There are countless different acronyms, program names, and organizations when it comes to the world of gymnastics, so much so that it can be hard to keep them all straight sometimes especially for those who are new to the sport. Two of the main training programs that you have probably noticed are the Junior Olympics – or JO – gymnastics program and the Xcel gymnastics program.
While there are other programs like the TOPs program, those sorts of programs are by invitation only. This means that in order to get into TOPs that you not only have to already be learning gymnastics in one of the other programs, but that you have to be doing good enough for a talent scout to notice you and invite you to join the TOPs program.
Therefore, when you are first starting out in gymnastics the choice pretty much boils down to having to choose between the JO program or the Xcel program. If you only live near one gym which only offers one of these programs, then your choice might be already made for you. However, it can still be useful to know what the differences are between these two even if you are already doing one of them, so let’s first take a look at the two programs one at a time.
Junior Olympic Gymnastics
The JO gymnastics program is divided up into 10 levels before you get to the elite level. These levels line up perfectly with the different levels that you compete in as outlined by the USA Gymnastics – which is the organization that controls official gymnastics in the U.S. and is also known as the USAG.
In order to graduate to the next level there are certain requirements that you must meet in order to show that you know everything that you should have learned in each of the four events of the last level. One of these requirements is getting a certain score in a competition of the level you are in, while another one of these requirements is that you have to be a certain age.
The first 3 levels in this program focus on teaching the basics of gymnastics and do not require the gymnasts to compete in any competitions. Sometimes different gyms will get together to hold practice competitions in order to get their gymnasts used to compete and for fun, but these are not required and some gyms do not do this at all.
Levels 4 and 5 in the JO program are called the “compulsory” levels. In level 4 is where the gymnasts have their first competitions which are called meets. In these two levels, however, all of the routines are already laid out. This means that all of the gymnasts will be doing the exact same moves in the exact same routines the whole time they are in these two levels. The same compulsory routines are done in simpler forms for the level 1-3 competitions when they are held.
Levels 6-10 in the JO program are called the “optional” levels. This does not mean that you can choose whether or not to attend the competitions, it just means that in these levels you get to start coming up with your own routines instead of having a specific routine that you have to do. Each of these routines must still have certain things in them for each specific event, but these things can be worked in anywhere in the routine that the gymnast chooses to put them at.
In the last two of these levels in particular there is much more freedom to start choosing what things you would like to learn based on your personal preferences and based on what you are the most skilled at. Though you still have to learn certain things for the other events, this can let you focus more on whichever of the events you want to.
An advanced level 10 gymnast in the JO program does many of the moves that are required in the elite level. This makes the move up to elite much more like simply going up one more level from level 10 in the JO program.
The Xcel program was officially started as a national program in 2013, making it fairly new still on the gymnastics scene. It was created to replace what were called Prep Optional programs, since each state sometimes had their own rules to these with some not really having Prep programs at all this could get confusing.
The Xcel program is the same nationwide and it has more levels to it than the Prep Optional program did. One of its main goals is to make it easy for beginner gymnasts to learn and have fun. This being the case it is often considered to be more of a prep program than it is a complete one. The Xcel gymnastics program is divided into 5 levels. These levels are not given number designations and are instead referred to as: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond.
Competitions for Xcel gymnasts start in the Bronze level as soon as the gymnasts are able to compete and often even before all of the skills needed for the routines are learned. This gets them used to competing as soon as possible which can be both fun and challenging which is the main goals of this program. These competitions can be held year-round with no particular season and you are also allowed to skip levels so that you are competing at the level that best suits your skills.
Each level of competition has certain skills that must be included in it, but if a young gymnast has not learned these skills yet they often still compete and simply have lower scores until they improve. If needed they do not even have to do some of the events at all.
This can be a great option if a young gymnast only wants to learn the bar or the beam because in this program she would be free to learn and compete in just those areas if that is all she wants to do. This can also be a good option to have if a gymnast has a really hard time learning one of the events since they will not be as held back by it.
The Differences Between The JO And Xcel Programs
While you likely can already spot some of the differences yourself just by reading what the two different programs are about, there may have been a few things that you missed. So let’s go over all of these and take a more detailed look at each of the differences one at a time.
The first and most obvious thing that is different between the JO program and the Xcel program is the different names of the levels and how many there are. While the JO program is divided up into 10 different levels that are called 1-10, the Xcel program is divided up into five levels that are called Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond.
