Win Medals? Part III

The idea behind the USA Gymnastics’ Rules and Policies is sound. Below is the second point in the USAG J.O Program policy regarding mobility:

Once a high level of proficiency is achieved at the athlete’s current level, she should strive to move up to the next level, as long as it is done safely.

On the surface, this seems logical. USAG’s point number 1 (discussed in “Win Medals, Part II) states, “every athlete should show proficiency at her current level.” But in point 2 (stated above), they need a “high level of proficiency” before striving for the next level.” Here begin the loopholes for clubs and coaches whose highest priority is winning.

According to USAG, in Level 4, a gymnast must receive a 31.0 (77.5%) all-around in order to move up to the next level of competition. As a USAG coach, I took that to heart, and did not create arbitrary all-around scores for my athletes to obtain before moving up. If at the end of the season, they reached the USAG-set score, and they had a strong enough foundation to safely build more skills, then they had the opportunity to work up to the next level. If they safely had their SKILLS (not a score) for the next level before season, then they were welcome to compete the higher level. I did not expect my least experienced kids to be expert gymnasts, and I certainly did not expect them to be good competitors yet. (These are two different skills – being good at practice versus being good at competition.)

In my experience as a coach, my method puts the onus on the athlete to work for her goals. This gives the athlete responsibility for her own gymnastics. As coaches, we provide the opportunity to work upgrade skills. As athletes, it is their job take the initiative to work them. Also in my experience, when I ask kids what their goals are, they say that they want to compete at a higher level or learn more difficult skills, not be the best at the level they are now, or repeat their current level until they achieve a certain score, no matter how long it takes them.

As a club owner and coach, I have not set an all-around score that my gymnasts must obtain before moving up. However, many clubs and coaches do. The mother of one gymnast says, “A specific coach wanted [my daughter to get a] 37.5 or better and top of the podium to move to the next level. It was frustrating and she was held back three years, even placing 1st in two of the years.”

There is so much wrong with the above scenario that it deserves special attention. Her daughter needed a 37.5 all-around, which means she needed a 9.375 on each event to move up. But not only did she need 94% proficiency, but her daughter needed to be on top of the podium as well. To me, “top of the podium” means first place. To use the metaphor from “Win Medals, Part II,” not only would her daughter need a solid A, but she would need to receive the highest score in her class in order to pass to the next grade level. “I’m sorry; only the valedictorian gets to graduate high school.” This is ludicrous. Parents (rightfully) would be up in arms if this scenario happened in school.

There are two inherent flaws in this concept of achieving an arbitrary high score and first place. One, not only does her daughter need to have the meet of her life, but she has to do it on a day when no one else has the meet of her life. She must not only do her best, but she has to bank on the fact that others won’t do their best. In addition, although there is typically more than one age group in a particular level in a meet, the number of them is finite, meaning that there would only be about 3-10 first-place spots available in any one level. Under this scenario, does this mean that only 3-10 kids, so long as they achieve the requisite score, move up to the next level? What about the kids who all receive 38+ all-arounds, but come in 2nd through 5th place. This isn’t good enough? Not according to these standards.

This doesn’t even take into account the fact that judges vary from meet to meet. Scores are subjective according to the judge and the day; they don’t happen in a vacuum. A 9.375 today could be a 9.5 or a 9.1 tomorrow.

The most troublesome part of the above quotation comes in the second sentence. “She was held back three years, even placing 1st in two of the years.” This child competed the same level for three years in a row. What’s worse, this child won two of the three years she competed, yet was not allowed to move up because she did not achieve her coach’s required score. To what end? Look at USAG’s mission statement for the answer…

To win medals.

One mother of two competitive gymnasts says of her experience with her daughters when winning medals became the focus in her gym:

It was tough on my daughters because we did not expect it [the focus on winning medals]. At first, every medal was exciting – no matter the event or place. Every meet was exciting. Even if they medaled one meet and not the next, they looked at improvement, circumstances, etc. and wanted to keep working at it. Then the team started winning and everything changed. Whereas once my daughter was happy with a few medals a meet and an 8th place all-around, suddenly it was a quest to be 1st place. Her confidence was affected by it. It did not matter how proud we were of her; she was sad because she was not first place. It would be one thing if it was a goal she was working towards, but it felt more like she wanted the validation that her coach would give her instead of the sense of achievement from reaching her internal goal. This really bothered me.

