Across the US, there are several different competitive gymnastics programs, but the two with the largest participation are the Xcel program, and the Developmental Program (formerly known as Junior Olympic, or JO), both run by USA Gymnastics (USAG). Parents new to competitive gymnastics often wonder which is the right path for their child, and while neither program is “better” than the other, one may be better fit for your child and your family.
Before choosing either competitive track, it is a good idea to ask your gym about the costs and schedules for each program before making a decision. Between monthly tuition, meets fees, and competition wear, gymnastics is an expensive and time-consuming sport. Once the gym bug has bitten it can be heartbreaking to pull a kid out of the sport if you find that the commitment is too great for your family. In both Xcel and the Development Program, the hours and costs go up as a gymnast moves through the levels, so speaking with the gym owner or coaches should give you an idea of what kind time and financial commitment you’ll be making if your kid sticks with gymnastics.
Many gyms offer both Xcel and the Development Program, each with their own set of coaches—just look out for a gym that seems to value one group over the other. If a gym appears to celebrate the success of one track while ignoring the other group, that might not be the right environment for your gymnast. Both Xcel and the Development Program offer the opportunity to grow and develop in gymnastics and should be treated with respect by the coaches and the kids in the gym.
According to USAG, the Xcel program was designed to be “an alternative USA Gymnastics competitive program offering individual flexibility to coaches and gymnasts. The goal of Xcel is to provide gymnasts of varying abilities and commitment levels the opportunity for a rewarding gymnastics experience.”
So, your child loves gymnastics, but she also loves horseback riding, swim team, and her piano lessons and you’re wondering how to fit it all in? Or maybe you have a tween or teen who just tried gymnastics for the first time and is now hoping to join a team. Xcel is a great fit for a kid who loves gymnastics but wants to have time outside of the gym for other interests, and for kids who start the sport a bit later. The program allows gymnasts to develop new skills and advance through the competitive levels with less intensity and less pressure to acquire a certain set of skills for each level. Hours vary from club to club but are generally much lower than the Development Program.
The Xcel program has five competitive levels: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond. There is a range of skills required for each level, but what many gymnasts like about the program is the flexibility within each level. Routines are developed to play to the athlete’s strengths and, even in the early levels, kids get their own routine, unlike the rigid demands of the Compulsory levels in the Development Program. The requirements for each level are also more flexible than in the Development Program, so if, for example, your child really struggles with backward tumbling she can substitute forward skills.
The USAG table below lists the age, entry requirements, and mobility overview for Xcel:
|Division||Minimum Age Requirement||Pre-requisite Score||Previous Experience|
|Bronze||Reached 5th Birthday||None||DP Levels 1, 2|
|Silver||Reached 6th Birthday||None||DP Levels 1, 2, 3|
|Gold||Reached 7th Birthday||31.00 AA at Silver Division or 8.0 IES*||DP Levels 3, 4|
|Platinum||Reached 8th Birthday||31.00 AA at Gold Division or 8.0 IES*||DP Levels 5, 6, 7|
|Diamond||Reached 9th Birthday||31.00 AA at Platinum Division or 8.0 IES*||DP Levels 7, 8, 9, 10|
If your child eats, sleeps, and breathes gymnastics, and wants to focus most of her time on one sport, then the Development Program is probably the right path. The Development Program is a great fit for gymnasts who want higher hours and a more intense pace. While there are a few exceptions, most Division I-III college gymnasts come from the Development Program and all Elite level gymnasts come from this track. Hours are usually much higher in the Development Program than in Xcel, and some gyms have policies that gymnasts may not compete in any other sport once they reach the upper levels. Age also plays a factor in joining a Development Program, and it’s less common for kids who start the sport as tweens or teens join the program. Training hours often begin at six to nine hours a week in the lowest levels and can go up to 20-25 hours a week in the upper levels. An Elite level training program may do as many as 25-30 hours or more a week.
Levels run from 1 to 10, although most gyms begin competing at either level 3 or level 4. Levels 1-5 are Compulsory and each gymnast does the same skills, the same routine, and has the same floor music. If your child is starting off in the Development Program, prepare to spend a season listening to the same floor music at every meet! Once girls reach level 6 and beyond, they are Optionals, and gymnasts have their own routines and floor music.
The USAG table below lists the age, entry requirements, and mobility overview for the Developmental Program:
|Level||Minimum Age Requirement||Pre-requisite scores||Previous Experience||Mobility score to advance to the next level|
|1 – 2||L. 1 – Reached 4th birthday L. 2 – Reached 5th birthday||None||None|
|3||Reached 6th birthday||None||None|
|4||Reached 7th birthday||75% proficiency at Level 1-3 on Vault, Bars, Beam, Floor||Level 4 or 5*||34.00 AA at Level 4|
|5||Reached 7th birthday||34.00 AA at Level 4||Level 5 or 6*||32.00 AA at Level 5 Mobility back and forth between Levels 5 and 6 is allowed.|
|6||Reached 7th birthday||32.00 AA at Level 5||Level 6 or 7*||32.00 AA at Level 6 Level 6 may be skipped if a 32.00 AA was achieved at Level 5|
|7||Reached 7th birthday||32.00 AA at Level 5 or 6||Level 7 or 8*||32.00 AA at Level 7 Ind. Event Specialist: 8.5 per event|
|8||Reached 8th birthday||32.00 AA at Level 7||Level 8 or 9*||34.00 AA at Level 8 Ind. Event Specialist: 8.5 per event|
|9||Reached 8th birthday||34.00 AA at Level 8||Level 9 or 10*||34.00 AA at Level 9 to move to Level 10 Ind. Event Specialist: 8.5 per event|
|10||Reached 9th birthday||34.00 AA at Level 9||Level 10 or Elite*||None|
Movement Between Programs
What if your child starts off on one path, then decides the other program would be a better fit? Movement between the Development Program and Xcel depends a lot on the gym. It’s generally very easy for a gymnast who wants to go from the Development Program to move to Xcel, but it can be much harder to move from Xcel to the Development Program, and some gyms don’t allow it. If you think your child may want to switch tracks, ask your gym owner or coaches how they handle movement from one program to the other. If your child is dead set on making the transition to the Development Program and your gym says “no”, it might be worth looking at some other gyms in your area. Different gyms have different requirements for their Development Program gymnasts, and the door may be open somewhere else.
Some gyms use Xcel in place of Compulsories and have girls compete Xcel until they are ready for level 6 or 7, although gymnasts do need to score out of levels 4 and 5 before they can move on to Optionals, although as of 2021 USAG has announced that girls ages 12 and 13 can petition into levels 6 or 7 following the petitioning process in their state.
Whichever program your child joins, she’ll have the thrill of learning new skills, developing confidence, and the fun of being part of a team—enjoy the ride!
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.