Gymnastics in jeopardy?

That tremor in the high school sports world felt Monday came from the tightly-knit gymnastics community.

Participation in gymnastics has been falling steadily the last 20 years. Could the sport be on life support? That’s what some fans can wonder about after the IHSA released its minutes from its recent board meeting Monday. The board changed its guidelines for adding or deleting a state series.

From the IHSA Web site:

“Guidelines for Adding and Deleting State Series Programs

1. The Board will entertain proposals to add a new state series when ten percent of the member schools engage in regularly scheduled competition in the sport or activity.

2. When the minimum required participation level is demonstrated and proposals to add a new state series are considered, the Board shall (a) consider the growth potential of the sport or activity, and (b) consider the equity criteria included in the classification policy in determining whether to add the proposed new series.

3. The Board will entertain recommendations from staff to consider deletion of an existing state series when no less than ten percent of the member schools participate in the series and/or engage in regularly scheduled competition in the sport of activity.”

In a statement, IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman said:

There has been a great deal of outreach from the state’s gymnastics community to our office and Board members since it was announced that this item would appear on today’s (April 20) Board agenda. I want to reiterate that there are currently no plans in the works to eliminate any sports or activities. We have not eliminated a program in the 19 years that I have been at the IHSA and there is currently no intention to change that. We feel that the current policy can trap our Board and Association, especially when adding new sports and activities in the current economic climate. What this policy is intended to do is to protect against starting a new sport or activity with numbers that are just above the required threshold and then experiencing a massive withdrawal due to budget or other unforeseen circumstances, which leaves us with an event that this significantly underrepresented by our member schools. Again, this change does not trigger any changes to any current sports or activities.

A casual observer would wonder why the IHSA would change its guidelines if it wasn’t intending on using it?

Gymnastics has a reason to worry. The state had 65 schools participate when the IHSA last kept track in 1987. That number is down to 52 in 2010, which includes competitors competing as individuals without teams and I’m not sure how co-ops are included in that figure. Several teams are co-ops, teams combined from multiple schools. The co-ops are helping keep the sport alive though some coaches believe co-ops have an unfair advantage in state competition. The all-time low for state participants in boys gymnastics was 48 teams in 1999 and 2000.

Girls is slightly better off with 106 schools in 1989, 86 schools in 2009 and an all-time low of 84 schools in 2009.

When it comes to gymnastics knowledge, I seek out Hinsdale Doings sports writer Bill Stone (right), who is the co-director of the State Gymnastics Stats Web site. The IHSA is using 10 percent membership as the benchmark or having a state series. Stone said boys gymnastics schools represent five percent of the membership and said girls gymnastics is higher at seven to eight percent.

“I got a call Friday from someone concerned that the IHSA might do this,” Stone said. “If they eliminate gymnastics, we’ll round up the troops and at least go down with a fight.”

Gymnastics has two things against it: 1) Its high cost for equipment in a time when schools are facing major budget problems, and 2) the lack of qualified coaches that by my estimation is the most difficult of all sports to coach at the high school level.

By comparison, the IHSA is adding lacrosse as a state series next season, but with participating schools at 65 for boys and 40 for girls, I think more and more schools will be adding that sport in the future. That isn’t the case for gymnastics, which is already dying out at the collegiate level.

High schools already know finding coaches is at a crisis level. Most of them coach both boys and girls gymnastics, many times serving as head coach for one sport and as an assistant coach for the other.

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