Gymnastics: Tips for Parents and Kids
We were once very involved with gymnastics. Two of my daughters took gymnastics classes, but the older one didn’t stick with it for very long. My youngest daughter, Melissa, did stick with the sport, however, and she competed successfully as a member of a team. As an adult, she did gymnastics coaching, too. If you and your children are interested in this sport, there’s a lot you need to know before getting involved. It’s a great sport, but it requires a lot of hard work and commitment if you want to excel and compete. If you’re thinking about gymnastics lessons for your kids just in order for some fun and exercise, that’s one thing. But getting good and winning competitions is another thing entirely. Even if your goal is just for your child to have fun, you never know when she might develop a passion for the sport, so you need to know what might be in store for you, as a parent, in such a case. My granddaughter, Brooklynn, is taking classes now, so I’m resurrecting my interest in the sport. By the way, she’s the daughter of my gymnast daughter. To learn more about gymnastics, you can read about our experiences.
In this article, I’m focusing on girls gymnastics. To be honest, I don’t know much about boys gymnastics. I don’t have sons, and my grandsons have not shown any interest in the sport so far, devoting most of their sports time to football, basketball, and baseball. I am well acquainted, however, with girls gymnastics, especially for kids.
Girls gymnastics includes four events: balance beam, uneven bars, floor exercise, and vault. The balance beam is a long piece of wood that’s covered in a suede or leather-like material. The beam is narrow. Beginners often learn on a lowered beam at first. As they get more used to performing on the beam, it’s raised. Beam performances usually include a turn, acrobatics, a leap or jump, and the dismount.
The uneven bars are just what they sound like – two bars, close together, at different levels. The tall bar is just over eight feet tall, and the lower bar is 5.6 feet off the floor. A young or inexperienced gymnast usually learns first on lowered bars, and sometimes on a single bar. A bars routine includes flying from one bar to the other, flying on the same bar, different grips, turns, and the dismount.
Floor exercises are usually done on a spring floor that measures 39 feet by 39 feet. If a gymnast steps out of bounds, points are deducted from her score. She’s also expected, however, to make use of the entire floor during a routine. The routines are done to music and are a combination of dance and acrobatics. They might include tumbling, dancing, leaps, somersaults, and a dismount.
The vault involves a runway, a springboard, a vaulting table, and a landing area. The gymnast runs down the runway, jumps onto the springboard, lands on the table with her hands, and pushes off the vaulting table with her hands for the after-flight. During the after-flight, different actions are performed, based on the level of difficulty.
Melissa’s best event was the uneven bars. It was a real joy to watch here perform there, although it was always a little scary for me to watch. I was always worried she’s go flying off into space. She was also very good on beam, and she was pretty good with her floor routines. Vault was her least favorite event, and she was never great at it, either.
Gymnastics Floor Exercise:
I’ll share with you how we got involved with gymnastics. Melissa had always been interested in the sport, but I knew little about it. When a one-time introductory class was offered in our town, I took Melissa and her older sister, Shannon. A locally famous gymnastics coach from a nearby town was holding the event to scout for new talent.
Coach K watched all the girls perform a range of tasks, and he was impressed with Melissa’s strength, agility, and athletic ability. He offered her a scholarship to his regular program in another town, and we accepted it. The town was twenty miles away, so I wasn’t looking forward to making that drive every week. Thankfully, he opened a new gym in my town, so we were all set.
Shannon wasn’t offered a scholarship, but she wanted to take lessons, too, so I paid for her gymnastics classes. In some ways, Shannon was more athletic than Melissa. She’s always been taller, with long arms and legs. She was also slim. Shannon later became involved with cross-country running. Melissa wasn’t overweight, but she was more muscular than Shannon, and she was shorter and more compact. It’s like when Shan was doing gymnastics, she didn’t quite know what to do with those gangling arms and legs. Melissa didn’t have that problem. She had always been a little powerhouse, and she was extremely tough and determined, too.
