All athletes begin their journey as a novice, the great ones usually with an abundance of drive to achieve and raw talent. With that said, we all go through different levels of motor skill ability at different points in our life influenced by our mental and physical maturity. For example, a teenager joining a track team for the first time can probably already run. But to become an efficient runner, they will need coaching to improve their technique. Whereas, an 8 month old child will need help developing even basic motor skills an adult would consider simple, like walking. To the beginner, tumbling skills that involve somersaults and cartwheels that will turn them upside down is fun, but presents a whole new level motor movement. We often see this ability gap in young children when they enter a gymnastics program. In this discussion, I will focus on the approach and training methods we use for the beginner gymnast and tumbler.
For each level of participation in our gymnastics and tumbling classes, we strictly follow a training schedule and format. For the beginning classes, the skills are very basic and much attention is spent on developing body shapes and awareness. The format we use for this level is entirely different from our preschool class program. It is at this level the instructors introduce the concept of gymnastics and tumbling that will hopefully get the student excited about moving forward in learning their basic skills. The environment should be extremely interactive, positive, and fun for the student, but not a playground atmosphere. The first class a student participates in will be, in many cases, the determining factor of whether the student will stay with the program. Classes should always be a positive and motivational experience leaving the student excited to come back.
We start our beginner classes with students at least 5 years old. We base this on maturity, not skill level. The curriculum and structure at this level is more advanced physically and emotionally than a typical preschooler would have. However, there are always exceptions where a 4-year-old is mature enough to handle this type of structure, especially if they have had been involved in a preschool gymnastics program previously.
The term “beginner” refers to those students who have very little or no experience with gymnastics or tumbling. When we question parents for placement in our program, we usually ask, “can your child do a cartwheel?”. This is a very fundamental skill and one that most children want to explore, so a good question for exploration. If the answer is “no”, the child will certainly start at a beginner level. However, there is always the parent who states one thing and the truth is something very different. We, like most gyms, always offer a free trial class. This is not only for us to evaluate the child, but also for the child to determine if the experience meets their expectations. Most importantly for the parent, will the activity be a positive learning environment for their child to succeed.
It is never a good idea for the coach or owner to allow a parent to determine where their child needs to be placed in a program. This is a common occurrence and needs to be addressed in a sensitive manner. One challenge, common in almost all programs, is having a beginner student that is much older than the other children in the class. The difference in the age generation often is uncomfortable for the younger ones in the class, as well as the older student. In some cases, this situation is not a concern and the class flow is normal, but in other cases I have seen, it is awkward and the older student phases out of the program quickly.
In gymnastics, as in all youth sports, the entry-level should be a priority initiative in order to retain students and grow the program. The beginner level of sports is the most important and delicate level to manage. This is the introduction to the sport establishing a foundation that may very well influence the child’s passion to make it a life time pursuit. We want to provide a great experience so the students will stay and progress within the gym. This is why the coaching staff at this level needs to be experience with not only skill development, but have a love, understanding, and patience of students in this age group. This is where trust is established between the student and coach and will set a precedence in the mind of the student moving forward. For this reason, the instructors need to be more interactive and hands-on at this level than any other. The students are not mature enough to train alone without constant supervision and physical interaction like the older more advanced recreational or team students.
As someone who has coached team level gymnastics at all levels, I have found that the dynamics of coaching at the lower non-competitive levels has entirely different rules and objectives. It did not take me long to learn how important it was to create a structure and environment that will have a lasting effect on these students. I get a great deal of satisfaction working with these young students and seeing the gleam in their eyes when learning something for the first time and watching a few grow to be champions later in their development. The influence we have on these students can determine the success or failure in future growth. Let’s make it successful!!
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