A Path Guaranteed to Burn Out a Talented Preschool Gymnast

Subject: How Much Gym Time to Allow?

Sex: female
Age: 2 1/2
Gymnastics Level: preschool

I signed my daughter up for a fun gym class (45min per week) for 3 to 5 year olds a month ago. (The coach allowed us to try her out in the older class because I have a younger daughter as well and could not do the Mommy and Me class.) I had no thought of it being anything more than a fun, social and physical outlet for her, especially when we can’t go to the park during the long, rainy winter here.

Now the coach keeps inviting me to bring her to additional classes, thus far for free. At first I thought he probably told all new parents how amazing their child was, until I actually saw her in a class of older girls who had been doing gymnastics longer, and realized that she really was doing better at some of the things than over half the older girls. The first time the coach said he’d like to have her there every day, I thought he was joking and laughed. Now I am not so sure he doesn’t mean it when he keeps making those comments. On Thursday he invited her to try out the advanced preschool class that meets 2x per week for an hour (other girls look about 4 to 7), and then afterwards asked if I could bring her back on Tuesday–to both the 3 to 5 year old class before followed directly by the advanced preschool class.

He keeps all of the classes light and fun, and he never pushes her to do anything that she isn’t comfortable doing–just lets her observe the bigger girls and then gives her a chance to try it if she wants to (which she always does). And the moment she showed signs of fatigue and having trouble keeping up, he had her stop. She begs every day to go to the gym and loves every minute of it. But even so, I worry about it just being too much for a two-year-old. Granted, if I limit her gym time, this child will still be running around, jumping off of furniture, climbing the walls backwards, and rolling around the room at home.

So should I set limits on her gym time? Is it a bad idea to let such a young kid participate in the extra classes and the more advanced class, even if she can keep up and she loves it?

Thank you.

There is a definitive answer to your question, but it is trickier than you, your coach or even I would normally think.

Depends on Your Goals

If the coach (and you) are only interested in the bragging rights of proving that your young gymnast can really progress rapidly at a young age or more rapidly than the older girls, then keep adding time in the gym (Sarcasm, sarcasm). But if either of you are interested in her remaining in the sport long enough to compete at a high optional level, then you need to manage and curtail her gym time.

Number of Girls Succeeding Long-Term in an Every-Day Program at That Age = ZERO

It is most definitely a bad idea for her to go to the gym every day. It is a bad idea for her and in the long run, it will be a bad idea for both the gym and the coach, as well. For her to go to the gym every day is almost a virtual guarantee that she will burn out, and quit the sport, long before she reaches age 16, which is the age gymnasts must currently be in order to compete in big international competitions like the Olympics. And most likely she will make it nowhere near that long.

I Know This from Personal Experience

I came from a generation of young coaches that had to learn the hard way that pushing too soon and too much always led to those gymnasts quitting the sport before they were really able to make it big. I know this because I burned out far too many talented young gymnasts before their time. And I never ever pushed a gymnast as young as your daughter or as much as you and her coach are contemplating for a gymnast that age. I burned out gymnasts by doing too much when they were more like 6 – 8 years old, eventually driving them out of the sport. And when they decide to quit, there is no way you can ever talk them into coming back.

I Wasn’t The Only One

Not only did I see, first hand, the talented gymnasts I burned out, but I saw gymnast after talented gymnast burned out by other young coaches in the very same way. Eventually, we learned that we had to moderate the time and pressure and preserve young, talented gymnasts to stay in for the long run. As we try to forgive and forget our own mistakes, now a new generation of young coaches has lost the lessons we learned and is burning out a new generation of talent. Mistakes that we, in the past made, are the same mistakes that coaches are making today. And all of which are at the expense of young tremendously talented gymnasts.

It’s Like There is a Limit, Even if Specifically Unknown, to the Number of Hours

While I know of no studies or any truly hard and fast guidelines, it is almost as if young gymnasts literally have some limit to the total number of hours they can practice at their young age. The more you push them at a young age and they reach that limit, they burn out and quit permanently.

But She Loves It. She Wants to Go Everyday

She loves going to the gym, because she is learning and experiencing success. Children always love what they are good at and where they are learning and progressing. But face it. There is no other situation where you would let your two-year-old make long-term decisions that will affect her whole life. She has no understanding of the ramifications or long-term effects of her choices now. This situation is no different. You are the adults and you have to make this decision for her, and in her best interests, since she is incapable of doing so.

