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Understanding Competitive Gymnastics: A comprehensive guide for parents

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

In the last post we talked briefly about the differences of the Excel and Junior Olympic Competitive Programs. All members of the TGC Team participate in the USA Gymanstics (USAG) Women's Excel Program and the Junior Olympic Program. Both programs have their pros and cons as we discussed in our last post. It is solely USAG's responsibility to provide oversight of their competitive structures, rules and regulations for the athletes that represent the USA in Internationally. Developmental and age group programs are also included USAG's responsibility and direct the Gymnast from the early stages.

Compulsory vs Optional

Athletes compete in either compulsory or optional exercises. Compulsory routines are developed with varying difficulty levels so athletes can use these levels to develop their skills in a set progressive manner. Optional routines are choreographed by the Coach and Gymnast, and are usually unique to the Gymnast while compulsory routines are performed by all Gymnasts in the same manner. Scoring for compulsories and optionals is similar with the exception that the Gymnast must follow an ordered sequence of skills within the compulsory levels.

USAG Junior Olympics

There are 11 competitive levels that make up the USAG Women's Junior Olympic Program. Gymnasts at TGC begins competing within Levels 1 through 5 in the Compulsory Program and/or Bronze and Silver in the Xcel Program. Once again Levels 1 through 5 are a pre-choreographed series of skills that each competitor much perform and are composed of core skills needed for each Olympic Event. The philosophy of these routines is for each athlete to practice towards perfecting the basics. Gymnasts must be age at least 6 years of age to compete as a Level 3 and there is no maximum age.

It is up the Coaches to determine which route best suits the Gymnast. Levels 6 through 10 are considered the Optional Levels (not meaning to be confused with you choose which you compete but they are simply the next levels that Gymnast develop through). Then you have the Elite Level which is for athletes beyond Level 10.

Level 6 is a stepping stone and it bridges the gap between the Compulsory Levels and Optional Levels. Gymnasts have a required set of skills that can be put together in an optional routine. Optional competitions consists of each Gymnast performing their own routines for each each event from a required set of skills at each level which are more challenging to obtain as the level increases. There is a book known as the Code of Points and it dictates what each routine must contain (i.e., routine composition), the value of what is performed (difficulty), and how to evaluate how well is done (execution).

Reaching Level 9 is a major accomplishment for a Gymnast. Level 10 can be considered as a Pre-Elite Level of Gymanstics and is for the truly dedicated and motivated Gymnast. The Elite Level of Gymnastics is the 11th Level of Competitive Gymnastics and is for the truly dedicated athlete. The Elite Level is broken up into 2 categories; National and International. Children and Junior National Elites compete in skills testing and optional routine evaluations. Junior and Senior International compete Optional only. It is from the International rankings that our Olympic and World Champion Teams are chosen.

USAG Xcel Program

There are 5 levels that make up the USAG Xcel Program. The Xcel Program is designed to offer a broad-based competitive experience outside of the traditional Jr. Olympic Program to retain a diverse group of athletes. All routines in this program ate optional routines.


Minimum age 5 - must be this age before she competes in her first competition.

Bronze Level is similar in skill requirements to the Jr. Olympic Program's Levels 1 and 2.


Minimum age 6 - must be this age before she competes in her first competition.

Silver is similar in skill requirements to the Jr. Olympic Program's Levels 3 and 4.


Minimum age 7 - must be this age before she competes in her first competition.

Gold is similar in skill requirements to the Jr. Olympic Program's Levels 4 - 6. Gymnasts are required to to score a 32 All-Around Score at a sanctioned competition before advancing to the Platinum Level.


Minimum age 8 - must be this age before she competes in her first competition.

Platinum is similar in skill requirements to the Jr. Olympic Program's Levels 5 - 7. Here the Gymnast must also score a 32 All-Around Score at a sanctioned competition before advancing to the Diamond Level.


Minimum age 9 - must be this age before she competes in her first competition.

Diamond is similar in skill requirements to the Jr. Olympic Program's Levels 7 and 8, and is the highest competitive level in the Xcel Program.

What to expect at a competition?

Traditional Gymnastics Competition: This is what you see on TV, where the Gymnasts march in and are evaluated on Vault, Bars, Beam and Floor by either 4 or 8 Judges. The reality is not nearly as glamorous as what you see on TV, heavily edited for the market. Prepare yourself; at the beginning levels the gyms are packed with kids, the competitions are typically 3-5 hours per Level or Session competing, and depending on the awards arrangement set by the hosting gym, your child may not get an award at all.

A typical Gymnastics Competition is divided into Sessions; each session contains athletes of one or more levels mostly dependent upon the number of athletes attending the competition. In some instances it can multiple Sessions of the same level, while some are grouped together. USAG does regulate the number of athletes that can be in a Session so this plays a huge role in scheduling competitions.

