Avoiding a Penalty

| February 25, 2007 | 1 Comment

No one likes to get a penalty!  It can be frustrating, embarrassing and in some cases even heartbreaking if the penalty decides the outcome of an important contest.  But, rules were developed and penalties exist to protect our performers, the spectators and the performance arena.  As with any sport, they ensure safety, and provide guidelines for “fair play.”  It is the coach’s responsibility to learn the rules and then to train and educate both the performers and parents in order to avoid rule violations and the heartache that may result.  Doing everything we can to avoid penalties is part of the good sportsmanship we are trying to teach our students.  In this article you will find information on where to find the rules, what judges say are the most common penalties, tips on how to avoid common performance-related penalties and suggestions on positive ways to deal with the situation if you do end up with a dreaded deduction.


The Rules

At local circuit competitions you may have to navigate both national rules and standards (set by WGI) and those additional rules and guidelines developed by the local circuit.  Make sure to get copies of both.  The WGI rules are available for free download or for purchase at their website.  For 2007 they are posted in the “Color Guard Education” section (found in the menu to the left of the homepage) under “Articles.”  Local circuits usually post procedures and guidelines on a circuit website (links to many circuits can be found in our links section) or they make them available to units upon registration.  Local circuits sometimes add rules with corresponding penalties based on the specific needs of their membership, competition spaces, operating procedures or in response to a specfiic incident that has occurred.  In some cases these rules and penalties are long-standing.  In other cases, they are held for a year or two, reviewed, and lifted.  At any rate, it is important to make sure you read local guidelines and procedures each year because rules may change.  Circuits commonly add rules (and corresponding penalties) for issues that range from unpaid membership fees or unauthorized videotaping to late arrival at a competition and unsportsmanlike behavior.

Second, make sure to read the rules very carefully because virtually every section of rules has a corresponding penalty for those who don’t follow them with some penalties involving unit disqualification!

I learned the hard way, at a recent show, that it never hurts to go back and re-read contest regulations and guidelines no matter how long you have been coaching in this activity!  After 10 years of coaching I was surprised by a 0.7 penalty.  All wooden props must be taped on the bottom and I was caught unaware.  In 10 years I had never used wooden props that directly touched the floor – though I had used wooden props on wheels.  It never dawned on me that these props were different than the others we had used and I’ve seen groups with wooden props every year so I knew they weren’t “illegal.”  Since we hadn’t had any problems with props damaging our floor cover I never thought to check the rules or to tape the bottoms.  After the contest I did go back and consult the rulebook regarding the taping of wooden props and it is clearly written right there next to the rules about equipment – there is no mistaking it.  I also discovered that the judge was kind to only charge us with a .7 penalty because the rules allow for up to a 2 point penalty for issues with equipment (WGI rule 4.1).  We were lucky in this instance that the penalty didn’t change our placement.  So, I was able to use this experience as a “teachable moment” with my students in both the importance of being thorough AND the fact that even their teachers make mistakes.  We just need to learn from them and do better next time.  I apologized for the error (something the students really appreciated and respected) and I decided it was time to go back to the rulebook and refresh!

Moral of the Story?  There is so much we have to remember as coaches that it never hurts to take the time each season to refresh.  The entire set of rules took me only 10 minutes to read and it would have saved me a good deal of embarrassment with my students and parents!



Jim Shade, Chief Judge for KIDA – a circuit based in Pennsylvania, says that the most common penalties he sees are related to timing.  “Early in the season, units are working to complete shows and the performance times are usually under the required minimum time.”  He recommends that instructors prepare their students in advance for any impending penalties which might result from an incomplete show.  He goes on to say that the next timing challenge is overall floor time.  “We all know the situation…your show is 4:30 from the first note to the last note.  The minimum performance time is 4 minutes.  All is good right?  Well, all would be good if it only took your unit one minute to enter the floor and 30 seconds to exit the floor.  But you forgot that it takes 6 minutes to set-up the floor covering and break-down all of the props at the end of the show.”  Judge Shade recommends that groups “rehearse and time all aspects of your show including set up and exit [in order to] save yourself, and most importantly your performers, a lot of aggravation at the awards ceremony.”

