Something I’ve really thought about over the past few years is how many hours gymnasts should train. Or better yet, how many hours gymnasts should be in the gym, and what the time in the gym should look like.
The first time I remember actively thinking about this topic was in 2009. The new TV show Make It or Break It had just come out. Unfortunately at this point in my life, my family did not have cable. So, I would spend hours on the family computer looking up YouTube videos to see if I could locate any clips from the show. In the rabbit hole that is the YouTube suggested videos, I stumbled upon old US Nationals broadcasts. During one of the broadcasts, I remember it was mentioned that Nastia Liukin trained 30+ hours per week, while her teammate Shawn Johnson only trained around 20-25.
As I reflect back on this time it gets me thinking- both of these gymnasts took turns being the top 2 Americans between 2006 and 2008, with completely different training regimens. Nastia had a history of being more injury plagued, while Shawn remained relatively healthy through to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This could be for a variety of different reasons but got me thinking- for most athletes, what is the optimal amount of training for developing high performing athletes, while also minimizing risk for acute and overuse injury?
Sport specialization: what the research says
Gymnastics is a sport that has historically seen gymnasts specialize at an early in their career due to the fact that so many hours of training are required at a young age. Training 16+ hours in the gym in primary or elementary school usually leaves little time for other sports or activities. Currently, the consensus in the sport science community is that early specialization is not ideal for two reasons: athlete burnout and injuries. Not only burnout and injury, but there are other repercussions for specializing in a sport young, especially gymnastics. This 2019 study found that gymnasts who specialized showed decrease manipulative skills over their peers who were involved in multiple sport programs. Manipulative skills include passing, throwing and catching objects. We all know that there is a running joke that gymnasts can flip on a 10cm wide beam but can’t throw a ball, but maybe this isn’t something to joke about? We have to wonder if maybe we are setting up children to be, to a degree, physically illiterate. This could have potential negative effects for their life such as eliminating the option to excel in gym class, or partake in activity as adults.
There is evidence that sport sampling (trying lots of different sports) at an early age is beneficial for kids. For example, this 2009 study found that children who experienced multiple sports at a young age instead of specializing were more likely to be active as adults, had lower levels of athletic injuries, and scored more favourably on outcome measures such as grade point averages . Seeing as overuse injuries are most commonly associated with repetitive motions, it is not a shock that experiencing a variety of movement patterns that different sports bring would decrease injury. Knowing this information, we must then answer this question: what is the goal for the kids we are coaching? This
may, should, be different for evert child. However, it is important we consider that very few gymnasts will ever compete at the level 10 or elite level, and they certainly will NOT if they quit gymnastics by age 12. Instead of making them choose gymnastics over other sports at age 8, maybe we should make it so that doing other sports simultaneously is an option. Without a doubt, specializing in the later teen years is mandatory to compete at the elite level. But perhaps with peaking kids later, along with lowering the hours at the younger levels would have it so kids are a), less injured and b), more inclined to remain in the sport- which is what we want at the end of the day, isn’t it?
If sport specialization at at young age is bad why do we still do it?
Though the research states that sport specialization is not good in terms of injury and athlete burnout, lots of gymnastics coaches (previously, even myself) do believe that girls need to start the sport very young. While I agree that an early start in gymnastics is an asset, that doesn’t mean a seven year old needs to train 20 hours per week. In fact, I was watching NCAA this weekend and the commentator of the Auburn/LSU meet said that Auburn gymnast Piper Smith started gymnastics at age 10. One might argue that we don’t see lots of top level gymnasts who started gymnastics at a later age, and therefore you do need to start gymnastics early on. However, I would argue that this might be partially due to a cultural issue. I know plenty of gyms who will not accept older kids into their competitive programs if they are starting gymnastics later, or will put them into a different “stream” (ie: Xcel). It may be that lots of talented kids have gotten turned away for simply not meeting the “mold” of starting gymnastics at age 5. This is entirely speculation on my end but I think it would be interesting to investigate in the future.
Attention limits of children in relation to sport
The first thing we need to consider whilst planning training sessions that lots of us currently do not, (myself included, up until recently), is the attention span that a child has. According to Brain Balance Centers, children usually can focus well for 2-3 minutes per year of their age. For example, if we go with 3 minutes, this means that a ten year old can focus for a maximum of thirty minutes before needing to switch tasks. In most competitive gyms I know or have been to myself, practices for children 7 and up are around 4 hours long, with 45 minute-1 hour rotations.
