From my position in the audience, sprawled on a mat, there are gymnasts spinning, jumping and soaring across my whole field of vision. To my right the floor routines; beyond which is the beam; straight ahead the vault run-way to the vaulting horse, which stands in the background of the uneven bars which I turn to my left to see. All in the same image, I see someone swinging through the air, another gymnast bounding along and a third wheeling away. Well-ordered as it is, the sheer movement of bodies makes it feel like I’m at an acrobatics display at the circus.
In amongst these twirling bodies, the slightest and most fragile looking of them all, is the one & only daughter (1&onlyD). The event is her gymnastic club’s annual competition. It’s a closed event, taking only members of the club – in fact the boys and girls who practise alongside each other twice each week, forty weeks a year, for two hours of conditioning, and technical practice. 160 hours of practice and barely two hours of competition.
At the same age – nine – no. 1 son was playing a football match each Saturday morning and training one evening each week. A ratio of one hour competition to one hour training. Eighty times more competition, relative to practice, than his sister.
What is the right amount of competition for juniors? It depends on factors such as age, competence and the sport itself. Gymnastics is a technical discipline where the performance is the execution of a tightly planned series of moves. Practice edges the performer closer towards perfection. Football is a fluid activity, where players respond to and seek to influence the flow of play. At all levels of these sports, gymnastics will have a higher proportion of training than football.
The right amount of competition also depends on the individual child. Some kids shrink in the face of the ordering and ranking that competition implies. Children of that nature should be spared that discomfort or they may never happily engage in sport.
My kids, perhaps led by no.1 son’s example, revel in competition. Games only engage them if a winner is to be found. Mundane activities such as eating tea with good (ha!) manners come alive if there are scores to be awarded. Conversations may loop in all directions, but eventually swoop back towards establishing who’s better, what’s bigger, faster or more popular.
I wonder how the 1&onlyD continues to motivate herself without the regular challenge of competition. The answer isn’t hard to find. She’s gradually mastering more and more moves; in recent weeks: backward walkover on the beam, back flick on the floor and soul circle into upstart on the uneven bars. Golfers compete with the course. The 1&onlyD is continuously taking on the apparatus and challenging her own body to greater contortion, exertion and courage.