At first, classes were just once a week. They always started with warm-ups and exercising. Shannon hated this “work” part, but Mel enjoyed it. She always wanted to get to class early so she could do more. shan, on the other hand, always begged to be late so she could avoid the preliminary work. Obviously, Shannon wasn’t nearly as committed as Melissa was, and it wasn’t long before she wanted to quit taking gymnastics. We allowed her to quit, and we bought her a horse. She replaced gymnastics with horseback riding and was much happier. Mel loved horses, too, but she wanted to stick with gymnastics.
As Mel progressed, she was asked to join the team, and she readily accepted. Her lessons went from once a week to six days a week. Sometimes, especially right before a competition, Sunday afternoon sessions were required, too. Also, in the summers, there were camps that required Mel to spend several nights at a time.
If you’re going to be involved with gymnastics, you shouldn’t look for lessons and classes only for their convenience or cost. Gymnastics coaching is very important, too. You’ll want to do some research on different coaches before signing up with one. What sort of training do they have? How successful have their teams been? Have they coached any outstanding gymnasts?
All this is important, but you also need to think of gymnastics coaching as teaching. When you were in school, you probably had some super intelligent, knowledgeable teachers who knew their subject matter backward and forward, yet they were lousy at sharing the information. The same goes for gymnastics coaches. Some excellent coaches don’t work well with beginners, while some coaches who are great with beginners aren’t so great with advanced gymnastics classes. Most gyms realize this and provide different coaches for different age levels and skill levels.
You might also want to take your child’s personality and learning style into account. If your daughter is timid or shy, she probably won’t do well with a tough, in-your-face coach – at least, not at first. A beginner can get turned off to the sport pretty quickly with such a coach. Once a young gymnast gets a handle on the basics and gains some confidence, you might want to move on to a more demanding coach. Of course, if your child is in gymnastics just for fun, you might prefer to remain with a fun, easy going coach. If she’s in it to be a competitor, however, sooner or later she’ll probably need gymnastics coaching that’s strict, precise, and demanding.
One of the first things you’ll need to purchase is a couple of gymnastics leotards. In most cases, until you get on a gymnastics team, you choose your own leotard and pay for it yourself. Many gyms sell leotards, by the way, even for gymnasts who aren’t on team. You can also find leotards for gymnastics at lots of other places.
One of the most important aspects of choosing gymnastics leotards is fit. One should be snug enough not to bag or sag, but it should be large enough to allow complete freedom of movement. Be sure to check the openings of the arms and legs for proper fit. If the straps on the shoulders are dangling or loose, they’ll get in the way. If the arm and leg openings are too small, they can “cut into” the appendages of the gymnast and cause chafing.
Gymnastics leotards come in a wide range of styles. Some are long sleeve, some have three-quarter sleeves, some are sleeveless, and some have tanktop-like shoulder straps. The neckline and back can be of different designs, too. As for fabrics, you’ll have a choice of spandex, cotton, nylon, and velvet. Many leotards are made from a combination of different fabrics, like a nylon leotard with a cotton liner.
When it comes to colors, you can find practically any hue you can imagine. Leotards come in solid colors, prints, stripes, and with a variety of motifs. Some are embellished with glitter or genuine Swarovski stones. Of course, these usually cost more. If your child is new to gymnastics, you might want to start with a couple of cheap gymnastics leotards. That way, if she doesn’t continue with the sport, you won’t have wasted a lot of money. You can usually find used gymnastics leotards on Ebay. Kids outgrow clothing quickly, so some of the used gymnastics leotards are practically like new.
Having a daughter on a competitive gymnastics team was exhilarating, exciting, tiring, expensive, and exhausting. Of course, there are the daily lessons and practice sessions, which can add up and be pretty costly. A team gymnast has to have a team leotard, too. Oftentimes, more than one gymnastics leotards are required for team competitions.
