Every four years, the Summer Olympics vaults the gymnastics into popular culture. We sit in awe in our living rooms and in sports bars as world-class athletes spring, tumble, and flip their way toward their medals and heartbreaks.
Suddenly, our families, friends, and neighbors who previously couldn’t tell the difference between an aerial and an arabesque believe they’re more expert than the gymnastics commentators and judges. Whether we have memories of Mary Lou in ‘84 or Simone Biles in ‘16, gymnastics is the Summer Olympics event.
But seeing the sport at only such an elite level creates a lot of popular myths and misconceptions about gymnastics. These athletes seem to come from another realm, taken at birth to be molded into Olympians, to perform super-human feats in an athletic world completely inaccessible to most people. We are told that allowing our children to pursue the sport will stunt their growth and cause eating disorders.
Let’s break down some of the myths that could keep someone away from what could be a rich and rewarding pursuit.
1. It’s All About the Olympics
There’s a popular misconception that a shot at an Olympic medal is the end-all, be-all in the career of a competitive gymnast.
While it’s true that the allure of representing your nation on the world’s largest stage inspires elite athletes of almost any sport, the four year wait between Olympic competitions compared with the relatively short career window of a competitive gymnast makes an Olympic victory an impractical measure of success.
Women gymnasts tend to peak between the ages of 16 to 22, while men peak between 17 to 25. Given this narrow span of peak performance, a world-class gymnast may have only one shot at qualifying for an Olympic team.
Due to poor timing or poor luck, many of the world’s greatest gymnasts may never see an Olympics. Fortunately, there are a slew of national and international competitions (such as the FIG World Cup and the World Games) in which elite and level 10 gymnasts can compete and earn their accolades.
For many world-class gymnasts, even at the Olympic level, the ultimate goal of a career in gymnastics is to compete in the NCAA. The emphasis on team and comradery, along with the elite competition, makes for an alluring pinnacle to a rewarding career, of which an Olympic medal is a nice feather in the cap.
For the non-elite and recreational gymnast, there are plenty of regional, local, and community clubs and competitions that can lead to a thrilling career.
2. You Must Start Young
It is true that most world-class, competitive gymnasts begin training at around two years old.
Two is considered an ideal age because toddlers have a natural inclination toward tumbling and have yet to develop a fear of falling. A child reaches their peak flexibility at the age of 8, so trainers consider between two and eight the optimal time to learn and internalize the moves, leaps, and poses that form the core techniques of gymnastics.
That being said, some world-class gymnasts start as late as 12. For a competitive career that peaks in the late teens, 12 is about the upper limit to begin, but it is never too late to begin training recreationally.
Gymnastics, as a training regimen, offers athletes an intensive way to hone the strength, flexibility, and coordination needed to be their best at any sport. It’s a great complement to other sports because it teaches balance, builds core strength, and develops body control and explosiveness. For an adult looking to be more physically active, you may never land a double salto dismount, but you might be surprised by what your body can do.
3. Gymnastics Will Stunt a Child’s Growth
This has long been a chicken or the egg debate in the world of sports. Glancing at the 2016 U.S Olympic Women’s Gymnastics team, ranging in height from 4’8” to 5’2”, one must conclude that world-class gymnasts tend to be petite.
Is it the impact of rigorous training on a developing body that keeps them short, or do naturally small-statured people tend to excel at gymnastics?
Being petite certainly offers some clear competitive advantages to a gymnast. A smaller stature means a higher power to weight ratio, with easier and more graceful leaps and launches. Being small also means a more compact axis of rotation, aiding with aerial spins and turns.
Given these advantages, it shouldn’t be surprising that elite gymnasts tend to be short. One may as well wonder if practicing basketball will make a child grow tall.
Inconclusive studies have shown that the rigorous level of training required of elite level athletes may slightly delay growth and maturation, but this growth is generally made up later, with no lasting impact on adult height. Even these mild concerns pertain only to children training at an elite level.
Unless a gymnast is training for world class competition, there is no need to worry about stunted growth.
4. Gymnastics Can Lead to Eating Disorders
Athletes of any sport, especially at the highest, most competitive levels, are at increased risk of developing eating disorders. Women are at greater risk than men, particularly in sports that emphasize weight or appearance, such as running, swimming, figure skating, and gymnastics.
Of the various “myths” we have addressed so far, this is of the greatest concern and has the largest potential grain of truth. A complex mix of cultural, personal, and hereditary factors cause eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, but the intense psychological and bodily pressures put on adolescent girls and boys at the elite competitive level make them easy prey to these diseases.
Awareness and education about these disorders are the best defense against them, along with assuring that young athletes are in the care of coaches, trainers, and mentors who understand the risks and warning signs, and who put the health of the athlete ahead of all other considerations.
Don’t Let the Myths Keep You From Gymnastics
Whether you’re a new gymnast or the parent of a new gymnast, don’t let the myths get in the way of a fantastic and enjoyable sport.