However, do not be fooled into thinking that each of the five Xcel levels is worth two of the JO levels. The highest level in the Xcel program is the Diamond level and the skills in it are most like the JO program’s level 6 or 7, with the Gold level of the Xcel program being most like level 4 of the JO program. This means that the JO program continues to get more difficult for four more levels past what the Xcel program does.
In the JO program you must master certain skills on all four events before you can move up to the next level. This means that you can be great at the skills needed on three of the events, but that if you are bad at the skills on one of the events it can hold you back in that level until you can learn what you need to for that event.
On the other hand, the Xcel program lets you choose to specialize in certain events if you want to and is much more relaxed about letting you move up through the levels even should your skills on the other events not be the best. Finally, in the JO program you are not allowed to skip any level besides level 6, while in the Xcel program you can skip any number of the levels so that you can be placed exactly where your skills are.
The first level that you really compete in when doing the JO program is level 4, but the first level that you compete in when doing the Xcel program is actually the very first Bronze level. Also, the other major difference in these competitions is that all the levels in the Xcel program let you make your own routines as long as you have certain skills included.
This is called optional competitions and is vastly different from the way that gymnasts in the JO program compete. Levels 4 and 5 in the JO program are not only the first levels to compete, but they also have set routines that you must do, and you do not get to make your own routines in optional levels until you reach level 6 in the JP gymnastics program.
The other main difference in the competitions is the fact that in the JO program you have to compete in all four events whether you are any good at them or not. The Xcel program, on the other hand, lets you choose to only compete in two or three of the events according to what you want to do.
Time And Commitments
Because the JO program involves learning more skills, this quite often means that you are required to spend a number of hours in the gym training and practicing and that you will have more training sessions throughout the week to attend. This means both more time and more money to do this program. You will also be given stretches and things to work on at home, especially as you progress through the levels.
While the Xcel program does not require so many hours of training, the competitions that it offers can sometimes counterbalance this and often involve travel along with traveling expenses. This can make them pretty much the same in terms of time and money, at least for the first few levels.
However, as you get to the point where there are competitions in the JO program you will have to give even more time to your gymnastics. You will also have to add the money for the travel expenses on top of the often higher cost of training.
The Pros And Cons Of These Differences
The Xcel program is made to be easier and more fun to do and gives you way more options when it comes to picking your routines and what skills you want to learn. Making your own routines can be fun for some gymnasts, but others dislike this and find it difficult to do. So whether optional routines are a pro or con is mostly up to you.
Another reason why starting out in the Xcel program can be either a pro or con according to your preferences is that it can get you used to competing sooner that you would get to do if you were in the JO program. For someone who might have problems with stage fright this might be a good thing. On the other hand, the reason why JO gymnasts don’t compete yet is because they are focusing all of their energy on learning the basic skills.
In other words you will have to choose in this area if it is more important to focus on your training or more important to spend some of the time that would otherwise be spent learning new things on practicing for and attending gymnastics competitions.
Because the Xcel levels are so different than the JO levels, even if you are a Diamond level Xcel gymnast you will still have to start from level 1 in the JO program since you are not allowed to skip any levels. However, you will be able to go up through the levels quickly if you already know the skills, making this only a minor setback which will often end with you being either a level 6 or 7 if you were a Diamond in the Xcel program.
However, this will only work if you have been learning all four of the events in the Xcel program. Due to the more optional nature that the events can have in the Xcel program, you can choose to specialize in a particular event. But if you choose to do this then you will be stuck in the lower levels of the JO program until you learn the needed skills for the other events.
On the other hand, while you cannot skip any levels in the JO program, you are allowed to skip levels in the Xcel program. This means that if you were learning gymnastics in school as an optional class or instead of PE that when the school season is over you can start going to an Xcel program without having to spend any time in working your way up through the levels if you skill is higher than a Bronze level.
This also means that if you decide at any point that the JO is too competitive for you or that for any other reason you think that you would prefer training in the Xcel program that you can switch at any time without having to work up through the levels like you would have to do if you switched from Xcel to the JO program. You would be able to pick right up in the Xcel level that most closely matches your skills.
The fact that Xcel has competitions year round can make this another advantage. Sometimes in the off-season of the JO gymnastics competitions, some gymnasts from the JO program will compete in the Xcel competitions so that they can stay in shape and work on certain things. This is something that is not allowed the other way around, but it can also be a great idea for college gymnasts who are on college teams during the school year and who want to stay in shape during summer vacation.
