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The Case for Gymnastics at 8U

By Michael Rand - Special to USA Hockey, 03/08/16, 10:30AM MST

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Steve Penny is not unbiased, but he is also not wrong, when he says in regard to youth gymnastics clubs, “They are the absolute best places in the country to help children learn how to use their bodies and develop their motor skills.”

Penny is the president of USA Gymnastics, and he was in the middle of a long explanation of the benefits of his sport – particularly for youth athletes.

In speaking with him, it became clear: as parents consider starting their kids out in hockey, a complementary parallel track can be found off the ice and inside gyms across the country.

Here are some of the reasons to consider enrolling a 6U or 8U hockey player in gymnastics as well:

Building Fundamental Athleticism

Physical education classes used to offer the building blocks in the development of motor skills, but Penny would argue that’s no longer the case.

Gymnastics clubs and classes have stepped in and filled the void. With USA Gymnastics boasting 90,000 athletes registered in competitive programs, that governing body is training a new breed of athlete.

“It’s not just the typical motor skills of jumping jacks and stretches and things we relied on PE class for,” Penny says. “It’s how to tumble, how to do a somersault, how to do a handstand and headstand. Those are things that are taught at the most fundamental level of recreational gymnastics. You can’t find that anywhere else.”

The Test Case

Penny’s words carry even more credibility when one considers he sees living proof in his house every day. He is the father of 10-year-old triplet daughters, all of whom have been involved in gymnastics since they were 3.

Penny says his daughters are not “on a fast track or quick path to a college scholarship or Olympic team,” but rather “on more of a modest program in terms of what they’re going to get long-term from the sport.”

And still, the benefits of gymnastics as it relates to other sports are undeniable, he says, punctuating that point by rattling off a long list of other activities. Among them:

  • “When I go to help my kids learn how to pitch a softball, and I’m trying to get them to stay in line with their bodies, I look at them and say, ‘pretend you’re on a balance beam.’”
  • “When we go sledding and my three daughters are basically on their feet in a squat position on those plastic discs that you buy for 99 cents and they’re going down a hill along with kids on snowboards that are having trouble standing, my kids are doing it on a plastic disc.”
  • “When they’re playing basketball and I say, ‘go chase that kid down,’ what I see is them running down a vault runway.”
  • “On a diving board doing somersault on a pool, I see them wanting to perfect things on a much higher level than any other kids their age because of everything they’re learning from gymnastics.”

These aren’t the idle boasts of a proud father. They are real examples from the real world.

Transferable to Hockey

All of those things, of course, are also transferable to hockey. The motor skill development, athleticism and flexibility that are vital on the ice can be developed at young ages on the mat.

Again, referencing his triplets, Penny says, “They have strength, they have confidence and they know how to use their bodies. Those three things are transferrable to every possible sport. My kids have no fear about being on anything. They will do a cartwheel on a balance beam. Why would they be afraid of putting on skates? It really does give you the physical base.”

A basic introductory program doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment, though Penny notes that some kids stick with the training because they are seeing the benefits in other sports.

“We see parents bring kids in all the time. You can start at a very young age – 3, 4, 5 years old,” Penny says. “You make a decision to stay in the sport or not based on how well you’re progressing and other things you’re doing, but at the end of the day, the benefits are going to be there.”

Penny is also quick to note that even though the examples he gave involve his three girls, there are plenty of young boys involved in gymnastics as well.

“It’s not biased one way or another,” he says. “For me, it’s just a great place to start and learn those motor skills that just aren’t taught anywhere else anymore.”

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