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When Should A Child Start Gymnastics?

Before Getting Started

Gymnastics is a young person's sport. The Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique, which governs international competition, requires athletes to be at least 16 years old in order to compete at events. But that regulation has only been in place since 1997. Dominique Morceanu, who shared in the team gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics, was only 14 when she competed. (She was also the last athlete so young to be allowed to compete in the games).

Gymnasts and coaches stress that while it is important for children to begin gymnastics training at a young age, especially if they show potential, kids should not be forced into participating if they don't want to. Athletics should be fun, teachers and coaches say, because sports can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy habits. The odds of your child becoming a competitive amateur or professional gymnast are small, and the commitments great. Morceanu, for one, says she spent at least 40 hours a week training, with no formal schooling or much socializing with friends.

The cost of training your child to become a competitive gymnast is also something to consider. It's not unheard of for parents to spend $15,000 to $20,000 on training, travel, competitions, coaching, and related expenses.

Beginning Gymnastics

You can find gymnastics classes for children as young as 2 years of age, but many coaches say that it's better to wait until your child is 5 or 6 before enrolling in a serious gymnastics program. For younger children, introductory classes should focus on developing body awareness and a love for the sport. Parent-child classes that emphasize climbing, crawling, and jumping are a gentle way for children 2 to 3 years of age to develop their physical coordination and self-confidence.

Tumbling classes are slightly more demanding physically and are suitable for kids ages 3 to 5. Basic gymnastic moves like somersaults, cartwheels, and backward rolls are introduced, as are balancing activities on a low beam. Once your child has mastered these early courses, they're ready to move on to introductory gymnastics classes, usually around age 6.

Other sports can also help prepare children for a beginning gymnastics class. Ballet, dance, soccer, and baseball all help kids develop the same hand-eye coordination, balance, and agility skills they'll use in gymnastics. Older children can also benefit from trying gymnastics, though the longer your child waits to begin, the less likely he or she will be able to compete with kids that have been training since toddlerhood. Then again, Brazilian world champion Daiane dos Santos didn't start gymnastics until she was 12.

Potential Risks

Kids that start more serious training very young don't seem to have a leg up on kids that start a bit later. In fact, some coaches say it may be to the child's disadvantage to start early. "The risk of starting advanced gymnastics at a young age is potential burnout as a pre-teen," says veteran coach Rick McCharles of Altadore Gymnastics Club in Calgary, Canada.

Serious gymnastics training can have severe health consequences for the young. Girls that train too hard often have issues with their menstrual cycles. An injury is not uncommon in sports like gymnastics. Parents and athletes should weigh the risks of a short career as a gymnast versus the chances of what could be a life-long injury. For those with a true passion for the sport, these risks might be worth taking.

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