How to Become an Olympic Gymnast

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Watching the Olympics can be inspiring and you might be thinking, “What would it take for my child to become an Olympic gymnast?” or, “I want to become an Olympic gymnast — what do I do?”.

While it’s extremely rare and difficult to become an Olympic gymnast — and I certainly can’t promise that — here are some “must-dos” for becoming a top gymnast. This same logic applies if your goal is a college gymnastics scholarship. In order to become a successful gymnast and maybe even an Olympic gymnast, you need to start young, you must train many hours a week in a gym with the right tools for you to succeed and you must master the basics.

Start Young

Olympic gymnasts are young and they start hard-core training at a young age. The minimum age that a gymnast can compete in international competitions is 16. This rule is one of the most debated rules in the sport of gymnastics. Smaller, younger girls tend to be better at the difficult skills required at high levels. However, without the minimum age rule there is some concern about the health and well-being of gymnasts. At the 2008 Olympics, there was some controversy about whether one of the gymnasts on the Chinese gymnastics team was old enough to compete. There was speculation that she was only 13, but nothing ever came of this investigation. Gymnasts peaking at a young age is evidenced by the fact that 4 of the 5 girls on the 2012 US Olympic gymnastics team were 16 (the minimum age) and Aly Raisman was the oldest at 18 years of age. This simply proves that starting gymnastics at a young age is one of the most important factors in being successful at a high level. In order to be training at such a high level at 16 — girls need to start young.

Train Many Hours a Week

In the book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, he studies the factors that lead to very high levels of success. (Side Note: This is one of the most interesting, motivating books I’ve ever read and I definitely recommend it.) He studied how the Beatles became one of the most successful bands ever and how Bill Gates was able to start one of the most innovative companies in the world. He deduces that both of these successes (plus many others he studies throughout the book) are due to the 10,000 hour rule. He concludes that you must practice a task for 10,000 hours in order to become an expert. The Beatles performed over 1,200 times in Germany between 1960 and 1964, amassing over 10,000 hours of live playing time. When they returned to England — they were “experts” and sounded better than anyone else. Gladwell credits Bill Gates’ success to the fact that he was able to get access to a computer as a kid (which was very uncommon at the time) and spent over 10,000 hours programming on it.

I also know from personal experience the value of practicing more than anyone else. My dad was a phenomenal runner in high-school, college and afterwards for a short time before he got injured. He still holds both high-school and college records that have held for more than 30 years! When he was in high-school, he ran twice a day every day of the year. He would wake up in the morning and go for a run before school, and then after school go to track practice. No one else was running that much — and he contributes his success to the fact that he was working out harder than anyone else.

Also, each of the 2012 US Olympic gymnasts trained 30+ hours a week. While I’m sure they hadn’t done that since the time they started out, that’s still a lot of hours in the gym. Let’s think this through: Imagine you start gymnastics at 4 or 5 and for those two years you are in the gym 2 hours a week for the year — that’s about 100 hours. Then ages 6-8, you work out 10 hours a week, and in those three years you amass 1,500 hours for a total of 1,600. Ages 9-13, you work out 20 hours a week getting you to a total of 6,600 hours. And 14-16, you work out 35 hours a week getting you over the 10,000 hour mark. (In my math, I gave you 2 weeks vacation.) That’s a lot of hours in the gym — but that would give you the best shot at becoming an “expert” in gymnastics. Your dedication to training is going to be one of the key factors that separates you from other gymnasts, and takes your gymnastics to the next level.

Gymnastics Equipment at Olympic Trials 2012

Train at a Gym that has the Coaches and Equipment You Need to Excel

Another factor that goes into becoming an elite gymnast is training at a gym that has the coaches and equipment you need to learn. In the beginning years, this isn’t very important, but as you advance to higher gymnastics levels this becomes essential. My sister (a level 9 gymnast when she went to college) wrote an excerpt for my Parent’s Guide to Gymnastics Ebook on this subject. Basically, she said that there was a big difference between the gym she trained at as a level 9 gymnast and the gym she practiced at on her college club team. The second gym didn’t have the safety belts and harnesses needed to learn high level skills, or things like a pit bar, or enough room to learn dismounts off the tumble tramp. She couldn’t imagine learning big skills at the second gym that she had the opportunity to learn at her previous gym. You also need to make sure you have a qualified coach to teach higher level skills. I talk more about these two factors (equipment and coaching) in tips for picking a gymnastics gym.

Master the Basics

The Olympic gymnastics scoring system rewards both excellence in execution and difficulty. Gabby Douglas’s form, height and execution of her skills is amazing and was incredible at both the Olympic Trials and the Olympics. I remember leaning over to my mom at the Olympic Trials and telling her that Gabby was the one to beat after seeing her warm-up. Her execution of skills was stunning due to her height and body position. This comes from mastering the basics and the basic “shapes” (split and handstand). The gymnasts who really stand out from the the rest of the crowd at competitions (and I say this as a gymnastics judge) are the ones who perform basic gymnastics skills exceptionally and have impeccable body form and dynamics. Here are 9 basic gymnastics skills you should master.

Set Goals

Jonathan Horton performs on the still rings during the men’s gymnastics qualifications at the 2012 London Olympics on Saturday, July 28, 2012. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle)

In order to maximize the time you have in the gym, and make your gymnastics training intentional, it’s important to set goals. If your goal is to get to the Olympics or to earn a college scholarship that will be your long-term goal. What are all the steps that need to happen in order for you to reach that goal? All of these little steps are the short-term goals you should be setting for yourself. I talk more about the types of goals you should be setting in The Mental Workout All Gymnasts Should be Doing and Other Strategies for Becoming the Best Gymnast You Can Be.

Another way to make sure that you are setting little goals for yourself is to list out the skills you want to learn during the summer when you aren’t competing, or during the next year. You can make your own skill progression charts, or check out GymnasticsHQ’s Skill Progression charts here.

Try Out for TOPS

TOPs (Talent Opportunity Program), from the USA Gymnastics Website, is a “talent search and educational program for female gymnasts age 7-10 and their coaches.” It’s a program that tries to find gymnasts with a “special” talent for gymnastics with the goal of having a strong national team. Gymnasts in the TOPS program learn skills at a faster pace than the typical JO Program (gymnastics levels 1-10).

All five members of the Fierce Five, the 2012 Gold Medal Winning US Olympic Team, competed in the TOPS program. Excelling in the TOPS program is maybe the best way to become a gymnast who has a shot at being on the Olympic team.

Master Your Mental Workout

Since there are only so many hours per week that you can be in the gym training, one way to really up your gymnastics game is to master a mental workout. By practicing some of the mental techniques I mention in the mental workout article linked above, like visualization, self-talk and watching a personal highlight reel, you will be able to “practice gymnastics” without actually being in the gym.

In the sports psychology book 10-Minute Toughness, Jason Selk references Jack Canfield’s The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, in which he cites a study that says:

Every minute of visualization is worth seven minutes of physical practice.

If every minute of visualization is really worth seven minutes of practice, by mastering a mental workout you will have a huge advantage over gymnasts who don’t do this visualization practice.

While I am definitely not promising anyone an Olympic career, I do think that starting young, training many hours a week and competing in TOPS are things that members of the gymnastics Olympic team have done. They have also mastered the basics and train with great coaches in gyms with the right equipment. I’m sure they also set goals and do a mental workout.

I think if your dream is to be an Olympic gymnast, these can be your guidelines.