The Beginners Guide to Coaching Team Gymnastics

What is Team Gymnastics?

Coaching gymnastics is an exciting adventure. There are ups and downs, but overall it is a very rewarding career where we can make a difference in a child’s life. So what is team gymnastics as opposed to recreational gymnastics? Team gymnastics, by definition, is participating in gymnastics at a competitive level in a team atmosphere. Competitive gymnastics can begin as early as USAG JO level 2 or USAG Xcel Bronze level.

The ultimate beginners guide to coaching team gymnastics.

The Difference Between JO and Xcel

USAG is simply USA Gymnastics. Under USAG there are a multitude of programs: Men, Women, Rhythmic, Acrobatic, and more. Today, we are going to focus on Women’s JO and Xcel.

JO

JO stands for Junior Olympic. This is the program that most are familiar with. In this program gymnasts move from one level to another after certain mobility scores are reached (USAG). In the JO program there are developmental, compulsory, and optional levels. The developmental levels are simply recreational levels where gymnasts can get an introduction to gymnastics and begin acquiring the necessary skills for compulsory levels. However, in some states gymnasts may start competing as early as level 2. Check your state. I have coached competitive level 2 in the past and it was some of the most fun competitions I have coached. Definitely check out if this is a possibility where you coach!

JO Compulsory

In the compulsory levels (4 and 5), gymnasts must compete very specific laid out routines. There is very little variation in what a gymnast is allowed to do in her routine. For example, in level 5 on beam a gymnast may perform either a back walkover or a back handspring (flick-flack) in her routine, but the routine composition and how she moves from one skill to the next are set and everyone does the same thing. In addition, each level has a choice of a few variations of the same song for floor music; but essentially each gymnast performs the floor routine to the same music. This can get a bit monotonous, but it does make teaching routines a LOT easier. These levels are preparatory for optional levels.

JO Optional

Finally, optional levels in JO start at level 6 and continue through level 10. This is where each gymnast is able to cater her routines to her likes, skill level and preference. In these levels each gymnast has her own, individual routines on all four events. Yes, including her own music for her floor routine! It is very likely that in the JO program your gymnasts will spend a great deal of time in the gym. Level 2 is likely to be at the gym 2-3 times a week for several hours at time, while optional gymnasts are likely to be at the gym 5-6 days a week for around 4 hours a day. To learn more about the JO program visit USAG JO.

Xcel

While JO is very time consuming, Xcel can be an option for those gymnasts who love the sport of gymnastics, want to compete, but do not want to be in the gym five or more days a week. Maybe a gymnast has other passions that she wants to pursue that also takes time. Xcel would be a great fit for these gymnasts. Another possibility is maybe you have a gymnast that her skill level is in line with level 4 or 5, but she is tired of compulsory routines and it is not likely that she will move up to the optional levels before burning out and quitting. Xcel can be a great option that creates a win-win for everyone. Let me explain.

Xcel Levels

In the Xcel program the levels are called Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond. Crazy names, but it does make it easier to not confuse Xcel levels with JO levels. Just as a point of reference, the following are the rough level equivalents between Xcel and JO (based on skill level):

  • Bronze = Level 1-2
  • Silver = Level 1-3
  • Gold = Level 3-4
  • Platinum = Level 5-7
  • Diamond = Level 7-10

Xcel is super cool because right from the beginning each gymnast can have her own unique routines with skills that she loves within that level. However, many gymnastics clubs choose to do a ‘compulsory’ routine at the Bronze and Silver levels. This just makes it easier to coach and practice. For example, while I was coaching Xcel our Bronze and Silver level gymnasts had the choice of two different routines. They picked the one they liked the best, we taught all those who liked option one together and then all those who liked option two another time. Each girl still got her own skills that she liked, but the dance and music of the routine was the same. It made coaching easier, as most of the gymnasts in these levels were quite young.

