If you are a part of the gymnastics world, people often ask questions like, "Exactly how wide is the Balance Beam?" or, "How old were you when you started gymnastics?" These seem like simple questions, but to answer them fully could send a person down quite the rabbit-hole.
This sport always attracts a lot of attention during an Olympic year, yet it has always been a complicated sport to fully understand. The scoring can be confusing, as well as, the whole developmental process in general.
I'd like to answer a few basic questions about the Women's Development Program. Gymnastics is increasing in popularity, and it is important to remember that many will need some foundational explanation on how it all works.
"How many levels are there?" In the Women's Development Program Overview it opens with, "The Development Program (DP) was created with the belief that all athletes, regardless of their potential, must have a solid foundation of basic skills in order to advance safely." There are ten levels and the Development Program is split into three main segments: Developmental (Levels 1-3), Compulsory (Levels 4 and 5), and Optional (Levels 6-10). After Level 10 is the Elite Program, which will be saved for a future article.
The Developmental Stage is generally non-competitive, and is achievement based. It is sometimes referred to as 'pre-team' or simply, 'the rec program'. For a gymnast to 'move-up' a level, in-gym testing is held and coaches determine if the athlete is ready to advance. In some states there are organized Level 1-3 competitions that these early gymnasts can participate in.
Pretty simple so far, right? Next is the Compulsory Stage, Levels 4 and 5, and this is when most gymnasts start competing for the first time. Depending on several factors, such as the intensity of the club or budget, will determine how many meets the gymnasts will attend each season. It is common for a Level 4 or 5 gymnast to compete in three or four meets, in addition to, The U.S.A. Gymnastics State Championships. These meets are usually close geographically, and very rarely out of state.
The Optional Stage, Levels 6-10, is where things start to get more complicated, but exciting! Athletes generally attend a larger quantity of meets, and many often travel out of state to get a wider range of competitors. Level 6-10 gymnasts no longer have the exact same routines with identical skills as their competitors like in the Compulsory Stage. Instead, coaches, choreographers, and gymnasts decide the skills that will be put together into a routine. Everyone has different choreography, and on the Floor Exercise each gymnast gets to select their own music.
Of course, there is an entire Code of Points that is the guiding point when creating these routines. Each routine needs a very specific amount of difficulty, and in Levels 8-10 composition is also evaluated. In Levels 8-10 there are more competitive opportunities besides that State Championship, such as Regional, Eastern or Western, and National Championships.
"Who awards each level to gymnasts?" This is such a simple question with such a complex answer. Of course coaches play a huge role in determining if an athlete is ready to advance a level. They look at these four categories to determine if a gymnast is ready to advance to the next level: Minimum Age Requirement, Pre-requisite Scores, Previous Experience, and Mobility Score to Advance to the Next Level. For example, to be a Level 6 gymnast you must have reached your seventh birthday, scored a 32.00 in the All-Around at a USA Gymnastics sanctioned competition while in Level 5, and have previous experience in Level 5 or 6.
"What is a Level 10 Gymnast and when should top recruits reach that level?" First of all, to compete as a Level 10 gymnast you must be nine years old. While Levels 6-9 have difficulty restrictions with skills, in Level 10 there are absolutely no restrictions with difficulty. Ideally you should be a Level 10 by your freshman year of high school if you are looking to get recruited by a D1 school. It's important to know that if you want to be recruited by a Top 5 school, then you need to go the Elite route and/or have been a part of the TOPs (Talent Opportunity Program: a talent search and educational program for female gymnasts ages 7-10 and their coaches).
Hopefully this helps you wrap your brain around the basics of this sport. Be sure to look for future articles on Elite gymnastics, tips on recruiting from D1 and D3 college coaches, and expenses in gymnastics.