Gymnastics Champ Urges Parents to Focus on Fun and Fitness, Not Winning

Filed under: Sports

Jennifer Sey tackles the balance beam in her gymnastics days. Credit: Mark Sey

Jennifer Sey, the U.S. National Gymnastics champion in 1986, writes about her experiences at the top of her sport in Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics.

ParentDish recently spoke with Jennifer Sey about why you should start a child in gymnastics and, just as important, why you shouldn't. An edited version of the conversation follows.

: What's a good reason to encourage a child to be a gymnast?

Jennifer Sey: It's an amazing sport in terms of physicality -- the flexibility, discipline and focus required. It's also a lot of fun.

PD: What's the right age for a child to start in the sport?
JS: It's fine to start at 5 or 6 in the fun classes, which, at that age, usually are running around, jumping and climbing ropes. Later is also fine. But I don't think it's a problem in any way for kids to start at a very young age like they would in ballet or baseball or soccer.

PD: What's a bad reason for starting a child in gymnastics?
JS: Because you want to see them compete and win.

PD: Why is that a bad reason?
JS: It's fine if the child wants to compete. But it's a lot of pressure on a kid. Gymnastics, because it is an individual sport, is incredibly pressure-filled. There's nothing more lonely than being on the balance beam, standing there with thousands of eyes on you. I wouldn't start a child in anything for any reason other than to develop a healthy body, self-esteem, and to have fun. If they show a propensity and are interested in competing, that's great.

PD: Any advice for parents looking for the right gym or teacher?
JS: You want a gym where there is an open environment and parents are permitted to watch. I would want to be able see how my kids are treated. Are they are having fun? Are they put in any unnecessary danger? Sometimes coaches don't have a child's development at heart. Their primary interest is creating champions instead of developing kids into young adults that are confident and healthy.

PD: Can you win a national gymnastics championship and still have a normal childhood?
JS: I don't know that it can be normal. But it definitely can be happy. Gymnastics requires an intensity of training and a sheer number of hours that would prohibit what you'd call normal.

PD: Do your kids play sports?
JS: My boys are 9 and 6. My oldest did the very first season of TeeBall and just wasn't very interested. They both took karate classes for a year and a half. We'll probably do that again. They seem much more interested in other things, like art and writing, so that's probably what we will pursue. That's okay with me.

PD: What lessons that you learned as an elite gymnast have been helpful to you as an adult?
JS: First and foremost, the value of hard work and persevering through things that are hard. That's something I want to instill in my children. I see some adults who don't have it. The minute things get tough they might walk away. If you're committed to anything as a young person, whether it is sports or art, you learn the value of working hard to overcome obstacles.

PD: What "stuff' did you get for being the national champion and -- just wondering -- where is it now?
JS: This is terrible. I'm not ever sure. It was a plaque, I believe, and I think I got a trophy also. And they're somewhere in my mother's basement.

ParentDish sports reporter Mark Hyman is the author of "Until It Hurts: America's Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids" (Beacon Press). Have a suggestion for an article on youth sports? Contact Mark at

Related: Train Like a Gymnast: Alicia Sacramone, Gymnastics


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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.