Xcel Flexibility

Xcel also has a lot of flexibility to fit each gymnast’s needs. USAG’s Xcel program runs sort of like JO optional levels in that each level has set requirements on each event that must be included in each routine. For example, every beam routine must include a turn, leap/jump connection, an acro skill (acro is a skill in which the gymnast passes through an inverted position) with or without flight, dismount, etc. The specific requirements for each of these elements will be different for each level. For example, in Silver level one leap or jump must have a 90 degree split while in Gold level this same leap or jump must have a 120 degree split.

In sum, JO is more rigid and time intensive while Xcel is more flexible with less time commitment. Both programs are unique with their own pros and cons. I love both programs and have worked many years within both. I love that USAG has created numerous programs to be more inclusive of many different types of gymnasts. Check out USAG to explore all that they have to offer.

Why is Coaching Team Gymnastics Important?

Competitive team gymnastics is so exciting! I remember as a young gymnast moving from recreational gymnastics to becoming a ‘real’ gymnast. I was invited onto the competitive team. How exciting! I’m sure it is super exciting for your gymnasts to be invited to team, just like it was for me. Little did I know how that move would change my life and set the stage for a life-long passion. That passion grew from participating in high level competitive gymnastics to coaching gymnastics at many different levels. I have coached gymnastics for 10 years, everything from preschool and recreational gymnastics in a small city program all the way to Optionals, Xcel, and other ancillary programs in much larger, well developed programs.

Through my time as a coach, I have worked with many different coaches, gymnasts, and parents. While not all were easy relationships, all were important to me. I truly believed that it was my role to teach my gymnasts much more than gymnastics. As coaches it is our job to ensure that each and every gymnast feels valued, important, and that someone believes in her. In other words, we need to be a positive role model in our gymnasts’ lives.

How to Get Started with Coaching Team Gymnastics

Congratulations! You have been asked to coach team gymnastics. Now what? This can be a very exciting time, especially if you have been coaching recreational gymnastics for awhile. Again, congrats! Recreational gymnastics is great, it’s awesome, it’s where most coaches and gymnasts alike get their start in the sport. However, there is a certain feeling of excitement when we move to the team environment. So how do you transition from being a recreational coach to a team coach?

First of all, remember team gymnastics is still a lot of fun and it’s supposed to be that way. I love finding ways to make routine learning, skill progression, and the supposedly mundane details of team gymnastics more exciting and fun.

What Do I Need?

A few things that you will need to coach team gymnastics and participate in competitions are:

  • A USAG professional membership, complete with background check and safety certification. Create a login at USAG to become a member and complete these requirements. Most of the time, the gym will take care of the costs associated with becoming or renewing your membership, so make sure to ask.
  • JO Team
    • JO compulsory routine book–hard copy or digital (many times this will provided by your gym, it may need to be shared between coaches. If not, go to USAG’s website to order.)
    • JO compulsory music. Because all the routines in a given level are the same, everyone must have the same music. Follow the link above to order music as well.
  • Xcel Team
    • Xcel code of points book–hard copy or digital (again, this may be provided by your gym, if not go to USAG’s website to order). The code of points book is simply a book with the rules, requirements, deductions, and skills allowed in each level. The skills portion of the book shows you the many different skills and their values through the use of pictures and descriptions.
    • Routines will need to be choreographed and music chosen for floor, this can be done by you (if you’re gifted with dance and choreographing skills. This is where I always struggled, but managed with the help of others), another coach in the gym, or by a specialty choreographer.

Tips for Success in Coaching Team Gymnastics

Fun!

The number one tip for a new gymnastics coach, whether in team or recreational, is have FUN! If you are having fun, your gymnasts are having fun and learning. They will feed off your energy! They will want to come back day after day because they love gymnastics, feel important, supported, and included. As coaches we truly can provide a safe place for gymnasts to have fun, make friends, and feel valued. Is having fun hard work? It certainly is! It takes careful planning, leaving your life at the door and putting a smile on your face, getting down on your gymnasts’ level emotionally (and sometimes physically), and many times getting a workout in yourself by moving up and down, spotting, drill detail work, etc. However much work it is, when I am having fun I have a much better day in the gym and I know that my gymnasts do to.

