11-Year-Old, Level 4 Advice

Subject: 11-Year-Old Level 4

My daughter is 11 and just finished a season of competing at level 4.

The other parents of the girls at her level and I are at something of a crisis point concerning their careers with gymnastics. We like a lot of things about the gym they go to, but we have some questions about the gym’s philosophy that, being gym novices ourselves, we aren’t sure about. Here’s the situation:

Our girls did pretty well in competition (scoring 33-36 in most meets), but they were disappointed to see that certain other gyms always outperformed them. When the season ended in December, we were told that the girls would start working on level 5 elements and routines and they have, to some extent, but their (new) coach said that they don’t have the elements of the level 4 routine well enough to progress, so he’s dropped back to working on those elements. His philosophy is, if they don’t have those elements well, they won’t be able to do the elements of level 5 well. I read your other article that suggests they need to move up to level 5 since level 4 doesn’t really translate to level 5, so that may answer my question about whether his philosophy makes sense.

We are also concerned that our girls seem to be much older than most of the girls competing at level 4 — if they spend another year at that level, they’ll be even older. And we are concerned that if they don’t move up, they’ll lose their enthusiasm and they’ll be more likely to be scared of trying the more difficult elements that come at the higher levels.

The other concern we have is that the girls are conditioning a lot – basically, 1hour of each of their three, 3-hour practices. And they are doing conditioning at the beginning, not the end. We, the parents, are afraid that they’re doing so much conditioning that they’re not getting the time to practice their skills. The classic example is the round off back handspring. The girls from our gym stink in comparison to the girls from other gyms, and we parents think the culprit may be the fact that they don’t practice them that often. The coach spends time working with mats and barrels and other things to perfect the elements of the move, rather than having them just do a large number of them. Friends who have gone to other gyms report that those gyms take the opposite approach – they just do a lot of them and the girls seem to get better.

Please help – we’re at our wit’s end about what to do. We don’t have the experience to argue with the coach but we’re not sure we’re getting the best coaching strategies here.

Thank you!

It seems like you have read and gotten most of the advice that I would give you in response to this email already, but here are my thoughts.

Your daughter is at the upper age range for girls who are competing at Level 4. To keep her career on track, she has no time to waste repeating a year at that level.

Not only does Level 4 not translate to Level 5, it does not translate higher level optional gymnastics at all. For example, ZERO of the Level 4 bar skills are ever used at any of the optional levels. There is no real benefit to repeating Level 4 and doing Level 4 skills is not really related to Level 5 success. If they only practice Level 4 skills, which they have already wasted a year on, they will still have to learn the Level 5 skills. Besides gymnasts should always be working on skills for the next year and for their future career in gymnastics.

The Faulty Reasoning Behind ‘Perfecting’ Low Level Compulsory Skills

The best scenario for your daughter and the other gymnasts with her would be to work on both the Level 5 and Level 6 skills this summer (there are only a few skills that are different between the two levels – e.g., back walkover on beam instead of cartwheel, round-off back handspring, back tuck instead of round-off back handsprings on FX and a flyaway on bars – incidentally basic gymnastics skills that will be used throughout their gymnastics career). My experience tells me that any gymnast who is strong enough and flexible enough can learn the Level 5 and 6 skills as easily as the Level 4 skills.

Sometimes coaches (and sometimes even misguided parents) want to hold their gymnasts back to try to guarantee that they win at the expense of preparing for their future optional level gymnastics career. Optional gymnastics is the real fun of the sport and to many the real sport itself. Sometimes coaches are not confident in their ability to coach effectively enough to be able to get all of their gymnasts to move up one level every year, but that is almost a minimum standard for really good coaches.

The Psychological Effects Of Staying At Level 4

The only benefit to competing at the compulsory levels is to gain some competition experience before you have learned higher level optional skills and routines. The only way to learn to compete is to actually compete so any competition is good. But it is necessary, especially considering your daughter’s age, to get seriously training for higher levels now. She still has time to make it to the higher optional levels, but time is getting short and wasting another year in Level 4 will create a setback from which she may not recover in her career, especially if all she is training is Level 4 skills.

