The Fab Five may have captured the imaginations of America during August’s Summer Olympics, but gymnasts at Middlesex Gymnastics Academy are fueled by more than just imagination.
“It’s about discipline, learning, maturation,” said owner Howard Bernstein. “There are many, many benefits to it. The secret agenda is to get these kids into better physical condition.”
For three decades, MGA has been working with gymnasts young and old on not just competing and winning awards, but on becoming better athletes, more fit, and on learning maturity and responsibility. The academy offers classes for girls and boys recreational gymnastics, tumbling and trampoline, rhythmic, team gymnastics and climbing lessons on its own indoor climbing wall.
“There are probably 65 professional gymnastics schools in state of New Jersey, and I think we’re probably the only one of all those schools that offers the vast array of team programs,” said Bernstein.
Bernstein’s career as a gymnastics instructor began when he was the assistant director of a Jewish community center. Having competed at the University of Arizona, part of his job was to teach physical education.
Soon after hiring a former Olympian from Russia to help instruct, he found that he and his partner were teaching 400 to 500 kids. Seeing a good thing, the pair opened the Monmouth and Middlesex gymnastics academies in 1976. But about 20 years ago the pair split up and Bernstein took the Middlesex Academy.
Since then, he and his staff have helped gymnasts young and old master tumbling, flipping and leaping.
“It’s a fantastic developer of the physical well being of a kid because it requires every variety of physical fitness,” said Bernstein. “It isn’t just strong upper body or lower body, it helps kids increase strength and flexibility and coordination for putting together moves. It teaches them how to function as a member of the group, it teaches them how to respond, respect and learn from an instructor and most importantly, we always say this, it’s to have fun."
During his career, Bernstein has learned that finding competitors able to achieve a high level of success on the national and international level is not easy. That is something he and others like him have to deal with all the time, especially when business booms after Olympic gold is struck by America. When those athletes are discovered, they are usually sent to trainers throughout the country that are better able to work with them.
“Some girls come here four times a week and if any of them develop, to tell you the truth we don’t have the superior coaching that would be able to develop them to a Olympic level, so like most schools in the country these kids kind of migrate to these specialty schools,” said Bernstein.
In fact, even finding athletes to compete at a high level in state and high school competitions is difficult, which is why the academy offers a wide variety of programs for competitors and for students just taking gymnastics for fun.
“The vast majority of children that attend here are enrolled in instructional classes,” he said. “There’s another 5 to 8 percent who display talent and ability and some of the other ingredients that we like to see in terms of emotions, strength and drive and motivation and parental support.”
Several teams at the academy are modeled after the requirements used by high school programs. The JOGA Program (Jersey Optional Gymnastics Association) is one of those programs. JOGA allows gymnasts to compete on the optional level by having them perform their own routines to their own music so that they can focus on their own strengths.
“Anybody that its in a competitive program really has to have a lot of flexibility and a lot of strength and athletic ability and coordination. Usually we can tell right away if the kid has the potential. In some cases the kids come here for a year or two and taken lessons and if the're very mature and trainable and they work hard they might qualify for one of our competitive teams.”