I love gymnastics. I love coaching. I love watching drill idea videos on YouTube. I love choreography and discussing choreography. I love flipping. I love walking down a beam, back and forth, back and forth. I am very fortunate in that no one in the sport has ever tried to steal this joy from me. But currently there is a system in place that does exactly that.
If you follow me on Twitter (@missiflippi) or you've had any conversations with me on one of many gymnastics Facebook pages, you've heard me shout into the wind my proposal for fixing elite gymnastics:
Elite gymnasts need to be 18 years old.
The notion that a professional athlete--and in the context of gymnastics I am using the term professional as the equivalent of elite, because it denotes skill level--should be AN ADULT is apparently outrageous to a lot of people in the gymnastics world.
How did we get here? I'll tell you how--in the 1960's and 70s, in Eastern bloc countries with oppressive governments, coaches realized that young, pliable, people-pleasing girls were the easiest to instruct. So they sought out the tiniest children, worked them all day long in the gym, often starved them or refused them water, took them away from their families, made them perform high-risk skills, had them doing high volume repetitions that led to overuse injury, and they won with this formula.
So in America, we didn't say, "Hey, that sounds like a way to turn a fun sport into a dangerous Dickensian factory of child labor." We said, "Well, that works, let's copy it!"
Fast forward to present day. While some things have changed--for instance, it's not usually necessary to live away from home anymore to find elite instruction--some things are the same level of ridiculous.
- Gymnasts may begin competing at FOUR years old.
- The minimum age for Level 10 competition is NINE. To put it in perspective, Level 10 is NCAA level. Do you have a 9-year-old you'd like to throw on the football field with the Alabama defensive line?
- 40 hours per week--the same as a full time job--is, anecdotally, the average training time per week for an elite gymnast. 20 hours per week is the limit for an NCAA athlete.
- Many gymnasts have even lower level gymnasts training 16 to 20 hours per week--for instance, a 7 year old level 3 who is just learning basic skills such as roundoff-backhandsprings. In contrast, some gyms are able to train this level as few as 4-6 hours per week.
- Many gyms refuse to accommodate a gymnast who has achieved a certain level but would like to scale back. For instance, a 14 year old has started high school and is training 20 hours per week at level 7. This schedule becomes overwhelming, but rather than cut the hours in half and let her perform at a lower level, she must quit altogether.
- The sport is rife with overuse injuries. Many teenagers at high levels have had multiple surgeries.
- Many coaches scream at, belittle, and intimidate their gymnasts.
- USAG has offered NO guidance to their top athletes regarding nutrition.
- USAG rewards younger gymnasts by holding skill competitions related to age. TOPS is a program designed to recognize naturally talented kids; 11 is considered too old to participate.
- Elite gymnasts often give complete control of their lives over to their dominating coaches.
- Weigh-ins, crash diets, eating disorders lead to sick and depressed gymnasts.
This list could go on. But let me stop right there and tell you a little bit about my Dream Gymnastics Federation.
- Elite gymnasts must be 18 years old.
- Until a gymnast is 18, training should be limited to 25 hours per week.
- Training hour caps should be in place according to age and level.
- Minimum competitive age at the lowest level should be 6 years old.
- Gymnasts may train up to 25 hours per week up through the age of 17. If they choose to compete in NCAA, they will then be subjected to those restrictions of 20 hours per week. If they choose to become elite, they may increase their hours as they choose when they turn 18. Some may choose to become elite following NCAA. At that point they may increase their hours as needed.
- TOPS program--age-related skill competition-- should be eliminated. Hopes program--pre-elite competition for 10 year olds, should be eliminated.
I've brought up these ideas and people are just FLOORED at the idea of training "only" 20-25 hours per week. They are flabbergasted at the suggestion that someone should wait till after college to pursue elite. The fact is, the average age of gymnasts in Rio was 20. Gymnasts who are competing elite in their 20's (Simone Biles), 30's (Catalina Ponor) and even 40's (the Queen herself, Oksana Chusovitina) have accomplished it because they are training smarter, they have autonomy over their own bodies and minds, and they are physically strong enough. By putting limitations on elite status and training hours, we can help prevent domineering, ego-driven coaches from assuming dangerous levels of power over children.
There is nothing safe or healthy about a 10 year old training 40 hours per week at the highest level of sport. If you can find a doctor or scientist or child development specialist to refute this claim please send me their name and credentials. It is time to recognize that elite coaches are usually acting in the best interest of their egos, not in the best interest of children. It is time to recognize that we have prevented the growth of our own sport and our own businesses by perpetuating the notion that it's only for children. It is time to acknowledge that we have screwed things up royally. It is time to backtrack. We have everything to gain by imposing restrictions of age and training hours on elite gymnastics. The lives of young girls are at stake.
*I want to note that in this post I've not even tackled the horrifying sexual abuse suffered by hundreds of gymnasts at the hands of Larry Nassar and the thousands more who have suffered under other coaches and authority figures. This particular post pertains to the physical and emotional harm caused by overtraining and how we can resolve these particular problems.