New to the sport and have a lot of questions? Read on for a crash course in Gymnastics 101.
What is recreational gymnastics?
Recreational gymnastics classes typically meet once a week for an hour or two and focus on learning basic skills and coordination. Classes may be broken up by age or level of experience, and they mainly focus on developing strength, coordination, balance, and flexibility while keeping things fun. Kids can take recreational gymnastics classes for years and continue to develop skills with no pressure to compete or be part of a team. Families with a child who appears to have potential to compete may be approached by a coach or the gym owner to see if they have an interest in joining the team, but they can always choose to remain in rec classes if that feels like a better fit.
What is pre-team?
Many competitive gyms have a pre-team program designed to prepare young gymnasts for future competition and to learn how to be part of a team. This training is generally more hours than a recreational class and is a great opportunity for kids and their parents to see if they really want to pursue competitive gymnastics before making a bigger time and financial commitment to the sport.
During pre-team training kids will work on drills and begin the basics of learning bigger skills, but generally aren’t expected to learn routines at this stage. Pre-team training can last anywhere from several months to over a year before a child is invited to join the competitive team. Each gym has its own set of requirements for pre-team, and it’s best to ask the head coaches or gym owner if you are interested in having your child evaluated for pre-team.
What is Xcel?
The Xcel program, run by USA Gymnastics, was introduced in 2013 as an alternative to the Development Program (formerly known as Junior Olympic), and is meant to offer more flexibility to coaches and gymnasts. While hours vary from club to club, the intent of the Xcel program is to allow athletes to have the flexibility to train for competitive gymnastics while still having time for other activities, and hours are generally lower than in the Development Program.
The Xcel program currently has five competitive levels:
- Bronze (approx. DP level 1/2)
- Silver (approx. DP level 3/4)
- Gold (approx. DP level 4/5)
- Platinum (approx. DP level 6/7)
- Diamond (approx. DP level 7/8+)
For the 2022-23 season Xcel Sapphire (approx. DP level 9/10) was introduced on a trial basis in some regions and may be added nationally.
There are a range of skills required for each level, but requirements are not as stringent as in the Development Program and at each of the levels athletes are able to play to their strengths. Movement from Xcel to the Development program is possible but will be up to the coaches. While it is rare for an Xcel athlete to move on to an NCAA gymnastics team, there are plenty of opportunities for Xcel gymnasts to join a college club team, or possibly an NCAA Acro & Tumbling team.
Xcel athletes have the opportunity to qualify for States and Regional competitions.
What is the Development Program?
Also run by USA Gymnastics, the Development Program (DP) was designed for the athletes to build a strong foundation of skill to help them progress safely, appropriately, and at a pace best fit for each gymnast. To advance through each level there are strict requirements and certain scores that need to be met.
Hours vary by gym and will usually be considerably higher than in the Xcel program, making the Development Program a great fit for gymnasts who want to spend a lot of time in the gym working at a more intense pace. While there are a few exceptions, most Division I-III college gymnasts come from DP and all Elite level gymnasts come from this track. The Development Program is broken up into the Compulsory and Optional levels.
What are the Development Program Compulsory levels?
The Compulsory levels are levels 1-5. In Compulsories each gymnast competes the exact same routines, compete to the same floor music, and are judged against the same standard. Skills build from one level to the next and there is a qualifying score for levels 4 and 5 that must be met for a gymnast to be permitted to move to the next level.
Gyms often have their own standards for moving up to the next level, so simply obtaining the qualifying score does not mean a gymnast will automatically move up at the end of the season. Many gyms choose not to compete levels 1 and 2, and often begin competing at level 3, although Level 4 is the first required Compulsory level. Gymnasts have the opportunity to qualify for their State meet, with qualification requirements varying by state.
What are the Development Program Optional levels?
The Optional levels are levels 6-10 where each gymnast has their own routines and their own floor music. At each level there are required skills, but there is more room for variety and the ability to showcase the gymnast’s strengths. As in Compulsories, there is a required score that must be obtained before a gymnast can move up to the next level but obtaining that score does not guarantee that they will move up as skills become increasingly difficult with each level.
Gymnasts have the opportunity to qualify for their State meet, and many regions offer a Regional Championship for levels 7 to 10. At the Regional competition, level 9 gymnasts have the opportunity to qualify for Eastern or Western Championships, while level 10 gymnasts have the opportunity to qualify for the National Championships.
How do age groups work?
From one meet to the next you may find your child in a totally different age group. They may even be in a different age group than a teammate with a birthday just one week apart! It can seem confusing at first, but age groups are divided by the ages of every competitor in a session.
Most meets have three or four age groups, and a meet director will simply divide the groups equally, which might mean your child is in the Junior A age group at one meet, and the Child B age group at the very next meet. No matter what the age group is called, your child will be competing against the gymnasts closest to their age at that particular meet.
How does scoring work?
Gymnastics scoring is a lot less subjective than most people think. To the untrained eye, judges simply reward the routines they like the best, while handing out low scores to routines they don’t like as much. This simply isn’t true. Things like team leotard style or colors, hair style, floor music, physical appearance, or the gym, state, or country the gymnast is from do not factor into their scores.
Instead, judges are required to go through a series of clinics, practical judging experiences, and a series of tests before becoming qualified to judge competitions. In addition, judges must pass a test to be qualified to judge by level. Every gymnastics skill has a specific standard it is judged by, and all of these standards are detailed in the Code of Points, which judges are required to memorize. Deductions occur when a skill fails to meet the established standard, and skills can incur multiple deductions (for example, bent legs, flexed feet, and incorrect body shape), which all result in a lower score. These deductions may not be obvious when you are new to watching competitive gymnastics, but the judges know exactly what to look for.
How do team scores work?
After the individual and all-around placements are awarded the team awards are usually given. For each of the events the top three scores are added up for a total team score. The highest scoring team wins first place, and so on. Because it requires the top three scores, only teams with three members or more are in the running for a team banner or trophy.
There is always more to learn about the sport, but with these basics down you’ve got a solid grounding in how things work in gymnastics!
Jen Kula is a Massachusetts based writer, and mom to two gymnasts. She has published one novel, has worked for several magazines and websites including; MetroSports Boston magazine, Appalachian Mountain Club Outdoors Magazine, and Babyzone.com, and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College.
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