Xcel or Development Program: Which is the right path for your gymnast?

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.

XCEL

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:

DivisionMinimum Age RequirementPre-requisite ScorePrevious Experience
BronzeReached 5th BirthdayNoneDP Levels 1, 2
SilverReached 6th BirthdayNoneDP Levels 1, 2, 3
GoldReached 7th Birthday31.00 AA at Silver Division or 8.0 IES*DP Levels 3, 4
PlatinumReached 8th Birthday31.00 AA at Gold Division or 8.0 IES*DP Levels 5, 6, 7
DiamondReached 9th Birthday31.00 AA at Platinum Division or 8.0 IES*DP Levels 7, 8, 9, 10
* IES = Individual Event Specialist

Development Program

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:

LevelMinimum Age RequirementPre-requisite scoresPrevious ExperienceMobility score to advance to the next level
1 – 2L. 1 – Reached 4th birthday L. 2 – Reached 5th birthdayNoneNone
3Reached 6th birthdayNoneNone
4Reached 7th birthday75% proficiency at Level 1-3 on Vault, Bars, Beam, FloorLevel 4 or 5*34.00 AA at Level 4
5Reached 7th birthday34.00 AA at Level 4Level 5 or 6*32.00 AA at Level 5 Mobility back and forth between Levels 5 and 6 is allowed.
6Reached 7th birthday32.00 AA at Level 5Level 6 or 7*32.00 AA at Level 6 Level 6 may be skipped if a 32.00 AA was achieved at Level 5
7Reached 7th birthday32.00 AA at Level 5 or 6Level 7 or 8*32.00 AA at Level 7 Ind. Event Specialist: 8.5 per event
8Reached 8th birthday32.00 AA at Level 7Level 8 or 9*34.00 AA at Level 8 Ind. Event Specialist: 8.5 per event
9Reached 8th birthday34.00 AA at Level 8Level 9 or 10*34.00 AA at Level 9 to move to Level 10 Ind. Event Specialist: 8.5 per event
10Reached 9th birthday34.00 AA at Level 9Level 10 or Elite*None
*USAG has specific rules for dropping back a level.

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!

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Again... don't forget to let us know what program you picked and why.

If your just deciding now... ask your questions and we'll give you some answers!

I'll also add some links to old conversations below about this subject (if you find any good ones... let me know).

Here are a few...

Reply 1 Like

My older daughter did both and my younger daughter did rec (since this seems limited to artistic). My daughter found a JO program (as it was then) that let kids choose their stream, and also allowed them to pursue other activities while training/competing. The fees/costs were actually exactly the same regardless of stream at that gym as well.

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Developmental JO program.
My daughters dream is to go to the Olympics or a D1 scholarship, and you can’t get that in Xcel

Reply 2 Likes

when my dd started, our state/region had a successful prep-op program, from which the xcel program evolved, and many gyms used this as an alternative to JO compulsory (at the time, it was described as an alternative and supplement to JO). She did two years of prep-op before xcel was adopted in our state. We didn't know any better when she first started but this alternative route worked out well for dd and she then transitioned into JO at level 7 without a problem.

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Mine started in JO.
OG transitioned to Xcel the year before it was nationalized (each region had its own requirements for each Xcel division). She had blocks on a couple of skills due to blocks and Xcel Gold allowed her to work around them. Eventually, she transitioned back to JO L6 and then retired.
YG did 2 years of "old" L4 and then chose to "repeat" L3 after the great level shift ... because she was afraid of the grapevine on beam in "new" L4.
The next year, she transitioned to Xcel. She has competed Gold and Platinum. She is currently working on regaining skills after injuries, Covid shutdown, and yet ANOTHER growth spurt.
LSS started in L3. She competed a year, quit to focus on dance for a year, then came back. She competed L3 her first year back and L4 the next year. After that, she transitioned to Xcel Gold. She has done 2 years of Gold. She may be done with competing, but the possibility of wearing shorts during meets has piqued her interest again, lol.

I did notice that the article had an OLD Xcel mobility chart, so I am including the more updated one.DP to Xcel and Xcl Mobility.jpg

Reply 1 Like

So I voted other. Obviously we don’t have the same programs in Australia.

But the problem with even a very open level program is the restrictiveness of the timeline.

Teaching gymnasts what the level dictates doesn’t allow for optimum development.

Gymnasts present is with windows of opportunity. When they are ready to learn something, it’s time to teach them. If you wait too long, the window shuts.

