Not Originally Designed for Competition
Level 4 is the first official level of compulsory competition in the USA Gymnastics competitive system. The Level 4 vault and bars, beam and floor routines are substantially similar to the routines in the previous 8-year compulsory cycle, which ended in 2005. During that cycle, Level 4 was upgraded to official competition status and gymnasts were allowed to enter official USAG competitions up to the State Championships. But the routines and especially the vault were originally designed simply as training devices, not for competition.
The Level 4 Vault Mat
This is most obvious with the Level 4 vault – a handspring onto big stack of mats. In order to add this “vault" into regular competitions, a new piece equipment had to be designed and provided at competitions completely separate from the normal vault horse/table. And unlike any vault at any other level, gymnasts do not land on their feet in the Level 4 vault requiring a whole new approach to judging the vault.
You Don’t Have to Compete Level 4
Another common misconception is that gymnasts are required to compete Level 4 before they can compete in Level 5. There is no Level 4 competitive requirement before you compete in Level 5. The only requirement for Level 5 is that gymnasts must pass a skill evaluation from a skill evaluator with a score of at least 75%. You don’t have to compete Level 4! It is not required!
Level 4 Skills are Almost Never Used at Higher Levels of Competition
Level 4 skills, especially the bar skills are almost never used at the higher optional levels of competition. There are 12 skills in the Level 4 bar routine and none of them are ever used in optional bar routines, except for the casts. On beam and floor, the situation is somewhat better. About half of the skills are direct progressions to more difficult skills that may be used later, but that also means that half of them are not.
The Majority of Level 4 Skills Lead Nowhere
Since the vault, all of the bars skills and about half of the beam and floor skills are not used later at the higher levels of competition, it is obvious that most Level 4 skills are not used ever again in competition.
Level 4 Has Been Watered Down
During the previous 8-year compulsory cycle, Level 4 gymnasts were allowed to attempt to compete a kip on bars. Starting this year, you must be a Level 5 gymnast to do a kip in competition. Level 4 gymnasts no longer need to hit a real cross handstand in the beam routine, only a ¾ handstand. The handstand hold time requirement on the beam dismount is also less than in the last compulsory cycle. In short, USA Gymnastics has made the Level 4 routines easier.
By now, you must wonder why USA Gymnastics has made all these Level 4 changes. The answer is quite simple and even justifiable. They are trying to make the sport more available to more gymnasts. By lowering the entrance level to competition, more gymnasts may participate in the USA Gymnastics competitive system. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the sport. It increases the financial base of USA Gymnastics and the number of gymnasts competing by a very significant percentage. Some of those gymnasts may eventually rise to the top of the sport.
What Does It All Mean?
But parents and gymnasts should know that there are other paths to becoming a high level gymnast other than competing at Level 4. In fact, most of the gymnasts you see on TV were probably not ever Level 4 gymnasts. If it is your goal to become a high level optional or Elite gymnast, then you should be aware of the other paths that are more likely to make that happen.
Count Out the Years
Really good gyms and training programs create high level optional and Elite gymnasts in 3 – 5 years of daily training. That is fewer years than it would take to move from Level 4 to Level 10 (at one level per year) and they are working on harder skills sooner in their career (which is usually a good thing). For gymnasts on the Level 10/Elite track competing at Level 4 may be a waste of a year of their gymnastics career.
Special Elite Strength and Skill Development Programs Available
Elite and level 10 gymnasts often use programs like the USA Gymnastics TOP program and the USAIGC (United States Association of Independent Gymnastic Clubs) STEP program and competitions or their own version of these types of programs. The TOP and STEP programs both concentrate first on building strength and flexibility and then the teaching of high level optional skill progressions.
TOP and STEP Programs Work for All Gymnasts
The truth is that these type programs that build gymnastics strength and flexibility and work on high level skills and their progressions are really the best training system for all types and levels of gymnasts. It is, however, possible to participate in these programs and compete at a compulsory level to gain competition experience. But by far, it is more important for a gymnast’s career to develop strength, flexibility and begin to train on the appropriate higher-level skill progressions.
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