Some tips which may help to reduce the amount of time it takes for set up and clean up:

Assign Roles to Every Members of the Unit and Floor Crew

While it may seem a little awkward to assign “jobs” to your parent helpers, in the end they will feel much more secure in what they are doing and the process will move much more smoothly and quickly.  They will also feel good knowing they are an important part of the crew who is needed at each show because they have a specific job to do.

1.  For the floor crew, determine exactly which people will be pulling the floor cover, who will be holding the cart, who will be standing on each corner, who will center the floor at the front (usually the director), and who is responsible for getting the floor cart out of the gym after the show so it doesn’t accidentally get left behind!

2.  If you have props to set up, assign specific props or tasks to each member of the crew or to your team members if there are not enough crew members.

3.  Take a look at the ending position of your performers.  Based on their final positions, assign students to clear specific equipment and props nearest to where they are standing

Rehearse and Time the Entire Process

Take a look at the entry/exit diagrams for your upcoming show and simulate the entire process.  Have students and crew line up in the hall outside of the rehearsal space and go through the entire sequence with a stopwatch.  Let everyone know how you did and try to push for leaving “extra” time so you don’t get into a situation where you are a few seconds over just because things went “a little slower this time.”  It’s a lot of physical work – but if necessary, rehearse it twice (or more!).  The time it takes is well worth it if you avoid a penalty which could decide the results of a contest!  Judge Shade noted that one of “the most accomplished units [he ever] instructed lost a circuit championships on a 0.5 penalty.  Talk about a bad experience for everyone!

If all Else Fails, Consider Using “Set-Up” Music

Many circuits will allow groups to play music during their floor set-up and exit (just check with your specific circuit regarding their policies).  Liz Martin, Director of the Arundel High School Color Guards from Gambrills, Maryland shares the reason she decided to opt for set-up music for a particularly complicated set design.  She says:

This year, we have a 4:10 minute show, however, we have a monster set that took a complete 8-hour Saturday rehearsal to get set up and tear down under time.  Even now, it’s a nail biter every time we hit the floor.  One thing that has helped us enormously with this problem this year is that I added setup music.  It is timed exactly at 2:50 and has a prominent music shift at the 2:00 mark.  This lets the crew know where they are in the set up process and how much time is left.  This music also plays on the tear-down…although tearing down always goes faster than set up.  So far we have come under time and really haven’t even been close.  But the key to this is preparation.  You have to put the time aside from practice to get it down like clockwork so that every little problem can be accounted for.  We could have never just gone on the floor and “winged-it” this year.  It had to be like a well-oiled machine.

If you are going to opt for set-up music it is probably best to choose something up-tempo (to encourage the crew to move quickly!) and to have a designated staff member standing next to the sound table to make sure the sound technician knows exactly when to play and stop the music.

Atlantic Indoor Association (AIA) Timing and Penalty Judge, Judy Einuis, adds that problems with exceeding maximum performance time are often, “not because units are slow to exit, but because in the rush, a small prop is left behind, or a well-meaning parent helper is not aware of the timing lines and requirements.”  So, it is a good idea to designate one person to follow up, inspect the area to make sure nothing is left behind and move along any stragglers.


“Touching or stepping on the floor over the front boundary line during the routine” is noted by Judge Einuis (AIA) as another very common rule violation.  She reminds groups that “although your equipment can lay across the front line, and your movement can break the vertical plane above the front line, no part of your body can touch the floor over the boundary line.”  This means that if performers reach for a piece of equpiment over the line, or set a piece of equipment over the line and their hand or foot crosses the boundary, a penalty is assessed.  This is an important point to stress with your students prior to their first performance by explaining to them that this rule was put in place for the safety of the spectators.  In larger gyms it may not seem as immediately important but in very small performance areas the closest spectators may be only a few feet away from the front of the floor.  If your drill runs close to the front sideline or if your performers will be exchanging equipment at the front is is important to make sure they are aware of this rule.  Coaches can also help to reduce the chance of a penalty by positioning the edge of the floor as far away from the front boundary line as space will permit.  Always try to leave a cushion of space there in the front.


