Gymnastike put out a great article this week “Women’s Worlds Team Defying The Norm: Is Sixteen No Longer The Peak?”. I think the concepts behind this article are crucial for all of gymnastics to consider. This idea of age being just a number, and not pushing female gymnasts to peak at 16 is huge in relation to reducing injuries and also developing a gymnast to their full potential over their long career. I have discussed this topic at length with many of my friends like Dr. Josh Eldridge, Rupert Egan, Brian Pickard, and other healthcare/gymnastics sports medicine professionals.
A few big points we always seem to get to are,
1) Chronological Age is Drastically Different Than Their Developmental Age
I have written about this before, which you can find by clicking here. Chronological age has to deal with an athletes “years since birth” where as Developmental Age deals with their level of physical, emotional, and neurological development. These two things are very different from each other. You can have five chronologically 16 year old gymnasts in front of you, but in reality for their developmental age you may have a 14 year olds, a 15 year old, two 16 year olds, and a 17 year old. Development is a highly individualized, variable, non linear process that must be considered as a true marker of someones growth and readiness for high level skill. I feel we can track this important variable with growth profiles from a young age, and with more awareness for the concept of Peak Height Velocity.
Understanding that all athletes have a different path of maturation (and making training/strength adjustments appropriately) is a crucial key for helping a gymnast reach their full potential while minimizing injury risk. In one sense, physically their developing tissues are at a higher risk for overload and injury. Neurologically, remember that their nervous system is undergoing huge adaptation to remap to different lengths, densities, and calibrations of the body. If we take a step back and approach our early years of training with this idea in mind, I think we can greatly impact the level of healthy high level gymnasts we have in college, elite, and so on. Which leads to the next point.
2) Long Term Athletic Development / Early versus Late Bloomers
This concept of Long Term Athletic Development comes from the Canadian model (find a great article here), and I personally feel it is something vital for gymnastics. Many gymnasts show notable talent at a young age, and may be on the radar of coaches as an “early bloomer”. Although they are talented at a young age, this may create aggressive early training with risk of injuries and over training/burnout syndrome. On the other side of the coin, “late bloomers” are those athletes who doesn’t necessarily excel at a young age like others. However, over years of development and maturation, they begin to show their huge potential in their later career years. I think this is where we start to see more athletes making it through Olympic Cycles as 18, 19, and 20+ years. Remembering that athletes can fall all along this spectrum of early vs late bloomer is also important. Not every gymnast will need to be pushed at a young age to reach full potential, gymnastics is a marathon not a sprint.