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Posted in: General

A coaching conundrum in gymnastics

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  • Blake

    I had an interesting conversation with one of the break-out session presenters during the recent Open University Annual Sport and Fitness Conference, delving into the topic of early specialisation sports.

    She claimed it was a fallacy that early specialisation in gymnastics was necessary for athletes to achieve elite status and bemoaned the fact there were not enough coaches in the sport with the confidence and competence to develop adult gymnasts.

    A study conducted by the Institute of Youth Sport for British Gymnastics showed that young recreational gymnasts left the sport at an average age of 9. But at elite level too, there has traditionally been a sharp drop-off in those competing beyond their teens and early 20s.

    The average age of female gymnasts in London 2012 was 18, the lowest of all the 32 sports that featured in the Olympic Games.

    Is average age of Olympians a good estimate for peak-performance age of a sport?

    Sports scientist at the University of Gothenburg, and former Swiss international gymnast, Natalie Barker-Ruchti is a firm believer that older gymnasts can be just as successful at major international level and has published multiple research projects showing that ‘transitioning through puberty allowed the gymnasts to extend their careers’ and that support from their coaches was a crucial factor.

    Are there too many children’s coaches in gymnastics who are ill-equipped to coach gymnasts through the transition from adolescence into adulthood? I am not qualified to say, but I listened with interest to the debate that spread around our table.

    If coaches don’t possess the psychosocial skill-set required to coach adults, or possibly the inclination, this could not only affect retention rates and athlete development but also have a knock-on effect in terms of the number of qualified coaches making the step up to elite level.

    And if the careers of elite gymnasts can be prolonged, as evidence suggests, and age is not the barrier to winning medals that it was once thought to be, could (or should) gymnastics’ classification as an early specialisation sport be about to change some time in the near future?

    Lots to ponder.

  • Blake

    You may be interested in my ConnectedCoaches blog: The difference between coaching children and adults

  • mpieri

    As a parent of a gymnast (and coach for a different sport) what we’ve seen is the commitment required to the sport to transition from 9 to 11 years and into secondary education is part of the conundrum. 

    We have seen all of my son’s squad give up as they hit puberty, discovered football or other sports, and / or have had below par performances in the sport due to the introduction of harder new routines. (We attended regionals competing with 35 gymnasts one year and 7 the next due to the introduction of new routines.)

    The sport still needs a support network for parents and students to be able to understand how to make the secondary school transition.

    Coaching in my own sport, and noting other sports too, I can also see this is a widespread issue. How to retain and support students when they go through these changes is an issue.

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