The Developmental Stages of Gymnasts

Gymnasts pass through a number of physical and developmental stages during their gymnastics careers. These are periods of readiness to learn, physical readiness and physical and emotional maturity. There is tremendous growth and development in the current affected physical capability during the growth period.

Gymnasts Must be Ready to Learn Before They Can

Before the period of readiness, most gymnasts will progress little, if at all with that particular trait. Even if there is early progress, gymnasts who work on the trait later during the correct developmental period will catch up and there will be no advantage to the attempt to develop early, often only the chance to burn out too early.

A Number of Developmental Capabilities

The sensitive developmental periods we are talking about are capabilities like timing, speed of movement, balance, locomotor speed, strength and rhythmic ability (dance).

Current Gymnastics Training Ignores these Developmental Stages

There seems to be little notice taken of these stages in the supposed training programs in gymnastics. Strength programs, like the TOPS Program, are supposedly emphasizing strength development at ages 9, 10 and 11 with training for the testing of the program necessarily beginning at age 8 or earlier.

Strength Develops Primarily in the Post-Puberty Stage

There is little doubt that strength and flexibility are prerequisites for success in the sport of gymnastics. There is also little doubt that the peak sensitive developmental period for strength development in girls is post-puberty.

Appropriate Strength and Other Training

There is also no doubt in our minds that an appropriate progressive gymnastics strength training program is an essential part of gymnastics at every age and level. We just question the efficacy of the strength development emphasis for these ages. If there is no physical readiness and maturity for strength building, then the extra time spent attempting to develop it takes time from the true developmental capabilities during those ages like skill timing and development, balance, movement speed and locomotor speed development.

Progress is Readiness Limited

Girls currently without the strength building developmental capability will train and not progress in relationship to their efforts. This may occur even though they may well be able to develop above average strength gains later during their post-puberty teens, if they have not become sufficiently discouraged by their lack of progress and quit the sport.

Late Starters May Have Missed Developmental Windows

It is more easily seen that some girls that have missed developmental stages by starting very late in the sport, while able to improve, are never going to hit the highest levels. This is as compared to the capabilities of girls who have been in a training program and at least made progress, even if not optimized, their physical capabilities and maturities of all of the requisite skills.

What Does TOP Test?

Who, then, excels in the TOP testing? These would either be girls who are either early developers, physically mature earlier than average, or those who have strength as a hereditary trait and are strong primarily as a result of inherited physical capability, not as a result of any strength training program.

International Competition Age Limits Don’t Affect Training Practices

With the brouhaha about the age for international competition having been too young, there seems to be no hesitation to train and test gymnasts outside of their developmental maturity half a decade or more earlier than that, even by the national federation.

Dance Ability is Developmentally Related and Limited Also

Strength training is not the only area where developmental considerations are ignored. Sometime around 13 to 14 years of age (sometimes 12 – 14), the average girl develops rhythmic ability – dance ability. Male coaches in America were aware of this in previous years and did not worry that they were not teaching (or capable of teaching) dance. Their girls just learned or developed that capability early in their teen years anyway, leaving them free to teach the high level skills they wanted to teach anyway.

Sport is Opposite of Actual Developmental Stages

Somewhere, somehow perhaps because of liability fears, or the organizational political influence of coaches and judges who couldn’t teach or spot high level skills or were frightened by high levels of difficulty, there came to be the idea that difficulty should be restricted in competition. It was restricted at the very ages when the developmental capabilities for learning difficulty were the highest and the changed emphasis on beautiful dance presentation is an ability that gymnasts of that age are not developmentally ready for.

Compulsory Dance Out of Progression Order

This misplaced emphasis and to some gymnastics “purists” watering down of the risk, originality and virtuosity of the athletic aspects of the sport led to more developmental anomalies and outright out-of-progression dance requirements in the compulsory routines.

Dance is Not Particularly A Strength in our National Program

Again, there is no doubt that daily ballet barre and adagio training is a requisite part of any serious Elite developmental training program. But as any trip to a serious ballet company, such as the New York Ballet Company or the Kirov will show, there is a serious dance deficiency in gymnastics dance training and dance requirements programs in this country.

Need to Take the Long-Term View

What is lacking in ballet and strength training are the same things that are lacking in coaching in the sport in this country in general. There is no long term view and long term systematic training plan and program. There is especially no such systematic program that takes into consideration (or even better, takes advantage of) the physical and psychological stages and maturities of child development.

Training Should Match Developmental Stages

Bottom line? Girls need to be in a training program during these sensitive periods beginning at age 6 – 8. While there need to be appropriate progressive training in all areas of the sport, there needs to emphasis on and efficient use of time to concentrate on developing specific capabilities during the time of the sensitive developmental stage. Training, testing and tracking should reflect individual progress and progression in all areas of capability. A long term view and plan for each gymnast in the sport must exist and take into consideration all the stages of child development and maturity, both physically and psychologically.

Don’t Overemphasize Importance of Early Strength Results

Inappropriate expectations, early testing (especially formal national program testing) of strength before a gymnast has reached the period where she might reasonably be expected to improve her strength as the result of her efforts and training program, must be avoided or minimized in importance.

Dance Expectations Should be Brought In Line

Stacking of out of progression dance skills and expectations of dance performance at young ages and at the compulsory levels before rhythmic developmental capability and maturity has even begun should change.

Penalizing High Skill Level Training is Counter-Productive

Restricting early success in the sport to those who have earlier than average dance maturity foolishly penalizes girls who have higher skill difficulty abilities, which is the natural developmental stage, and who will later “catch up” in dance ability.

Dancers Only Gymnasts May Try to Learn Difficulty Too Late

Meanwhile, the girls who have excelled and survived on the basis of their early dance maturity, but have ignored developing their high level skill timing training during that sensitive developmental stage will find themselves dancers with no high level skills. They may be past the stage at which they can easily learn them, in a sport, which requires both.

Adopt Your Own Program

There is no national training program outline that truly matches the real training needs of gymnasts. Coaches and gym owners need to develop their own comprehensive training program or adopt a comprehensive training program that meets all of the needs and the readiness level of their gymnasts.

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