The new Gymnastics Australia Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Program, under Mihai Brestyan’s direction, is a good start, but it does not operate in a vacuum. An important aspect which will determine its success or failure is the prevailing culture of the community implementing the program.
Girl’s Activity Preferences
According to the Australian Sports Commission’s AusPlay Focus on Women and Girls Participation Report, the top 5 activities for girls 0-14 years of age are swimming (35%), dancing (15.4%), netball (14%), gymnastics (12.1%) and football (round ball) (6.4%) with Aussie Rules coming in 10th position at 2.6%. This position is likely to improve with the new AFLW competition generating more junior recruits.
Swimming, dancing and gymnastics are the preferences up until 8 years old, after which netball becomes the activity of choice behind swimming, with dancing, gymnastics and tennis making up the top five activities in the 9-11 years group.
By the time the girls are in the 12-14 years group, netball is preferred by 33.4% of them, followed by swimming, football, basketball and dancing, collectively another 52.2%. Gymnastics has disappeared from the radar, but why?
Gymnastics Program Structure
The new WAG levels program is structured with age constraints to the levels, as was the program it is replacing. The review by Suiko Consulting of High Performance Gymnastics in Australia states: “To succeed, Gymnastics needs to be inclusive, maximise use of collective resources and be aligned with a common unity of purpose.” A program which nominates maximum ages for each skill level excludes many older gymnasts, who may have started gym later and have the required skills to compete at that level.
The new program has the expectation that a young gymnast will attain the skills necessary to compete at Level 7 by 10-12 years of age. Yet the pathway to the Future International stream is capped by a constraint of a maximum of 13 years, and the Junior International group is limited to 13-15 years of age.
There are two major problems here. The first is that a girl will have to gain skills to Level 7 standard by a maximum of 11 years old. The second is that she will have to upskill three more levels by the time she is 13 in order to keep progressing as a gymnast.
This leaves any gymnast currently at Level 7, and 13 years of age or older, with nowhere to go.
If it is skills which are being assessed, why is a maximum age cap necessary?
Competition as Assessment
The program makes provision for more than one level to be attained in any given year. However, there are logistical constraints to this happening. When performance in competition is the means of assessing whether the required standard has been met to advance to the next level, timing is important.
The appropriate level of skill would have to be attained before the qualifying round for the next competition. These may not be scheduled at times of the year which allow time to learn new skills. Currently the major competitions for Level 7 and higher are in the first half of the year, and those up to and including Level 6 are in the latter part of the year.
According to the Focus report, girls of 12 -14 years of age are walking away from gymnastics. The structure of the new levels program gives them no pathway to becoming an elite athlete even if they wanted to stay as a competitive Australian gymnast, unless they are already in a high performance stream. Many Australian Gymnastics Clubs cannot field a Level 7 squad, the girls have all left by then.
This program is likely to act as a disincentive for girls to start gymnastics. Every child has a role model she or he looks up to. The dream has to have a visible pathway, no matter how unlikely a parent may think it is. But if there is no provision to step off that pathway for a time without losing all opportunity to realise the dream, then a parent will try to encourage the child to choose something else.
Why Do They Leave?
At 12-14 years of age most girls have gone through puberty to become young women. They are not the person they were before, with the changes to the body. This means that the gymnastic skills they had before have to be learned again to fit the new body dynamic.
It takes a highly skilled coach to assist a young woman to adjust her technique to suit her changing body shape.
It is far easier for her to take her changed shape and do something else.
Australian Sports Commission, Ausplay Focus on Women and Girls Participation pp18-19 (Nov 2017)
Gymnastics Australia, WAG Program Structure 2018 and Beyond pp7 (Oct 2017)
Suiko Consulting, Independent Review of High Performance Gymnastics in Australia. (28th Oct 2016)