We live in a fairly small town in Georgia, and most of the gymnastics competitions we attended were out of town. In fact, most were almost 200 hundred miles away, in the Atlanta Metro area. On top of that, the competitions were two-day events, so we had to spend at least two nights in a hotel. Of course, we had to eat, too. Combine all these travel expenses and you’ll see why being part of a gymnastics team can run into some serious money, not to mention all the time you’re investing.
Melissa had a good friend on the team, too, so they’d travel together occasionally. But I wanted to attend the meets and watch my daughter perform. My heart always swelled when she did a good job and was awarded a medal. And, by the way, she won lots of medals, trophies, and plaques. Most of the competitions were gala affairs, with a lot of pomp and pageantry. The different teams would usually parade around the floor in the opening ceremonies, and the crowds were often huge. I would have been very proud of Mel even if she’d never won anything. I think it takes a lot of guts for a kid to perform in front of an audience made up mostly of strangers!
Sports injuries are part of many sports, and gymnastics is no exception. Even though it’s not a rough-and-tumble contact sport like American football, there are plenty of opportunities for gymnastics injuries. Regardless of what some people might think, this sport is demanding on the body. We’ve endured a few injuries, although none of them were very serious, thankfully.
Because Melissa spent so much time practicing on the uneven bars, she occasionally had sprained wrists. She also sprained a wrist once while doing back handsprings on a Florida beach. Once in a while, she’d get shin splits, too. The scariest of all her gymnastics injuries, as far as I’m concerned, happened at practice one day, while I was watching. She was practicing standing back tucks, over and over. I was worried that she was getting too tired, and she was. She was determined to perfect her tuck, however, so she continued practicing long after she should have stopped. Finally, she landed on her face, and her nose began pouring blood. I rushed her to the restroom, and someone brought us some ice. Once the bleeding stopped, Melissa insisted on getting right back on the mat to practice more. Her nose wasn’t broken, but there was a lot of blood. I guess the injury looked a lot worse than it was.
Gymnastics involves a lot of demanding physical maneuvers that can lead to stressed and overworked muscles, joints, and ligaments. That can be expected from most sports. Then there are the injuries. Gymnastics injuries can include ligament tears and sprains, tendinitis, bone fractures, dislocated elbow, torn meniscus, separated shoulder, and shoulder lesions, along with damaged vertebrae and traumatic head injuries. In extremely rare cases, a gymnast might become permanently paralyzed.
I’m not trying to scare you with all these sports injuries – I just want you to be aware of the potential for gymnastics injuries. Reputable gyms go to extreme lengths to ensure the safety of their gymnasts. Most use the latest equipment and safety features, along with teaching proper techniques and making use of spotters. Unless your child lives in a bubble, she’s going to be faced with dangers. That’s just part of life. Actually, gyms are probably safer than many playgrounds, as long as safety precautions are taken.
There are never any 100% guarantees that sports injuries won’t occur, but there are steps you can take as a parent to decrease the chances. First of all, make sure the coaching staff is experienced and properly trained. They also need to be certified in CPR and first aid. Take a look around the gym and check the equipment yourself. Old, outdated equipment should send up a red flag. Sooner or later, your child is probably going to want to try some stunts at home. That could be dangerous. Most gymnastics feats should only be done on proper surfaces. Even at the gym, where proper equipment and surfaces are provided, spotters should always be used when a gymnast is learning a new feat. Keeping in top physical condition and warming up properly prior to strenuous exercise like gymnastics will help reduce the likelihood of sprains and strains. Urge your child to use chalk when it’s available, as it provides a more secure grip. Using wraps can provide more support, too.
Tips for Parents
If you find you have a little gymnast on your hands, be prepared to get involved and be supportive with your time and your money. Being on a gymnastics team and competing usually isn’t cheap. I’ve already explained that, but there are other ways you can be supportive, too, other than being "the banker."
