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Thursday, April 6, 2017

It's time for a radical change in gymnastics

Remember life in the '70's? No? Ok, so kids rode around without carseats while their parents had no seat belts. Cigarettes were welcomed anywhere--hospitals, airplanes, schools, the stifling car of your best friend's family. Fad diets--I'm pretty sure everyone was eating nothing but grapefruits and tapeworms, but that may be an exaggeration. Six year old latchkey kids staying home alone for hours on end weren't unusual. We can look back on these common practices from then and laugh at how much things have changed. But the fact is, things are better now--and isn't that a relief? 

So why are we clinging to an outdated model of gymnastics--small children, long hours-- that was popularized forty years ago? 

Everyone has heard of Nadia Comaneci, but does everyone recall that she was only 14? To quote Bart Conner in Gymnastics' Greatest Stars,* "She would prove Bela Karolyi's theory that to wait until after puberty was to waste the best of their years."

From that moment in 1976, we accepted that standard. If you start by 5, 6, maybe 7 years old, you've got enough time to be Nadia. If you start at 9 or 10, well, how can you be Nadia in only 4 or 5 years? Too late for you to have a career, silly fourth grader! Start young, train excessively, diet carefully, maybe move away from home and live with strangers, compete injured, receive criticism, witness or endure abuse, remain silent, perform flawlessly as a representative of your entire nation before an audience of millions at age 14 or 15. 

Abuse, manipulation, injury, depression--these are the byproducts of these outdated training regimens.

Set aside everything you know about gymnastics. Is 40 hours per week of intense physical training healthy for a twelve-year-old? 

What about piano? 


Hey kid, if you want to play piano, the really impressive songs, you MUST practice six hours a day, immediately. If you do not practice 6 hours a day, you should probably not play piano at all. 


Is your kid good at math? 


Hey kid, you're making straight A's! That's great! Since you're so good at math, you should do advanced math five days a week for four hours straight. But, if you don't want to do math for 20 hours a week, you can't learn it at all. 


Is there ANY activity that would be healthy, physically and emotionally, for a child to commit to for forty hours a week? 

The question is not whether this WORKS to produce great gymnasts, but whether it is in the best interest of a CHILD.


I don't coach elite gymnasts but it matters to me because of the trickle down effect. Upper levels are going 20+ hours. Lower levels are going 12-16. We cannot retain gymnasts when we run them off with unnecessary and, frankly, harmful training schedules. The vast majority of children and families will NOT stay long in a sport or activity that demands so much time.


As a sport we're in this mindset of exclusivity--if you can't hack 16-20 hours, you don't belong. And you know what these kids do? They become superstars in varsity cheer or track or soccer. Because they can spend less time on that, and they receive positive attention from peers and accolades from school instead of being told daily that they're just a mediocre gymnast. 


If we set standards for training hours by age and level, we'd be taking in MORE kids to the sport, not running off the ones that don't want to put in an absurd amount of hours. As they age they can put in more hours, culminating in the NCAA standard 20 around later high school years. Then when they are adults, they can do whatever the heck they want. If you want 40 hours and you're over 18 and not bound to NCAA, go for it. 


We'd have stronger, healthier, happier kids, and we'd have elite adults who are better able to handle the stresses of representing their country, won't be as susceptible to manipulation tactics by unscrupulous coaches, and can understand the limitations or capabilities of their bodies. 


Everyone wins because it's good for business too...but coaches would have to check their egos. It would be safer and healthier for athletes, and it would absolutely grow the sport.







*Yes, I can quote my favorite gymnastics videos from memory.



Note...This post has simply expanded on my own post in the Coaches For the Ethical Treatment of Athletes group. 

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