Ask any gymnast. What is their ultimate gymnastics competition dream?

To compete and win in gymnastics in the Olympics.

How to Compete and Win in Gymnastics - vaulter at gymnastics competition

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From the “Magnificent Seven” who won the first-ever team competition gold medal for U.S. women to “Fierce Five” at London 2012 to the “Final 5” 2016 Rio Olympics gold-medal winning team of Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, Laurie Hernandez and Simone Biles, women’s gymnastics is one of the most popular summer Olympics sports of all time.

Gymnastics competition 2008 gold medal podium winners

Regular folks want to see them and gymnasts across the country want to BE them.

What does it take to make it to the highest level of gymnastics competition? Only 3% of all gymnasts who enter the  USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics age group program will make it to Level 10. And yet, thousands of girls and boys participate in the Junior Olympics and Xcel programs each year.

What drives them? If you’re the gymnast, what keeps you going through aches and pains, sprains, blisters, and hard work?

As former gymnasts, competitors and coaches ourselves, we know that it’s the need to compete and feel the thrill of winning, no matter what level you’re at or who you’re competing against that keeps you going.

What Winners Know

Winners in gymnastics and life know that the most important “competitor” is within yourself. Gymnastics is one of the hardest sports in the world, requiring strength, agility, flexibility, bravery, artistry and above all, mental toughness (read and share our highly popular blog post “ Mental Toughness for Gymnasts” for more on developing mental strength). 

While standing on top of the podium with a gold medal is every competitor’s ultimate goal, there can be only one person there at the end of a gymnastics competition. But everyone who performed at their absolute best, who achieved something they never accomplished before, or who overcame fear or injury is a winner.Mermaid leotard gymnastics competitor showing off winning ribbon

This isn’t the idea that “oh, we’re all winners just by showing up.” No. This is showing up and working as hard as you can. Doing better than you ever thought you could. And maybe giving a little bit more: your personal best.

Does your personal best mean your highest score ever? No. Because scores can vary from judge to judge. Gymnasts and parents need to focus on improvement, not score. Too many parents and gymnasts focus on score, which isn’t healthy for mental strength and sustainability in the sport. When our President LaDonna Snow’s daughters competed, they weren’t even allowed to see their scores until after the meet because their coaches wanted them to focus on performance.

Winners always find a win. Even if a meet performance is a “disaster” from a scoring perspective, find ONE thing that you did better than the meet before.

People who never competed or never trained as an athlete think that “give 110%” is nonsense, but anyone who vaulted higher than they ever have in their life or scored better than they ever have before knows that competing brings out more in you than you ever thought possible.

Winning at a competition doesn’t make you a winner. Competing and doing your absolute best makes you a winner.

Inspiration vs Motivation

Successful gymnastics competitors know the difference between inspiration and motivation. We are all inspired - gymnasts and non-gymnasts - by the best gymnasts in the world. We watch the Olympics, or the world championships, or national championships and it gives us a boost for that three weeks in the summer every four years. Or that one week every year.

But what happens in between? Where’s that excitement when the day-to-day grind of getting up and training every morning or night starts to feel old? After a while, that big boost can start to fade away. Our heroes and national champions aren’t in the national news anymore.

True competitors know that you have to look as high as possible for inspiration, but that daily motivation comes from what is right in front of you. If you’re a Level 3, get motivated to reach Level 4. If you’re Level 5, get motivated for optional season.

Yes, be inspired by Olympians, but focus on YOUR very next step. Watch and learn from the girls who are at that next level because you can very easily imagine yourself there.

The most motivating competitor is the one who is just a little bit better than you. That could be the girl next to you in the gym. It could also be that girl in the mirror.

Winners and competitors work to inspire themselves to dream big and know how to motivate themselves to work hard every day.

The Value of Gymnastics Competition

While there have been Olympic competitors in their 60’s and even 70’s (mainly in equestrian and target shooting), one of the harsh realities of Olympic-level or even collegiate gymnastics competition is that it is a young person’s sport.

While there’s no upper age limit for Xcel or Junior Olympic competitors, most female gymnasts are retired from competitive gymnastics by their late teens. Sure, there are exceptions to the averages. Oksana Chusovitina competed in her 7th Olympic games at age 41 for Uzbekistan to become the oldest Olympics gymnastics competitor ever.

But even for her, once her Olympic career is over (we’re not calling it yet, she’ll only be 45 for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020!), there aren’t a lot of options for adult gymnasts like there are for softball, soccer, track and field or even rugby (no, really, there are master’s leagues throughout Australia and the UK).

Still there are some opportunities for adult, masters or even senior-level fun, training and gymnastics competition. A search for adult gymnastics classes will possibly turn up gyms near you or city recreation departments with a class or two. FloGymnastics has an “adult gymnastics central” page, although it may or may not be up-to-date.  And the AAU has a “Ladies Division” which includes competitive opportunities, although you may have to travel to find them. 

For those who truly love their sport, it doesn’t matter as long as they get to continue to shine. Internet sensations (and one of the star attractions) of the annual Berlin Turnfest has been 91-year-old Johanna Quaas, who has also won the hearts and admiration of Olympians a quarter her age including Simone Biles. 

To a non-competitor, all this might seem like an incredible amount of hard work for something that may not last very long. It might seem like a lot of effort for something that they don’t think is going to pay off down the road.

It certainly does pay off. Competing in gymnasts helps strong girls become even stronger women. As young leaders, retired gymnasts like Laurie Hernandez become adult leaders in their families, careers and communities. 

Laurie Hernandez, competitive gymnast speaking at a conference

We shared stories about successful careers and athletic paths for former gymnasts in our blog post “After Gymnastics for Girls.” From coaching to pole vaulting to Cirque du Soleil to entrepreneurship, gymnasts emerge as strong athletes and fierce competitors on and off the gym floor.

Those who don’t understand the meaning of the hard work are missing out on an incredible life experience. They don’t understand the value of competing, striving and winning right now at this time in your life, regardless of how old or young you are.

What’s the value of gymnastics competition? It builds strength, teaches perseverance and turns every gymnast who does the work and invests in themselves with blood, sweat, tears and chalk into a winner no matter what level of competition they’re at or whether or not they finish on the podium.

That’s how you compete and win with gymnastics.


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Women on Olympic Podium: Tom Thai, Women's Gymnastics (女子体操决赛) CC BY-SA 2.0

Happy mermaid with ribbon: Permission given to Snowflake Designs by contributor

Laurie Hernandez by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0