The following problems have been deemed serious enough with regards to safety or the spirit of fair competition that they result in disqualification of the offending unit.

1.  Eligibility violations

2.  The use of unauthorized power sources

3.  The use of pyrotechnics, animals, electrical apparatus, airborne substances that might linger in the competition area, smoke machines or other potentially dangerous “special effects.”

4.  Ballooning of the floor tarp during clean-up

I was told a story about one unit who added a “special effect” to their show for the last two weeks of competition.  It was a train theme so they added a battery-powered crossing light unaware of the fact that battery-powered effects are not allowed.  At the first competition the T&P judge missed the violation.  At championships, however, the judge did NOT miss it and the group was faced with the possibility of disqualification!  Imagine the instructor’s reaction AND how she would have felt to have to explain to her performers that they had been disqualified!  Thankfully for the performers the matter was resolved without disqualification.  It is SO important to refresh and reread each season.


No one likes to get a penalty and we all do our best to avoid violating any rules.  But, sometime things just happen and we’re faced with having to turn a negative situation into a positive learning experience.  While you probably can’t (and shouldn’t) make everyone “happy” to get a penalty, you can help your students and staff to accept the penalty with poise and learn from the experience.  It is important to try to stay calm and set a good example for your performers.  Especially in the case where a penalty is due to a performance mistake (such as a boundary violation) your reaction will set the example for the rest of the team in how they will react to the person who made the mistake and how that specific person will feel about his/her performance.  We all make mistakes and it is important that performers feel safe.  No one tries to get a penalty on purpose.  And they will be hard enough on themselves without the entire team and staff coming down on them.  Help them to move on quickly and then determine if there are things you can do to help them avoid a penalty next time (like setting the floor farther from the boundary or helping them to practice a tricky transition.  If you feel that the penalty was assessed in error, bring the matter to the chief judge calmly and you’re more likely to encounter a constructive discussion and re-evaluation.  If the penalty was due to something you have control over (as was my recent mishap with forgetting to tape my props) consider owning up to the mistake and letting your students know you’ll get it fixed and “we’ll do better next time.”  They’ll respect you for this and you will be modeling for them how to appropriately handle making a mistake.  This is a skill that young performers often struggle with.  Too many times we see students leaving the floor in tears because they dropped their equipment or made another mistake.  This is your opportunity to model for them a healthy way to handle a mistake.  Simply acknowledge it, determine a way to improve for next time and move on.  No need for excess emotion!

Penalties can be a part of the competition experience, but in most cases, teams can go season after season without penalties if coaches are well-prepared and if performers and parents are educated about the contest rules and regulations.  Take a few minutes each season to read and refresh.  Educate your students and their parents about the contest rules.  And take time to rehearse set-up and tear-down to avoid timing violations.  Just a few extra minutes each season and things are bound to go smoothly, allowing your performers and staff the comfort and freedom to enjoy the success of improving their performances with each competition.

Special Thanks to the following people who contributed to this article through their experience and expertise: Liz Shaffer, Director – Arundel High School Color Guards , Jim Shade, Chief Judge KIDA , Judy Einius, Timing and Penalty Judge, Atlantic Indoor Association . 








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Category: Adjudication, Performance, Preparation & Travel

About the Author (Author Profile)

Catina Anderson is the founder/editor of the Colorguard Educators blog. Color guard has been part of her life for almost 25 years. She began coaching in 1994 and worked with the Broad Run High School color guard in Northern VA from 1998 until 2010. She has also written for Halftime Magazine and served on the Executive Board of the Atlantic Indoor Association. A former teacher, she enjoys sharing what she has learned and hopes to encourage others to share as well. Together we can create even more positive experiences for performers and help to collectively strengthen marching arts activities worldwide.

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