Jordan Nolff of Millburn, NJ began taking gymnastics classes when he was 5 years old. His mother, Ellen, says he started off with classes once a week and loved them. At age 6 he joined a competitive team. Today Jordan is a senior at Stanford University and a member of its award-winning men’s gymnastics team.
Not every child will reach Jordan’s level of success, but gymnastics is a great sport—and it’s not just for girls. Loree Galimore, director of club services for USA Gymnastics (the sport’s national governing body), says, “Gymnastics is especially good for young boys who are usually bouncing off the walls and jumping on couches at home. Gymnastic classes allow them to have fun, socialize with peers, and get exercise. In addition, they learn how to tumble and fall properly so they can stay safe.”
While most organized sports for children begin in elementary school, children can start taking gymnastics classes when they start walking; around age 3 they can take classes on their own. At age 6, children can pursue gymnastics on a recreational level or consider joining a competitive team.
Find a Gymnastics Program
Many recreational gyms and community centers offer tumbling classes for young children. As children get older, parents can research and visit different programs to find the right one. (For a list of USA Gymnastics member clubs, go to bit.ly/FindAGym, and search in New Jersey).
Kids should start slowly and learn the basics before progressing to more challenging skills. Proper spotting and sound equipment are imperative to avoid injury.
Male vs. Female
Some people may consider competitive gymnastics more of a girls’ sport, but this definitely isn’t so. According to a USA Gymnastics survey, over 12,000 men currently participate in competitive gymnastics.
Luan Peszek, a spokesperson for the organization, looks down the road at the future for boys and says, “Men’s gymnastics differs greatly from women’s. Both men and women compete on the vault and on the floor exercise, but men’s floor focuses on power while women’s has a choreography and music element. In addition, only men compete on the high bar, pommel horse, parallel bars, and rings—all of which require flexibility, strength, and power.”
Alone & Together
Competitive gymnastics is both an individual and a team sport. Members of the team train together, support each other, and foster camaraderie, as they do in other team sports. But there’s also an emphasis on individual achievement.
At meets, each gymnast competes alone in front of a large, loud audience and official judges. In addition to training physically, gymnasts must prepare mentally. Nolff says, “Competing requires gymnasts to stay focused in chaotic circumstances. If they fall, they need to get up and try again. Not in a few days but right on the spot. It takes incredible discipline.”
Like all competitive sports, gymnastics requires a devotion of time and effort. By middle school, Nolff says, her son was practicing three to four hours a day, five days a week. In addition, as the difficulty of their routines increase, many gymnasts suffer injuries ranging from minor sprains to major traumas.
According to Dr. Charles Cappetta, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, “Gymnastics is a demanding sport. Along with injuries, the intense training can lead kids to burn out. Parents need remember the main goal of any sport for kids is to have fun.”
Realistically, Ellen Nolff adds, “Children give up a lot of their life and very few make it to the top. But Jordan always remained passionate about the sport, so we supported him.”
Benefits for Boys
Even if a child doesn’t pursue gymnastics on a competitive level, he can still benefit from gymnastics training. “Gymnastics develops hand-eye coordination and builds upper body strength, both of which will give a child a leg up if they decide to pursue other sports” competitively or just for fun, Loree Galimore says.
Ellen Nolff’s younger son, Andrew, participated in competitive gymnastics for several years before switching to tennis. “Andrew’s gymnastics training transferred [to tennis], and his tennis skills were on par with peers who had started playing earlier,” she notes.
Luan Peszek says, “[USA Gymnastics’] slogan is: ‘Begin Here. Go Anywhere.’ The skills learned in gymnastics provide an excellent foundation for any sport. Competitive divers, snowboarders, skateboarders, and skiers all use gymnastics in their sport. In fact, many professional athletes began their training in gymnastics and continue to use it as part of their training regimen.”
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer from Short Hills, New Jersey. She has three children.