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Myrna Beth Haskell
Tumbling tots: gymnastics is a great sport your developing preschooler

Most experts agree that motor skills, listening, following directions and increased attention span are important faculties your child should develop in order to be successful in kindergarten. If you want your child to develop a variety of physical and social skills without having to enroll him or her in several activities, gymnastics is an excellent choice.

Many sports teach commitment, dedication and time management. However, gymnastics, because of the complex skill progression and vast number of physical techniques required to master elements on different events, teaches more perseverance, patience and discipline than most other physical activities. When a child participates in a gymnastics class, he or she develops a variety of motor skills (e.g., speed, strength and agility) while learning balance and grace. A student must also develop acute listening skills in order to transform verbal instructions into complex, physical movements. The balance beam event, in particular, teaches students to focus and concentrate for extended periods of time. Gymnasts tend to do well in school because they utilize this ability while studying.

If you are only familiar with the level of gymnastics seen on television, you may ask yourself, "Is this sport safe?" After all, the moves elite gymnasts perform at international competitions seem a bit daunting. However, children's recreational classes are not taught at this level. Nonetheless, it would be irresponsible to say your child couldn't be injured doing gymnastics, but I cannot tell you that your child couldn't be injured on the playground either. Relatively speaking, the playground is a more dangerous place than your local gymnasium. In the March 1999 issue of Technique magazine (a USA Gymnastics publication), Dr. W.A. Sands discusses a study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission on the number of people visiting emergency rooms and subsequent percent of admissions with sport-related injuries. Gymnastics ranked lower than 23 common sports and activities, including bicycling, climbing on playground equipment and swimming in pools--activities most children participate in. Sands mentions that the information represents "all of gymnastics, including injuries that occur from striking the furniture while performing in the living room." Obviously, in a controlled and supervised environment, injury is less likely.

Furthermore, many changes have occurred over the years. For example, equipment is continually improved with safety in mind. When I began competing in the 1970s, we used wooden balance beams and folded mats held together with Velcro! With the advent of foam pits, padded balance beams and softer crash mats, learning gymnastics has never been safer. In addition, educational programs, such as the USA Gymnastics Athlete Wellness Program (which distributes information on everything from how to get a good night's sleep to recognizing eating disorders) and National Safety Certification Course (mandatory for all USAG coaches and judges), now play important roles in the gymnastics community.

The focus has changed from learning skills as quickly as possible to stressing proper conditioning and skill progression. It is also comforting to know that one of the first things a gymnast learns is how to fall safely. Learning to curl and roll during a fall is not only an important gymnastics skill, but an important life skill as well. When I was 12 years old, I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle to a friend's house. As the impact projected me into the air, I immediately curled my body into a ball and rolled to the pavement. Thankfully, I walked away with only a few bruises. To this day, I attribute my escape of serious injury to the skills I learned in gymnastics.

Myrna Beth Haskell

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