Check out a fun stretching program!

Shy Gymnasts

Keep an open eye for shy gymnasts. There will always be a gymnast who is more shy than the others. She will try to stay out of the spotlight as she quietly works. She doesn’t readily volunteer to help, be the demonstrator, first to try something, or answer questions. Many times she simply doesn’t want be seen, yet desires approval. How do I know? I was one of these gymnasts and I have seen it multiple times while coaching. What should you do when you see this gymnast in your group? First of all, make sure she feels welcome especially if she is new. If she is new, take a minute to do an introduction. I like to have everyone tell her name, age, and favorite event/skill/food/etc. Once introductions have been made I make sure the new gymnast has a ‘buddy’ that she can ask questions to or that can show her where things are.

What if the shy gymnast is not new? This can happen frequently too. If they are not new, I make sure that I specifically ask for her input when appropriate. I make sure that she feels included by asking her to do or get something for me, pairing her with a good partner for partner activities (someone who has a kind leadership personality that will not clash with the shy gymnast’s), and making it a point to praise when she does something well (this goes for all gymnasts, but is especially important for the shy gymnast). These may seem like small acts, but trust me she will notice and her parents will too. There have been times that parents have talked to me after workouts that have thanked me for doing these very things. Small actions, yes; but a big difference!

Communication

Communicate with the parents. Many problems could be avoided if we are proactive in communicating with parents. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. You have a gymnast, around seven years old. She has just been invited to participate in team and start competing. Everyone is very excited. You drop her off at her first day of team and then leave. After 2-3 hours you pick her up. Nobody approaches you to say how things went. Your gymnast is excited, but a bit tired. This continues for several weeks, until your gymnast is not quite as excited to go to gym. You wonder what has been happening while she is in the gym. Is this normal? Can I help? You wonder. Being out of the loop is frustrating. Don’t let this be your gymnasts’ parents.

Talk to Parents

Make it a point to talk to parents after each workout, especially those parents who have a new gymnast in the group. Even if it is simply talking about a few things that the gymnast did well that day and what to expect in the future. For example, a new team gymnast will likely be sore and tired from the rigors of a team workout. This will become less and less as her body acclimates to the increased demand, but it is important to communicate this to the gymnast and the parents. This will help both of them know what to expect and ways to work through it.

Communication is still vitally important even when there are no new gymnasts. I make myself available for at least 5-10 minutes after a workout so that any parent that needs to ask a question can easily do so, or that I can talk to different parents about their gymnast and how things are going. Maybe I come over after a workout, excited to tell the parent something that the gymnast has been improving in or maybe something that may need a little work or attention at home (such as flexibility stretching each day that she is not at gym). Communication does not need to be difficult or awkward. It simply needs be intentional.

Communication becomes even more vital during competition season. It is not fun to have a late or missing gymnast at a competition just because there was some miscommunication. Although it is easy to forget that communication with parents is part of coaching, try to make it a priority. There will be less headaches and more enjoyable parent-coach relationships with just a bit of effort in the communication department.

Skill Progression

Finally, in order to be successful you will need to have a solid foundation of skill progression and routine requirements. Please do not feel intimated by these things at first. There is a lot to know and understand, but the good news is that you will build this knowledge as you coach. At the beginning simply look for how various skills connect to and progress from one to the other. For example, on floor level 2 performs a round-off for her tumbling pass; level 3 a round-off back handspring, level 4 a round-off and two back handsprings, level 5 a round-off back handspring back tuck. The levels progress in this way with many, many skills. Look for these connections and then later, as you gain coaching experience you will begin to see even the very fine detail progressions involved with various skills.

Routine Requirements

Routine requirement knowledge will come with time. At first, familiarize yourself with the JO routines and/or the Xcel requirements of each applicable level. Reading the JO compulsory and Xcel code of points will likely feel as though you’re reading a foreign language. Just breathe and read slowly, sentence by sentence. What does it look like? If you have gymnasts around, have them try it.

