In the United States, gymnastics programs are divided into two basic categories – Junior Olympic and Elite. The Junior Olympic program follows an orderly progression based on age and skill level, while the Elite program speeds up training for athletes who are identified as particularly talented. Only Elite gymnasts are eligible to join the National Team and qualify for the Olympics. Both men’s and women’s gymnastics follow similar progressions.
1. Developmental/Basic Skills Achievement
The lowest levels of the women’s Junior Olympic program are known as developmental levels. In men’s gymnastics, they are referred to as basic skills achievement. The program includes levels one through four for women, and levels one through three for men. Children must be at least 4 years old for level one and two, 5 years old for level three and 6 years old for level four. There is no maximum age limit, as these levels are designed for beginning gymnasts regardless of age.
2. Compulsory Levels
The compulsory levels begin at level four for men and level five for women. These levels require gymnasts to perform standardized routines that test their basic skills. To graduate from developmental levels to compulsory levels, children must be at least 7 years old, and must achieve minimum score guidelines at the previous level. Gymnasts may progress through the compulsory levels at whatever rate they feel comfortable, provided they meet the minimum scores.
3. Optional Levels
For both men and women, the optional levels begin at level seven. At these levels, gymnasts perform routines of their own composition, although certain skills are required at each level. Level seven is considered a transitional time for gymnasts moving up from compulsories, and there is more guidance in routine composition at this level than in later optionals. The optional levels continue through level 10, with increased competitive opportunities provided at each level.
Elite gymnastics follows a much different course than the Junior Olympic program. The goal is to train talented athletes as quickly as possible for consideration for the National Team. Although it is not required, many potential elite female gymnasts are identified through U.S.A. Gymnastics’ Talent Opportunity Program, known as TOPs. To complete TOPs testing, children must be active gymnasts between the ages of 7 and 11. Whether or not they have participated in the TOPs program, children ages 10 through 13 are eligible to apply for the lowest level of the Elite program, the Hopes team. The next level is Junior Elite, for those ages 11 through 15. The highest level is Senior Elite, open to gymnasts ages 16 and older. The men’s Elite program follows a similar progression, but male elite gymnasts are typically older than females. The Elite program is extremely competitive, and your child must achieve very high scores at qualifiers to be considered.