Sat you have a gymnast who is a level 2 standard or a bronze or whatever on bars, but they are a great tumbler and are at level 6 skills. In most traditional levels programs the gymnasts would not be allowed to touch level 6 or 7 tumbling if they are sitting at a level 2. But that could be really ready to fly.

By the time the gymnasts bars level has caught up to their tumbling, that readiness fit more advanced skills is often gone.

My policy, teach the kids what they are ready to safely and successfully learn.

Reply 10 Likes

My DD18 wasn't really given an option - she started gym at age 11 after being a competitive dancer for 6 years. After a year of pre-team, learning the basics, the gym started a Silver team for her and 3 other girls who didn't quite fit the JO track. It was the best thing that could have happened for her. One year of Silver, 3 of Gold, and 2 of Platinum, and she loved it. No regrets whatsoever.

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I did notice that the article had an OLD Xcel mobility chart, so I am including the more updated one.

Jen updated the article... thank you!

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So much depends on how your local gyms choose to treat Xcel. Is it basically an advanced rec class? Is it where gymnastics dreams go to die when kids are discarded from JO? Or is it a valued program with actual conditioning and quality training that allows kids to make genuine progress? Families will make different choices depending on the quality of the available options.

Reply 10 Likes

I picked other. Back when we started, the littles did a JO season, NY had early states for the compulsory levels. We then did a season of USAIGC. Coaches liked the discipline and consistency of JO compulsory but IGC allowed the kids to develop their own personalities and do what they did well and liked. As a parent I came to appreciate that as well.

What it really came down to is what worked best for our family and my kid.

My kid likes gymnastics and is good. She has no high level aspirations. And doesn’t live and breath gymnastics. She likes lots of things. We like balance.

In our area Xcel was seen more as rec when it first started. So we found a JO program that worked for us, low hours and flexibility. Meet particitation choice, training hours choice. And I’ve taken heat for even suggesting this was possible in JO.

Xcel has come a long way since it’s start. We have had move to other gyms into Xcel and they do more hours then our JO kids. Why, kids wanted more hours but not compulsory stuff.

Kids have left for more hours because their parents think it will get them to higher levels or rides for college. I have not actually seen any of that happen to any of the kids, with exception of one who recently left and she has a natural drive and talent the others didn’t. It was a good move for her.

Having gone from, tots class, rec, then L2 to L8, through injuries and blocks…

Good coaches, good kids and hours that work for the family, way more important then the name of the program.

I felt this prior to this past year but if this past year has taught us nothing, it’s OK to take a vacation, go to a party or just a down day and miss gym. Any place not cool with that is never a place a kid should be.

Reply 4 Likes

Excellent discussion going on here. Please keep telling your stories. Here is mine...

I am a parent of 3 and a Head Coach. All of my kids started in the Development (JO) program with my oldest daughter also doing TOPS / HOPES and still wanting to try elite.

As a Head Coach we have transformed our program to now use only Xcel Bronze & Silver as a replacement for Levels 2 & 3. I just don't like the stress and pressure of Levels 2 & 3 and believe that our training style does not align with these levels. Starting at Level 4 we use the traditional Development Program at our club now.

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JO / the gym we started at had rec coaches teaching xcel and honestly the girls looked an inch away from death when vaulting or tumbling - it was just terrifying to watch. My daughter doesn’t like laid back atmospheres either, she likes structure and routine, even though compulsory wasn’t the most fun ride for her and her beam skills where level 2 where her bar skills were level 7 so there’s been some downfall there

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My dd has been in the JO (developmental) program since the beginning. She is one of the (increasingly rare it feels) ones that has gone from preteam to training level 10 at the same gym and without skipping or repeating a level, with the exception of level 6. Slow and steady progress has worked well for her. She started preteam at 5, level 2 at 6 and so on and is now training for level 10 at 13. We didn't have xcel at our gym when she started, but we do have it now. Her gym uses it as a lower hours alternative. They are successful, but my daughter is wanting to compete in college, so JO it is.

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My DD started in JO repeated what is now level 4 (with the change in the numbering she actually went 4-5-4-5). Did one year of 6, a year of 7, a year of 7/8 (did a few 8 meets but competed state and regionals as a 7), a year of 8 and then transitioned to Diamond for her last two years. If asked she would tell you that 6 and Diamond were her favorites! She is off to college now and will compete in track and field - doing Diamond those last two years gave her time to find out she was actually better at another sport!

Reply 7 Likes

DD chose developmental mainly because she actually loves structure and the hours. Not sure if she’ll switch over later. She went through a lull at level 4 last year but finished strong and is now training 5/6 and loving it because she’s getting to train lots of new skills.

Reply 1 Like