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How to Teach and Coach Gymnastics to Kids: Build a Great Foundation

Kristi has been a competitive gymnastics coach for 25+ years and has coached levels 3-10 to state, regional, western and national titles.

A child performing an arabesque correctly

A child performing an arabesque correctly

Common Errors in Gymnastics and Tumbling

Over the course of my 25 years of coaching gymnastics, I've been to gymnastics meets, gyms, and clinics in almost every region and seen gymnastics skills that are frightening. I've also attended cheer competitions where kids are doing tricks they shouldn't be doing. The skills look scary and I've witnessed numerous injuries that happened simply because the athlete was performing something they were not physically and mentally prepared for. If you are a gymnastics fan, you've seen them too. Either because you've YouTube'd them or have been the lucky witness to gasp when they happen.

Often times children learn skills on their trampolines, in the yard or on their living room floor. Without proper instruction and training, kids develop bad habits These are tricks that they either learned on their own and were never corrected or skills that they have been asked to do and were not quite ready to perform.

Let's explore some of the common mistakes that are made with beginner gymnastics and tumbling and look at the steps you can take to easily make your athletes into fundamentally-strong superstars.

Gymnasts must make sure to leap with straight legs.

Gymnasts must make sure to leap with straight legs.

Good Starts in Gymnastics

Gymnastics and tumbling are not sports that should be rushed. It's important that kids learn the basics of good gymnastics and tumbling, regardless of what parents or other coaches say. When a parent comes to the administrative staff or coaches and expresses dissatisfaction with progress, you should not feel pressured to push your athletes to perform skills that are unsafe or inappropriate.

It would be better to post a sign that explains the necessary steps of building good gymnastics. Let parents know that it's critical for you to spend time teaching kids how to properly shape their bodies, place their feet and build strength and skills so that in the future, they will experience the benefits of having learned the skills correctly. Explain to them that if a child has developed a bad habit, it takes about 6 weeks of consistently correct training or 66 consecutive correct turns to re-train a skill. Depending on the child and the problem being fixed the more accurate correctional training can be from 6 weeks to a year.

Don't Gussy It Up

Children have to understand what you're talking about when you're coaching. It's important to use the proper technical lingo so that kids can advance from your class to the next. Refrain from making up your own slang for skills because it will be confusing for kids if they go on to become competitive athletes. Stick to the correct technical words for all skills, all techniques and all dance-related movements. As a teacher, coach or owner, insist on this type of attention to detail.

If you're doing a group lesson for a class and the teacher prefers that you use different terminology, by all means, acquiesce. Since the team does not attend your facility and they are paying you to teach privately, it's important that the coach feels you are teaching things they want their athletes to learn. In cases like this, I typically invite coaches to help with the kiddos so that they can use their lingo and they can learn some great tips on how to teach tumbling.

A young girl practicing on a beam post

A young girl practicing on a beam post

Quality Is Better Than Quantity

Maintain a sense of quality when you're teaching and coaching gymnastics and tumbling. It's easy to set up several drills and let your kids do them by themselves. It's also easy not to set up anything and to let your kids do the same thing all the time. Your goal should be that your athletes walk out the door better than they were when they arrived—every day.

Make It Fun and Functional

When you're training your athletes you should consider the length of the session. Whether it's 6 weeks or 10 weeks, plan your lessons so that you build each week. Your goal is to keep kids interested and coming back to class. Let's face it, kids attend class because it's fun, not because you're the drill instructor. The great thing is that you can provide an atmosphere of learning, training and fun. Kids can be exercising and getting stronger without even knowing it.

For example, if you take a simple rope climb and a stopwatch, see who can climb the rope the fastest and the person who climbs the fastest gets to spend 5 minutes at the end of class doing back handsprings on the trampoline. Sounds like they're getting a treat at the end of class but they're really working a major skill. If you want to make it a little bit more challenging, give them a foam block and tell them they have to do five back handsprings with the foam block in between their feet.

Professionalism Is a Must

You're not there to be a friend to the kids. As an adult, you should have adult friends. You've been hired to teach, to do a job. Just as each of those kids stands and looks to you for guidance, you should provide them with what they need to be better athletes. Your private life happens outside of the gym so don't allow the boundary between coach or teacher and student to be crossed.

  • Don't let the kids hang all over you. High-fives are better. Reserve hugs for extra special moments.
  • Don't tell your athletes about your personal life.
  • Refrain from showing your emotions to your students. Keep a professional persona at all times.
  • Avoid sharing any details about your life or work with the parents of your students. It will come back to bite you in the end.
  • Don't complain in front of your students or parents. Never out in the open where a customer might hear you.

This is one of those mistakes that you can't undo. Once you cross this line, there is no retreat.

Gymnastics and Tumbling Lingo

Lunge: Front leg is flexed (bent) and back leg is straight. Arms are at crown and tight to ears. Body is in straight line with back leg and reaching forward to prepare to tumble. Back is straight and flat.

Hollow: When the body is in a straight line from the armpit to the toes and the chest is slightly curved in at the clavicle bone. The head is neutral and arms can be crown, side middle or side down.

