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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

TOPS Testing, Is It Enough?

It’s June again, that means it is time for TOPS testing. Gymnasts ages 7-11 who have been identified as talented by their coaches have spent months preparing. The goal for 7-8 year olds is recognition and awards. The stakes are raised for the 9-11 year olds as they try to achieve a high enough score to be selected for national TOPS testing in October which can lead to being identified as a gymnast with elite potential. The TOPS testing includes a flexibility and strength component (physical abilities) and a separate skill component.  Here I will examine why I feel the program is not complete as a standard by which coaches advance gymnasts to higher levels.
 
The TOPS strength and flexibility component includes: handstand hold, 20m sprint, cast to handstand, rope climb in L position, vertical jump, press to handstand, leg flexibility (splits), bridge, leg lifts in L.  Skills are just gymnastics capabilities like back walkover on beam. While specific skill testing is important, the results of a test paint an incomplete picture.  Take two gymnasts, they can get the same TOPS score and have the same visual presentation. One might think the test so easy that it is a joke and another might be compensating her way through the test.  The compensations might not appear visually since such compensations often exist as neuromuscular dysfunction.  Allowing the compensating gymnast to progress on without addressing dysfunctional movement is doing her no favors.  At some point her gymnastics potential will be limited by the movement dysfunction (we have all seen the gymnast that gets stuck on the same skill for a year) or she will be plagued by injuries.
 
A system of pre-screening must be implemented for TOPS results to have the greatest possible validity.   Two examples of screenings in the medical world are eye charts and blood pressure readings.  Both screenings are not to determine what is "good" vision or "good" blood pressure is.  Instead, they are critical tools to determine whether someone is at or below a known standard of functionality.  The only physical screening program in most gyms involves the coach simply determining that the gymnast walked into the gym under their own power, has an acceptable attitude, and can perform skills that look correct visually. 
 
One way to screen is through Gray Cook’s Functional Movement Screen (FMS). The FMS looks at the seven most basic movement patterns.  If the movements cannot be successfully completed in the sterile FMS environment then they are affecting not only what the gymnast is doing in the gym but everyday life.  Once we identify any movement dysfunctions, we can follow an appropriate regime of corrective exercise. Cook recommends the screen being used as young as seven years old, which is the minimum age for TOPS.  Perhaps the greatest benefit of the FMS is that it allows us to attack the body's weakest link of movement.  Most compensations exist in response to weak movement links.  We can eliminate redundant exercises and drills by honing in upon the gymnast's weak movement links.  
 
Currently the FMS is being used as the primary screening tool at the NFL combine, in addition to its use by teams with their existing players.  The FMS is not meant to weed players out of the NFL, it is designed as a learning tool to help teams be proactive in keeping their athletes healthy and on the field.   The TOPS environment exists in the same context.  
 
The second component is the traditional TOPS testing.  Testing is where we examine the body's performance capabilities.  The third and final component would be assessment. With the FMS results in hand and TOPS testing scores, a clear picture is given of the athlete. All of a sudden a coach can understand why a gymnast has been struggling in a certain area or why an injury pattern is occurring. In the end the FMS allows for money to be saved on medical bills, less skill frustration and a higher ceiling of gymnastics potential. This system of screen, test, assess allows for a model that is not just about survival of the fittest or rewarding the best compensators.  Coaches often want to hammer the skills and routines, but we as a gymnastics community need to ensure that our young gymnasts going through TOPS have a sound base of fundamental movement before it is too late. 

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