The latest round of changes to the USA Gymnastics TOPs program has been significant. The program has been split into two separate programs, a State and a National TOP testing program. The State TOP training and testing program cannot really be considered an Elite development program. Even the National TOP training and testing program has been cut back and watered down. It will be interesting to see if the original intent and success of the program in identifying and training future Elite gymnasts continues.
Early History of the TOPs Program
The initial creation of the USAG TOP program was to copy the success of the USAIGC (United States Association of Independent gymnastics Clubs) JEDP (Jr. Elite Development Program) program, which was developed and used years before TOPs. Then, USA Gymnastics completely made over their original TOP (Talent Opportunity Program), which was originally designed to test, identify and increase the number of minority participants in the sport.
The Essence of the TOPs Program
The new TOP program was totally made over in the image of the JEDP program, which was set up to identify naturally strong and flexible candidates and then teach them high level optional skills and skill progressions. Naturally strong and flexible potential athletes have the advantage of being able to learn high level optional skills earlier than gymnasts who must wait until they hit puberty to maximize their strength. There was a definite correlation between gymnasts winning and successful in the TOPs program and National and Elite success, just as there had been with the USAIGC JEDP program before it.
TOP Program History
The success of the JEDP program and the initial success of the TOP program solidified its reputation in the sport among coaches, gymnasts and parents. An increasing number of gyms and gymnasts began participating in the program, although some only did the physical testing, and not the high level optional skills testing and training. The young winners of the physical and skills testing were rewarded with camps with the national team coaches, staff and judges, giving them an early advantage physically, skill-wise and politically.
TOP Program Growth
The TOPs program grew from a few hundred participants to thousands of participants. With testing fees similar to meet entry fees, USAG had a growing source of new income. The program was expanded, additional levels of testing and awards were added and program revenues became significant.
A New Class of USAG Approved Super Gyms?
While the TOPs program grew, both in numbers of gyms and gymnasts participating, the actual number of gyms producing and training Elite gymnasts and the total number of Elite gymnasts actually decreased after the international rule and scoring changes in 2006. There are currently less than 20 (out of some 3500) gyms designated as Women’s National Team and National Training Squad Gyms by USAG, which produce almost all of the Jr. and Sr. International Elite gymnasts, who compete in the World Championships and the Olympics. USAG even has a new policy of not approving member gyms wanting to call themselves Olympic or Olympian Gymnastics training facilities, if they are not one of the designated National Team and National Training Squad gyms.
The Plan to Increase Revenues from the TOP Program
With the apparent transfer of focus to creating Elite gymnasts turned over to a small, select number of gyms, the TOPs program was available for other uses and purposes, like increasing revenue through increased participation. In a move similar to their lowering of the compulsory competition level, in which gymnasts were allowed to compete at states, first down to Level 4 and then down to Level 3, USAG has again moved to increase program participation and revenues. The new State TOPs is a program for the masses and is now essentially a fundraising program, designed to allow more massive participation and more massive fees for USAG.
Extreme Makeover TOPs Program
The most notable changes to the State TOPs program are the lowering of the difficulty of the skills being tested, reducing the number of physical tests and pushing skill testing down to the state level. High level optional skills have been dropped from State testing. The number of physical tests has been reduced for both State and National TOP testing, probably to allow for quicker and easier testing of larger numbers of gymnasts. Pushing both physical and skill testing down to the state level opens the way to fully test more gymnasts (and charge more testing fees).
Increased Participation and Revenues are Great, But…
There is certainly nothing wrong with increasing program participation and improving finances, but there may now be a question of whether the TOPs program will continue to be a conduit to produce National level and Elite gymnasts. Or will it just become a way for USA Gymnastics to generate significantly increased fee revenue in almost every state (the financial equivalent for them of running meets and charging meet fees in almost every state once or maybe twice every year). And will the lower level of skills tested at the State level make it harder or impossible to pick out all of the best prospects for the National testing.
Skill Testing Differences
The new State TOPs skills testing program has a much lower level of gymnastics skills being tested than the TOPs programs in the past. The hardest bar skills being tested in the newly downgraded State TOPS skill testing are back sole/stalder circles, horizontal casts and 8 and 9 year olds are even only tested on the Compulsory level 5 dismount (a swing 1/2 turn). Former TOP testing skills on bars included front, back and even elgrip giants, blind changes, kip handstands, handstand pirouettes, free hip, toe-on-toe-off and giant series and layout flyaways among other skills.
Severe Downgrade of Skills Being Tested in State TOPs Program
Such severe downgrades on the difficulty of the skills being tested at the State level is similar on the other events. There is no doubt that the new State TOPs skills testing program is no longer in any way a method of testing and developing high level optional skill progressions. The new State TOPs testing program is essentially nothing but a low-level test of compulsory level and type skills. And even the difficulty of the National TOP skills and required skill difficulty levels have been lowered.
What Benefits Remain in the TOPs Program
Other than radically increased revenue for USAG, there may still be some residual benefits to the TOPs program. More gyms, coaches and gymnasts may understand the original premise of the program, which is to develop high levels of strength and flexibility first and then train skills (albeit no longer high level optional skills). Depending on what the National TOPs skill testing program evolves to and looks like in the future, the highest level of National TOPs winners may still turn out to be the Elite gymnasts of the future.
New TOPs Program Information
During the months of June and July, gymnasts age 7-10 will be evaluated on physical abilities at the state or regional (not all states have their own testing) level. Based on the results of the State/Regional testing, athletes are invited to participate in the National TOP test in October, and be evaluated on the same physical abilities tests along with some somewhat more advanced gymnastics skills. Top performing gymnasts are then invited to participate in a National TOP Training camp, which takes place in December of each year.
TOPS Testing Changes for the 2012 Season
New 2012 TOPs Physical Testing Demonstration Videos
TOPs Testing Rope Climb Video
TOPsÂ Testing Press Handstand Video
TOPsÂ Testing Leg Lifts Video
TOPs Testing Splits Video
TOPs Testing Handstand Video