Pike: A position where hips are flexed to at least 90 degrees and legs are straight. Position can be in flight (in the air) or stationary.

Straddle: A position where legs are extended sideward and out, knees are turned up. Legs should be split a minimum of 120–180 degrees.

Tuck: A leg position where the knees are bent at least 90 degrees towards the chest.

Forced arch: Feet are on highest toe and knees are in demi-pliè.

Lock: (foot position) = One foot in front of the other and both feet on high relevè. Feet must be touching back of heel to top of foot.

For all of the correct terminology see the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympic Program Text

How to Coach Like a Champ

What is reasonable and what isn't when it comes to teaching skills? These are just a few ideas.

  1. If your athlete cannot do a handstand you shouldn't be teaching a giant swing on the bars.
  2. If your gymnast cannot run and jump to a tight straight jump off of the springboard she should not attempt a handstand flat-back or handspring over the table.
  3. If your kiddo cannot walk in relevè on the balance beam without falling off she should not be trying switch leaps and back handsprings.
  4. If your athlete cannot do a cartwheel you shouldn't be teaching a roundoff back handspring.
  5. If your athlete cannot hold a bridge alone with no spot, do a back walkover, do a back handspring on a trampoline with no spot and do a back handspring alone down a cheese wedge, you shouldn't be teaching a roundoff back handspring.
  6. If your athlete cannot do a forward and backward roll, you shouldn't be teaching a forward or backward salto.
  7. If your athlete cannot do a safe roundoff back handspring on the tumble track they should not attempt it on the floor.
  8. When the spotter is doing all the work, you have pushed the child too far too fast. The best thing you can do for an athlete is to break a skill into pieces and teach the pieces by shaping the child correctly, and then put the appropriate pieces back together as a whole.

The idea of having your athlete "go and throw" is primeval and from the dark ages. If you want to have a quality gymnastics or cheerleading program then you should ensure your athletes are performing quality skills from the ground up. I understand that some parents want to see their children progress quickly but fast progress is dangerous for most children. In my 25 years of coaching, I've coached three athletes who had Olympic potential and only one of those young ladies is still in the running for that dream. Every other athlete I have ever coached learned at a pace that was on a scale of rise over time.

A child performing a back walkover

A child performing a back walkover

Parents' Mistakes

Every now and then I come across an athlete who is very talented and wants to advance in gymnastics, but her parents are hesitant to allow her to move up because she is too young or they are afraid she will get "burned out." There are also times when parents prefer to keep their kids in classes because they are participating with a friend or sibling so the social aspect is more important than the physical and physiological development.

While I understand the reasoning behind keeping kids together to have fun, I suggest that parents sincerely consider the benefits that kids will receive if they advance in gymnastics. This is not meant to question any parenting techniques or the importance of spending quality time together. It's only for the purpose of thought. Over the course of my career, there have been numerous athletes who have said to me that gymnastics saved them from getting into trouble. Kids who are idle will find other things to do. Whether that's the right thing or the wrong thing is up to the parent. If you occupy your child with good and healthy exercises they are more likely to stay out of trouble and make good choices. Gymnastics is a great choice.

The Not-So-Nice Truth

The truth is that not every girl will be an amazing competitive gymnast. If you look at the scale of age-to-level it usually works out somewhat like this:

  • Precompetitive (levels 2-3): Ages 4-5
  • Level 4: Age 6-7
  • Level 5: Age 7-8
  • Level 6: Age 8-9
  • Level 7: Age 9-10
  • Level 8: Age 10-11
  • Level 9: Age 11-12
  • Level 10: Age 12-13
  • Elite: Age 13-16
  • Olympic Level: Age 16

I find that some parents are in a terrible hurry to have their daughters rushed into being competitive athletes at an early age. They want their daughters to have private lessons at 3 years old and they're taking dance, ballet, gymnastics or cheer. I wish I could explain how disheartening it is when a gymnast quits because she is burned out at the age of 7 because she's taking a multitude of sports and cannot keep up with her school and athletics.

If you take your kiddo to gymnastics or cheerleading and you feel that your child needs more the first thing you should do is speak directly with the instructor. Often times there are many things you can do at home—especially if you have a background in gymnastics or tumbling. Even if you don't know anything about either sport there is undoubtedly a way for you to help your kiddo benefit from the time in between classes without causing a potential burnout.

My Opinion on Competition

I've been a coach for many years and worked with hundreds of children and parents. I've had some amazing experiences and continue to learn every day that I show up to teach. While I recognize that I have a biased view because I believe in gymnastics, I also understand that my beliefs are reflective of 25 years of coaching preceded by 18 years of competitive gymnastics.

I believe that you should trust your coaches to coach. Allow them to do their job. Recognize that kids like to feel good about themselves and part of that feeling good means that they will like to be on a winning team. That also means they will have to work hard to get there. Allow your coaches to train your kiddos and support them when your child comes home tired, frustrated and grumpy. Give them the necessary pep talk to rev them up each day and get back into the gym. Help to teach your child what it means to be an individual and part of a team. The first time they stand on that 1st place award stand, it will all come to fruition. Good luck in your athletic journey.