Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The age debate - my take

Hi all

I am very sorry about my absence. I have been working about 45 hours a week and studying 20+ which leaves me little time for blogging. On top of that, the hard drive of my faithful yellow laptop is goners. So I did not have the means to blog either. I could use my partner's computer, but I could never be on it long...

I have been inspired by Gymnastics Coaching regarding the age limit in gymnastics and what should be done with it. I am torn. I would like to protect gymnasts from the worst aspects of the sport, yet I can see merit in the argument that a rule that cannot be enforced is useless.

Protection of young gymnasts, especially the ones from totalitarian countries, appeals to me. Stories about the Karolyis, and many other accusations have flown around over the years. This is not all sour grapes by failed gymnasts. Olga Korbut made accusations of rape about her own coach, even though she had a very successful career. But let's not pretend that coaches are unique in being able to abuse and exploit children. Some parents do that as well.

The pressure of competing on a large world stage is massive whatever your age is. Well, I think. Truth is, I don't know. I have never competed on the world stage.

My take is that gymnastics training, like any training can be positive or negative. When I learned ballet, I had a teacher who screamed at her students, belittled them and generally played power games with them. I remember her telling us that we would be in big trouble if we made mistakes during performances. I was scared to go to ballet. I gave up ballet. My singing teacher gave constant praise as well as constructive criticism, and worked to the personalities of each student in terms of teaching performing. I would always go off stage thinking of what I had done wrong (which my teachers would often fail to spot), and what I could work on. She would build me up. My friend was the opposite, and so my teacher had very different ways of motivating her. I sang for several years.

I am guessing that it is the same with gymnastics. I think that mentally, doing high level sports or other hobbies can be a positive or negative experience depending on how it is done. Kids who are competing in high level competition need support wrapped around them. They need to know that their self worth is not dependent on their results. How does that get policed? - well, parents are the first line of defence. If a kid is unhappy, most parents will withdraw them from gymnastics or that particular coach. The second line of defence needs to be the sport itself. If a coach is harming their athletes, they should not be coaching, because they are giving the sport a bad name. Many of the worst potential coaches may be prevented from coaching by criminal and reference checks. Thirdly, the police may sometimes need to get involved when serious harm is done.

I can see that the risks of young people being involved in high level sports is high, but if it is done properly, I do not think it is a reason in itself to stop young people from competing at a high level. I think that being older, athletes in a worse position since they would understand the long-term consequences of falling off the equipment, but they would have the skills to deal better with competition, and they would have had time to develop mental toughness, and experience that may enable them to do better in competition.

But maybe I am the wrong person to be making assumptions about young people performing at a high level. What do gymnasts who have competed in the Olympics at 13 or 14 have to say? What was positive? What was negative? I think we need to hear some of their opinions.

One question that I do want to ask is whether any of the skills that gymnasts do are harmful when they are introduced too early. I was inspired by Katrina bringing up the example of a ballerina dancing Swan Lake at age 8. She was dancing en pointe, which is dangerous for foot growth when training begins before age 12 according to the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. I wonder if many skills that gymnasts do fit into this category, or even a category of slightly higher risk when skills are introduced to early.

I am aware of assertions that older gymnasts are more likely to get injured - but how can you prove that this is solely about age? Is this about age or the body saying "enough is enough" after years of doing the same movements? Is it simply the case that some gymnasts are doing movements that they should not do to increase start values? Is it bad training methods? Again, I am not sure. I am asking these questions, but I should not be the person answering them, because I do not feel qualified.

I hear the pragmatic "cannot be enforced so why do it" argument, and to some extent, I agree with it. But I do think that the issue is much more complicated than that. One thing is for sure. I want older gymnasts to stay on the scene, because they add a lot to the sport. I do not want another 'pixie only' era in gymnastics.