as comfortable or confident, at the highest level, a skater needs to be able to do all six different jumps with consistently.

In Plainer EnglishSkaters have their favorite jumps. Sometimes they can really good at the jumps worth more points and not as good as the "simpler" jumps.

How much of landing a jump is confidence?

Hacker: Confidence is everything. Skating is really a mental game. Technique and talent are necessary, but at the highest level, all the skaters can all do the same tricks. It's about who can land them consistently when the pressure is on. You can't doubt yourself or let your mind wander, you can't be scared. One does hundreds of jumps every day in practice, so the key to landing them in competition is trusting one's preparation.

Canada's Patrick Chan seems to have lost his awareness during this sequence and jumps into the wall here.

In Plainer English: Because skaters have favorite jumps, they also have confidence in those jumps. This is very important in landing jumps in competition because you're under a lot of pressure. This is also troublesome if you have tendency to choke.

You mentioned that a lot of problems happen in take off, can you explain further?

Hacker: Nearly all falls are caused by something that went wrong on the takeoff of the jump. A really small imperfection on the takeoff can cause a chain reaction. For example, if the takeoff is rushed, you might not get enough height and not have enough space or time to finish the rotations in the air, so that the jump is under-rotated and you can't check out in time.

Ashley Wagner's fall at nationals was in part because she didn't have enough height on her takeoff.

The same kind of thing could happen if you do didn't "snap" into your rotation quick enough, or if you opened up from your tight rotating position too soon. Or for example, if you leaned too much to one side on a take off, you might end up tilted in the air—"off axis"—and not be able to find your feet when you land. So, in many ways, falling is more about the takeoff than the landing.

In Plainer English: If you're looking for what went wrong, look at the takeoff.

What does "under-rotated" mean?

Hacker: An under-rotated jump is one that isn't fully rotated in the air. This is a fairly common problem in skating. The technical panel (which tells the judges which elements a skater completed) assesses whether all the rotations were successfully completed in the air, before the landing foot touches the ice. A jump that's between 1/4 and 1/2 turn turn under-rotated (i.e. your landing foot completes part of the rotation on the ice) is indicated by a "<" on the protocol sheet and only gets 70 percent of the base value for that jump. If it's more than 1/2 a turn short, it is "downgraded" — "<<." If you did a triple that got downgraded, you'd only get points for a double:

Mao Asada's triple axel was downgraded as she was still rotating when she came down on the ice.

In addition to the loss of points to the base value from the under-rotation/ downgrade call, the judges deduct points from the grade of execution (i.e. it wasn't well executed because it was under-rotated).

In Plainer English: The way skating is scored nowadays, there's a tremendous amount of pressure and reward for skaters to go for bigger jumps. Not completing those revolutions could mean major downgrades and penalties.

A quick note about scoring here: Some people were a little mystified as to how Mao Asada (above), who fell, ended up with a better score than Ashley Wagner, who didn't, in the ladies short program during the team event. That's because of scoring — you don't have to fall to get severely penalized anymore. Two-footing a landing or under-rotating, which often look "fine" to the naked eye, can be penalized just as much.

Here's Mao's scorecard and how she was downgraded for her triple axel:

And here is Wagner's scorecard:

Both were penalized similarly in the Grade of Execution scores, even though Wagner did not fall, and to the naked eye, completed her jumping pass:

Since these GOE penalties are almost equal, you can see how tiny (less glaring) errors add up. Asada almost caught up to Wagner's technical score despite her fall by completing a clean triple loop and double loop combination:

What does "off-axis" mean, and how does it contribute to falls? 

Hacker: It means that you're not rotating totally upright. The goal in every jump is to get into a really tight, straight air position. In the perfect air position, the legs are crossed and squeezed tight, with the toes pointed, and the arms arm crossed and squeezed tight into the chest. This is where physics comes in. A tight, straight air position is efficient and aerodynamic, and it also gives you the best chance of landing over your landing foot. It's really hard to straighten a tilted jump and land on your feet.

Italy's Carolina Kostner has a jump that's a bit off-axis here,  making the landing difficult.

In Plainer English: Twisting as tight and as straight as possible is ideal because it puts you in the best position to land. Tilted jumps are bad.

There are some times when a skater lands his/her first triple in a combination then flops on the second. Is that mostly because the first one was off?

Hacker: Yes, usually. The first jump in a combination needs to be landed smoothly and with enough flow/speed in order to complete the second jump. If the landing of the first jump is off, it's harder to complete the second jump. Skaters can definitely save an imperfect landing on the first jump and still complete the second, but it's hard.

In Wagner's fall from nationals, you can see that she two-footed her first jump and affected her second jump.

This is why sometimes you see a skater opt to do a triple-double instead of a planned triple-triple. It's a split second decision to do something easier rather than to risk wiping out. 

Wagner has a similar problematic landing here but she opts to take a revolution off her second jump.

In Plainer English: The first jump in a combination sets the tone for the second. There's a split-second moment in combinations where, if something is wrong, a skater can try and save it by performing an easier jump.

What's the perfect landing position? And what's a two-foot landing?

Hacker: The skater is supposed to land on one foot (for a righty, the right, and vice versa). In a two-footed landing, both feet hit the ice instead of just the landing foot. Often, it's just the toe pick of the free foot that grazes the ice before checking out. It could be caused by the jump being slightly under-rotated. Or it's a bad habit and the skater does it because she lacks confidence or for security.

In Plainer English: Try and look like Yuzuru Hanyu did when he landed this quadruple toe loop in his short program during the team event. The jump received +2.4 in its Grade of Execution:

The pairs competition begins today, the men's competition begins on the 13th, and the women's competition begins the 19th.

Our previous figure skating coverage:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.