Since our gym cut ties with compulsory USA Gymnastics in the fall of 2016, the score requirement to move up from level 4 to level 5 has been raised to a 34.0 all-around. The stats I report below are accurate, as they are based on the previous requirements, contemporary with the meet. The updated required scores do not change my stance in the least. Instead, they raise the question of why the scores were raised in the first place: for the good of the child athletes involved or in order to justify the direction USAG was already trending?
In “Win Medals? Part I,” I introduced some of USA Gymnastics’ Rules and Policies having to do with the Junior Olympic Program.
Let’s start at the top:
Before moving up a level, every athlete should show proficiency at her current level.
What does “proficiency” mean? The dictionary definition is, “a high degree of competence or skill; expertise.” According to USA Gymnastics, to advance from Level 3 to Level 4, a gymnast must show “75% proficiency” in skill, not competition (competition is not required by USAG for mobility out of Level 3). When competition is required for mobility, a gymnast must obtain a 31.0 all-around score (7.75 per event). See the chart below, taken from USAG’s Rules and Policies, Chapter 8. In both cases, that’s a “C” average. That seems obtainable and reasonable, especially when dealing with children.
Let’s compare this to something we can all understand: school. In school, a child passes to a higher grade level so long as he or she does not fail his or her current grade level. There is also typically a bell curve that demonstrates that most kids hover around the average grade (B- or C+). Most kids are average, meaning in the middle. To translate that into gymnastics terms, “average” would be right around the 7.75 score, or the 31.0 all-around. Again, this sounds reasonable. Just as we cannot expect all students to get all As, we cannot expect all gymnasts to get all 9s. Right?
At the 2015 Level 3 Arizona State Meet (according to Meet Scores Online), the average all-around score was over a 36.0 (a 9.0 per event). In school terms, this would mean that the average student would receive a 90% for their grades across all subjects. This concept is not remotely plausible. At this particular meet in Level 3, only a total of FOUR all-around competitors, received a score of 31.0 or lower. That is out of approximately 150 competitors (2.6%)! So much for the bell curve hovering around a B-.
This average of a 36.0 all-around in a meet translates to 90% proficiency, not only at individual skills, but at competing. In gymnastics, it is one thing to be able to perform skills in the gym at practice. It is another thing to be able to perform them just as well in a meet situation with a crowd watching and judges scrutinizing one’s every move. In my gym, competition is a learning experience. We teach the kids how to 1. improve over each season, and 2. how to improve at competition over her career. By no means do we expect a Level 3 gymnast to be a seasoned competitor.
Over a season, in 2015, it was common for the top kids to show an improvement over the season of .675-1.5 points in all-around score. In contrast, the girls on my team showed a typical improvement of 2-2.5 points in all-around score, most of them receiving scores around 8.5, demonstrating approximately 85% proficiency throughout the season (a “B+” average).
Which athletes are doing better? I would argue that mine are, as they are demonstrating a greater improvement throughout the season. However, how do I prove that to a 9-year-old when she is barely placing (or placing last) against kids who are receiving scores of 9.8 (or higher) on events and 38.0 (or higher) all-around scores?
How did this blatant disregard for the USAG Rules and Policies happen? I believe that it happened over time and by the lack of sanctions in place for not following the rules. Not enough good coaches, with their gymnasts’ best interests at the top of their priority list, have stood up over time, calling for repercussions for violating USAG Rules and Policies, especially on a local level. Rather, they watched the game unfold before their eyes, getting worse and worse every year, perhaps whispering amongst themselves on the sidelines about how the other teams get the benefit of the doubt and the highest scores. Their silence acted as approval and excused the unprofessional practices. Then all they could do to make sure their kids kept up was focus only on perfecting routines, and not improving on skill.
I posit that had some of the good coaches, who did not agree with the manner in which youth sports had been abused, including myself in years past, spoke up and demanded that the rules be followed, then we wouldn’t be to the point where the average of gymnasts’ scores in the Level 3 State Meet were over a 9.0.
