Gymnastics: It’s Hard, It’s Supposed To Be Hard!
You can PLAY hockey, you can PLAY football, you can PLAY waterpolo, but you don’t PLAY gymnastics.
All sports require some level of resilience and toughness in order to climb the ranks. When we look at gymnasts, it is safe to say that they are a special breed. Eleven year old girls with bloody callused hands that look like that of a landscape labourer with 30+ years on the job is just one example. These kids work, hustle, crash, cry, then get back up and do it six more times before moving onto the next event. Then just when you think they can’t do any more work, they finish off the night with a conditioning circuit that resembles a military training scene out of a Hollywood blockbuster.
I recently put out an article regarding the need for cultural change in the sport of gymnastics. I want to make it very clear that I am not saying gymnastics shouldn’t be hard and that we shouldn’t have high expectations and a certain standard of work. Of course we need these things in order to reach potential heights. What I am saying is that we need to choose our course of action wisely. Our current state of cancel culture makes for some pretty thin ice for coaches, even the ones making the right choices. We are in a day and age where we as coaches cannot (and should not) push our athletes to do anything that they do not want to do. It is our job to inspire, motivate, and empower our athletes to make these choices on their own, then, once that choice is made, guide them toward their goals with our technical expertise.
That all sounds relatively common place and easy enough to understand. But where this becomes tricky is although the coaching process is under change, the parents expectations have yet to change along with it. So coaches are put between a rock and a hard spot. I have seen parents go after coaches for being “too tough”, and I have seen families leave gyms in pursuit of “better/faster” results, only to go after the new coach for being “too tough”. Do you see what I’m getting at here? If you don’t like McDonalds, go to A&W, but don’t get upset when A&W tells you they don’t make Big Mac’s.
Gymnastics isn’t all sunshine and rainbows; the higher you climb, the more dangerous the skills become. With risk, comes rules. With safety, comes standards. These things can be taken in the wrong context and come across as strict, demanding, or unfair to athletes and their parents. We need to keep in mind that this isn’t golf, if you miss a shot you can lose a lot more than your favourite ball.
I have always coached with the motto of, “you will never be great at something you don’t enjoy doing”. I use this as an audit for myself and my athletes anytime I am feeling stuck for a lack of progress. I ask myself am I enjoying this? If the answer is “no”, I can guarantee the athlete is also not enjoying it and I need to change the situation. If I answer “yes” I will then ask the athlete(s) if they are enjoying it, if they answer “no”, then it is time to change the situation.
Being a great gymnast is NOT easy, and it is not always going to be “fun”. But that is why is takes a special athlete to truly excel in the highest levels of a sport as demanding as gymnastics. It requires an athlete that finds joy in the struggle, an athlete that takes pride in the pursuit, and athlete that rises up in the face of fear, an athlete that values hard work over results, an athlete that has GRIT!. Coaches can teach the skills, and provide some inspiration. But at the end of the day, it has to be the athletes that lead the way. Your value and identity as a coach is not defined by the level of your athletes, but rather the impact you make on your athletes during their short time in the sport, and onward into the rest of their long lives.
Coaches, parents, and athletes let’s remind ourselves of the real purpose behind participating in youth sport.
- Physical literacy and development
- Overall health and fitness
- Social interaction and networking
- Learning the value of hard work
- Learning the value of community through teamwork
- Learning how to handle failure
- Learning how to win graciously
- Learning how to get up after you fall
- Learning how to follow instructions
- Learning the value of respect and discipline
- Development of self confidence
- Above all HAVE FUN!
If you are going into youth sport thinking you are going to the Olympics, or getting a full ride scholarship, you will likely end up disappointed. Enjoy the process, embrace the struggles, make some memories, and above all HAVE FUN! If you make it to the highest levels, GREAT! If not, who cares? Hopefully you can leave the sport with life skills and values from the list above to carry on into your life after sport.