Grade Levels – FAQ with Head Coach Leah Pinette

Competition season is underway!  But this year, synchronized swimming athletes across the country are practicing more than just figures and routines.  They are also practicing skills for Grade Level testing because all 13-15 Age Group and Junior/Senior athletes wishing to compete at the US National Championships in Arizona this April must pass USA Synchro’s new Grade Levels 1 through 3.
ANA Synchro Head Coach

Leah Pinette

To help athletes and their parents understand Grade Levels, we have prepared a two-part series for our blog.  In this first part, ANA Synchro Head Coach Leah Pinette answers many practical questions about Grade Levels.  In the second part to follow, we will turn to John Ortiz to give us some higher-level insight into why we’re doing Grade Levels and what USA Synchro hopes to accomplish with them.
Both John and Leah have been working with other coaches and officials around the country as part of USA Synchro’s Athlete Skill Development Coordinating Board (ASDCB).  Together, this committee has developed an important and exciting initiative for our sport – the new Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) program.  The goal of the LTAD program is to enable more athletes from more clubs across the country to reach their full potential - and therefore to also increase the number and skill of athletes that represent the U.S. at the Olympics and other international competitions.  
Grade Levels are an important foundation component of the LTAD program because they help guide coaches in developing sensible, effective, and consistent training plans for all ages.  And they help athletes measure their progress and set appropriate goals.
ANA Synchro:   First, can you please confirm who has to take the Grade Level tests this year?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  All athletes who want to compete at US Nationals in Arizona this April must pass Grade Levels 1, 2, and 3.  That means all Junior/Senior athletes and 13-15 Age Group athletes who qualify for US Nationals at their zone championships.
ANA Synchro:   Why are Grade Levels 1-3 required for US Nationals this year but not for Junior Olympics?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  Grade Levels are new for this year, and USA Synchro is rolling them out in phases.  USA Synchro wanted to give the Junior Olympics athletes enough time to train for the Grade Level testing and enough time for their coaches to weave the training into practice plans.  At the same time, USA Synchro felt it was appropriate to challenge the athletes who are able to qualify for US Nationals with the additional training and testing needed to pass the first three levels this year.
ANA Synchro:  You said that Grade Levels will be phased in.  Do we know what the requirements will be next year?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  For 2016-2017, all Age Group athletes who want to compete at Junior Olympics will have to pass Grade Levels 1 through 3.  And, the current plan is that all 13-15 Age Group and Jr/Sr athletes who want to compete at the US National Championships in the spring will have to pass Grade Levels 4, 5, and 6.
With the help of USA Synchro's Grade Level Manual, coaches can help athletes execute the skills properly.
ANA Synchro:   How many Grade Levels are there?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  There are a total of 10 Grade Levels.  You can think of Level 10, the highest level, as being for our senior national team athletes.
ANA Synchro:   Is Grade Level testing only for Age Group athletes?  Will Intermediate and Novice athletes ever have to do it?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  Eventually yes.  Grade Levels 1 through 3 are designed for the grassroots teams around our country – that is, teams that train girls from the very youngest of ages.  Our committee at USA Synchro is still working out the details of how and when to roll the Grade Levels out to Intermediate and Novice athletes.  In the meantime, coaches have the option to incorporate the Grade Level skills into their regular Intermediate and Novice training anyway.  After all, having these basic skills gives you a strong synchro foundation, whether you have to pass a Grade Level test or not.
ANA Synchro:   Can you describe the testing for us?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  Grade Level testing is much like doing figures at a meet in that every athlete will perform a single skill, by themselves, in front of a panel of assessors.  Typically there will be 3 assessors.  Some of the skills will be on land, and some will be in the water.  For land skills, the athletes will wear their black suits or black tank tops with black shorts.  For water skills, the athletes will wear their black suits and white caps.   For Levels 1-3, there are two or three skills in each of the following categories:  flexibility, conditioning, acrobatics, speed swimming, figures, and synchro routine swimming.  Levels 1 and 2 have a total of 13 skills, and Level 3 has a total of 14 skills.  Athletes will know at the end of the session whether they pass the level or not.
ANA Synchro:   How do the athletes know what the skills are?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  Here at ANA Synchro, we have been working on the skills in practice since the beginning of the season.  All of us coaches have a Grade Level manual, which describes in great detail how the skills are to be performed and how the points will be awarded during the testing.  Many of the skills can be practiced at home, and I have encouraged all my athletes to develop a habit of practicing at home to reinforce what we do together.  More information about LTAD and Grade Levels can be found in the Members-Only area of the USA Synchro website under “Resources”.
Every Grade Level has two or three skills in each of the following categories:  flexibility, conditioning, acrobatics, speed swimming, figures, and synchro routine swimming. Headstand is a Level 3 Acrobatics skill.
