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The US Gymnastics TOPs Program
TOPs stands for Talent Opportunity Program. This program is designed to identify those girls between the ages of 7 and 11 who show special talent in gymnastics and who are not yet enrolled in an elite program or training for international competitions.
Girls are first identified by the respective gyms and coaches as having the potential for further training. This usually means that girls show talent in flexibility and strength; however, both can be improved with further training in the TOPs program. TOPs is a separate program from any other training, including team training programs, and therefore requires additional time. An extension is Baby TOPs, which is for girls who show talent but haven’t made it to any team training level.
Once identified as having potential, the girls are briefly tested by their coaches to identify any gaps in their skills. The purpose of the program is to provide training to correct these deficits. The training class also works on flexibility and strength through specific conditioning exercises.
At the end of each training year, the girls are tested on their skills. This TOP testing takes place over the summer, in the months of June and July. First, girls are tested locally in several skill areas; and if they succeed in performing at the highest level, they are invited to national testing. It’s a chance for them to compare their performance with other girls in their age group across the country.
Girls test at the age they will be in a given calendar year. For example, a girl who will be 8 in November will test at the 8 level even though they will only be 7 at the time of testing. Testing is available for girls from 7 to 11 years old. (A similar program called HOPEs, aimed at pre-elite girls aged 10-12, is available.)
The skills tested vary from year to year as the program is constantly revised and revised. Currently, strength and flexibility tests include the following: right and left leg splits, bridges, vertical jumps, 20-meter sprint, pike position rope climb, leg raises, handstands, handstands, and handstands. The requirements for each skill vary depending on the age of the gymnast. The target for handstands for girls aged 7-9 is 30 seconds, while for girls aged 10-11 it is 60 seconds. Girls aged 7-8 try to complete 5 handstands and throws, while girls aged 9-11 must try to complete 10 of each. Everyone should aim for 20 leg lifts. Goals for flexibility, jumping and timed running and climbing are more difficult to define, but all girls are encouraged to complete all of these skills in their best time and distance. Although no artistic points are awarded for any particular skill, they may be penalized for poor form such as bent knees, arched handstands on casts, etc. This occurs more often at the national level.
At the end of the testing season, results will be published and gymnasts are placed into different levels. For girls aged 7-8, these are gold, silver and bronze, with the top 10% having diamond status. This category equates to national testing status for older girls; however, they do not test nationwide. Girls aged 9-11 receive gold, silver and bronze, and the best girls qualify for national TOP testing. National testing is taking place in Texas. At the conclusion of this testing, the top 60 athletes are selected for Team A to go to camp with Bela Karolya as their coach, all expenses paid. Another 60 athletes make up the B team and are invited to attend the camp, but must pay their own way.
Although approximately 50% of gymnasts on the US National Team go through the TOPs program, it is not a guarantee that any girl will succeed at this level. Many factors will affect a gymnast’s performance at a given time and place.
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