Why Gymnastics? Part 3 of 3


The Socio-Emotional Benefits - Part three of a three part series


As discussed in the previous blog it has been established that organised youth sports play a vital role in childhood psychological development. This developmental characteristic can be advanced alongside social well-being, facilitating higher levels of emotional control and social adequacy through childhood participation in physical activity (1). As a result of such findings, researchers and governments have invested increased interest in the role of out-of-school time as an opportunity for children and adolescents to learn and develop competencies (2).


The model of Positive Youth Development (PYD) has been developed as a proactive approach, defined as the ‘development of personal skills or assets, including cognitive, social, emotional and intellectual qualities necessary for youth to become successfully functioning members of society’ (3). The PYD focuses on optimal youth development which is considered a way to enable individuals to lead a healthy, satisfying and productive life as youth which continues into adulthood, facilitating increased competence to earn a living, engage in civic activities, nurture others and participate in social relations and cultural activities (4). Considering the model’s focus on optimal development it is believed ‘good youth’ are created, with the belief more positive than negative experiences will be encountered, consequently increasing life satisfaction and enabling youth self-awareness, fuelling the utilisation of their strengths to fulfill pursuits, ultimately creating youth who are contributing members of society (4). The PYD discusses the youth strengths which can be manifested through the promotion of the Five C’s: competence, confidence, character, connection and caring (5). The PYD’s ultimate goal is to prepare and engage youth in opportunities that will provide them with the necessary strength and qualities to flourish in the future (3).


Organised activities can provide the youth opportunities to experience PYD (6) with sport being the most popular organised activity in which youth engage (7). Evidence surrounding PYD in the sport context suggests results may be unique as structured physical activity nurtures PYD outcomes (3). From an applied perspective this research provides a strong argument for bridging the gap between research and practice, ensuring the youth sport context is effective at recognising and facilitating holistic youth development (3). It is thought that youth sport programs are most likely to result in the development of the 5 Cs when they involve positive and sustained adult-youth relationships, youth skill-building activities and opportunities for participation in and leadership of community based activities (5). This new PYD approach envisions young people as resources rather than problems for society with the emphasis surrounding potentialities rather than the supposed incapacities of young people (8).


1. Regular participation in physical activity positively impacts academic performance


Participation in physical activity and academic achievement is an association that has been consistently demonstrated in school-age children with the inverse suggesting lower levels of fitness and activity may predispose children to poorer health outcomes and subsequent lower levels of cognitive health (9). Links have been developed between youth sport participation and: school grades and attendance; choice for demanding courses; time spent on homework; educational aspirations during and after high school and college attendance (4).


When considering gymnastics specifically, it has been established that gymnasts manifest enhanced levels of academic performance (10) with evidence suggesting that gymnastics undoubtedly influences the positive development of cognitive control (11). Cognitive control is defined as the prioritisation of information which allows for goal-driven decision-making (12). Gymnastics participation nurtures this developmental characteristic through the required learning and repetition of specific physical movement sequences following verbal prompts such as: in, out, top, bottom, left, right, under and over with sometimes more combined, complex and successive commands; furthermore there is also the demand for children to remain on task and perform such activities even when distractions are present (11) testing their attentional capacities further.


One hypothesis surrounding the theory of how physical activity enhances academic performance is through the alteration of many physiological processes, including: the increase of blood flow to the brain, enhanced arousal levels, altered hormone secretion, elevated mental alertness and improved self-esteem; however, further research is required to adequately assess the validity of the assertions (13).


Researchers have concluded that ‘a key function of extra-curricular activities in the early elementary grades is supplemental enrichment’ with separate research demonstrating that a moderate amount of extra-curricular activity in Year 1 was related to higher social competency and fewer externalising behaviour problems up to year 5 (2). This moderate amount was defined as being between one and three hours a week (2), suggesting that participation in one recreational gymnastics class a week is adequate enough to positively impact academic performance in young children.


2. Gymnastics promotes social-emotional development


Social-emotional development includes the child’s experience, expression, and management of emotions and their ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others; encompassing both intra and interpersonal processes (14). It has been considered that a link may exist between cognitive control and social-emotional development, which as previously discussed is positively influenced through gymnastics participation (11), perhaps suggesting that it is through the development of this mechanism that promotion of social-emotional behaviour occurs in gymnastics.


Sport provides opportunities to practice important social skills such as: sharing, turn-taking, cooperating and negotiating, encouraging the development of values such as fairness and respect (10;13;15). Sport gives children the opportunity to meet and communicate with different people, fostering positive peer relationships (4,13) and the chance to experience emotions that are not available in the rest of life (13). The positive benefits of youth sport participation demonstrate lifelong implications with a positive correlation shown into adulthood with effects on career achievement (4).