I’ve always been a “hands on” mom. When my girls were involved in something, I tried to be, too. I usually stayed to watch Mel at practice, and I attended every competition I could possibly attend. I think I missed only a couple. I tried to “be there” for Mel as much as I could, but I never tried to interfere in any way with the gymnastics coaching. I was no expert when it came to the sport.
That being said, I did try to learn as much as I could by reading, talking to the coaches, and watching gymnastics videos. This proved beneficial, as Mel often asked me to critique her. If you’re a parent, you know this can be a double-edged sword. I struggled with this at first. Should I be totally honest with her, or should I always tell her she’s doing great, even when she wasn’t? I knew some of the other moms were doing that – always telling their daughters the routines were perfect, when even I could see they weren’t. I noticed most of these girls didn’t improve.
Finally, I decided honesty would be best. I was always open and honest with Mel concerning her performance at practice sessions. Along with the criticism, I always included some praise, too. I found that doing so kept her encouraged and made the bad news easier to take. Sometimes Mel would get frustrated with my criticism, but in the end, she always appreciated my honest feedback. She knew that if I told her a routine was great, it most likely was.
Melissa took gymnastics and competed for four or five years. When she became a teenager, she traded in her gymnastics leotards for western riding boots. Yes, she joined her older sister in horseback riding. We bought several horses and moved to a mini farm. Her gymnastics training stayed with Mel, however. It helped her make the high school cheerleading squad. As a young adult, she was contacted by a gym to teach gymnastics classes, and she accepted the offer.
Tips for Gymnasts
If you want to excel at gymnastics, you need to be ready to make a firm commitment to the sport. I’m not saying it should come before everything else in your life, but it will take up a significant portion of your time and energy. If you’re not devoted to it and willing to put in the required work, there are other girls who are, and those are the ones who’ll probably best you at competitions.
Of course, you should attend all your lessons, but there are things you can do at home to make you a better gymnast. One is to eat a healthy diet that includes sufficient protein, calcium, vitamins, minerals, and water. You’ll need to stretch a lot, too. Increase your range of motion gradually, and practice holding the stretches for longer periods of time. Doing strength training at home will help your muscles get stronger. Pay special attention to areas that seem weak during practice. For example, you might need to improve your grip strength or your arm strength. An over-the-door pull-up bar is good for increasing strength in your hands and arms. Some specific feats are usually safe to practice at home, too, like cartwheels, somersaults, handstands, and splits. Using a spotter is a good idea for beginners, even for simple stunts.
An important element in becoming a great gymnast is balance. Obviously, the balance beam requires superior balance, but the other events require balance, too. You can practice balancing at home. One way is to use a piece of wood that’s the same width as a balance beam. It doesn’t have to be raised – it can rest right on the floor. You’ll still get to work on balancing, without having to worry about falling and possibly getting hurt. A four or five-inch fall isn’t likely to result in an injury.
Okay, this might sound silly to those of you who are new to gymnastics, but something Mel had to really practice at home was pointing her toes. She has low arches, so when she pointed her toes, they didn’t appear as “pointed” when compared to girls with higher arches. Her coach recommended this practice after Mel began competing. If you’re unsure about how to improve at home, talk to the gymnastics coaching staff. They’ll be able to offer some specific pointers that address your particular weaknesses and areas that need additional work.
Gymnastics isn’t for everyone. If your child is interested, let her give the sport a try. Even if she never joins a gymnastics team or competes, the time and money you put into the sport will be worth it. She’ll get stronger, more fit, and more confident, and she’ll probably make some new friends, too. At what age should you start? Different gyms and coaches have different age requirements, but most provide lessons starting at two or three years of age. My granddaughter just started, and she’s three. She loves it! If your daughter discovers that she doesn’t enjoy the sport, please don’t force her to continue. If she does enjoy it, and if she gets good at it, be prepared to “go the distance” with her. You never know…she might just be a future member of the U.S. gymnastics team!