Gymnastics Competitions are typically run between 3-5 months of the year. This standard across the board for all gyms. The months of the year can vary from gym to gym. Competitions are hosted so that Gymnasts can perform their routines to receive scores and to be competitively ranked locally, statewide, regionally, nationally and even internationally once competing at a level deemed for that recognition. Note that the higher the level the more likely your Gymnast(s) will compete outside of local competitions.

Here is a general overview of a Gymanstics Competition

First is General Stretch which last anywhere from 15-30 minutes level dependent - Gymnasts will stretch and perform a basic warm-up with their team, similar to one from your gym.

Next, Gymnasts will now go to their first event, warm up, and compete. The following 3 Events will follow the exact same format where the athletes rotate from the first event to second event, and begin a warm up, then compete.

Keep in mind that while your Gymnast(s) is a 1 Olympic event the other 3 Olympic events are doing the same, warming up and competing.


Performances will begin before you realize it so it is wise to frequently keep an eye on your Gymnast(s) so that you don't miss their performance.

As soon as all individual performances are complete an Awards Ceremony will commence where Gymnasts will receive awards by rankings based on the scores received on each Olympic event separately.

Athletes will then receive an All-Around performance award based on the combined scores from all 4 Olympic Events.

Finally a Team Award will be granted. Team awards are determined by combining the top 3 Gymnast's All-Around scores within the level competing from each team.

Here is a snapshot of the competition in short:

Open Stretch or General Stretch

March In

Warm Ups and Competitions

Awards Ceremony

Lets talk about a little detail regarding each Olympic Event


Vaulting consists of a run from about 70' - 80' (varies greatly per Gymnast age and height) followed by a jump to a small wooden springing device called a spring board, and flight or pre-flight to an apparatus which looks like a giant tongue held up on metal posts which

is called the vault table. The gymnast lands on her hands on the vault table, in an angled handstand, and pushes off (block aka repulsion or bounces), performs some movement, and then lands on her feet. Vaulting requires extreme quickness, a fast run, a hard push from the table, some cool flips and stuff in the air, and a landing that is stuck. Gymnasts typically perform two vaults; the best vault determines the vault that is awarded a score. At Bronze and Level 1, athletes vault onto a minimum 16” mat. At Silver and Level 2 and 3, athletes use the vault half resi-mat or mat stack in combination to perform the vault and or land the vault. Gold, Platinum & Diamond including Levels 4 and up use the vault table with a landing mat or skill cushion for the landing on the rear side of the vault table.

Uneven Bars

The uneven bars (bars) consist of two wood-covered, fiberglass rails held up by steel posts at different heights and a variable distance apart depending upon the needs and level of the athlete. Depending on the level of competition, routines consist of skills performed in a series of varying difficulty. The gymnasts show large swing skills, kips, casts, handstands, a release and re-catch of the bars, some sort of somersaulting (aka salto) or twisting skill, a dismount to the floor, and a stuck landing. Bronze, Silver and Levels 1-3 only use the low bar in their routines. 

Balance Beam

The balance beam (or just beam) is an apparatus made of steel and padding that is 16.5 feet (or 5

meters) long, 4 inches (10 cm) wide, and approximately 4 feet high. The gymnast will show a variety of skills from dance and tumbling and combine them into a routine which lasts from 30 - 90 seconds which is solely level dependent. Basically they do the same moves executed on the floor except they are confined to a space that is four inches wide. 

Floor Exercise

Floor exercise (aka floor) is performed on area that is 42ft x 42ft (or 12 meters x 12 meters). There is a platform under the carpet which is bonded to foam called a spring floor. Most spring floors are comprised of a layer of carpet bonded foam, a layer of baltic birch wood, and a final layer of baltic birch wood with springs attached. There are over 1000 springs underneath the floor. The girls perform to music; each level of compulsory (1-5) gymnasts perform to the same music; optional levels choose their own music and in Xcel all levels can choose their own music. Typically at Bronze Level the Staff will choose a single song for the Level to use. The routine should cover most of the area of the carpet (inside the lines), must include tumbling, and include lots of dance elements. 

The Gymnastics Judges Job: Scoring (Your guide to understanding

It’s one thing to sit at a gymnastics competition and watch your daughter compete. But it’s quite another thing to understand how the scoring system works. It’s a common complaint/statement from parent's that they simply don't understand Gymnastics. “What didn’t she do right? Why is her score lower than the other girl?” As parents, we rely only on our limited knowledge of the sport for answers. When grasping to find these answers, I find it’s always best to add a little education into the process to shed some light on the situation. 

