Tuesday 15 June 2021
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Freestyle Kayak Judging: How do they know who wins?

Rules of Freestyle Kayaking:  (Why some win and some whine)

The rules of the World Championships are determined by the International Canoe Federation (ICF) with input from all the top countries but eventually scribed by the Rules Chair and the ICF Freestyle Committee themselves.  Over the 30 year history of freestyle kayaking events, the rules have evoked from a ‘1-10’ scale subjective score system to a ‘3 points per vertical end’ tally and then into a ‘vertical ends multiplied by variety of tricks’ system that was extremely complex and required computers to run. The current system is a grid sheet of boxes to check and move definitions to remember with simple addition at the end.  It demands really well-trained judges but is pretty simple once you understand how it works.


The goal of the current ICF scoring system is to see which of worlds best athletes can perform the most difficult, high scoring tricks as possible in one 45 second ride, showcasing an athletes speed as well as his / her freestyle skills.  Each freestyle maneuver is pre-graded by difficulty so the judges determine whether the athletes completed the maneuvers by the strict standards described before calling each move and adding it to the score card.  If the athlete performs a move below the ICF standard, the athlete is awarded no points for his efforts.


In addition to ‘scoring’ the move, judges look to see whether the move was performed ‘clean’ meaning not using the paddle, ‘air’ / ‘huge’ meaning performed above the water / much higher out of the water than average, and ‘linked’ meaning they flowed right from one trick into the other without stopping.   These ‘bonus’ categories add additional points onto each trick performed, so they are very important to the top athletes trying to rack up the most points possible.  For example: a loop is worth 60 points, but the athletes that throw a ‘Huge’ ‘Air’ ‘Clean’ loop scores 160 .. and if they ‘link’ it to another trick they add 20 more points to the loop for a total of 120 possible additional points above what the base move is valued!  It all adds up fast if you can hit bonuses on even a few of your tricks.

Each move or ‘trick’ can only be performed one time in each direction – right or left, front or back – so when you see an athlete perform the same maneuver in the same direction as they have previously, this will not be adding to their scorecard.  This ‘no double-up’ rule is to make sure a paddler has a wide variety of skills rather than just a small number of moves perfected.  There are also 3 ‘Trophy Move’ scores so the judges can award points to the athletes competing creative, challenging tricks not already listed on the score sheet.  This is to keep some of the ‘Free’ in freestyle.


The head judge oversees the scoring judges and makes sure they score fairly and consistently but also does much more.  The head judge makes sure all judges and timers are prepared before giving the ”thumbs’ up’ ready signal to the athletes, isolates the judges from any event / time-frame / media / or athlete discussions so that they may focus solely on the task at hand, and record the clean, huge, link and ‘trophy’ bonuses he sees in case a judge gets behind or forgets to record it before calling the next trick being thrown.  On a good ride, it’s hard for them to keep up so it’s important for each judge to call the next move rather than stopping to contemplate a bonus decision and missing the rest of the ride.   The head judge serves as a valuable resource to his team when they go back and make sure each move recorded on the sheet is as they meant to call it, and can also prevent bad calls or bias if needed to keep the comp fair and the scoring consistent from one event to the next.


Once each judge turns in their score, the 3 separate scores are averaged into one final score.  In the 1st round each athlete gets 2 rides and both count, to reward consistency, and only the top 25% or so advance.  In the Quarter Finals, paddlers get 3 rides and 2 count.  Then in finals the top 5 of each class get 3 rides and only the highest scoring ride counts, to see who can actually score the most hard tricks in 45 seconds with no holding back allowed.  This paddler will be called ‘World Champion’ in each respective class.


I hope this helps everyone watching the ICF World Championships better understand and more fully appreciate the competition and strategies you are witnessing.   Like any sport, it’s a lot more fun when you can tell who’s winning – and why. will give you some examples of each move being performed so you can spot the tricks plus some examples of which moves count and which don’t.

Check out the 2012 USA Freestyle Scribe sheet and the ICF link to the international system below.

Clay Wright

ICF Certified Judge and 2011 US Freestyle Team Member


ICF Scribe Sheet 2010-2011 Check this out for an idea of how hard judges have it!