The dance portions of the JO routines are generally the most foreign. Work through these doing the motions yourself. It is often helpful to work together as coaches or attend a clinic while learning routines. I’ve spent a lot of time ‘doing’ floor and beam routines in my living room trying to learn a routine. You may also search YouTube, but I caution you against it because what you find may or may not be correct. When in doubt, always reference the text. Another way to decipher the JO compulsory routines is to order the DVDs that go along with the book. The DVD shows you the routines, done by a gymnast, so you know what each routine should look like. Again, you can purchase these on the USAG website.

Common Questions About Coaching Team Gymnastics

  • What do I wear to coach?
    • Comfortable clothes that allow you to easily move from a standing to a kneeling position. Keep your clothes modest–no super short shorts or low cut shirts. Your gymnastics club may have specifics on what is acceptable or not, so ask. Some require coaches to have closed-toed shoes, while others are okay to let coaches be barefoot. Find out what is acceptable at your location. Keep in mind that if you have long hair, it may be easier to coach with it pulled back. This is a personal preference, but I have found that if my hair isn’t pulled back it gets in my way of safely and effectively spotting gymnasts.
  • What do I teach in team gymnastics?
    • Teach skill progression that will allow your gymnasts to compete at her given level. Make sure you are familiar with what is expected at each level and then break down those skills to easily manageable skill sets until your gymnasts have mastered what is required.
    • Conditioning. In order for your gymnasts to safely perform gymnastics skills, she will need to be strong enough to handle the demands on her body without injury. There are many ways to tackle conditioning, but make sure to include a conditioning plan on your lesson plans. A well thought out conditioning program with progressions will do more to strengthen your gymnasts than simply ‘winging it’ every workout.
  • How do I make sure I cover everything that my gymnasts will need to know?
    • Lesson plan! This may be the least fun part of being a coach, but it is necessary to be as successful as possible. Make sure to include any other coaches that you may coach with in a lesson planning meeting. Everybody must be on the same page and know what is expected each day they walk into the gym to coach. Check out my FREE lesson planning template!
  • How do I start the workout?
    • Always start by having your gymnasts warm-up. Many times, this looks like a series of running drills around the floor. But this could also include jump rope or other heart-pumping activities. After the gymnasts are warmed-up have them stretch. Different coaches like different methods of stretching, I am a fan of active stretching. I do not have my gymnasts do splits at the beginning of workout, rather we do that at the end. At the beginning of workout we do stretches that actively move and stretch the muscles as opposed to passively holding a stretch. For example, instead of holding splits for a given time (passive), we do kicks both laying down and walking across the floor (active).
  • How do I end a workout?
    • After a workout, we do passive stretching (holding splits, pikes, etc.). However, my favorite part of ending a workout is our team cheer. This may seem a bit cheesy, but it truly is a fun part of the workout and the gymnasts love it. It helps build team unity and inclusiveness. In short, a team cheer is first asking a question (such as, “What is one thing you are proud of that you did today?”) and letting everyone answer it for the group. Once this is finished, everyone puts her hand in the middle and as a team you repeat a cheer finishing with throwing your hands up in the air. Get creative, gymnasts love to have fun with this so let them agree upon a unique cheer and actions for their team.

The Last Thing You Need to Know about Coaching Team Gymnastics

Coaching team gymnastics is a great opportunity to be a positive role model and make a difference in a young gymnast’s life. There are many ways to participate in team gymnastics. In order to be successful you’ll need to be active before, during, and after a workout. Before a workout requires lesson planning. During a workout requires detailed attentiveness and energy. After a workout requires communication with gymnasts and parents. Remember, the most important take away is to have fun!

I want to help you! Comment below any questions you may have or other suggestions that you have found helpful in your coaching thus far. If this has been helpful, please share and help other coaches get a successful start in coaching gymnastics. Happy coaching!

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