Choose Between Gymnastics and …

Subject: PLEASE ADVISE

HI

I have a nine-year-old who has been doing gymnastics for 3 years. He is very talented (I used to do gym myself as a youngster, so I know) in fact last year in second grade he came second in the open (country name omitted) elementary school competition – he was only in the second grade, and he holds the silver medal in the vault, coming fourth in the other apparatus at the (country name omitted) championships level 2.

He at the same time participates in taekwondo, being the MVP in a few competitions and winning gold or silver medals in others.

My question to you is: both coaches are trying to talk me into making him choose only one sport and to follow it through, – he won’t – and I won’t encourage it either, the taekwondo coach claims that gymnastics shortens your muscles which will cause him problems at a later stage in his sporting career. Is this true?

Please respond to my question because I am in a bit of a predicament at the moment.

Thanking you in advance.

The short answer to your question is “No.”

Gymnastics training neither “shortens” muscles nor will gymnastics cause problems later in any of a number of sporting careers. We have seen no studies or research that would indicate that such is the case and, in fact, the opposite is true.

Gymnasts need to be flexible and engage in some of the most vigorous stretching and flexibility training programs of any of the sports. Early and long-term gymnastics training tends to create lean flexible body types with exceptional strength and power.

Gymnastics is also used in many Eastern European countries as the basis for all other sports training. In other words, all young athletes are trained in gymnastics and then later specialize in other sports because gymnastics provides such an all around strength and coordination fitness base.

We can certainly identify with the desire of coaches to want talented athletes to specialize in their sport. For gymnastics, at least, many successful gymnasts do specialize in the sport and to compete at the highest levels nationally and internationally, that is almost certainly a requirement.

We also believe that it is important to communicate fully and openly with gymnasts and their parents and not slant discussions for our own purposes. We would have to say that we believe gymnastics and taekwondo are somewhat similar in training with taekwondo only having a somewhat higher endurance requirement. For muscle development and flexibility, they are probably more similar than different.

There are a number of other issues that this situation raises. Certainly for gymnastics, your son is most likely 10 – 12 years away from his peak competitive gymnastics years, which typically begins in a male gymnast’s 20’s (college age). We are not particularly knowledgeable about taekwondo, but have experience with martial arts and martial arts training. We suspect that your son is also quite a few years from his peak taekwondo competition years.

This would imply that it is probably not necessary for him to choose between the two sports at this young age but to still be able to eventually reach his maximum potential in either sport. The fact that he does not wish to specialize now indicates to us that this is most certainly the best choice for the moment and we would not believe that his long-term career in either sport would be ruined by continuing to train in both for now.

This does not mean that his current age-group competition success in either sport may not suffer the negative effects of competing against athletes that are getting more current practice time in their sport than him since his attention and practice time is split between two sports. Other 9 – 10 year olds may have an advantage in competition against him right now because they are training more hours in that one sport. This does not mean they will beat him 10 – 12 years from now if and when he does decide to specialize.

In other words, his success at competitions in both sports at the 9 year old age group competitions could (and likely will) be lower than if he specialized, since he will be competing against athletes who are specializing. But that does not limit his ability to compete successfully during his peak gymnastics (and taekwondo) competition years 10 or 12 years from now.

Some gym programs may not allow him to train with and to higher team levels without committing to a certain amount of training time. The same may be true of taekwondo. This could be an inhibiting factor for his long-term development in either sport, but it is a limitation of their training programs not of any inherent training conflict between the sports.

There is scientific evidence that it is best to learn high-level gymnastics skills at the age your son is at now and then maintain that level of difficulty through his later career. In addition to the advantage of learning such high-level skills (such as twisting double somersaults) at a younger age, gymnastics, with its six events (each with hundreds of skills and limitless skill combinations to learn) probably has a higher need for skill learning and training time than most any other sport including taekwondo.

All in all, we believe that the training of the two sports is actually remarkably similar training as sports go and that there don’t have to be any long-term detriments to his potential success in either sport. Any strength/training differences could be certainly reversed in a relatively short period of time (one competition training season) with a concentrated gymnastics strength training and flexibility program.

Physical and sports training is a continuum not an absolute. To maximize one aspect you minimize another by your choice of training. The ability of the body to be successfully trained differently for different sports goals ranging, for example, from speed to endurance, is amazing. We believe gymnastics and taekwondo are certainly more similar than different in terms of this training continuum, but an alteration in the training program or later specialization in either sport will not be limited by dual participation now.

The ultimate decision factor, we believe, should be your son’s apparent resistance to choosing or quitting either sport. To go against that desire at such a young age, we feel, would be an even more dangerous choice. It could greatly increase his chances to burn out at a young age and compete in neither sport later during his peak years.

Again, we do recognize and sympathize with both coaches’ desire to get him to concentrate on their sport. We would likely be encouraging him to do so also. Still, we would have to respect his wishes, speak the truth about the long-term realities of the situation and would still do the best we could with him during whatever training time we were given. Gymnastics (and any other sport) is not about the coach, it is about the athletes and what is best for them. We might not like the situation, but we would acknowledge and admit to the realities of it.

We recommend you allow him to continue to participate in both sports as he wishes and encourage both coaches to provide him with the best and highest levels of training they can during the time they have him. He is still too young to have to make any decision to specialize.

Good luck to you and your son. If there is anything else we can help you with, please let us know.

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