Too Much Too Early

Subject: Training a young talented gymnast

Dear Coach,

We want to know if our daughter should move up to Level 5 or stay another year in Level 4 to better learn the skills and have more competitive success.

I am the parent of a young gymnast (6) who is training to compete in a group of girls that are from 10-12 years old. She is very talented and can physically do many skills that they can’t however she lacks the maturity that they have. Between events and in down times she is very active and plays around just being a 6 year old. She dos not have the control that the older kids do. I am unsure what to do.

Do I have her move down a level where physically she will not be challenged until her maturity catches up. Or, do I leave her in a level where skill wise she is challenged but she may not be emotional ready. I am not sure what the right thing to do would be. Do you have any suggestions on how to get her motivated and focused at the age she is at to successfully have her compete where she is at physically?

Or, Do you think it would be wise to hold her back until she gains the mental skills needed to keep focused. She sees moving down a level as a punishment and that she has failed. I am hoping it will give her the time to grown into herself. What suggestions can you give me as a parent to help her through this?

Looking for any guidance to help my daughter blossom into the great athlete she is.

To answer your question, in essence, we believe that you and your coaches are probably already doing exactly the right thing.

Your daughter has at least 10 more years before she is even old enough to compete in highest level meets, like the World Championships and the Olympics. And while we don’t at this point know for sure (nor does anyone else really), whether she will ever be at that level, we do know that to get there, she has to stay in the sport for a long, long time. So our first goal must be to keep her in the sport and we do that by letting the sport and practice be as fun as possible for as long as possible (at this age, anyway).

It is unfortunately much more likely that she will train (or be trained) too hard, burn out and quit the sport long before she is even old enough to be in such a meet. With over 10 years of training and learning time left, sufficient progress (assuming the correct program and coaching) and maturity is less of a worry than burn out.

This is especially a difficult problem with the most talented young gymnasts. There are often more likely to over train themselves and their coaches are more likely pressure them too much, too soon being anxious to develop a great gymnast.

What you should really be most closely monitoring and concerned about is that she is not showing any signs of burning out.

We actually have a somewhat similar situation that we are dealing with. We have a very talented seven-year-old gymnast (likely the best seven-year-old in the country) training for Elite. With her, the problem is that she is too serious. We have trouble getting her to take any time off, even if she is sick.

We are lucky that she is in a group of mostly other young girls (ages 7 – 9) and so they also play in between turns. For us, it is a welcome sight to see them doing doubles into the pit and then following a little obstacle course they have built themselves (over some bars, behind and under a tunnel made with a mat leaned up against the wall).

We teach all our gymnasts to pay attention when they are being spoken to and when they are being coached and we expect them to be ready when it is their turn. But in between, we are perfectly happy that they are “active and playing around just like” the six (or 7 or 8 or 9) year old that they are.

You are likely not going to want to move her back to working at a lower skill level. It has been proven that it is best for gymnasts to learn as many high level skills at a young age (ages 7 – 9 in most cases, 7 – 11 in some cases) and certainly before they hit puberty. So having her progressing at her maximum skill learning level is something that you definitely want to do.

There is another potential problem since she is with girls who are much older than she is. In many gyms, especially smaller gyms, this situation occurs frequently because there are not enough very talented and high level young girls to make up a full group. It can sometimes cause social problems and sometimes cause gymnasts to unfairly (negatively) compare themselves to the older gymnasts. Also, sometimes, younger girls are socially excluded and become isolated.

Skill-wise, older girls often are (and should be) better than younger girls and even very talented young girls may not always outdo their elders, say in something like dance. This negative comparison can be hard for them to deal with and they too often take it that they are not very good or good enough, become discouraged and end up quitting. Young gymnasts, even if you explain it logically that the other girls are older and should be better often cannot overcome the negative emotions they feel that result from such daily comparisons.

We absolutely forbid recreational class gymnasts to practice above their age or skill group level because they almost always quit (close to 100% of the time). This means that you (and the coaches) should be keeping a very close eye on your daughter to make sure she is not making such negative comparisons that may cause her to doubt her talent and not want to continue with a sport that she perceives herself to be inferior in.

It is fortunately not uncommon for talented gymnasts to be able to deal with this situation better than average also. Sometimes the personalities of the younger and/or older gymnasts negates this problem, but it is definitely something to carefully watch out for. In such a case where there is a really bad potential inferiority problem, it can be better to put the gymnast with other younger gymnasts but still continue to work the higher level skills. Also, while it does not always work, it is not a bad idea to talk about and explain about this comparison phenomena with your daughter and tell her to guard against it.

So to summarize, we believe that your daughter should continue learning and training high level skills and also play around and just be a six-year-old as much as possible. Doing this can help her from getting burnt out, now or in the future. You need to vigilantly look for any signs of burn out, like not wanting to go to the gym. When in doubt, remember that she has plenty of time and better to take it easy at such a young age. You and she should also guard against her making any negative comparisons between herself and the older girls who are likely to be better than her in at least some areas.

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