Male gymnasts continue to outnumber their female peers in New Zealand teams selected for pinnacle events and a former Olympian says the disparity won’t change until Gymnastics New Zealand changes its approach.
Junior gymnastics is dominated by girls but a higher percentage of the boys who take up the sport get a shot at the elite level.
New Zealand will send a team of seven gymnasts to the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
The athletes selected includes 30-year-old Misha Koudinov who competed at his first Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006 as a 14-year-old and will bring up a record fifth Games appearance.
Koudinov is joined in the men’s artistic team by Ethan Dick who has been chosen for his second Games and newcomers to the New Zealand team Sam Dick, William Fu Allen and Jorden O’Connell-Inns.
Rhythmic gymnasts Paris Chin and Havana Hopman round out the team.
The 5-to-2 split of male and female athletes for Birmingham mimics that of the New Zealand team selected for the last Commonwealth Games in 2018.
At last year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, Koudinov was the only artistic gymnast New Zealand sent. He was joined by trampolinists Maddie Davidson and Dylan Schmidt.
Former Olympian and Commonwealth Games competitor turned coach and general manager of Tri Star Gymnastics David Phillips said physique as well as training methods played a part in why more men than women gymnasts represent New Zealand.
“Historically men have peaked physically and in a performance sense when they’re adults and so their experience as younger athletes is a bit more relaxed and they’ve been afforded the time to develop.
“So that helps them to balance training with school and university and at the time that they’re reaching their physical maturity conveniently that’s when they’re peaking as international athletes as well.”
Gymnastics New Zealand came under fire in a 2021 review into the culture of the sport for the treatment of athletes, which was an issue facing the sport globally.
Phillips acknowledged there was now a shift in the way Gymnastics New Zealand and coaches approached the development and support of female athletes.
“[In the past] there has been a drive to develop kids really young and because it is such a technical sport it necessitates hours in the gym and that is shown to be in direct conflict with our culture certainly in New Zealand where we really encourage athletes to try out multiple sports .
“There are a whole lot of junior female athletes out there with lots of talent so the challenge that we have is to try and retain them through into that elite space and just trying to figure out what are the challenges that the athletes are facing and what are some of the drivers to them leaving the sport and to see if the sport can make some adjustments.
“Because it is a shame for them to have trained so many hours and be so good at a junior level but not continue in the sport into that senior space.”
Koudinov said his own history in the sport had influenced the way he now trained independently with the help of technology and Phillips’ role was more of a consultant than a traditional coach.
“When I was growing up my father was my coach, so your father is around you in the house, he’s around you in the gym it gets too much so maybe naturally I develop in that way because dad is always around I wanted some of my own space, “Koudinov said.
“Once you’re a bit older in sports it does have to come more from yourself, the coach is there as a guide but obviously the enthusiasm and the motivation that’s the responsibility of the athlete. I’ve loved the sport my entire life and naturally I want to progress whether I have a coach or not. “
Now a third generation coach himself – and a father to a one year old daughter – Koudinov had clarity about what it meant to be a coach in a sport that is changing.
Koudinov leads the men’s program at Tri Star Gymnastics and coaches two of his Birmingham team mates – Sam Dick and Fu Allen.
“The role of a coach is to tailor make the advice and the training program depending on the athletes, no two bodies are the same, no two people are alike mentally so it’s just about getting to know the athletes individually and creating that relationship.”
For all that the two-time Olympian had learned in gymnastics he said he had more fun now than when he was a junior athlete.
“I’m enjoying the challenge of learning new skills. In gymnastics there is six pieces of apparatus and each one with hundreds and hundreds of possible skills and of course it gets extremely difficult so I like the thrill of chasing a challenge and figuring out the puzzle of how can I make those things happen with my body. “
As Koudinov entered the twilight of his gymnastics career he hoped the changing pathways at Gymnastics New Zealand allowed more athletes of both genders to follow in his footsteps.