Too Young for Gymnastics Competition?

Subject: Too young.

Dear Coach, We want to know what to do in the upcoming season for our daughter. The situation we have is that our child progressed very quickly and at the young age of six is to young to compete level 5. USAG rules are that you must be seven years of age to compete and she will not be seven until next November. With that being said, her coaches want to hold her back for another year in level 4. Since she was too young this year, her coaches luckily competed her AAU until after her birthday. She placed first in 3 out of 4 AAU meets. After her birthday, she had one USAG meet to qualify for state. She did qualify and as the youngest competitor at State, she placed 4th AA. She loves the sport of gymnastics and can never seem to get enough. My greatest concern is her getting bored and missing all of her friends that have moved up. I’m afraid it’s just not going to be fun for her anymore. Confidence is not an issue for her either, as the gym and competing in the meets were her comfort zone. She’s extremely mature for her age. She also has her kip on bars and her cartwheel on high beam. She thrives on being challenged as well!

Now my question to you, is what would you do with a gymnast like this. She already participates in the TOPs program as well. I would love any and all recommendations!

Thank you so much for your help! This web site was a true blessing!

Thanks for the kind words about the web site.

Your daughter is a somewhat unique position because of her talent and early success. The rules for the sport were not made with her in mind, so she does not fit into hardly any of the normal USA Gymnastics categories.

Let me start with a warning. It is very easy to get excited about young gymnasts who are doing exceptionally well at a very young age. My primary goal, however, would be to have them still competing, in your daughter’s case, 10 – 12 years from now, when she will finally be old enough to be eligible for Elite International competitions, like the World Championships and the Olympics. I am going to assume that you have a similar goal of having your daughter train to advance as efficiently and effectively as possible to as high a level as she can in the sport.

One of the most common errors coaches can make is to push too hard, too soon, keep young gymnasts in the gym too long and not keep the sport (both practices and competitions) fun. While it seems more like the opposite case here, you need to be aware that way too many superbly talented young gymnasts are burnt out and quit the sport long before they are old enough to compete in any real high level gymnastics because they were in the gym too much and put under too much pressure too soon. I would still however use your considerable influence (as the parents of a talented gymnast who could conceivably train anywhere) to convince her coaches that she should not repeat Level 4 and continue training with her friends.

It is my firm opinion that it is a waste for any young gymnast to spend more than one year in Level 4. Level 4 was never intended to be a competitive level and USA Gymnastics only made it a competitive level to increase their membership base, primarily for financial reasons. Virtually none of the skills in Level 4 are ever used in real gymnastics, so to spend two years only practicing skills that will never be used again is a waste of two years. In my opinion, it would be a waste of a year especially for your daughter, as talented as she is, to only train for Level 4 again.

In my opinion, even the year(s) doing Levels 4 and 5 are significantly wasted if the gymnasts are only training the 31 major skills for those levels each year, some of which are also not used later in “real” gymnastics. If your daughter is talented, you probably want her to be training for Level 10/Elite starting now. I don’t mean she is going to be doing Elite level skills right now, only that her training is aimed starting now with the goal of achieving Level 10/Elite. To do that, she needs to be doing more than just compulsories.

Fortunately, she is already involved in TOPs training. It is a proven fact that gymnasts who first are strong and flexible enough learn skills faster and do better in competition. The basis of the TOPs program is to first develop a high level of gymnastics strength and flexibility and then to train optional “profile” skills that are the basic progressions to the types of high level optional skills that Level 10/Elites compete.

Because of where your daughter is in the sport, her TOPs participation should likely be the main focus for her this year. She is eligible for TOPs testing because children are qualified for participation in TOPs if they will be 8 years of age anytime during the current testing year (she will be 7 in November).

Her physical training goals for this year should likely be derived from the TOPs Age 7 National Best performances listed for last year at: http://www2.usa-gymnastics.org/women/tops/09topavg.pdf Those physical training standards would give her a challenge.

In terms of your daughter, there are two problems with the TOPs program. There are no competition opportunities with TOPs for her, unless you count testing and there is no TOPs skills testing for 7 and 8 year olds. Skill Testing is only performed at the National TOP Testing, which is only for age 9 and above.

There is no standard for TOPs training within a gym. Gyms train for TOPs in a variety of ways. Fairly standard is some amount of gymnastics strength training for the Physical Testing in strength and flexibility. There is second aspect to TOPs and that is the skills testing, even though it only begins at age 9 and is done only at the National testing. The best TOPs programs train both for the Physical and the Skills testing. So your daughter’s skills training should likely include working on and towards the age 9 TOPs skills which can be found at: http://www2.usa-gymnastics.org/women/tops/07TOPskills.pdf so when she is 9, she will be as ready as possible for the skills testing.

While there are some problems with it, the TOPs program gets the basic things right – get very strong and very flexible first and then train skills and skill progressions that directly lead to high level optional skills. There are some potential experience and political benefits to successful participation in the TOPs program, although the competition is fierce and the number of participants is rising dramatically every year. TOPs National Team athletes who have been designated by the National staff may enter the USAG Jr. Olympic Program at Level 8 (would have to be at least age 9). One of the coaches and programs I work with the most had the #2 girl in the whole TOPs program and was therefore eligible to move directly into the Elite program. Another TOP girl that I had who went to the National Training Camps every year got literally almost private lessons from some of the National coaching staff and who then looked out for her during her entire Elite career.

Since gymnasts only learn to compete by competing and competition is often what gymnasts enjoy most, you need to find some competitions for which she is eligible to allow her to learn to compete and have some fun competition opportunities. There seem to be basically three possibilities for competition for her:

1. Train for Level 5 (and even Level 6 since there are only a few skills different than Level 5) and compete Level 4 in USAG
Since she has already successfully competed Level 4 and knows the routines, she need not practice more than one or two routines the week of a meet to successfully compete at Level 4. I have successfully used a train high-level optional skills, compete Compulsories training system for almost every gymnast I have who did Compulsories. Gymnast’s confidence levels are very high since they know they can do much more difficult gymnastic skills than they are competing. This way you are wasting little time on Level 4.

2. Compete AAU Level 5 in a 7 and under age group (this depends on the age groups allowed in your particular state)
Depending on your individual state’s AAU rules (I don’t know what state you are from so I can’t tell you for sure), your daughter may be able to compete in Level 5 in AAU meets in a 7 and under age group.

3. Compete USAIGC Optional Only meets (assuming this is possible in your gym and there are available meets in your region of the country.
USAIGC Optional only competitions have traditionally been available to any age gymnast. They have switched their program radically to emphasize College Bound training, but the optional only concept remains. You gym and team practices may not be set up to train your daughter for the USAIGC Beginner Optional level and there are certain states and areas of the country where there are few or no local competitions available. But if your daughter is training skills in her TOPs training, those skills can be used to make up routines for USAIGC Optional only competitions. Much more fun than compulsories.

There is also the possibility to do some combination of the above, like compete both AAU Level 5 and USAG Level 4. I don’t know of any rule barring that. Or she might do AAU Level 5 and the USAIGC Beginner Optional meets.

When you have a talented daughter in gymnastics, the primary gymnastics career emphasis should first be TOPs physical training (strength and flexibility), second TOPs skills training and then third competition experience. Other goals for your daughter should be to be able to stay with her group of friends on the team that she has been training with even if it is only the TOPs group.

Well, you asked for my advice. I’ve done the best I can to advise you with the information I have. The next problem is what will her coaches be willing to do.

Good luck and if there is anything else we can do for you, please let us know.

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