Celebrating High School-Aged Gymnasts

A month ago, I had the opportunity to take my high school-aged gymnasts to New York City for a competition. We had a fun and exciting weekend, with 14-year-olds and older. A parent chaperone and I took the girls on the subway, saw Yankee Stadium (albeit by accident), saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, saw the entire city from the observation deck of One World Trade Center, went to Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and all the other touristy things five ladies can cram into a meet weekend. We had a great time getting to know one other better. The gymnasts roomed together, in a separate room from the chaperones. We treated them like the adults they are becoming.

As parents and coaches, we want our kids to get all the positive things out of gymnastics: something productive to do, self-discipline, time management, a healthy lifestyle, drive, determination, a positive attitude, a healthy outlook on life, learning how to win and lose gracefully, getting up after falling down, goal-setting, seeing things through, mental well-being, etc. The greater amount of time that kids can stay in gymnastics, the more opportunity they have to learn these important life lessons from the sport. These are the rewards that we should seek for our gymnasts as parents and coaches. As each child is different, so are her abilities in the gym. Regardless of her innate talents, however, we have the opportunity to impart the above valuable life lessons in every gymnast.

Of course, I believe in goals, goal-setting, and following through to reach those goals. I also believe in setting large and long-term goals. However, when the ultimate and only reason to do gymnastics is to get a college scholarship, parents and coaches are setting their gymnasts up for possible defeat and failure. This perspective, coming from a former NCAA gymnast, probably sounds strange.

According to USAIGC, “statistically there are between 2-2.5% of athletic scholarships available per year. There are 4.5% – 5% academic scholarships available per year.” That’s not many! We have to look realistically at the possibility and probability (in a real, statistical sense) of the award of a college scholarship, especially to the Division I school of the gymnast’s choice.

In my experience, parents, coaches and gymnasts who tout a Division I scholarship as the ultimate goal for gymnastics, do so prematurely. When this desire is first uttered, the gymnast is generally young, excited, and in love with gymnastics with all her being. At this point, she doesn’t even know what it necessarily means to get a college scholarship. At this stage, parents and gymnasts forget that the gymnast has to grow up first, making it into and out of middle school. And despite all the potential they might have, they have to use that potential and make it to a high level first, before college. Their desire and ability to stay injury-free, must remain. Most competitive gymnasts fizzle out and peak before high school!

The USAIGC website states,

Our Competitive Program provides an environment that fosters and nurtures the attributes of a sound mind, sound body leading to successful healthy and well-rounded gymnasts. It is built on long-term skill development with the intentional slowing down of our gymnasts’ learning curve providing our gymnasts the necessary time to develop and perfect gymnastic skills in a safelogical, progressive order with recommended training hours per levelOver-training is the number one reason gymnasts leave our sport.

In order to make it to college-level competition, a gymnast (and her body) must make it through high school. That is a toll many gymnasts’ bodies and minds cannot handle – fast growth, plus a high level of gymnastics is many times a recipe for injury or burnout. USAIGC’s philosophy on slowing down the skill learning process is just what gymnasts need to thrive, build the skills necessary, peak at the right time, and have the drive and physical ability to continue in the sport for another four years past high school.

We need to celebrate gymnasts at the high school age so more gymnasts have the drive to make it. It’s fine to make college the goal, but let’s make it one of the sub-goals – the icing on the cake. Let’s make it to high school first, then through high school and all the drama that comes with it: puberty, homework and grades, teenage angst, change in attitude/personality, friends pulling them in different directions, dating, and all the other interests teenage girls develop during these integral years.

College gymnastics has to be more than just the way to pay for college. Kids could just get a job and have it much easier. College has to be the gymnast’s goal, not the goal or a threat by mom and dad that “you’re not going to college if you don’t get a scholarship.” That’s an inordinate amount of pressure to put on a 12-year-old, who hasn’t even gone through puberty, a growth spurt, or even entered high school yet!

USAIGC gets it right: they offer a unique meet to celebrate the accomplishment of gymnasts continuing to compete into their high school years. It doesn’t matter what level the girls are in – it’s not just for the highest levels. What matters is that they are still in the sport, despite all the odds stacked against them. We need to remember that gymnastics is difficult day-to-day, let alone year-to-year. Remember that a gymnast in her first year of high school has eight more years of gymnastics left if she competes in college. That’s a longer period of time than most 9th graders have been in gymnastics total! Society demands that our children commit to college before they even enter high school. (And deems them failures if they don’t follow through.) So much changes during these important formative years in a child’s (not just a gymnast’s) life. As adults, we need to have realistic expectations and take the pressure off. Most gymnasts don’t make it to college on a scholarship. Most gymnasts quit by the age of 12. Let’s give our girls a well-rounded childhood so they can make objective, long-term, and realistic decisions about their future – with or without gymnastics.

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