There is a Second Dangerous Problem

Training in the same class with older girls can also be a problem. While it may or may not be a problem yet, gymnasts in any group are always comparing themselves with everyone else in the group. Invariably and inevitably, a young gymnast, comparing themselves to older, more physically and mentally mature gymnasts, will at some point see a negative comparison. While we know that is completely due to them being younger, they will not see it that way. They will see themselves as being inferior and that causes them to lose motivation, garner a negative self-image in relation to the sport and is also likely to make them quit the sport.

Should Probably Train Her with Her Own Age Group

Because, at some point, your daughter will likely negatively compare herself to the older, more mature, gymnasts, it would probably be wise to keep her with other gymnasts her own age. Teach her the same advanced gymnastics skills, but so it with girls her own age. She will also never likely fit in socially with older girls, at least at some point in her career, and that can also be a problem and contributory factor in quitting.

Her Coach Has the Right Style, But the Wrong Long-Term Plan

Keeping gymnastics light and fun is good coaching strategy and technique at any age, and especially for very young gymnasts. But there is already an implied pressure from even contemplating such and accelerated schedule. It is so natural, easy and tempting for coaches to see only the rapid progress and forget the possibility of long-term burnout when balancing it against rapid progress now. The more the progress, the more coaches and gymnasts will want, until all of a sudden it is too much and then it’s too late.

But What About the Chinese?

And what about young athletes and gymnasts who literally grow up in the sport and in the gym. The Chinese take young children (but not this young), away from their parents and train them everyday for years, starting at maybe age 5 or 6. And they produce World Champions that way. In our culture, however, there is more freedom of choice, even for pre-teen and teenage gymnasts, and when they decide they are done, there will be nothing either coaches or parents can do to force them to continue.

Coaches’ Kids Who Grow Up in Sports Often Succeed

Empirically, it also seems that the offspring of coaches and high level athletes, including gymnasts, who literally grow up in the sport and in the gym, succeed at higher rates than average. Why wouldn’t that apply in this case? In most of those cases, it appears, that the young athletes develop role models from constantly watching as they literally grow up in the gym. They do not spend all of their time in the gym in classes, but more just hanging out, watching and “playing” gymnastics (or whatever other sport their parents coach).

Some Adult Has to Manage Her Gymnastics Career

The more talented a gymnast is, the more carefully her career needs to be planned and managed, so they do not burn out and have their potential wasted. It is certainly, not only okay, but desirable, to start planning and managing your daughter’s potential gymnastics career. Planning how to most efficiently and effectively develop her flexibility, strength and skills but managing her time in the gym. It does not currently appear that her coach is managing her time with her long-term gymnastics career prospects in mind, so you have to.

Managing Her Gymnastics Career

From a preschool coaching point of view, there are both physical and skill progressions that can be made. The preschool age is a time that progress can be made in getting all her splits down (or even oversplit) and her shoulders flexible. The basic gymnastics positions, like tuck, pike, etc. and basic gymnastics movements can be built into muscle memory. By age five, she could have already been taught gymnastics skills like solid handstands, handsprings and even saltos on the trampoline. All of these elements can be a part of a carefully managed gymnastics career plan for a preschooler.

Quitting Danger Points

Part of managing a gymnast’s career involves understanding what are the things most likely to make a gymnast quit and when are the most likely times that will happen. For preschoolers, when they go to school and learn of all the other activities that their school friends are doing, is the first time when they will begin to reevaluate everyday participation. Junior high and teenage social pressures and opportunities are the next danger point. And for girls, as coaches, we sometimes say, the first time a girl rides in a car with her “boyfriend” is often the last time we see them in the gym.

Discretion is the Better Part of Valor

So hopefully, it should be apparent that the proposed every day schedule is far too much for a girl your daughter’s age. Your daughter will continue to love the sport and continue to look forward to going to the gym, even if you cut back her hours. If it were me, I would be letting her go to the gym no more than two to three days for an hour at a time. Any time there is any indication that she does not want to go, do not force her to go. Take some time off. You won’t ever be able to take too much time off at her age (as opposed to going too much).

Preschool Open Gym?

If there is a preschool open gym, where your daughter can go and just play in the gym, without pressure or instruction, I would opt for less classes and let her do more of that. For example, like no more than two classes a week and let her go to any preschool playground times that she wants.

Good luck and good management.

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