Here offer what we have learned and scrounged up over the last 8 years on the topic with hopes of helping to provide you with that light. 

Judging gymnastics is complicated and tedious. Parents and spectators need to understand that a judge is only human, and each judge has a different background with a varied level of experience in the sport. Each judge is charged with presenting his or her opinions, used at their own discretion, with a different levels of expectation. The judgment is ONLY an opinion of the performance on that particular day, for 

any particular event. 

Gymnastics judges must pass a test that requires a great deal of studying from a very thick manual (It's no joke, we have seen it!). They must stay current with changes to routines, scoring systems, and keep up with professional growth opportunities throughout the year to be assigned to gymnastic meets (competitions) each season. It’s safe to say that judging gymnastics is not a full time career for most. It is definitely a part-time job, pays surprisingly little money, yet it still requires almost full time effort. It’s also safe to say that most gymnastics judges adore the sport as they were once gymnasts or they once owned or coached at a Gymnastics Club.  

Here in the U.S, compulsory gymnastic routines are universally defined, and have a start value of 10.0 points. The routines, requirements, and penalties are outlined in a book, (aka. The purple book), and each skill or series of skills is given a value. As the athlete performs a routine, the judge notes any mistakes he or she sees using a code of symbols (a uniform way for judges to mark skills performed along with execution errors at any give phase of a skill). Each symbol has a value, and after the routine is complete, the symbols are tallied and this amount is deducted from 10.0.


In Xcel levels, the created routines must contain certain elements. For example, silver bars requires 5 total skills, a mount, dismount, a circling skill, and a cast not less than 45 degrees from horizontal. As long as the routine contains those requirements, it begins with a start value of 10.0. There are a few exceptions to this rule when it comes to vault. Certain vaults have certain start values and changes dependent upon the level in which you are competing. 

Some of the general deductions are “Flat” rate. A fall is -0.50, a change of a small part is -0.10 (like a bent elbow or slightly flexed foot instead of completely straight or fully pointed), omitting or substituting a major element is double the value of the element, an extra step is -0.10, and if a coach assist it is the value of the element PLUS -0.50 in deductions, overtime on the beam is -0.10. Just to name a few. 

Then there are general “up to” deductions, and this is how judges seem to vary so much. For example, leg separation can be “up to” -0.20; a balance error is “up to” -0.30, insufficient split is “up to” -0.20, lack of overall rhythm during the routine is “up to” -0.40; incorrect body position on a major element is “up to” --0.20. 

Then there are penalties for specific skills or a series in the routine that can be set values, or "up to" values. Some examples include: Not placing hands in the correct position on the vault -0.50. Contacting the mat on the vault after the vertical up to -1.00. Hooking the knee on a stride circle -0.50. Failure to show hollow position during a back hip circle up to -0.20. Failure to attain vertical in a handstand on a beam dismount -0.30. Early bending of the legs in beam mount-up -0.20. etc,.


There are literally pages and pages of rules and possible deductions. In fact, it’s a wonder the scores are as high as they are. If judges were to think and write as fast as a computer with a video camera, the scores would be very low by many of our standards. The judges with years of experience usually have lower scores because they have so much practice judging gymnastics events. They “See it” faster, “think it” faster, and “record it” faster. Expectations are often higher because they’ve had the opportunity to witness truly great routines, and are now conditioned to expect it. 

Our best advice for parents and spectators is to simply accept the score for what it is: One person’s opinion of the performance given on that particular day. I would encourage you to focus on the gymnasts performance compared to her own personal best, and if she has competed to the best of her ability on that day. It’s been stated many times, “Parents make the best fan’s” of gymnasts. Just remember it’s not about the score, it’s only about your daughter. Be supportive on good and bad days. This alone will make your gymnastics experience just as fulfilling as doing gymnastics is for your daughter. 

We hope this was helpful for you. 


Can you explain how a gymnast moves from Level 10 to the Elite level? Is it possible to do so without going through the TOPS program? What is the process to become a Junior International Elite? How do you get to the U.S. Classic and the Junior National Championships without already being on the national team?

Bjorn Hermansen
Bjorn Hermansen
Dec 27, 2022
Replying to

1st, I'd like to apologize for missing the notification for your comment. Great questions.

The Elite program is very similar to going "Pro" in other sports, because once an athlete is on the Elite level they can compete in Olympic Trials and or other professional events. Getting to the Elite level can be achieved 1 of 2 ways or a combination of the two depending on the athlete. 1, the athlete can get to the Elite program by going through the Developmental Levels 1-5 and the Junior Olympic levels 6-10. The TOPs program is another route an athlete can take to get to the Elite Level and it is how a great deal of the athletes make it to E…

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