Competition vs. Non-Competition Gymnastics Programs

Subject: Competition vs. Non-Competition Programs

My daughter is 5 (6 in October) and seems to have a lot of potential. I’m not looking to make her an elite gymnast at this point. I just to see where she goes with it because she enjoys it. She’s going to (a franchised national non-competitive program – name omitted) right now and will be doing two 90-minute classes/week next year. They have put her in “invitation only” classes because she does show some potential. She’s small and strong and does well. Maybe I’m wrong but I think it’s good that she can do a one-handed cartwheel at this age after trying just a handful of times.

Anyway, if she handles the 3 hours well next year, I may want to get a coach for her the following year. Is she too young?

Any help would be appreciated.

Your daughter is not too young for you to start thinking about what may be the best gymnastics program and coaching for her. Actually, your daughter is just about at the age where you have some real decisions to make in terms of her gymnastics participation. “Small and strong” is always good for gymnasts, especially the strong part. She has also been recognized as having some potential by instructors, so that is also always a good thing and makes your decision even more important.

Let’s talk about gymnastics gyms for a minute.

We Love Competition (and So Do Gymnasts)

First, understand that we are prejudiced in favor of competitive gymnastics programs. We have always run competitive programs. We like gymnastics competition. We believe that gymnasts like competition (they think it is fun) and that properly handled competitive programs can bring the best out in a gymnast. We also don’t believe that non-competitive programs are morally superior or necessarily more values oriented or developmentally comprehensive than competitive gym programs. So keep that in mind when you are evaluating our advice.

Rec, Compulsory and/or Optional Gyms

There are many ways to classify gyms, but let’s classify them in terms of your situation. There are recreational-only gyms, there are low level “compulsory” gyms and there are high level “optional” gyms. Admittedly, these are (especially the second two) very arbitrary categorizations.

Rec = No Competition (and Less Motivation?)

Recreational-only gyms, like the nationally franchised little gym program in which you are currently enrolled, do not have full size gyms and do not have Olympic gymnastics equipment. There are at least two main reasons why recreational-only gyms exist. One is because some people do not believe in the concept of competition, especially for children. For those of us who do run competitive programs, we see competition as one of the things children like best about gymnastics and that competition can bring out the best in them.

Rec Gyms Have Less Overhead

The second reason is that it is much more profitable to run a recreation-only program. Recreation-only programs do not have to lease and pay the utilities for large buildings with high ceilings, they do not have to buy sets of expensive Olympic gymnastics equipment and they do not have to pay high salaries for top-quality coaching.

Rec Programs Usually More for Very Young

Recreational programs usually advertise their benefits as not just gymnastics but as helping children develop physically, but also intellectually, emotionally and socially. Recreational programs, although they advertise that they take children up to the age of 12 or so, are really predominantly basically preschool and perhaps up to age 8 programs.

Good Compulsory and Optional Gyms Have All That Rec Programs Have and More

Good compulsory and optional programs run their preschool and lower level programs for young kids, exactly the same way with the same kind of individual attention and increased scope including intellectual, emotional and social growth.

Good Compulsory and Optional Gyms Have The Best In Equipment

In addition, these more advanced gyms usually have more equipment and specialized training equipment and apparatus that recreational gyms usually do not have. These might include in-ground trampolines, full size tumble trampolines, high beams, power tumbling floors, vaulting tables, and gymnastics safety pits for vault, bars, beam floor and trampoline.

For Compulsory and Optional Gyms Excellent Technique is a Competition Necessity

These more advanced gyms are also likely to have coaches able to develop higher level gymnasts and who have a higher degree of motivation to teach skills with the correct technique, in order to build good basics for a gymnast’s possible future competitive gymnastics career. There is little motivation in a non-competitive program to teach skills to a competitive quality level. They will want to teach new skills to keep parents and children happy, but they are not concerned with making sure the gymnast’s technique is good enough to form the basis for a gymnastics career. In general, we believe that a gymnast is likely to get better gymnastics basics in a competitive gym’s program and good basics are an important key to future success.

Competitive Gyms Full of Gymnastics Role Models

Depending on class time, competitive gyms may have their team level programs working out at the same time as your gymnast and she would be able to see good, high quality gymnastics performed every time she in the gym. And there is much to be said from learning by example and learning visually.

If You Want to Compete, Start at Competitive Gym

If you or your daughter are interested in a possible competitive gymnastics career for her, there would seem to be an inherent conflict of interest with a recreational-only gym program. They may not be as quick to advise you and your gymnast to switch or move up to a competitive gym program at the expense of their profitability.

But The Most Important Factor is a Great Teacher

In general, we would almost always recommend a competitive gym over a recreational program for those reasons. There is always the “great” teacher factor, though. Just like in school, we find great teachers and not-so-good teachers. We have learned it is wise to take a very active role in making sure our child has a good teacher.

Go With The Best Teacher You Can Find

If your daughter has a great instructor now at your current gym, who is teaching her new skills at every class and emphasizing good form and technique, you may or may not find a comparable or better instructor for your daughter’s specific level at your local competitive gym. In that case, you may choose to stay with her current teacher.

Check Out Your Options

On the other hand, many competitive gyms offer a free trial lesson and you might be wise to just go and see how good your daughter’s instructor might be at a competitive gym, especially if it doesn’t cost you anything to see. You can also see what effect more equipment and a competitive program in the gym have to offer you and your daughter.

Pick the Best Gym and Stay with It

We’re still not done. We haven’t talked about the differences in competitive gym programs. Change is difficult for kids and changing competitive gyms is even more difficult. When picking a competitive gym, you will want to pick one where you will be able to stay for years.

Which Gym Is Producing the Best Gymnasts?

We have a relatively simple criteria for evaluating competitive gyms. The gym most successfully producing a number (more than one or two) of gymnasts at a high level is likely to be the best gym. The questions to ask are “Do you have any current Elite gymnasts competing at the Elite level now?” and “How many Level 10 gymnasts do you have competing now? If they have none of those, ask what is the highest level gymnast they currently have competing and ask how many of those they have.

Great Programs Create Multiple Champions

Gymnasts, they have had in the past or that they tell you they will have in the future, are not as relevant to you and your daughter as what level of gymnast their program is producing right now. Having had a single high level gymnast (or two) is not as good an indication of how good the coaching and program is, as them having a number of gymnasts at a higher level. Individual gymnasts may have succeeded there on the basis on sheer talent and not on the coaching in the program.

That’s How We Roll

When we evaluate gym programs either for ourselves (like when our gymnasts are moving to a new area, we help them find a good gym to go to) or when we are asked to look for a gym, those are the criteria we use. We are fairly adept at this and sometimes even know which gyms in the area we have seen at high level meets and perhaps even know the coaches.

Only a Few Gyms are Producing All the Best Gymnasts

You can use a combination of free lesson trials and asking about what level and numbers of team gymnasts a gym has to find the best gym in your immediate area. You may be surprised to learn that just a few gyms (or even only one gym) are producing most of the high level gymnasts in your area. This is also true around the country. A relative few gyms produce or have more than one Elite level gymnast on their team at any one time.

Talent vs. Training vs. Hard Work

Finally, let us give you our perspective on talent. There are basically two ways to succeed in this sport – by having talent and by working harder than everyone else. Both types of gymnasts have won Olympic gold medals. There are early bloomers (who fade) and late bloomers who are and have been highly successful in this sport. So as you say, if your daughter loves and enjoys the sport, that is probably the best criteria at this point for her continued participation.

Hope this helps. Good luck to you and your daughter and if there is anything else we can do for you or any other questions we can answer, please let us know.

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