Penalties are often the most misunderstood element of Odyssey of the Mind. They sound so terrible … as if they were a punishment. In fact, penalties are simply a way of ensuring that all teams are following the rules, and all teams have the same equal opportunities for score. One could consider an absence of penalties a reward, rather than the presence a punishment. As in football, sometimes penalties occur when no one meant any foul. It is possible to “rough the kicker” without having meant to do so. But the referees must give a penalty because that isn't supposed to happen and isn't fair to the other team if it is ignored.

Penalties in Odyssey of the Mind are much the same … a team that abides by the rules carefully would have been treated unfairly if another team could do something the first team had so carefully avoided. Officials are never trying to keep anything secret. The goal is for the team to read and understand all the rules and officials will try very hard to answer questions and help the team do what is correct. An example of a penalty that is almost always inadvertent is the overtime penalty (in some problems.) It is not fair to a team that has rehearsed many times to keep the performance under the prescribed 8 minutes, if another team gets to perform for 10 minutes and show the judges more of their creativity. So there is the need for an overtime penalty for a team that does goes beyond 8 minutes (in some problems). However, a team that has rehearsed many times can inadvertently go overtime simply by stopping to fix a prop that broke in the middle of the performance. So a penalty can be just the result of Murphy's Law, not a reflection of any deliberate wrongdoing. Encourage a team to view them as a learning opportunity for future problem solving.

Types of penalties

  • Unsportsmanlike conduct penalties (each offense, -1 to -100 points) are the only ones that might be considered punitive. There is NEVER any excuse for a team's behaving inappropriately. Vulgar language, striking a fellow team member, yelling at a team member or booing another team … these actions will be dealt with severely and without sympathy from the officials. Also remember that these penalties may be given by ANY official at ANY time during the tournament.

  • Outside assistance penalties (each offense, -1 to -100 points) are given when a team has received help with a solution. These penalties are given in varying amounts according to how integral to the solution the assistance was. Sometimes these penalties are given for actions that are inadvertent. Parents on the day of the tournament may help carry in props or other items, but they may not repair something that breaks, even if they were the ones who broke it! A parent will sometimes, without even thinking, touch up a child's hair, or put something back together that came apart. In adherence to the rules, the team will receive a penalty for those actions if an official observes it. (Penalties are NOT given based on reports from other teams or coaches, however!). Penalty points will be assigned according to how integral to the solution the assistance was. It is much better if a team decides to redesign a solution so that they did it all themselves! Even a very small penalty can detract from the team's score, and, even more importantly, from their sense of accomplishment.

  • Floor damage penalties are usually the result of an unforeseen accident. These can be entirely avoided if team members remember to lift all items off the floor whenever possible, and protect the floor with some type of material when the items cannot be lifted. Tournament directors do NOT wish to explain to a school principal that the gym floor was scratched by Odyssey of the Mind!

  • Incorrect or missing membership sign penalties (-1 to -15 points) can also be avoided by reading the Program Guide and making sure the team has a membership sign (or more than one.) Usually, this penalty is given when a sign falls over during the performance, stays down, and is not visible any longer, even though it is physically there. Have the team brainstorm how to make sure the sign is always visible!

  • Over cost limit penalties (-1 to -100 points) can be avoided by careful completion of the cost form. Be sure all items in the performance are listed (unless exempted from inclusion.) Be sure the correct value has been assigned.

  • “Spirit of the Problem” violations are the most difficult for teams and coaches to understand. Sometimes these are penalties given for something that is counter to the “Spirit of the Problem” description in Section A of the Long-Term problem. More often, they are penalties given for something that is missing from the solution that the problem said must be there, but which is not scored for Long-Term or Style. For example, if the Long-Term problem said the team should have a poem as part of the problem solution, but there was no score given for the poem, then, if the poem were absent, it would be a “Spirit of the Problem” violation. Another example would be in a problem that specified “the spirit of the problem is to create a humorous performance” and the team chose to present a tragedy with no humor involved. This would merit a “Spirit of the Problem” penalty. This is a difficult penalty because sometimes it hinges on the interpretation of the judges. (In the poem example, what if the team said, after being told the judges didn't find a poem anywhere, that a line in the script, “my cat is back,” was their poem? In the humorous performance example, what if the team had one joke in the middle of a script entirely about someone's tragic death? These questions occasionally make a “Spirit of the Problem” penalty a matter of the judges' opinion … aren't you glad there are several judges?)

