Monday, April 9, 2012

The state of Men's gymnastics

This is an outside view of what I see going on in a sport that I love. Men's gymnastics is not a big time sport, it is a small niche sport that caters to a different type of guy. Most if not all the gymnasts I knew were amazing athletes, they would have excelled at just about any other sport they did. Except maybe endurance sports. But these guys could run faster, jump higher, we more flexible, and stronger than many of the athletes I knew at the U of I. I would venture to guess that statement might be accurate for most of the colleges that still have D1 gymnastics. I knew gymnasts (weighing under 140lbs) who could bench over 300lbs multiple times, dead lift close to 8 or 900 lbs, just crazy strong.

One of the difficulties of gymnastics and I think a lot of boy's sports is that most athlete's don't start to see their potential until they have reached or gone through puberty. This can leave a lot of time where a kid can struggle, even fail waiting for their body to get it together. I think that even coaches on the boys side of the sport might push too hard too early in an effort to have great gymnasts. There are some kids out there who are freaks of nature, they are doing skill that only 5 years ago international elites were dreaming of. But a lot of these kids wont ever make it to the top of the sport. Mostly because of sheer burn out in my opinion. So the first problem is how do you keep kids in the sport, make them top level athletes, and once there get people to come watch them?

The first part is the hardest I think. Keeping the kids who are great at gymnastics in gymnastics is hard because like I said before they are probably great at a few other sports as well. And as they get closer to high school coaches from other sports are going to start calling. I think you make it easier. From what I see some of the routines at the compulsory levels are harder than they need to be to still get kids to be working on those uber important basics. With easier routines it would also give coaches more time to work more basics instead of all their time just getting these routines ready. Since the boys don't develop most of the strength needed to do the high difficulty skills till later make sure they are developing the base to start training those skills later. Don't start to work crosses until their shoulders have been built up enough to take the strain.

Now this is where my Sling Shot Theory comes into play. If more time is spent perfecting a core group of basic skills, once an athlete reaches a point where their body begins to mature, a coach should be able to "release" that athlete to begin quickly learning new skills. With this idea you would start learning the high level/difficulty skills later but the total amount of time to master that skill should be less. This would also bring in a lot of much needed fun into the athlete's training. Instead of taking years to learn some skills it will apear to the gymnast that they are picking up skills quickly and easily. This will bring up moral and help that kid to remain in the sport when high school sports start calling.

Last is how do you get, and keep fans in the stands once that athlete has made the "show"? That has been a big conversation between a lot of alumni of NCAA gymnastics recently. Many of the older alumni feel that we need to return to the 10.0 that had existed in the sport till about 2006. I flat out disagree. I do not remember at any point during my time in the sport that these types of conversations weren't happening. I do not think that gymnastics has lost any fans because we went to an open ended scoring system. Those people that were confused about the scoring before are still confused, and those who knew it before but are confused now wont stop going to meets because of that.

One great idea that has started to go around the web is being championed by U of I head coach Justin Spring. He is trying to get a head to head style competition started that would allow for a simplification of scoring and perhaps make things more exciting for the crowd. I think this is the way to go. The two big reasons I feel it is the right move are; 1) it allows the gymnastis in the USA to continue to do their international routines. And 2) it awards a simple point to the best routine. That way a meet's score would be something like 15-12. And fans would know where their teams stand as the meet goes on.

Returning to the 10.0 would lead to a total collapse of USA Gymnastics. Our current national team members that compete in the NCAA, (9 of the 15) would have to have multiple routines for the different competitions. This would take away from their ability to train as they would have to split their time between the two routines on each event (12 routines instead of 6). This would also lead to more athletes deciding to not go to the NCAA and just continue in their private gyms. This was a problem back in the 90s when most of our national team were in private clubs. This was because the NCAA used rules much like the collegate girls. So if more athletes are staying home and not going to the NCAA, where they would compete 12-14 times a year in their college season, in front of thousands of fans. The fans would then not have as many opportunities to see great international level gymnastics.

Using the one point per winning routine in the heads up would still allow for the use of the open ended code currently being used. Fans don't necessarily even have to know what the FIG score would be. Those scores would be kept to score AA, and event winners, but for the team competition they wouldn't be needed.

This is an amazing sport that has a log storied history. I feel that it is very similar the cycling. There seems to be a lot of people at the top that have lost touch with what is going on with the guys and gals on the front lines. Both sports are struggling to find a place in a world market. They both attract people who crave individual and team sports. And they both need a lot of help. There are many people out there that think that men's gymnastics only has so much time left. Once it is gone from the NCAA (only 16 teams remain) boys gymnastics around the country will quickly dry up. But it doesn't have to go that way. There are thousands of people out there that want to see it continue. It just takes someone at the top to take some of the great ideas out there and put them to use.

Yeah, I used to be able to do that.

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