Theoretically speaking then, a 10 year old child has enough focus for 30 minutes for a rotation. This means that our 45 minute-1 hour rotations are not nearly as beneficial as they potentially could be. My suggestion would be to do one of two things: firstly. adjust the schedule so that an event is scheduled twice in a practice- two, thirty minute chunks instead of an hour long rotation. The other option would be to shorten practices by a bit so that the entire time in the gym is more productive. This is the option I would lean towards, especially with younger kids. Why spend 20 hours a week training if only 12 of them are productive? In speaking of productivity I don’t mean eliminating the social aspect or just simply working in the gym the entire time. I am talking about eliminating the unfocused, half-effort turns, the wasted time in the latter half of the rotation because the girls are too tired to get on the bar to take another turn, etc. I believe just being in the gym for the amount of time the child can focus would not only maximize performance, but also give them time to do other activities if they so choose. There are some exceptions, but I do believe that in practice there can be lots of time wasted on an event simply because the kids hit their max attention span (not to mention fatigue threshold) around the thirty minute mark.
So- what should we be doing?
With the ever changing research that is coming out about sport (specifically, gymnastics), the overwhelming consensus is that more hours is not necessarily better. Why is it so hard of us to let go of this notion then? Because no coach or athlete wants to believe that they didn’t reach their goals because they didn’t put enough time or effort in, and to be honest, gymnastics is still one of the sports that requires the most hours in the gym- I will not argue with that. The question then becomes, what is the optimal amount of hours for girls to train that maximizes improvement and progress while also reducing the risk of injury?
As stated above, I think time on each event should be roughly limited to the age of the child times three. While that is simply the average of an attention span and not the upper limit, I think it would be a good rough guideline to follow. While this can be difficult as gymnastics is not separated by age, but rather by skill level, I think the smart choice would be to take roughly the average age of the group and use that as the multiplied number. Ie: you have a group of 7/8 year olds, you schedule around 30 minutes on an event (3×8= 24 and then a buffer five minutes to set up equipment/get going).
All things considered, the research in relation to how much we should train and what that should look like is lacking. The reality is, I don’t have an answer on how many hours per week different levels should train. In doing research for this article, I found lots of opinions on the matter but none that had any scientific backing. However, Dave Tilley from Shift Movement Science has begun researching how to quantify load in gymnastics, and I think this is the key to optimizing gymnastics training. Once we can quantify load (ie: how much stress 10 double backs or 10 back walkovers is on the body), it will be easier to decide how much and how often we should train on the events, how long we should spend on weightlifting/conditioning, how much accessory work we need, and how much rest we need between sessions.
Why implementing less training hours is complicated- NCAA
If you’ve been a member of the gymnastics community for long enough, you know that other than the Olympic Games, most gymnasts’ ultimate goal is to attain a college scholarship. With early recruiting still being a problem, we’ve seen girls as young as 13, predominantly top elites, verbally commit to the top schools. It is important to note however that per the NCAA website, new rules state that gymnasts are not to communicate with coaches until June 15th of their sophomore year. Hopefully this will help prevent early recruiting going forward. I do fully believe however, that most top programs have/will try to get around these rules, and that more steps will need to be taken by the NCAA to eliminate early recruiting going forward.
Even with the rule change, coaches have their eye on gymnasts very early on. This early recruiting causes a mad dash for gymnasts to get as many skills as possible, mostly in ages 11-14, for fear that if you leave it any later there won’t be a scholarship spots left. This leads to increased training hours and a push (whether that be from the coach, gymnast, parents or all three) to get new, high level skills that are desirable in collegiate gymnastics. In female gymnasts, their BMD is growing at it’s most rapid rate from ages 11-14 (we talked about this a little more in last week’s article which you can find here). During this age, gymnasts are therefore most susceptible to injury. It is hard to balance as a coach, because it is a delicate balance between helping the gymnast realize her dreams and keeping her healthy, and sometimes, it seems nearly possible do both.
It is also important to consider the greater picture when we think of hours and college gymnastics. By the time junior elites get to college, they are often injury plagued and either hardly compete or have to medically retire. For example, take Jazmyn Foberg, a senior on the Florida Gators gymnastics team- a 2014 US Junior National Champion, Jazzy was, and still is amazing, but injuries she brought with her to college from her elite career have left her only having competed a full college season in 2018.
At the end of the day, I think most of us are having young kids train too much. I have personally found in prior years where I have coached younger athletes (and even some older ones), that a four hour practice is too long in terms of both physical and mental fatigue, and that kids burnout when faced with high volumes of training at a young age. In line with research, I think we need to consider the effects of sport specialization, burnout and injuries when designing our training plans and schedules. Other factors that also need to be considered are time to fatigue, preventing injury and keeping the kids engaged while maintaining enough repetition to be successful in competition. Overall, training hours in gymnastics need to be more researched. Until we have a better idea of what load skills pose on the body, all we can do is remember that we are first and foremost coaching people, and that everything we do should be in their best interest at a personal level, followed by how it affects their gymnastics, not the other way around.