Jessica and her son at Birchmount Gymnastics
As the proud parent of a preschooler enrolled in recreational gymnastics at the Birchmount Gymnastics Club, I often get asked if I think my son will compete in the Olympics as I did in 1984. He’s not even three so who knows, but what I do know is that gymnastics is building his confidence and enhancing his physical, mental, and social/emotional well-being. He is learning skills and behaviours that will serve him well in whatever he chooses to do in his life.
The benefits of gymnastics are many, documented by researchers, coaches, and parents around the world. Having had the privilege of competing for Canada at the Olympics in Los Angeles and internationally in my teens, I know, firsthand, how one can actually dream a big dream, set goals and then systematically work hard towards achieving them. That’s what happened to this little girl from Scarborough! It surely did not happen on my own, and I am grateful to my parents and coaches who supported me throughout—their belief in me propelled me to keep improving in a sport I loved doing. I truly believe that all kids can benefit from the exposure to sports and other active pursuits. Gymnastics offers so many benefits that lead to healthy kids development and well-being.
The physical benefits of doing gymnastics include increased strength, agility, flexibility, endurance, and artistry. Gymnasts must learn to trust their bodies in space—whether upside-down and right-side-up—and be able to take risks to see what their bodies are capable of. In addition, getting off the couch and off technology prevents obesity, asthma and other childhood ailments. Finally, limber muscles and joints, not to mention the ability to balance hard work and rest, are outcomes that are beneficial throughout life.
Studies show that children learn cognitive skills more effectively in an environment that includes the body as well as the mind, according to Michael A. Taylor, owner of Gym.Net, a Gymnastics Professional’s Network of Educational, Business, Consulting, and Internet Services. The intense movement that takes place in a gym opens up neural pathways in the brain, which can lead to increased concentration, focus and success at home, school, and in the gym. The ability to connect what the brain is saying to what the body is actually doing is a vital skill for healthy development. Research also shows that participating in gymnastics at any level positively affects kids self-esteem, allows them to problem solve better and builds their overall confidence.
On the social/emotional front, gymnastics offers many pluses. With increased activity comes an increase in endorphins released into the body, which leads to happier, joyful feelings. Gymnasts must also build trusting relationships with their coaches and fellow athletes, learning how to be supportive teammates and students. Among the younger set, taking turns, listening to directions, receiving feedback, and overcoming fears are all critical skills that are taught in the gym.
The common link is the development of life-long skills that lead to healthier development. Every child doing gymnastics, whether at the competitive or recreational level, has the opportunity to express themselves by taking physical and mental risks, testing their limits and enjoying the satisfaction of learning new skills. These experiences help kids succeed and research also shows that kids who start a sport such as gymnastics early on are more likely to grow up to be active and healthy adults.
As a parent, I am excited to see my child so involved in his learning. During gymnastics class, he is enthusiastic, focused and keen to learn new skills. At times, his uninhibited jumping, somersaulting, and swinging scare me, but I trust the process. I can only imagine how my parents felt when I was competing! It comes down to trust, focus and fun—trust in yourself and in your coaches; focus on learning skills to reach goals and having fun along the way. Trust, focus, and having fun are definitely skills I learned as a young gymnast that have helped me achieve my goals personally and professionally as a parent, educator, and entrepreneur. Whether or not my son becomes an elite gymnast remains to be seen. What I do know is that gymnastics allows him and other kids the opportunity to improve their physical, mental and social/emotional skills—skills that help them succeed in whatever they choose to do later on in life.