How Sociological Factors Affect Women’s Gymnastics

One of the highlights of the Summer Olympics is the women’s artistic gymnastics events. Millions tune in across the globe to watch as women do different feats on the floor, balance beam, uneven bars and vault.

When watching a women’s artistic gymnastic event, especially at the Olympic level, most of us would assume that what affects an athlete’s performance score would solely have to do with how they trained and performed on a particular apparatus. Yet, according to a recent study, that may not always be the case. What if there were more sociological effects at play?

A recent study by members of the UCCS Sociology department dived into just this topic. The research was sparked by observations that the women’s vault always scored higher than other women’s gymnastics apparatuses. The research team wanted to be able to provide a sociological explanation as to why there were consistently different outcomes in women’s gymnastics.

While most research around athletic topics typically involves looking at the sports science approach, this study, instead, looks at the institutional context and how that affects people’s decisions. The team focused on the rules and different values, and how those things are changing due to broader changes in society.

During the research, the team identified that decisions that people were making away from training and performance were affecting people’s performances at these events. These were related to a couple of changes:

  • Changes in rules were being made by the International Federation of Gymnastics at the international level, and these were affecting the way judges scored performances, including the vault.

  • There were also technological changes. In the past, women’s gymnastics used a vaulting horse. Now, this has changed to a vaulting table. Athletes can now perform moves in different, oftentimes more complicated, ways.

The goals of these changes were to make women’s gymnastics scoring fairer and make the sport safer. The problem is that it had the unintended effect of changing the sport. In fact, it made the vault the most powerful event in women’s artistic gymnastics.

For one of the research team members, Jeffrey Montez de Oca, Professor of Sociology at UCCS, the results were a bit surprising. Like most people, he tended to look at performances the way most people would. “What are coaches and athletes doing to prepare for events?” he asked. “How do athletes perform when doing their events?”

Montez said that he had never thought about how broader institutional forces could affect how judges do their work, which affects athlete’s outcomes.

The results of the research indicate, for athletes and coaches, understanding the broader institutional structure of the sport can help them prepare better for competition. Vault usually has the lowest time spent on training, but it scores higher than other apparatuses. But with this new research, coaches might place more importance on the vault and spend more time preparing for it.

The research team was comprised of Jun He, School of Sports Science and Physical Education, Nanjing Normal University, China; Jeffrey Montez de Oca, UCCS Department of Sociology; and Lei Zhang, UCCS Department of Sociology.