Written by: Coach Kelley
Gymnastics is one of the most physically demanding sports out there. To achieve success, an athlete must spend countless hours perfecting their craft, often sacrificing all other extracurricular activities. The common belief is that gymnasts must “specialize” in their sport at an early age, otherwise they miss their window of opportunity. So where does that leave athletes who want to explore other sports? Is there even time to cross train? Can their bodies handle it?
When I was a gymnast, you had to turn out the lights to get me out of the gym. There was no place I’d rather be. At track practice, I was always turning cartwheels and flipping back handsprings. That’s right, I also ran track. My family was a multi-sport family and I found myself on competitive teams in both sports by the age of nine - winning several state titles in each sport. Gymnastics eventually ruled in high school once I realized the growth spurt other runners my age had already experienced was not heading my way any time soon. So, did one sport help the other? Was I a better vaulter because of being a sprinter, or was I a better long jumper because I was a powerful tumbler?
Experts agree, children should become physically active early, but should they specialize in one sport? Studies show sport specialization can possibly lead to overuse injuries and burnout. Because gymnastics is a year round sport, I definitely looked forward to breathing in the fresh air at spring track practice. Trading the chalk dust for the sand pit. Many of my classmates participated in track, and it was simply a nice change of pace mentally and physically. Yes, I often had practice in both sports on the same day, but those few months of track provided my mind a chance to focus on winning events because I was the fastest runner or longest jumper. Gymnastics helped me bring a sense of focus and discipline to track.
Gymnastics is often practiced at a private club, rather than at school, like most sports. Encouraging young gymnasts to diversify can also help them become more involved with their peers outside of the gym and feel like part of their local community. There is no off season in gymnastics. The sport is unique in that it demands an incredible amount of time and repetition to see progress. As coaches, perhaps we could think outside the box as far as training after competition season. Implementing shorter practices that focus on skill acquisition, as well as utilizing the latest science for strength and flexibility, could also help the gymnast find time to participate in other activities.
Gymnastics is a sport like no other. It stays in your blood, sweat, and bones long after landing that final dismount. At the end of the day, the goal is to develop well rounded humans who are able to continue physical activity throughout their lifetime. So next time your gymnast shows up to practice juggling a soccer ball, check and see if their run has improved on vault.