The gyms at the top, their coaches, and even some judges have written it off, saying that the sport is just getting “more competitive.” In fact, in that same Level 3 State Meet, one gymnast received a 10.0 on bars. I happened to be sitting next to the Arizona State Administrative Committee Chairman for USAG at the time. I saw the score and was appalled. She told me how great it was.
“Great” for whom? The kid who got the 10.0, doing the same routine she performed at the 2014 Level 3 State meet the year before, scoring a 9.575, and also winning first place? What does that teach her? That she wasn’t good enough finishing first last year, that she had to repeat it until she got it right? What happens when she never scores a 10 again? She has achieved perfection at a young age. Will she ever be able to live up to that expectation again? Or was it “great” for all the other kids who were in the same boat, yet not winning, repeating Level 3, despite being very successful the year before? Or was it “great” for my gymnast, who, in her 2nd meet ever competing, improved her all-around score by 1.275 from her first meet, yet came in dead last? And, in her words, got to witness the “rare 10,” thinking that that was the yardstick against which to measure herself? Or was it “great” for the coaches and the gymnast’s club? They were able to successfully drill into a Level 3 gymnast how to be perfect at 9 skills in a bar routine. (To be fair, there was also a 9.925, a 9.825, and a 9.8 on bars in that same session of the meet, all from different clubs.)
The rules are being ignored by clubs and their ignoring the rules is being ignored by USAG, and this “competitiveness” is violating the “spirit of youth sports in general,” to use USAG’s direct words. The question is who is being “more competitive” at the expense of whom?
Adults are being competitive at the expense of children.
This mentality, winning at all costs, is cultural throughout USAG and other youth sports. A coach at one of the most winningest clubs in Arizona was overheard saying about Level 3 gymnasts, “If they’re not going to win, what’s the point of doing gymnastics?” Here are a few reasons: goal-setting, hard work, competing in front of crowds, overcoming fears, learning new skills, being a part of a team, learning about success and failure…
There is an interesting point: learning about success and failure. I’ve often heard, and I have come to understand it with experience, that failure plays a major part in success. What happens if kids only know what it feels like to succeed? I would call getting a 90% all the time a pretty high success rate. When do these kids learn how to lose? When do they come to understand that failure is a part of success? When do they learn how to bounce back? I’ve seen many a high-scoring gymnast cry at the sight of a 9.3 or a 3rd place medal. I’ve also seen a typically high-scoring gymnast crumble, hysterically crying, when she fell off bars in a meet, having three events left in the competition. If we can’t teach them this valuable lesson in youth sports, where will they learn it?
Paul Spadaro, President of USAIGC, is quoted as rightfully saying:
It’s really not about the medals. It’s about the gymnasts succeeding for themselves. Their success really lies in completing a routine the best they can. As they learn the skills in the right environment they learn about success and failure. Success means different things to different children. Learning how to handle success and failure is a life skill some adults haven’t learned yet.
The USAIGC wants to help develop an intelligent all-around young lady who loves our sport, succeeds in school, has time for family and friends and time for other hobbies/interests. The one thing I believe gymnastics teaches in the correct environment, the ability to learn how to win and lose.
This is the correct attitude to have: knowing that children are not perfect, and perfection should not be expected of them. As coaches, we should be more interested that our gymnasts are learning and improving, in and out of the gym.
I challenge every coach to examine your philosophy. What do you want your gymnasts to learn from you? Do you want them to walk away hating the sport, knowing that they could never be good enough? That they were never worth a lick because they didn’t come in first place for you in low-level competitive gymnastics? Or do you want them to leave the sport loving it, having learned valuable life lessons, like how to both win and lose gracefully, how to set goals and reach them, how to manage their time in and out of the gym, and how to believe in themselves? Then decide if your gym’s governing body reflects, and is helping you, reinforce your philosophy.
In my next blog, I will examine the next point in USAG’s Rules and Policies having to do with mobility.