You’ve all heard it before. Kids perform better in an environment that is supportive, caring and nurturing. By the time most coaches read the prior sentence, they’ve already begun to roll their eyes. They say “that isn’t how you make champions” and “good athletes.” They remark on how parents are “soft” nowadays, and are not willing to push their children.
During rotation changes at gymnastics meets, I will shift my focus away from my group, and all too commonly one kid is sitting out of the gym having been kicked out, another kid is getting yelled at, and another crying. All too often in gymnastics, we grow up accustomed to the culture that most of us have been raised in, and we take the culture of silence and obedience for granted, forgetting to be critical of our ways.
We state that crying and being “disciplined” (if that’s what you want to call it) is simply “part of the sport” and if you don’t like it, you can leave. Kids are criticized for being lazy, for not giving any effort, and for not “listening.” As adults, we do not stop to think that the kid being “lazy” might not be strong enough for the conditioning regime we’ve developed, or that the kid not listening might not understand what we are telling them to do. It is as if we forget what it was like to be a gymnast. To have fear, to work hard, to not like someone in our training group, to be tired after school, but still having to go and train our little hearts out.
Some of the supposedly “good coaches” I have encountered throughout my time in the gymnastics community have been yellers and screamers, known to throw kids out of the gym and make them cry. I’m not saying a little crying is inevitable. It definitely will happen as kids face their fears and emotions in the gym on a day-to-day basis, working through their mental blocks and internal struggles. What I am criticizing is the culture in gymnastics (and more generally, in sports) that has enabled the almost abusive behavior to thrive for so long. We pride ourselves on being the most disciplined sport, where the sacrifices to do gymnastics are glorified, and where injuries are taken as a natural progression and, in a way, a necessity as a rite of passage to the next level.
The first step in any culture change is taking a step back and trying to analyze the situation from a more distant perspective. Do any of your athletes have potential to go elite? What about the other kids? What do your athletes want out of the sport? This really does vary according to level, goals and age. Regardless, every athlete deserves your attention and respect. It is up to you to coach to the individual.
I have repeatedly heard coaches complain about their athletes, without even taking the time to reflect on what THEY can do differently. Last year I had a child who I had to go back to square one with when teaching skills, gradually building up each separate, individual step to the point that it felt ridiculous. However crazy it might have seemed to other people, however, that child ended up competing her designated level that year.
Along with that comes having realistic expectations for each child. One kid in the group might be aiming to win states or provincials, while another kid’s goal might be to not fall on a skill they’ve been struggling with in practice. It is important to set realistic goals and expectations for each child, and to acknowledge that their competition will be mostly reflective of their training (to an extent — mistakes do happen). Generally, if the kid does not execute certain skills well in practice, it is unreasonable to think that come competition those skills will magically become perfect.
Speaking of practice, as a coach, I strive to have a lighthearted training environment that is serious when needed. Time for bars? The athlete should think hard about their turn right before they go, as they execute skills, and concentrate to the best of their abilities. Between turns, it’s okay to have a laugh at the chalk bucket, especially if their next turn isn’t coming for a little while.
I also continually stress to my kids quality over quantity — the deal is, we do fewer routines and less conditioning if what they do is executed well. If not, we continue to stay on those skills or continue conditioning until it is done properly. Not only does this kind of mindset build respect in the athlete-coach relationship, but it also gives the kids some empowerment, that if they choose to properly complete the task at hand, they get to move on. Once kids have completed assignments, sometimes I let them decide what they want to work on if we have a little extra time. It’s amazing that most of the time kids as young as nine will pick to work on skills they know need work in their routines.
Perhaps the most crucial thing I’ve learned in my coaching career is that as coaches, we are first and foremost coaching people. Most kids will have quit the sport by the time they reach high school. Think about the kind of person you want to help build up outside of the gym walls. Are they nice to their teammates? Do they have good social skills, empowerment and high self-esteem, respect for themselves and authority figures in their lives? All of these qualities are far more important than how many kips they can do in a row, or how they scored at level 8 regionals.
Coaches and athletes alike, it is very easy to get wrapped into caring about scores and placements, and getting frustrated when things don’t quite work out. Regardless of results, at the end of the day, you as the coach cannot control who shows up. The scoring might be tough that day, the competition might have an outstanding day, your kid might have their best meet ever and it still won’t be good enough to make a team.
All you can try to do for your athlete is instill values that will help them succeed in life, when the flipping days are simply memories, and the leotards they once wore, outgrown. At the end of the day, we are firstly coaching people and then gymnasts, not the other way around.
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