There are many sports that place their athletes in particular groups based on the age of the student. We see this in sports such as football, baseball, and other such team related sports. This is to ensure an even playing field among the athletes. However, there are other sports where placement of the students is based on experience and skill level. This is common in sports like gymnastics, cheerleading, and dance. It is important to evaluate and place new students in the appropriate level so they can be in an environment that can maximize their potential.
Proper placement for students in any group setting is a critical issue that needs to be considered. There are a number of factors that should be recognized in placement practices. Most importantly is the social environment created in group settings. It is this reason that most sports use age as the criteria for placement. Grade levels in most school systems are based on age. People at all ages tend to feel most comfortable with other people in their age range. For example, it can be extremely awkward for a teenager to be placed in a group of 5 and 6 year olds. It is the same for adults as well. Although an adult usually has the maturity to adjust to almost any environment, it still may be somewhat awkward if the age range is extremely different.
Children are very vulnerable to their social environment and it should be a major objective for the coaches and parents to ensure the child is placed in an environment where they will feel comfortable and thrive. In the sports of gymnastics, cheer, and dance, this scenario becomes challenging at times. If the student has little or no prior experience in the sport, they would certainly be considered a beginner. In many programs, beginner students are much younger, usually falling in the 5 to 7 year old age range. Students of these ages usually will get along well together in a group environment. As the students progress, they may be moved up to the next level. This mobility is relative to the ages participating at each developmental level. However, as sports increase in skill levels, the age ranges tend to expand and this can be a challenge for many programs.
A common scenario is when a student categorized as a preschooler, for example 3 or 4 year olds, that has excelled to a higher level than what is structured for that age group. In this case, the student should be place in a higher level group so they can maximize their growth and ability. Although this placement may become necessary, it places the student in a group of students much older. When we place a 4-year-old in a group of students that are 6 to 8 years old, it may create a strong feeling of anxiety for the student. In addition, skill levels may be much different than the maturity levels within a group.
This situation occurred in my program recently. We have a 5-year-old student who has developed quickly and needs to be challenged at a higher level. We placed this student in the next level up, however, the students where much older. This was a disaster!! The 5-year-old was so intimidated being among (giants) that she completely lost all interest in the class and sat out. We determined it is best to move her back to her original class and the coaches will work her at a higher skill level. Upon maturity, she will grow and be able to handle an older age division.
In addition, not only is the maturity level a huge difference, the social environment and attitudes are also different. Topics of discussion are very different among different age groups and the coaching staff needs to make sure that any discussion is appropriate, especially for the younger students in class (although there should not be much discussion among the students while in class:)
In the sport of cheerleading, it is very common to have a large range of ages among participants within a same squad. Due to the dynamics of this sport, students that are the “fliers” are, in many cases, smaller and much younger than the other students on the squad. We often see young elementary age students on the same team as middle school students. The age ranges can be as much as 5 or more years difference. Many people may wonder if this is appropriate. It certainly may not be a positive or appropriate environment for an 8-year-old to interact with a group of teenagers. This is where the coaching staff is challenged. Although it is difficult to monitor, the coaches should communicate to the students that conversations be limited to protect the younger students from inappropriate influences.
Another challenge that is common in most programs is when an older student with little or no experience needs to be placed in a beginner class. As mentioned earlier, most beginner students are early elementary school age. When we get a teenager wanting to learn gymnastics, it certainly can be an awkward situation to place them in a group of such young children. It may not only be awkward for the older student but also for the younger ones as well. So, what can be done? Possibly, through a trial class to see how the dynamics work in this situation. In many cases, it works out fine. In other cases, it is usually the older student who feels the most uncomfortable. One option is to offer private lessons to the older student to get them to a level where they can be placed with older students.
Some programs are large enough to have classes based on ages. For example, a program may offer classes for middle and high school students. Although, the ability and experience levels may be drastically different, the dynamics and environment are more positive for the students.
What are the criteria for student placement in a program? All gyms are different in regard to their structure and class curriculum. When a new student is interested in signing up, it is important that the student is evaluated. We do this by communicating to the parent some general questions regarding skill level. For example, we may ask if the student has had experience and for how long. Questions should also be asked in regard to specific skills: can they do a great cartwheel or round-off? However, it is important to not allow the parent to dictate where a student should be placed (Coaching the Parents). We see this scenario often. Some parents may say their child is at a certain level or able to do particular skill, but when they participate in the class for the first time, the story is completely different.
I great way to evaluate the student is to offer a free trial class. Through initial conversation with the parent, the coach will have an idea of what may be the best level to start. It is better to place a student in a group for their trial class that may be under their ability level. This is to protect the student from embarrassment. I have seen students placed in a higher level than their own ability for a trail class that has resulted in embarrassment and humiliation. Sometimes to the point where they won’t come back. It is important to try to create a positive and exciting environment for all new students.
Evaluations are an important element to the success of every program. All students are different in many ways and should be placed in a system where they can thrive and have a great experience. A trial class or trial period is essential for the coaching staff to determine what is best for the child and the overall program. Most importantly, the coaching staff needs to make the final decision of where the student needs to be placed. In the proper environment, students will have a much greater chance to grow and achieve success.