Gymnastics in particular can be seen to positively influence youth social-emotional development, leading to the use of gymnastics as an intervention for enhancing social-emotional development in young children with better peer and adult interactions reported (11). It can be considered that peer relationships are an essential element of young people’s sport experiences, and that social acceptance and affiliation are important components in determining the extent to which children enjoy their sport participation (17). The ability to form and maintain interpersonal relationships is a major developmental task associated with adolescence which seems to be specifically crucial in the development of the female identity, with evidence suggesting that women define themselves in terms of their interpersonal relationships (18).


Gymnastics provides a unique and valuable social education and experience with many successful female gymnasts found to be individuals who pursue success (Motive to Achieve Success (MAS)) rather than avoid failure (Motive to Avoid Failure (MAF)) (10; 16). The MAS is related to the capacity to experience pride in one’s accomplishments and is characterised by a desire to challenge oneself and evaluate one’s abilities, whereas the MAF relates to the desire to protect one’s ego and self-esteem (16).


Social interaction is the experience that helps children become more cognizant of others and more logical in their thinking processes (15). Social interaction also helps the child leave the egocentrism of childhood behind (15). Movement and physical activities invite social interactions and foster children to share experiences for further exploration, mutual understanding and compassion among children (15).


3. Self-regulation behaviours are developed through gymnastics


Self-regulation is defined as the capacity of an individual to exert control over their self as well as the ability to exert self-control over particular behaviours or actions, preluding the child to increased success when executing that action (19). This behaviour is important to develop in youth as lapses in self-control can result in an inability to adhere to behaviours and actions (19).


Gymnastics has been seen to develop self-management within children through the requirement of them to sit quietly when listening to instructions, wait patiently for their turn at an activity and stand in line without excessive movement (11). In terms of specific gymnastics skills, the long time required to attain mastery of the fundamental skills requires patience, dedication, perseverance and planning, ultimately requiring children to develop a work ethic which enables them to strive to reach objectives that can take years to achieve (10).


Successful adherence to exercise has been shown to be a function of self-regulation with failure to self-regulate implicated in desistance and drop out from exercise programs, therefore suggesting that physical inactivity may result in self-regulatory failure (19). This evidence implies that maintaining a regular schedule and committing to weekly gymnastics classes can aid in the promotion of self-regulation behaviours in gymnastics, and life. However, this association could be questionable as when it comes to youth, it is not so much their choice to come to gymnastics class every week and more so the decision of their parents.


4. Gymnastics promotes the nurturing of good childhood behaviour


Children as young as five have demonstrated increased good behaviour when participating in extracurricular activities including but not exclusive to gymnastics, when compared to their inactive peers (2). This finding is linked to the promotion and development of cognitive control, self-management and self-regulation, which as previously discussed are all promoted and developed through gymnastics participation; this is due to the learning environment that young gymnasts are part of, thus exposing them to different people and experiences, ultimately enhancing their development (2). The increase of good behaviour demonstrated by participation in extracurricular activity is best displayed in children who complete between 90 and 180 minutes of extracurricular activity per week as it is thought this amount of time allows children to benefit from learning new skills in different environments, however, still leaving plenty of time for playing, relaxing and enjoying their childhood (2). Furthermore, research from the UK has found that ‘structured exercise’ can help children with a reduction in detentions, improved communication and leadership skills and general behaviour improvements (17). Additionally, the same research suggests that sport is an effective tool in alleviating deviant behaviours among children and youth if the sport is delivered through positive, supportive and non-authoritarian approaches (17). This research once again demonstrates that participation in weekly recreational gymnastics classes can also aid in the attenuation of negative youth behaviour.


5. Gymnastics is FUN!


To conclude, it can be seen that in order for PYD to be effectively developed through sport it must be deliberately worked towards by coaches, parents, sports organisations and policy makers (20). All youth sport coaches have the capacity to nurture the qualities, skills and attributes necessary to facilitate the development of youth who become productive and contributing members of society (20). Currently most youth sport programs are structured to improve performance and in doing so fail to achieve lasting sport participation and personal development (20) perhaps suggesting a downfall in youth sport with key developmental opportunities being missed due to a skewed focus on child performance rather than participation.


Overall, it is suggested that the relationship between time spent in extracurricular activities and positive child and youth development is non-linear (2), suggesting that even a small amount of weekly participation in organised recreational gymnastics classes is beneficial for your child. A lack of participation in sport and physical activity may result in a child having neither the opportunity to pass time positively, nor the opportunity to develop and learn physical, mental and sport-specific life skills vital for development (21). When combining the findings of the last three blogs it can be seen that gymnastics participation is unequivocally positive concerning the three main areas of child development: physiological, psychological and social emotional.




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