Spotting Talent

Part One

 

Part of being a gymnastics coach is that I must constantly be on the look-out for new talent.  Every September when the new term begins, streams of new kids come through the doors. Kids of all different standards, some who have done gymnastics before, some who have not, some kids who want to be there, others who have been forced by their parents. It’s a big mixed bunch to say the least!

On that first day, while the kids are settling in and being shown how to warm up, the coaches take a quick look around. Immediately, we spot the child who is flexible, the child who is strong, the one who is crying and calling out for her mother, the one who is more interested in picking in between their toes than doing any exercise… the list goes on.

 

Collectively, the coaches are looking for a strong and flexible gymnast to move up to the competitive gymnastics class for more intense and focused training. Individually, we may search for different things. I look for a gymnast with a bit of flair. I steer well clear of criers. If by the age of five a child can’t stop crying at everything and anything, I don’t really have much time for them. It may sound harsh but a gymnast must be emotionally as well as physically strong. I like a child who is determined and adventurous, who listens and who has a natural feel for the sport . It is rare to find someone with these qualities who is also strong and flexible.

A child who cries for their parents or because you ask them to try something and they won’t, is a child that I find difficult to deal with. You can come across some really fantastic kids who are full of beans and then other kids whose beans…well, their beans are probably in a trail behind them on the floor due to fear of trying something new!

So, what exactly are we looking for?

 

  • Height
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Attitude and Dedication
  • Other Factors

 

Height

Height is believed to be a significant factor in determining a gymnast’s capabilities and performance. There is a general consensus that a gymnast must be small; personally, I don’t think this is true, as there is no proven reason why a taller gymnast cannot be as good as a smaller one. One of my icons was the Russian gymnast, Svetlana Khorkina, who is 5 feet and 5 inches tall. Not particularly tall in general, though it certainly is within the context of the sport. Bela Karolyi, a world renowned gymnastics coach who produced nine Olympic Champions and has coached many stars including Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller & Dominique Moceanu was asked by ESPN (Enterainment and Sports Programming Network) “If you could build the best gymnast, what would they look like physically?”. For height, he answered;

The ideal gymnast would be between 4 feet 7 and 5-2. I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint an ideal height, however. It would be foolish to say that a gymnast above 5-2 could not be great.

I don’t think there is a set height we are looking for. I, for example, am 5′ 3.5″. That said, it is easier on the coach to lift a smaller and lighter child through moves than a taller, heavier one. Perhaps to an outsider a smaller gymnast looks more impressive and the idea that a gymnast should be short has aesthetic origins.

 

Strength

Strength is crucial to being a great gymnast. An outsider might think it is easy to get up on the bars and just perform“one of those twirly things”, perhaps assuming that the speed and momentum must just carry the move on through. That’s simply not the case. Everything we do requires great strength. It not only takes balance to land a move on the beam, but strength also. A lot of emphasis must be placed on the core strength of a gymnast. The handstand shape is involved on all pieces, bars, beam, floor and vault. The importance of strength cannot be stressed enough.

A weaker gymnast will not be able to perform the move as well as a stronger gymnast and, in my experience, a stronger gymnast seems to be more aware of their body, knowing that their technique might not be right but that they are pulling themselves through a move.

All the pain and sweat you endure during all the sit ups, back lifts, leg lifts, chin-ups, press-ups is worth it if you get the results you need to help you perform to your best.

 

*As this post is long, I have decided to split it into two. Check back tomorrow for the second part

 


8 Comments

  1. traceysomewhere says:

    Just curious but Bela never coached Shannon Miller. Are you referring to Bela’s years as the main coach that was seen on the floor of Olympic/World competitions? Steve Nunno and Peggy Liddick really deserve all credit or link to Shannon Miller’s gymnastics coaching.

    Betty Okino would be a great example of a Karolyi coached gymnast with a different body type.

  2. Admin says:

    Hi there,

    I included Miller in that list as I thought that some people would know her name better than other gymnasts, especally for people that I know who are not involved in gymnastics but are interested in reading this blog. Yes, Steve Nunno and Peggy Liddick deserve huge credit, Steve is an excellent coach. Apologies if this has offended you.

    You’re right Betty Okino is a great example, thanks for your input!

  3. Just Another Opinion says:

    “there is no proven reason why a taller gymnast cannot be as good as a smaller one.”

    Regarding height, I imagine taller girls are more susceptible to certain injuries, and shorter girls to other injuries, so there’s probably a give/take in that regard. If a coach finds a certain injury more difficult to work with or train around, and a certain size girl is more likely to suffer that injury at some point, then maybe that’s not the worst reason to intentionally or unintentionally have an aversion to a specific size girl.

    But otherwise, the taller the girl is, the more exponentially strong she’s going to need to be in order to rotate her length (flipping/twisting/etc.). The longer the body, the slower the rotation, so it may very well be the case that after a certain size, without what might be an impossible increase in strength, a certain amount of mass just wouldn’t be capable of moving in the path necessary to perform a specific skill. There’s certainly a reason most gymnasts aren’t very tall, and I doubt that it’s solely coach-preference, as there are definitely enough gyms out there with all-inclusive philosophies, who don’t exclude everyone but potential elites.