Basically the Xcel program is great if you want to have a sport that you can do as a kid for fun and to stay fit. But it is not so great should you choose to go pro or to really get into gymnastics to make it all the way to elite status, since at some point you will have to switch programs due to the fact that the only way to get to elite is from level 10 of the JO program.
While the JO competitions are much stricter about what you must include, you also learn a lot more in these levels. When you finally get to level 10 you will be fairly close to the level of skill you will need to make it to the elite level which is from where the Olympic gymnastics team is picked from. So if your dream is to one do be a professional gymnast or to be an Olympic gymnast then the JO program is much better equipped to help you make it there than the Xcel program is.
Along with this are the time and the commitments that each program takes. The JO program takes more time in terms of training, so if you are going to struggle to schedule the practice sessions at the gym then having fewer of these to schedule with the Xcel program can be a much better option for those with limited time.
On the other hand, the Xcel program may offer more competition opportunities, but you actually have to travel to these a fair amount of the time. Some of this does depend on how active your particular gym is in doing these competitions. When a gymnast finally does start doing competitions in the JO gymnastics program, however, there can actually be more competitions that must be attended than there are with the Xcel program.
The JO program competitions may start later but they are much stricter and more competitive. Gymnasts in this program are most often the ones who are after college scholarships and the ones who intend on making it to the elite levels, so these competitions tend to be less about having fun and the gymnasts have much more pressure to do well in the events.
Other Gymnastics Programs And A Little Bit About Them
As mentioned, there are other programs out there besides the Junior Olympic and the Xcel programs, however these two are the most common. Another common pair that you have likely heard about is the TOPs and the HOPES gymnastics programs. Others include but are not limited to Future Stars, Pre-Elites, and a handful of other programs.
Perhaps the most popular and well-known out of all of these is the TOPs gymnastics program. TOPs stands for Talent Opportunity Program and has been around for just over 25 years. HOPES used to actually be called TOPs Elite and the two programs do share many similarities.
One of the main differences between these two is that TOPs can be done in conjunction with the usual JO levels while HOPEs focuses more on its own competitions and training camps, giving its gymnasts more of a taste of what it will be like when they reach the elite level.
Both of these programs are by invitation only. Sometimes this involves a talent scout, but at other times a gymnastics coach can spot their own student’s talent. Either way, after the gymnast has been noticed the next step is to pass a few tests. The purpose of both of these programs is to spot gymnasts that have the potential to make it to the elite level and then to get them there, so the testing is very strict with not every young gymnast that is referred passing.
This being the case, the bulk of the girls that are testing for TOPs are between 7 and 10 years old with very few being older or younger than those ages. The TOPs program has regional tests in June or July and if the young gymnast does well enough here they then go to the national test in October. If they get high enough score there they then get to go to a training camp in December.
The testing is divided by age with the only thing that is required of the 7 year old gymnasts being the 6 flexibility tests that all the gymnasts must do. The first of these is the rope climb one a rope that is 12’ high and without using your legs which are to be kept in the pike position. The second test is holding a handstand for 30 seconds in the right position.
The third and fourth tests are doing a certain number of press handstands and leg lifts. The fifth test is doing a certain number of cast to handstands on the bar, and the last test is to do a sequence of 6 kicks and 6 holds.
Each one of these test is graded on how well the gymnast was able to do it and if they kept the right form. Gymnasts who are 8-10 years old also have to do basic tests on each of the three events besides the vault which they are also scored in.
Once the gymnast passes the testing and starts the either one of these programs, they are in for a lot more hours of training on a weekly if not daily basis. Sometimes, depending on the gym, TOPs gymnasts may not even compete at all other than as they advance in levels because they are focusing all of their energy on their training.
This constant training while doing nothing else can really wear on a gymnast, which is why sometimes a gymnast will drop out of the program after a while. In the HOPES program every gymnast gets re-evaluated every year with the gymnasts who did not do well enough being kicked out of the program. One reason for this is that the training can take so much time that many of the kids who really get into it switch to homeschooling just so they can keep up with their gymnastics training.
While there might be a lot less fun and a lot more work in the TOPs program, it is an almost sure way to become a professional gymnast. More than that, in the 2012 Olympics all five of the women on the Olympic Gymnastics team came from the TOPs program, which is another reason why it can be a good idea to try to get into this program if your goal is to be there one day.