At What Age Do (Should) Gymnasts Peak? A Controversial Topic

One thing I think COVID has brought for the better in the gymnastics community is an increased focus on change. Change at all levels, stemming from abuse stories, injury and scientific advancement. Having no competitions for a year, I personally was able to take the time to reflect on what is important to me, and what kind of coach I want to be. One thing that I spent lots of time thinking about was the peaking age of gymnasts. Having taken a kinesiology degree at the University of Calgary, I was able to learn a lot about different sports, their physiological needs and LTAD (long term athlete development) timeline. This got me thinking that perhaps we can adjust our gymnastics training system to reduce injury, increase longevity and alter the typical gymnast’s ‘peak’ age.

Background

Up until the 1970s, gymnasts on the Olympic stage were largely adult women. For example, Vera Caslavska was twenty-two when she won her first all-around gold medal at the 1964 Olympics, and twenty-six when she was able to repeat as Olympic all-around champion at the 1968 Games. Compare this to Olga Korbut, the darling gymnast who took the gymnastics world by storm at the 1972 Olympics at age 17, where she won three gold medals. Then, we had Nadia Comaneci, who got the first ever perfect 10 when she was just 14 at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Though it did not happen overnight, by the time Nadia won her medal in the 1970s, young gymnasts with pixie haircuts had taken over the sport. The trend of having younger athlete on teams stayed fairly consistent throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, though there are some exceptions. For example, Svetlana Khorkina competed at 3 Olympic Games in her career (1996, 2000 and 2004). However, it is important to note that she was the exception rather than the norm. Since the mid 2000s, we have seen an increasing amount of older gymnasts remain in the sport at the elite level, suggesting that perhaps the trend is beginning to reverse itself. There are increasing amounts of gymnasts reaching their peak abilities later in their careers- Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Ksenia Afanaseyva, etc. At the JO level however, it still seems that there is this belief that gymnasts peak anywhere from ages 14-18. With the elite success we see from older gymnasts, we must then question as to why in our culture it is still largely engrained that girls must learn skills as fast as possible, before they hit puberty.

Is it a biological advantage to teach skills when they are smaller?

If you came here looking for a concrete answer, unfortunately I do not have one for you. Younger gymnasts are easier to spot, there is no doubt about it. However, I would argue that that requiring gymnasts be taught skills pre-puberty is flawed. The first issue: as we’ve seen with gymnasts who hit growth spurts, sometimes they CAN’T do skills after they’ve hit puberty. For example, a common bars skill I find to be more prevalent in junior or early years of senior competition are piked inbars (piked stalders). In some gymnasts, they may experience growth spurts in puberty in which their body composition changes, and is no longer suitable for these types of skills- whether that be because of limb length, hip/hamstring flexibility, etc. For a skill that put immense pressure on the back as the gymnast gets older and flexibility decreases, the decision is often made to opt for a different bars skill. I wonder what the point of focusing lots of time and energy on it in the younger years when it may not have a good trade-off value in terms of future use. I have lots of thoughts in terms of relying too much on flexibility and not working the end range strength enough to be able to complete skills in a post-pubertal body, but that is a lengthy discourse for a different time. While I do believe we need to equip gymnasts with a solid skill base that will serve them will in the future, I also believe that no time really is “wasted time” working on physical preparation and trying new skills, as long as gymnasts are physically and mentally ready. The pros and cons must then be weighed to see if there really is significant benefit in pushing for maximum acquirement of skills pre-puberty. After all, it’s basically like doing the skill in a whole different body anyways, so is it really necessary to teach them everything before age 12?

Wear and tear on the body

This is perhaps what I have a greater issue with in terms of kids training hours upon hours when they’re still in elementary school. As I’ve stated in previous articles, peak bone mineral density (BMD) doesn’t occur until well past puberty, and usually occurs in females in their early to mid twenties. Bone remodelling is rampant in females pre-puberty, reaching a peak remodelling rate from 11-14, and then reaching a plateau around age 16. This plateau indicates that the majority of bone content, size and mass has been attained, with slow remodelling occurring until peak BMD has been achieved. In girls ages 10-12, forearm fractures peak due the rapid remodelling rate of the skeletal structure, which lags behind height and weight changes that come with puberty. This study also suggests that bone size increases prior to BMD and BMC (bone mass content), which in layman’s terms means that the bone grows faster in size than in strength, and most likely contributes to an increase risk in fractures in early puberty. So what does this mean? Children’s bones are pliable- they easily move and therefore, are easier to break. This is because a child’s body grows in height and weight faster than their skeletal structure can keep up with. A child has open growth plates and their bones are constant remodelling, so putting excessive force on the joints in big tumbles such as full ins or double layouts is potentially too much for their bones to bear. Not only do they not have the skeletal structure necessary, but in this seven year longitudinal study, it was discovered that bone development precedes muscle development, further increasing the risk of fractures. Though these findings would make sense, it is important to note that muscle versus bone growth rate is controversial and needs more research before a more definite conclusion is reached. When we consider all the above factors, it should really be no surprise that we see so many fractures in gymnasts. I don’t think there is anything wrong with learning big skills on the tumble track at a relatively young age and doing trampoline work, but I do believe we must begin to stray away from the idea that young gymnasts need so many numbers and hours on hard surfaces, and that they must compete these skills pre-puberty.