ANA Synchro:   How does an athlete pass?  Will they have to perform everything perfectly?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  Athletes have to get 80% of the total points available for all skills in order to pass.  That means they can be strong in certain areas, weaker in others, and still pass.
ANA Synchro:   Do you get do-over’s?  If you mess up on a skill, do you get to try again?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  No.  Athletes have to concentrate and be prepared to perform the Grade Level skills just once for the assessors.  
   Do the Grade Levels have to be passed in order:  Level 1 first, then Level 2, then Level 3?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  Yes, they do have to be passed in sequence.  But ultimately athletes will only work on achieving one level at a time.  It is only in these first couple of years, when we are just implementing the Grade Levels, that athletes have to pass multiple levels in the same season.  This will change as Grade Levels become a standard part of our season and a standard part of an athlete’s development.
ANA Synchro:   Once an athlete passes a Grade Level, will they ever have to go back and pass it again?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  No.  Once you pass a Grade Level, you pass it for life.
ANA Synchro:   What happens if you don’t pass Level 3 this year?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  Athletes who do not pass Level 3 this year will unfortunately not be able to participate in US Nationals in Arizona, even if they qualified at their zone meet.  However, they would still be able to compete at Junior Olympics.
ANA Synchro:   If an athlete does not pass the Grade Levels, will they be asked to change to a different practice group?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  That will be up to individual teams and coaches.  Here at ANA Synchro, the answer is no.  You will stay with your practice group regardless of whether you pass a specific Grade Level.  The Grade Level test results just show you what you need to work on.  When I was competing, I liked to challenge myself to continually improve.  So I appreciated knowing what I should be working on.  As a coach, I really like this aspect of the Grade Levels – they give athletes concrete feedback and goals to strive toward.
ANA Synchro:   What are your suggestions for athletes who want to pass?
Assessors will be following a strict method to award points, so it's important athletes understand all the details involved with the individual skills.
Head Coach Leah Pinette:   First, study up on how the skills are to be performed and how the points will be awarded.  John Ortiz and the entire USA Synchro committee spent many months to put a very detailed manual together.  All the information athletes and coaches need is in there. 
Next, I would highly recommend supplementing your regular practice time with some sessions at home.  There are plenty of skills that can even be practiced while watching TV!
Finally, on the day of test, try to relax and concentrate, just like you do for figures.  All of us coaches have seen athletes fail to pass a level because they just didn’t take the whole thing seriously enough.  Or because they thought they wouldn’t really be judged on all the details from the manual.
The assessors have a very strict method they must follow to award points.  If you study the skills, do extra practice at home, and execute the details on the day of the test, you should be in a good position to pass the Grade Level test. 
ANA Synchro:   Do the Grade Levels signal that there are other changes coming to the Age Group, Intermediate, and Novice competition structure we are all familiar with?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  No.  The Grade Levels, along with the Long-Term Athlete Development program, represent a general framework for training and developing athletes.  The competition structure as we know it will remain the same.  We will still have Novice, Intermediate, and Age Group meets.  We will still have zone meets, Junior Olympics and the US National Championships.
ANA Synchro:   Does any of this mean that the skills of the Grade Levels will become the focus of practice?  In other words, should athletes and their parents expect more skills and less synchro?
Head Coach Leah Pinette:  I know everyone loves to swim routines!  But before you can swim a routine, you have to be able to swim the figures that make up the routine.  And before you can swim a figure, you have to be able to execute the skills that make up the figure.  At ANA Synchro, we spend the better part of the fall working on general conditioning, skills, and figures.  I have seen how this results in better figures scores and better routine performances.  It’s always a balance to work on the basics versus turning on the music and working on routines, which is certainly more fun.  So, the direct answer to your question is no – the new Grade Levels do not mean that we will spend less time on routines.  But it does mean that the time we spend on basics will be better organized and more effective.  If it ever feels like we’re spending more time on skills, it’s not because of Grade Levels.  It’s because we need stronger fundamentals to do our best figures and routines.
Figures are included in each Grade Level. "Tower"' is a Level 3 skill.
ANA Synchro:   Is there still a place in synchro for girls who love synchro, but don’t necessarily strive to be a Level 10 / National Team athlete? 


Head Coach Leah Pinette:  Yes!  Absolutely!  Synchro is a great sport, regardless of your individual goals.  It’s one of the few sports that requires such total body development in cardio, strength, and flexibility – along with the artistry, creativity, and teamwork of performing to music.  Grade Levels are simply a new way to teach and learn the fundamentals.  And just like tennis or golf or any other sport, the basics are important to enjoy the sport recreationally or to strive for the Olympics.