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How to Tell If Your Daughter Can Be an Olympic Gymnast

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Here are some answers and comments on identifying and developing talented young gymnasts from three very successful coaches: Geoff Eaton, owner and head coach of Desert Devils Gymnastics in Mesa, Ariz.; John Spini, women's gymnastics coach at Arizona State University; and Bela Karolyi, perhaps the most successful gymnastics coach ever.

Talent Versus Work Habits

"Our Olympic team is never, never made up of the seven most talented gymnasts in the country. It has always been the seven hardest-working athletes. Hard work is always going to supercede talent. Talent helps, but the ones who work the hardest are the ones who are most successful. Talent will carry you only so far. On a bad day, the amount of work an athlete has put in will pay off." — Geoff Eaton

"Talent and success are not the same thing. Someone who has talent does not always have the most success. The ones who have talent and good work habits and good coaching are the ones who become successful." — John Spini

"I have seen less physically talented athletes become great athletes through an incredible amount of work, self-discipline, seriousness and consistency. As a coach, it is much more exciting and rewarding to work with those who are less talented but more dedicated and committed to success than athletes who try to get by with physical talent alone." — Bela Karolyi

Early Indicators of Elite Talent

"By the age of nine or 10 you can recognize if a child has the physical talent to become a top-level gymnast. But there are so many outside factors between the ages of nine and 15, you have to be careful about trying to pick out the perfect package that represents a super talent. A kid who was not that good at the age of nine can come out of nowhere and blow the doors off with her performance at 14. We kept one girl in our program mainly because she was a good person and a hard worker. She was not particularly quick and certainly not as flexible as others in our program, but she became one of our most successful athletes. In fact, she won a national championship. A lot of coaches turn away good kids just because they don't see what they want to see at the age of nine." — Geoff Eaton

Physical Characteristics

"Speed is the physical characteristic that is most important. Speed of movement, explosiveness, and speed of repetition, all combined with agility, separate good gymnasts from great ones. Next in importance to speed is strength. Gymnasts need the strength to handle their own bodies. While speed is a prerequisite, their performance will ultimately depend on how they use the combination of speed and strength. But the thing that catches your eye in very young athletes is agility and coordination. You can begin to see that even when a child is four or five years old." — Bela Karolyi

Emotional Characteristics

"We can recognize at nine or 10 if the child is as interested in becoming a skilled gymnast as the parent wants her to be." — Geoff Eaton

"Ideally, the physical and emotional characteristics of talented gymnasts are equally important. You look for the athletes who are 50/50—the ones who have developed both areas. The athlete who has physical talent but not the emotional qualities that are needed to succeed will experience incredible failure." — Bela Karolyi

Predicting Success

"One of the biggest mistakes in gymnastics happens when parents take a promising young athlete to a self-serving coach. The coach tells them that their child a great, a future champion, and perhaps even one who will someday represent her country in international competition. I say that this is self-serving because it is exactly what the parents want to hear. Instead, the coach should compliment the child and the parents on the progress made so far, and explain that, if he or she rigorously follows a systematic program, the child may develop into a competitive athlete. To make claims beyond that is a disservice to everyone." — Bela Karolyi

Tags: Focus, Attitude, Sports Performance

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