Gymnastics Flexibility Training – Is Four Too Young?

In this Ask the Gymnastics Coach question a parent with a 4 year old daughter asks Coach Howard if that is too young for her to begin gymnastics flexibility training.

Subject: too young for gymnastic flexibility training?

Hi, I live in England which poses a bit of dilemma as far as gymnastics training goes. My daughter is 4 1/4 she has always been very advanced and I believe shows a lot of gymnastics talent. She is small and very strong and naturally flexible, easily doing handstands, headstands, bridges, straddle splits etc.The problem is that the preschool classes over here consist of hopping, skipping, jumping and getting used to the odd bit of equipment and that’s it. Nothing else is considered till they are 5 or 6. I believe in a little and often practice basic skills at home because she enjoys it and I believe she should develop these skills. I mentioned this to her coach who didn’t seem very interested, but she did say it is not good to do certain things when they are little, such as, she has been working on doing a handstand into a straddle, the coach said she is too young for that and it’s not good for her. My instinct says that if something comes easily to you and you feel no pain it is not bad and you should keep at it – am I right?
Also as she is naturally flexible I have been encouraging her to dance to warm up then practice stretching and developing all types of splits – is she too young? I don’t force or push her to do it or do it for long periods I believe a little often can go a long way at this age. Hope you can answer these questions.  

Thanks M

There are a number of sides to your questions or at least to the answers to your questions.  On the one hand, while it is not advertised widely in the gymnastics community, there is scientific evidence that long-term gymnastics skills progress and success is not improved by starting that early in the sport (age 4). With current standard training methods, regardless of how young gymnasts start in the sport, say age three or four, by age seven, gymnasts who didn’t start until age six will likely have caught up.  So in effect, you should not expect starting early to improve your daughters skills for the long-term.  This may be the reason the coaches are seemingly lackadaisical to skill progress.

You should not minimize the positive effects and lessons your young daughter is learning in her preschool classes about working out, following directions, interacting with others, taking turns that are going to be important later on in her gymnastics career. The basic movements they are teaching her (like creeping and crawling at a younger age) are important to her physical development, but that doesn’t mean there are not other things that can and should be done with children that are advanced in gymnastics.

While the average child is not likely to learn back handsprings and round-off back handsprings at your daughter’s age, the same cannot be said about other aspects of physical training and preparation, including gymnastics flexibility training.  There can be advantages to developing a trained, strong and flexible body at an early age.  Children who are in good shape at a young age tend to have a better chance to continue working out and stay in shape throughout their life, in addition to during their gymnastics career.

We know of no negative physical effects from working on gymnastics skills, strength training, endurance training or gymnastics flexibility training at age four or five (with the exception of avoiding heavy weight training).  In fact, exercise has the same positive effects on preschoolers as it does on every other human being.  Working out as a preschooler can mold the gymnast’s body for life.

The optimal period for gymnastics flexibility training is slightly older, only a couple years older than your daughter beginning at age five or six (depending on their stage of individual development). This optimal period of flexibility training is that specific period in an athlete’s life when they have the best window of opportunity for becoming flexible. That window of opportunity will disappear a few years later and flexibility progress will still be possible, but it will not be to the same extent and not so easily learned.

As always when working on gymnastics flexibility training, we caution you to make sure that you do not over stretch the lower back while doing bridges or other partner exercises.  Make sure that there is a balance between shoulder and back flexibility and don’t overdo the lower back stretching. If you are doing the stretching during the optimal flexibility training window, you will have no problem developing excellent flexibility without overdoing it. It only makes sense to take extra time and care with the back, since any injury to the lower back makes any and every other movement, including just getting out of bed, painful.

The method of introducing any teaching, learning or training with children this young is so important to the long-term success. If you are negative or critical, do not treat this like play, don’t make it quality time with your daughter or push her to do things too long, this can easily become a way to make her hate what you want her to love. Everything you do with your daughter at this time of her learning should be a method of play, playing a game and loving interaction with her. Encourage her, praise her successes and celebrate them with her and make sure you stop soon enough leaving her wanting more. For example, for you, partner stretching your daughter should be more like just a new way to give her a good long hug.

As with the rest of a child’s development, there are stages in their life at this age when they learn faster. While gymnastics learning is so all around a sport that it encompasses most everything physically that a child will need, like brachiation (hanging and swinging), there are other physical and athletic activities that you will want to develop and encourage as well. Warning: Very young children, before the age of three could dislocate the shoulders swinging or hanging if they have not sufficiently and very slowly and progressively developed their shoulder strength. Your daughter is not in danger of that and most children, over three, should be strong enough in their shoulders to not be in danger of that.

Running and endurance running development is not typically a part of gymnastics training at any age, but it is at this age (and even much younger) something that can be developed and encouraged. As with any training, progress needs to be taught in a very slow careful progression. A hundred yards is a “marathon” to a very young child who has just learned to walk. As with all learning, progress and fun are the goals.

Especially for anyone who lives near any body of water (and drown-proofing for all young children seems to me to be the only responsible action), learning swimming is a necessity. In a different life, I developed a program that taught children as young as 2 and 1/2 how to jump in, swim across a pool and climb out the pool ladder. This is a life skill, best learned early and that lasts a lifetime.

In spite of the fact that most young children your daughter’s age may not learn “real” gymnastics skills, like front and back handsprings, and in addition to the actual physical activities, there is anecdotally something about growing up in a sport that seems to give those kids who started early in the sport some kind of advantage. The children of coaches who grow up in a sport seem to be much more likely to be more experienced, motivated and talented. If they, indeed, grew up in the gym, they have, at least, seen more of the sport than other kids their age and may keep that advantage throughout their career.

You seem to recognize that too much too soon could eventually contribute to burn out.  It is always a good idea to leave them wanting more when it comes to young gymnasts and not make the inherent fun of the sport of gymnastics into work.

There is lots of gymnastics fun and games you can engage in with your daughter, that you both can enjoy.  Good luck.

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