By Zander Arthur Co-founder of Gymnastics USA
Competitive gymnastics can be very time consuming for young children. Spending multiple hours a day in the gym would lead one to believe precious time is being distracted from a young child’s studies. So the simple question must be prompted, how do six year olds all the way through collegiate gymnasts maintain primary and secondary education? Most gymnasts are scholars in their academic careers, but how do they find time for homework, studying, and attending class? The students that make collegiate gymnastics teams usually acquire full ride scholarships. This is not only due to their gymnastics abilities, but also due to their academic success in their time throughout high school. In 2012 NCAA’s Scholastic All-American announced that out of all American collegiate sports, the Southern Utah Gymnastics Team had the highest average GPA, landing at 3.842, followed by the Southeast Missouri State Gymnastics Team, sticking their landing at a median GPA of 3.736, (NCAA, 2012). A shocking achievement. How can these gymnasts academically excel so well in such a demanding sport? The answer; neuroscience.
If we were to test a six year old child and a thirty year old adult on attempting a cartwheel for the first time, we will find that they both will most likely show identical incorrect tendencies and technical errors regardless of age. However, over time the six year old will most likely learn the cartwheel, with correct technique, quicker than the adult. This is largely due to something in neuroscience termed, plasticity.
Plasticity is a term describing that brains are “plastic” defined by “having the capability of changing or molding” while age increases this ability begins to decrease. The discovery of plasticity replaced the formal belief that the brain was a static organ, and our neurological abilities are fixed for the length of our lifetime. Neuroscientists have learned that by doing certain and specific activities the brain can absorb, learn, and localize more efficiently. This explains that neurological strength is dependent on our environment. Relative localization is the discovery that there are aspects of the brain that specialize in certain activities, functions, and abilities. For example the left temporal region of the brain, “Wernicke’s Area,” specializes in understanding language, while the frontal left region of the brain, “Broca’s Area,” specializes in speaking language.
Studies have shown that localization of the brain continues to grow even after the age of six. In fact, it continues to grow throughout adolescence and into adulthood, especially in the frontal and cerebellum regions. These regions are highly associated with balance, coordination, logical thinking, and emotion. Therefore, when engaged in an activity such as balancing on a beam the electrical activity of neurons in the cerebellum become highly activated. The dendrites, information pathways, and synapses in this region are strengthened and then reinforced. Furthermore, balancing (dynamic and static) has been theorized to be therapeutic for individuals with ADD and ADHD, by relaxing over active neurons. In gymnastics the skills called arabesque, LHold, Support Hold, Handstand, etc. are all forms of dynamic and static balance, thus giving way to reduce symptoms of ADD and ADHD, signifi cantly improving academic behavior. For example, balancing on a beam is in a sense balancing your emotions. According to relative localization, the cerebellum (an area of the brain that is highly involved in balance) also controls emotions. Therefore, with emotional balance a student can focus on a tedious or difficult subject without getting emotionally frustrated.
Visual Perception helps shape and exercise ocular musculature. Skills like jumping to grab a bar, bear crawling across the parallel bars, or focusing on a spot while jumping trampoline are all examples of practicing visual perception and ocular motion. This can help students with focusing their sights on more than one object, for instance the teachers white board and the student’s notes, which in a real way, can thus promote notetaking skills.
The general observation that competitive gymnasts tend to excel in academics is a phenomenon that is explained by much more than discipline, organizational skills, and dedication learned from the sport. As exampled above, we see that a cademic success can be contributed to physical activity and explained through neuroscience.
As a professional gymnastics coach I recommend the sport of gymnastics to all children, whether for recreational or competitive purposes. In a technologically savvy world our youth spends more time on their computers and technological devices than doing actual physical activity. While the technological devices prove to signifi cantly help cognitive growth, sensory motor activities are being reduced. As research continues to indicate, it is imperative that schools continue to support physical education and after school activities that require fine and gross motor skills, the type of skills and exercises that no other sport or activity can better provide for, than the sport of gymnastics.