The culture of NCAA recruiting

I believe that a huge reason we still deal with so many injuries in pre-teen and teen gymnasts is because of the pressures of college recruiting. Up until May 1st 2019, schools were able to speak with gymnasts and give unofficial visits. This resulted in gymnasts committing to schools in the EIGHT grade. Personally, I wanted to go to Harvard and go to law school in grade 8 ( a FAR cry from what I’m doing now). I find it young to pick a school you won’t attend for another 5-6 years, and I think it leads to a pressure to perform top skills to secure a scholarship spot early, before they are all gone.The new rules that came into effect in 2019 now make it so coaches are not able to contact gymnasts until June 15th of their sophomore year of high school. I hope as the years go on and future classes of top schools don’t have any prior verbal commits from previous years leading up to the rule change, that gymnasts and coaches will feel less pressure to bust out the top skills at early ages and follow a more gradual pacing timeline.

The effect of club gymnastics culture limiting adult participation in the sport

If you’ve been to any gym club during competitive training hours, you will most likely see the room dominated with younger girls, and then typically a group of older teenage athletes. What you don’t see (at least in Canada), are hardly any adults training.

I think a large reason that we push girls so young to compete such high-level skills, is because we see their path in club as being from the age they start at the gym, to 18. It is not the norm to train girls after age 18, unless they are elites and their Olympic year falls when they are 18/19. I remember going on Twitter this year, and there was controversy that girls whose collegiate teams opted to not compete this year went and competed at JO 10 regionals and nationals. Some complained that it “wasn’t fair”, because they were “taking spots away from girls who were trying to be recruited by colleges”. While I can understand the sentiment, gymnastics is a competitive sport. If a gymnast is able to compete at a level 10 level, why should she be restricted from attending JO Nationals just because she’s an adult?

On the other end of the spectrum, a personal friend of mine competed JO 6 last season in Canada after a decade of not competing. After playing around at open gym over the past few years, she wanted to be able to do competitive gymnastics again. In our province, there were currently NO adult meets (other than fun ones) and no adult competitive teams. Sadly, she was not met with enthusiasm by several members of the gymnastics community. I heard grumblings that she was “too old” and that it “wasn’t fair” that she was competing against girls 5-10 years younger than her.

Though only one person’s story, I think this anecdote is indicative of a greater cultural issue in women’s gymnastics. Once gymnasts turn 18, they are expected to move onto other things- college gymnastics, university, etc. Making the gym not inclusive to older athletes makes them not want to stick around- it makes them think that their time is done, that they’re too old, too broken, and that there’s no point to continue training if they aren’t elite. If we want to consider an older peaking age in gymnasts, we must also culturally shift from thinking the sport is only for little girls to a sport for grown women, and make it an inclusive environment for athletes of all ages.

Is it *physically* feasible to hit peak ability later in life?

Perhaps if we were more inclined to believe that women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) is a sport that spans into adulthood, longevity would increase and we would begin to see older gymnasts hitting peak ability later in life. Trampoline and Tumbling seems to have made this work (see Rosie MacLennan who has been around for the better part of a decade and has two Olympic Gold medals), and while they are two different sports, I think we could learn a thing or two from the cultural mindset. I understand it is more feasible for trampoline and tumbling athletes to continue their careers into adulthood because the reduced training hours allows them to also be able to have a job, but this is EXACTLY the point I am trying to make. Is it possible for WAG to have older athletes training lower hours while still maintaining competitive routines? We won’t know until we try. I do believe that another issue that complicates artistic gymnastics is that the ultimate goal for many gymnasts is college gymnastics, which they go to at age 17/18. That being said, I do believe there is room to grow, even if simply leads to healthier gymnasts in their teens years, and not to older Olympians.

Proof that gymnastics can still be done at an older age, we are starting to see older athletes hit their peak ability well past their teen years. Becky Downie from Great Britain is a great example of this. She has been competing at the senior level since 2008, and did not win her first World Championships medal until 2015, a team bronze, at age 23. She did not win her first individual world medal, a silver on the bars, until 2019 at age 27.

Where do we go from here?

Evidently, even if it is not currently the norm, it IS possible to hit peak ability at older ages. More research needs to be done on biological effects of competing in gymnastics later in life, and the skill development timeline that would be most advantageous to prolonging the careers of athletes. The unfortunate reality of the situation, is that we will not have more athletes with increased longevity until the predominant gymnastics training system changes. In order to effect change, there will be mistakes made along the way, which I strongly believe is why sport takes time to see large scale change. I think that we are on the right track with an increased emphasis on strength and conditioning, along with athlete well-being emerging as more important priorities in gymnastics. Therefore, I do believe we CAN see the sport increasingly change and adapt, whether that leads to older athletes at the elite level or healthier athletes at the college level.

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