  • Balsa structure penalties are clearly defined in the balsa wood problem, and result from oversized wood, overweight structures, etc. These are unique to the balsa structure problem, and balsa teams should note the requirements carefully.

  • Problem specific penalties in other Long-Term problems are outlined in Section E, when applicable. For example, sometimes things must fit into certain areas, or meet certain other specifications. Be sure to ask your team to measure more than once, and measure exactly! Odyssey of the Mind encourages “thinking outside the box” but your team must be inside the box when it comes to measured items!

  • Over time limit (-5 points for every 10 seconds or fraction thereof). There are two types of time limits to Odyssey of the Mind Long-Term problems. First is the No Overtime Category. These problems provide 8 minutes for the team to do everything. This includes moving items out of the Staging Area and onto the competition site, setting up sets and props, performing the skit, completing technical requirements, and so on. When 8 minutes expires the Timekeeper will call “time” and all activity will end for that presentation. There is no overtime and no penalty will be assessed. The second type is the Overtime Category. These problems provide 8 minutes for all activity as well. However, if the performance exceeds 8 minutes the Timekeeper will allow the performance to continue for up to one more minute and, if the team does not finish, will then call “time.” If the team goes overtime it will incur a penalty as described in the problem, but can still be scored normally for anything that occurs in that one-minute time period.Each spontaneous problem has its own specific timing system. Sometimes it is one block of time to solve a problem and other times it is two time periods, one to prepare and one to work for score. Overtime is never allowed in spontaneous. The judge calls “time” at the end of each period and the team must stop, so there are never any penalties for exceeding the time limit.

  • Misunderstood penalties, that are NOT penalties at all, are safety issues/prohibited substances. There is NO penalty for not having non-penetrable foot coverings … the team member will simply be stopped from performing until he or she puts on shoes. There is generally no penalty for having untethered helium balloons or other prohibited items… the team will be asked to remove them from the problem solution in the staging area. The only exception to this would be when the judges do not notice a prohibited substance until they have made an appearance in the middle of the performance. A penalty may be given afterwards to a team as a warning to be more attentive to the rules. (Ideally, the staging area judge will notice such violations and ask the team to remove them before time begins … but even staging area judges are not infallible! Rules are, ultimately, the teams’ responsibility.)

Frequently asked questions regarding penalties

Will my team know if they are being given a penalty? No, not for most penalties, until the coach picks up the Long-Term raw scores. And, for spontaneous, they will not receive a penalty for any action, but any offending team member will be escorted out of the room. The only time a team might know it may receive a penalty might be if a team which exhibits unsportsmanlike behavior or outside assistance observed by an official someplace in the building during the day. A team will also know that it should expect a penalty if the team lists Outside Assistance on the OA form. The penalty will be in accordance with the amount the assistance affected the long term solution. Staging Area Judges will always be “on the team’s side” as much as possible. They will allow a team to try to adjust something to fit in an area, or to complete a form, if they believe the team might be able to do so. If it is obviously impossible, either physically or because of the time constraints, they will not upset the team by pointing out the deficit.

Where are penalties written down? Penalties in Long-Term are indicated on the score sheet given to the coach by the Head Judge approximately an hour after performance time. The coach and Head Judge will discuss any penalties, and the judge should be able to explain why the penalty was given. If there is no notation about why a penalty was given, and the Head Judge doesn’t know, the coach may ask the Head Judge to review the issue with the team of Long-Term Judges. A team should always understand exactly why a penalty was assessed. If the exact reason for a penalty is not cited on the score sheet (pink copy of the NCR triplicate form), ask that the Head Judge note the reason for the penalty before initialing the form. No one may change the value of a penalty category stated in the problem or create penalties not listed in the Program Guide or the Long Term Problem.

How are penalties calculated in to the score? The master copy of the score sheet (which is a triplicate form – one copy goes to the judges, one to the coach, and one to the score room) has any penalties noted (it appears on all three copies.) This master copy goes to the score room, and after all of a team’s scores are entered in to the computer, the penalty points are deducted from the total, scaled score.

Can you have penalties in Spontaneous? No. Offenses in Spontaneous occur if non-performing team members give assistance (which is, in this case “outside assistance”) to the five members solving the spontaneous problem, or if any team members exhibit unsportsmanlike conduct. Team members will be escorted back to the holding room if this occurs and the “penalty” will be lost time in solving the problem.

What are the most common penalties assessed a team? Overtime penalties and outside assistance are the most common. Remind parents that, at the tournament, they should not “just fix this little thing coming off the prop/vehicle/costume”!