    I think though most people in this world are reluctant to admit that size does matter because it does tend to prefer the size and shape that is less common among most women (and most American kids) and that’s somewhat troubling, emotionally, because no one wants to be accused of segregating the skinny kids from the “fat” kids, and whenever we talk about kids in general, we don’t want to run the risk of saying anything the strays from “all kids are wonderful” or “all kids have the potential to be anything they want to be.” Those values are rooted deep into our American ideals, so we have a hard time admitting to ourselves and others that, no, Susie Lardbutt really isn’t going to be very successful in the long run if she tries to do gymnastics (especially if she doesn’t put in the time and energy, and have the discipline necessary to maintain healthy eating habits).

    I think there’s not as much of this size-skirting issue with men’s sports. We seem to have less of a problem telling short guys they’re not likely to be successful in basketball or frail guys that they’ll die on the football field or get snapped in half in wrestling. Maybe it’s just societal pressure, to “protect” our little girls from being too self-concious about their weight, shape, appearance, etc. Plausible, a good intention at heart, but I think we’d have fewer self-esteem issues if we addressed reality earlier on, that way no bubble shatters unapologetically later in life leading to the meltdowns.

    All sports have their helpful shapes, especially at the highest levels. I don’t see a problem with that. We just need to view it in the positive light, not the negative. Instead of being upset that you’re not built for sport X, be proud you are built for sport Y, and if you’re truly a sporting, competitive person, you can learn to love sport Y just as much as sport X, because at the core of it, sport is sport, and after it all, if you walk away from sport Y, and your size/shape helped you be successful and avoid injury, that’s a good thing.

    I rambled. I do that. My apologies.

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  5. Admin says:

    @ Just another opinion
    Hi Just Another Opinion (great name!)

    First off, thank you so much for your detailed comment, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thanks for taking the time to read and to reply. I’m glad that you did because I feel you have explained a lot to the readers and subscribers to Full Twist that wouldn’t be “in the know” as such.

    I found that part very tough to write, but you are correct in the sport size does matter. I definitely agree with you that taller gymnasts are going to need to be stronger to get themselves through moves. I’ve been asked many times why gymnasts always seem to be small and I really didn’t notice it myself until I looked at the gymnasts in my own club, most of them are teeny! In saying that height is a factor that we look for, I suppose it’s more so meant in terms of their size as you suggested but sure kids at 5 and 6 are very prone to “puppy fat” so again we can’t discriminate! I know that size and obesity is becoming a huge problem in America and it is starting to become a terrible problem here in Europe too.

    I suppose part of the coaches role is to help the children understand their bodies and to how to stay healthy, I like to coach with this philosophy anyway. I recently taught one of my groups about posture (in brief) and they were delighted, had great fun making up names for the different types of good and bad posture. Their parents thanked me and said that they even learned a little bit too!

    I am definitely of the opinion of if you are not so talented at sport X, maybe sport Y is for you. Although we did have an amazing kid who was brilliant but left gym to pursue tennis (she was equally good at both sports) and is now a National tennis champion. In fairness to her, it probably was the right choice as it is difficult to go very far in gymnastics in Ireland (and that’s a whole other blog post!! 🙂 ) Yes there doesn’t seem to be as much squabble in regards to mens sports. I think more in womens sports it is the whole controversy of eating disorders etc. I don’t know if that is still much of a problem in the US now as it was before? I did read Jennifers Sey’s book “Chalked Up” and was surprised at the lengths that the gymnasts went to, to meet their targets for their weigh ins. It really was shocking and very sad to read, I suppose there was tremendous pressure on them.

    Thanks again for your brilliant lengthy comment! 🙂

  6. Admin says:

    Thanks!

  7. Adde says:

    Kim Zmeskal is another gymnast coached by Bela. And there are plenty of examples, but not Shannon Miller. I think it’s confusing mentioning him as her coach. Otherwise, great post, very realistical.

  8. Tracy Elwell says:

    My daughter is 5 years old and started Gymnastics a year ago, she is a group of 6 which consists of 2 5 year olds and 4 7 year olds.

    My daughter is about average height and the other girl is quite tall, but even at this age they both excel over the other girls. They train for 4 hours a week and spend one day working towards their grade, as they older girls will take theirs next year.

    But even the coach has said they are more likely to be more ready next year than the others.

    I was a Regional Gymnasts prior to a serious knee injury and my daughter is far more talented than I was, I did not start until I was 8 years old and could not cartwheel then. My daughter cartwheels on the beam.

    The height of the gymnasts is not the main factor, my daughter is very petite in size and a lot of people think she is underweight, she isn’t. Even at this age she works so hard and conditions every night for 45 minutes. She is very strong and determine to success.

    I never wanted her to go into the sport and now I have accepted that she wants to do it and we encourage her. I would be disappointed if she was to quit!

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