Compulsory Versus Optional Gymnastics
Gymnastics is a very popular sport for children and young adults. Unlike other sports that can be played on through adulthood (at least part of it), gymnasts are pretty much done by their early 20's. Their bodies just can't take all of that pounding for very long. But yet every year, more and more kids (boys and girls alike) flock to gymnastics. I have also noticed that more and more kids are in competitive gymnastics and not just doing it for fun anymore. You can probably credit the cute Olympic gymnasts for that.
There are varying degrees of competitive gymnastics that typically include both compulsory gymnastics and optional gymnastics. Compulsory gymnastics are the beginning levels - 1-6 typically. At each level there are certain skills a gymnast must know before moving up to the next level. If competing, there are specific routines that must be performed by every gymnast at that level. These routines are judged down to the exact position of the fingers on each hand.
As a gymnast the compulsory levels are the building blocks and foundation for the optional gymnastics that will come as they advance. Judging is easier at these levels for the judges because they look for the same things in each gymnast. Competing is harder at these levels because of all the specifics involved in getting the routine right. Most gyms only compete levels 4-6, with level 4 being more of an introduction into competing. There are states and gyms that compete right from level 1 and many more that start competing at level 3. Gymnastics seems to take a more serious turn starting at level 5 as the competition, skills and time commitment really ramp up.
Optional gymnastics typically start at level 7 and go through level 10. Not many gymnasts reach level 10. Last year in the entire state of Ohio there were only fifty level 10 gymnasts. When competing optional gymnastics a gymnast can make up their own routines. There are still specific skills that need to be performed, but they are in categories (A, B, C, D or E). A gymnast must perform a set number of skills from these categories (depending on their level), but they can choose exactly what they do rather than being told what to do. For example, there needs to be a flight series on the beam, but a gymnast can typically choose what skills they want in their routines - for instance a round off or a back handspring.
Optional gymnastics, while requiring more and more difficult skills, is sometimes easier for the gymnast because they can pick and choose skills that they are best at. A gymnast can choreograph their routine to include only those skills and moves that they can do very well. Optional gymnastics is harder for the judges to judge because all of the routines are different. A judge can't be sure which way the hand was supposed to go in that dance move, for example, so if you point it out rather than in, they won't know the difference.
Some states have tried to find ways around the compulsory gymnastics by starting Prep Optional programs after level 4. Gymnasts can tend to get bogged down in compulsories if a gym requires a high All Around score to advance levels and this can lead to burnout and ultimately leaving the sport. To prevent this, some gyms start optional gymnastics at what would have been level 5. For older girls who won't have the time in their careers to advance very far and would like to compete on their high school teams, Prep Optional gymnastics is a great alternative. Prep Optional gymnastics is not nearly as competitive as the compulsory levels and higher optional levels and is an option for the less serious gymnast as well.
Gymnastics is an incredible sport that requires a great amount of strength and flexibility, as well as commitment and dedication in order to excel. Regardless of ability or level the gymnast is competing, gymnastics is good for a child, not just physically, but mentally as well.