Gymnastics Manifesto

By Mary Reiss Farias

I wrote this Gymnastics Manifesto November 2016, before the onslaught of atrocities via USA Gymnastics (USAG) had come to the public’s attention. While our club, Tucson Gymnastics Center (TGC), is appalled to the very core by USAG’s mishandling of the sexual abuse scandal that has come to everyone’s attention over the past year, these events were not the impetus for our departure from gymnastics’ National Governing Body. The reasons for our disassociating our club from USAG is a direct result of its culture and its affect on our kids. It so happens that this is the very culture that allowed the worst sexual abuse scandal in sports history to manifest.

Gymnastics as I know it is dead…

I have spent enough time running gymnastics programs in Arizona to understand that the gymnastics here is not even close to what I grew up with 20+ years ago in Minnesota. Now, everyone gets a medal for participating, and the top concern is winning team trophies and all-around championships. It says so at the top of the USA Gymnastics mission statement (Rules and Policies, pg. 11) – “WIN MEDALS.” Scores in each level are at unprecedented heights, and routines worthy of 9.90s and even 10.00s are now commonplace in compulsory gymnastics! Compulsory gymnastics is where children begin to compete. Children should be learning to string skills together and learning how to compete, not striving for perfection.

Promoting this type of system is setting children up for failure, but I have come to the harsh reality that I too am setting my kids up for failure. In all my coaching endeavors, I thought I was trying to set all my kids, including my daughter, up for success by bucking the system, by being a part of the USAG system despite its inconsistencies and imperfections. But to be a part of a system that degrades young children for trying their best at competing their current skill level – just as the system says they should – I am failing my kids. Something has to change, and it is not going to come from USA Gymnastics.

USAG has reached their goal, and has made many Americans, including myself, very proud: they have achieved their goal of being Olympic champions. They have proven that their system works – for the few and very best elite athletes; or for those clubs willing to hold kids back to compete at levels well below their current skill level, that is, those clubs who pretend to be the best. Stated differently, if clubs competed athletes at the level that they should be competing, then they wouldn’t be the best, and the result would be a true competition in which we can all participate and be proud.

In the USAG Junior Olympic Competitive Program overview, page 76 of the Rules and Policies book, USAG states, “For athletes to repeat a level with the intent to gain an advantage over other competitors or teams IS NOT in the spirit of the Jr. Olympic Program or youth sports in general.” Hey, I agree with that statement. However, this is not how the game is played. Sure, kids may not be repeating levels, but they are waiting to begin competing until they know they can already crush the competition, starting in level 2. These girls are talented; there is no need to compete level 2 or even level 3 if there is a sound foundation of skills and technique. The reason that clubs in Arizona compete these levels is to have an advantage over their competition. Those clubs who believe competing a child in the level commensurate with their current skill level, one that presents a challenge and a sense of satisfaction for the child who improves throughout the competitive season, one that allows her to work upgraded skills as she finishes her daily workouts in order to become better at gymnastics in general and not the best at conforming routines, are seen as losers and looked down upon for putting kids at a disadvantage.

It turns out that I am one of those losers who is putting my kids at a disadvantage. I refuse to play the game of holding children back for medals and trophies for my gym’s recognition. I don’t care what other clubs or even judges think about that. My goal is to do what is best for my kids. That is my reward in the end – getting my kids to where they want to be in the future, not to be the best level 3 gymnast. And I refuse to change my gymnastics philosophy and how I run things just to get a few medals and trophies or because the USAG is punishing my girls for what I believe is the best way to coach the wide variety of gymnasts that walk into my gym.

My girls need to know that what they are doing in the gym matters. It is difficult to tell them that they are succeeding and have them believe me when they score a low 9 and come in at the bottom half of their age division. How am I supposed to tell my level 5s that they are in the correct level when their counterparts are throwing round-off back handspring layouts and level 10 beam series in open warm-ups at a State meet or when other girls are telling my girls that they are really in a level or two higher in the middle of a rotation?! I can no longer be a part of a system that allows unethical coaches to take advantage of the rules and manipulate the playing field.

When kids come into our gym, they are often out of options. They know that if something doesn’t change, then they will quit the sport all together. And it is all right for some to quit; that’s the reality of the sport. But for some to quit because they think the sport is meant only for the reputation of the club, and to become masters at levels 2, 3, 4, 5… all before moving up and becoming an individual gymnast doesn’t make sense to me. My theory is that there are a lot of kids who would be better optional gymnasts than compulsory, but they have no chance because they don’t fit the exact mold that USAG is looking for. They get stuck in one level or on one skill. They are not able to get past a certain score even though they have the potential to get somewhere great. They are pegged as “too old” before they even start. All of these scenarios are common, and they are all false. Kids deserve a chance. Kids should be presented with the tools they need to truly succeed, not a medal for last place. If a child has a bad meet, she knows it and she doesn’t need to be reminded with a participation medal or recognized for it in front of a large crowd.

