Competitive Gymnastics for Young Girls: What to Expect
Gymnastics is one of the most beautiful and dynamic sports in the world. Less than three percent of all young girls will successfully compete in what USA Gymnastics considers the "age group" program. This program is the precursor to the Elite level of gymnastics. Little girls have about a 1:300,000 chance of making it to the Olympics, but if you ask these aspiring young ladies in the age group program, many of them will tell you that their ultimate dream is to be an Olympic gymnast. Gymnastics is in the top three most watched Olympic events!
Why gymnastics? Did you know that gymnastics develops 26 multiple intelligences in children? What's multiple intelligence? Thank you, Google. The benefits are tremendous. It's an "all body" sport that develops muscle memory, strength, flexibility, kinesthetic and haptic awareness, depth perception, socialization, discipline, organization, prioritization, internal motivation, respect, and the list goes on.
If you are lucky enough to find a coach who is a fantastic role model, your gymnast will also gain wonderful life lessons because coaches become pseudo-parents since they spend a great deal of time with the athletes. As gymnasts move up into higher levels, they spend more and more time in the gym and often times they will spend more time with their coach than they do with their parents. Trust? Yes, it can be a scary extension but a necessary incision.
Gymnastics is the type of sport that once you commit to it, it's in your blood forever. There is no "gray area." It's very black and white in the sense that you either do it or you don't. It instills a sense of purpose and duty because the athlete works for herself and for the team. From an early age, kids can learn the value of doing a "job" and a sense of duty.
In this day and age, parents often dig their heels into this type of motivation however having a sense of accomplishment is a wonderful thing for a child. All of the toys and candy and "things" you can give a child could never replace or outlast for that kiddo to know how good it feels that she's done something well.
Things to Know Before You Select a Gym
If you are searching for a competitive gym, look for the following characteristics:
- Is it brightly colored and kid friendly?
- Is the staff at the front desk friendly and helpful?
- Check out the equipment in the gym: there should be 2-3 sets of bars, 4-8 beams, a full 40x40 spring floor, and at least one vaulting table.
Questions you should ask:
- Does the gym compete as a USAG (USA Gymnastics) team?
- Are all of the team coaches USAG certified?
- What is the highest level of gymnast they have competing in the gym?
- How long have their coaches been at their gym and how long have their coaches been coaching gymnastics?
- Do their coaches receive continued training on a regular basis through regional or national congresses?
- Do they have any policies about children missing work-outs?
- Is your child is required to attend every gymnastics meet?
- Do they have a team handbook or an R&P (Rules and Policies)?
- Is there a liability release? (If so, make sure you READ CAREFULLY before signing.)
- Is there an estimated expense sheet for the entire season?
- Is there a tentative meet schedule with estimated prices for each meet for the entire season?
- Is there a Booster club? Booster clubs are a wonderful thing when they are independent entities from the gym.
- Does the gym host meets, and if they do, are parents required to work at the meets?
- Are there specific requirements for how the gymnast must wear her hair during competition?
- What style of teaching do the coaches use? Do they use drills? or Is it a "go-and-throw" method (this type of gym you want to steer clear of).
- Is there a lot of positive reinforcement?
Don't be afraid to ask questions. Most of these questions won't be questions because you will know if you are at a reputable gym. If you are new to the world of competitive gymnastics, you will undoubtedly have many questions. If the coaches or administrative staff is disinclined to answer, I would find another gym.
The welfare and future of your child's competitive gymnastics career is important. If you are met with hesitation in getting clear and concise answers, move on. There are great gyms in every city and every region.
The Hard Part
If your daughter has been asked to join a competitive gymnastics team you should know that you are making a life choice. It is a choice that will affect your entire family. If your gym has a team handbook make sure you read it cover to cover. Don't skim! Read it! Especially if you have to sign a team contract. Many times you will find that your tuition fees are non-refundable if your daughter quits and you have signed a contract. Do your homework. Some typical expenses you should expect are:
- Leotard fees ($150-$300 each)
- T-shirt and paraphernalia fees ($100+)
- Warm-up fees ($75+)
- Booster Club fees ($500+)
- Travel expenses
- Coaches compensation fees
- Tuition fees
- Additional equipment fees (therabands, wrist weights, ankle weights, kettlebells)
- Team event fees
If your gymnastics club offers fundraisers, participate in them because it helps ease the financial burden. Competitive gymnastics can be very expensive.
The highest level of gymnastics requires what I consider a "total package athlete" to be very successful. By definition, that means a gymnast has to be physically strong, mentally stable, emotionally sound, and have an excellent support system at home. Kids who have a lot of fears are not good candidates for competitive gymnastics. They may be able to do recreational gymnastics but because of the nature of how skills grow, adapt and become higher, faster and more powerful, in nearly all cases, that fear will rear its ugly head and their progress will plateau.
Gymnasts who don't have the "total package," who may be lacking one of the qualities I suggested, can still be successful if they are committed to being a gymnast and to continuing to make progress. In my entire career of 25 years, I have come across three of this type of athlete. Only one of them is competing at the international level right now. However, I have coached many athletes to State, Regional, Western, and National titles, so it is possible to be successful in gymnastics without all the perfect pieces.
Gymnastics can be brutal to a child's body, mind, and emotions. If you choose a gym that has a high rate of success, chances are, you might encounter a coach that has what I consider a "zero tolerance" policy for every child. They don't recognize that children are unique and different. They see kids as robots and expect them to perform exactly the same without regard to any outside influences.
This type of coach will expect the athlete to work out and compete when she is injured and may have unrealistic expectations. I've seen coaches single out athletes for being late to gymnastics meets by verbally berating them in front of the entire team. The last time I checked, 10-year-olds were not legally permitted to drive, so in my opinion, that conversation should have taken place with the parent, not the child.
Gymnastics can also be taxing on a child's body. Statistically, the United States Elite Coaches Association has done numerous studies in reference to gymnastics injuries and how to prevent them. They are breaking ground on preventative measures and a lot of certified coaches are following suit. The problem is that it takes time to condition the body.
On average, a new conditioning program should be altered every six weeks with progress being shown at the same interval. The problem with conditioning is over-use. If the coach doesn't have a well-designed conditioning plan the athletes suffer. If several athletes are experiencing the same type of bodily pain, it may be due to a conditioning failure.
Visit the USECA website at the bottom for more detailed information about the United States Elite Coaches Association.
To Compete or Not to Compete?
Competitive gymnastics is not for everyone. It requires a sizable time commitment from at least one parent and as I stated earlier, it can be expensive. If your child is asked to be on a competitive gymnastics team and she is only four years old, don't fret about her age. If you are at a quality gym, they will take excellent care in teaching her properly. Most likely your young daughter will be starting out in Level 1, 2, or 3, which are really just about having fun and learning to compete. Depending on which competitive region you are in, once they hit Level 4, that's when the real competition starts. (See link below to USA Gymnastics.)
Gymnastics is not the "dangerous" sport that people make it out to be. All sports come with injuries, that's the nature of competition. Competition can cause anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, and pain, but so can romantic love. Kids hanker for competition because they like to feel proud of themselves and let's face it, winning is fun. If you are at a crossroads about whether or not you should allow your child to compete, find someone who was a competitive gymnast and ask them their opinion. Then start searching for the right gym!
Final thought: Don't assume that because your daughter does beautiful cartwheels in the front yard and climbs the walls that she has the talent of Shannon Miller. Allow the coaches to do the evaluating. When your daughter is asked to join the team, allow the coaches to do the coaching. They are the experts!
If you have any questions, feel free to send them my way!
© 2012 Kristi Sharp