Your daughter has actually probably already passed that age where she is totally unafraid of high level gymnastics skills. It is usually, on average, from ages 8 – 10 years old. No matter – many gymnasts, including college age gymnasts learn new and difficult skills. But it definitely does not get any easier as you get older. I agree that there is not much exciting about competing as a 12 year old Level 4. Many times, even if you win, it is primarily because there are so few girls that age competing at that low level. How proud will any gymnast really be of that? The primary fun in gymnastics at any level comes from learning new skills and competing. I would always have to disagree with any coaching system that is not always teaching new skills every year.

When And Why To Do Strength And Conditioning

Scientific research shows that it is somewhat more dangerous in terms of injury to do intensive gymnastics strength training and conditioning before you practice. It also shows that athletes cannot do intensive strength training effectively for more than 45 minutes. That said, many Elite coaches do strength training first because strength and flexibility are the key to the sport and they want to make sure they get it done. Also some coaches do intense strength training at this time of the season to get gymnasts as strong as they need to be and then back off and just train long enough to maintain that strength. So while I might do the conditioning differently, there is nothing serious about the conditioning to complain about.

It has been rather conclusively shown that the best and most efficient way to train and learn gymnastics is to first get strong and flexible enough to be able to do any and all gymnastics skills and then learn them – as opposed to trying to learn and do skills for which a gymnast is not strong enough or flexible enough to do. For example, a gymnast who is not flexible enough in the shoulders (and back) will never be able to learn a back walkover on beam by themselves.

USA gymnastics has a formal training and testing program devoted to the concept that gymnasts should get strong and flexible first and then train high level skills that lead to optionals. While it is not as complete a program as I would do, it is certainly a better training program than redoing Level 4 another year. The TOPs physical conditioning program is explained on the USAG web site and there is further information about the program listed under the TOPs links.

A program like this is what all gymnasts who wish to reach their full gymnastics potential should be following.

Drills Are Not Skills

I am not a big fan of doing drills (except to fix a problem). In general, gymnastics practice should be aimed at learning new skills, improving skill execution and increasing consistency. Drills are not as efficient in achieving those aims as closely coached skill training. I am not a big fan of using barrels or pac man mats for much of anything except play and rec classes. Pits and spotting are the most common (and I think effective) ways of teaching and improving round-off back handsprings. Tumbling into the pit after leaning those is the best way to learn all future back tumbling skills.

All skills, including round-off back handsprings, should be closely coached. Simply doing large numbers of repetitions on barrels or any where else simply leads to bad habits. You can always tell the difference between teams that basically learn on their own and those that are closely coached. Takes more time and effort on the coaches part, but the results are clear.

How Much Practice Is Needed?

Another factor you did not mention but comes into play is the amount of practice time your daughter is getting. Three 3-hour practices is enough for young Level 4 gymnasts (you can begin to compete at Level 4 at about age six) and 9 hours per week for a girl that age is OK. But your daughter is old enough and mature enough to be able to handle 5-6 days per week of 3-4 hours of practice with no problem. I would suggest that if she has higher level optional gymnastics aspirations that she practice the number of hours and days that is more appropriate for her age, if not particularly, her level.

Your Daughter’s Goals Matter… A Lot

You did not mention anything about your daughter and her goals, ambitions and dreams for the sport. I would, perhaps, have been able to give more useful advice if I knew what her thoughts and feelings about all of this were. It is always difficult and somewhat presumptuous to give any advice without seeing or knowing a gymnast, but I do the best I can from what information I am given.

Well, that is my perspective (the perspective of a successful high level optional coach of 25 years and the author of 25 books) Your primary problem remains – convincing your gym owner and coaches to change their minds and allow your daughter to do what’s best for her gymnastics career. All in all, giving you the advice is the easier part of this.

Hope this helps. If you have any further questions or if there is anything else I can help you with, pleas let me know. Good luck to you and your daughter.

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