And, in my opinion, the answer isn’t in redirecting them to the Xcel program. There are plenty of kids out there that could be event specialists or even all-arounders and go on to do great things with the sport, but are pigeonholed into Xcel and written off by many clubs.

I don’t blame other clubs for playing the game. I understand that they have bills to pay and the lure of medals and the illusion of success helps them pay their bills. When gymnasts win, coaches win. When coaches win, club owners win. Gymnastics training centers are highly competitive, especially in the Phoenix area. They need to pay rent, they need to pay their coaches, their insurance. We are small enough that we have the luxury of not having to bend our philosophy to conform, and it now allows us to look for something better for our program.

There is not a place for my philosophy in USAG, and that couldn’t have been said any clearer to me as it was during the level 5 portion of the Arizona State meet. I was sent a message loud and clear, and, unfortunately, a little girl had to suffer as a result. I am finished with a system that, out of one side of its mouth, claims to have the best interest of kids at heart, and out the other espouses ridiculous expectations for children doing a very hard and complicated sport. USA Gymnastics is wrecking our sport, and it is ruining a large portion of the children who participate in it, not only through turning a blind eye to their unethical competitive practices, but through turning a blind eye to the alleged sexual misconduct with children. Click on the link to read for yourself.

…or is it?

I am not a victim; I never will be. I do not want to paint my gymnasts as victims either, but I do need to protect my girls. I have overstayed my welcome and I cannot run my program within the confines of the USAG compulsory system. The point that they believe that I am wrong for how I run my gym was driven home, to the detriment of one of my gymnasts and her family. That is inherently wrong and it is unsportsmanlike.

USAIGC is “an Optional Only, College Bound International Competitive Program built upon the NCAA Collegiate Rules that provide our Gymnasts and Coaches with a large variety of progressive optional gymnastics skills to master instead of restrictive mandatory compulsory skills.” (USAIGC.com) For the last four years, I have been wondering how we could accomplish this same philosophy in our gym.

Under a USAG system, I tried to accomplish the goal of providing my gymnasts the fundamentals of gymnastics, getting them through the compulsory levels successfully and efficiently, not expecting full mastery (as indicated in their Rules and Policies), and getting them to optionals where they could really shine and be challenged. Some kids wouldn’t make it to optionals, and that was fine. But they knew that the path to get there was theirs to take and that it was a possibility with hard work in our program.

Under a USAIGC system, it is possible to cater to the individual from the beginning. We can expose them to a greater number of fundamental skills rather than coaching to teach compulsory routines. Placing kids in and competing the level they are physically capable of doing is what is most challenging, teaching them that hard work pays off. Mastering skills and technique, rather than how to perfect a specific routine, is learning gymnastics; the latter is just repeating the same routine over and over again, resulting in boredom, lack of diversity of skill, and complete burnout – especially when kids are expected to be perfect on a compulsory routine for multiple seasons (which is a common practice). It is no wonder that half of the kids quit the sport by age 12. It is bad for their development and our business.

USAIGC is built on the premise that we are working with and molding kids to become functional, capable, individual members of society. There are as many options as there are gymnasts, and the system is inherently in the favor of the gymnast, not in the favor of a large governing body tasked with producing a handful of elite international athletes.

Our Competitive program will develop gymnasts that are a head above their peers, developing strong, intelligent young ladies who are goal oriented, success driven, disciplined, with excellent time management skills and who have learned life’s most important skill: dealing with success and failure. It is the process of becoming a gymnast in a healthy competitive environment that develops these outstanding qualities, not scores, not placements nor competitive levels. This is the core philosophy of our Competitive Program. Our gymnasts will be prepared for tomorrow’s world, making them tomorrow’s leaders!

The preceding excerpt is directly from the USAIGC website. I couldn’t have said it better myself. In fact, I could have written it about my own program. However, I have come to realize that even though I would like these things to be true of my program, it is hamstrung by my current governing body. But that is coming to an end.

I believe that our program, and as a result, our gymnasts, can thrive under the USAIGC system. It will take hard work to get the system up and running in Arizona: creating new training guidelines for my own program, and more importantly, advocating to like-minded clubs across the state that there is a better way of doing things. But the hard work will be worth it, as it will truly be the best thing for our gymnasts, and I believe it is what is best for the advancement of the great sport of gymnastics. Gymnastics is a great sport.

If you are a parent, coach, gym owner or judge (or interested in becoming a judge) and would like some more information on USAIGC, please feel free to contact me (520-333-2558, info@tucsongymnasticscenter.com) or Paul Spadaro, USAIGC President 212-227-9792,  paul.spadaro@usaigc.com)

—November 22, 2016

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