Notice that she says, “Then the team started winning and everything changed.” In my experience and research, when kids are held back until they achieve a certain score or placement, it is for “the good of the team.” It has nothing to do with her ability to safely compete the next level up. What matters is the team score, despite what is best for her as an individual, her self-confidence, motivation, and her gymnastics progression.

The mother of the gymnast who was held back for three years says, “It was emotionally difficult for both of us and I feel it affects her psychologically and emotionally to this day.” As coaches of children, it should be our goal to psychologically build up the children we work with. We shouldn’t be the source of their problems; we should be the ones teaching them how to solve their problems, and teaching them how to be strong in the face of adversity. I ask again, coaches make up these arbitrary rules to what end?

Again, look at USAG’s mission statement.

When one of my gymnasts moved from her old club and began competing for mine, she so wisely said after her first season with me, “Before, I felt like I was losing every tenth. Now, I feel like I am earning every point.” This is gratifying to me; she knows that she is working toward her goals, not toward a coach or club’s goal of winning team trophies. My personal philosophy is such that we are a team of individuals. When we give our gymnasts what they need individually, and they improve, and they work toward their own goals, then then team automatically becomes stronger.

It is true that my team scores were not as high as other clubs’ under USAG, but I didn’t care. My focus was, and continues to be, on each individual gymnast, teaching her how to improve her skills, and how to learn how to compete. I will never hold a child back in order for me to look good, or to fulfill USAG’s mission of winning medals.

Carefully look at USAG’s policy on mobility once again:

Once a high level of proficiency is achieved at the athlete’s current level, she should strive to move up to the next level, as long as it is done safely.

“Once a high level of proficiency is achieved” can mean anything to any coach. To me, it means the 31.0 all-around as stated by USAG. To another gym, it means a 34.0 all-around. To another yet, it means above an 8.5 on each individual event, and to yet another, it can mean a “37.5 and top of the podium.”

“…She should strive to move up to the next level…” means that she might start working upgrade skills as soon as her coach wants her to, and this could include a multitude of different scenarios: maybe she starts working upgrades on her strongest events first; maybe she needs to receive an 8.5 on an event before trying new skills; perhaps she starts drills for upgrades while still competing regardless of score; and perhaps she has all of the skills in the next level up, but she has yet to achieve the requisite score and “top of the podium” designation needed to compete in the higher level. It must be highlighted here that the word “should” does not mean “must” and “strive” means different things to different coaches.

“…As long as it is done safely.” What is the definition of “safely”? To me, it means that a gymnast should work drills and progressions towards an upgrade skill so she forms the understanding of the skill and prepares herself physically and mentally in the process, so as to avoid injury. New skills will not be perfect, and perfection is not a metric of safety.

The loopholes inherent in USAG’s language on this point regarding mobility make it quite impossible for anyone to question a gym or coach’s personal philosophy on mobility to the next level. On the surface, the idea is sound, but by wording this policy the way they have, USAG has taken a hands-off approach to handling any complaints that any gym or coach could encounter, making USAG a paper tiger when it comes to enforcement of their own policies. A solution to this problem is to have a governing body that leaves mobility up to the coaches, yet enforces a strict adherence to a mandatory move-up score (see USAIGC Rules and Policies).

Coaches must take a look and see how their policies are affecting their gymnasts. Do you have move-up scores? Must your gymnasts win in order to move up? Do your policies reflect what is best for your gymnasts, or what is best for your trophy case?

I highly suggest that if you are a parent and you don’t like how your daughter’s coaches or gym owners are handling the situation, or you are concerned about how it might be detrimental to your daughter in the future, then you need to act now and do something about it now, before it becomes a problem for her psychologically or emotionally.

Educate yourself and your family. If your daughter spends 6 to 20+ hours a week in the gym, that is a significant amount of time. You must ensure that it’s for her benefit – time and money well spent. This may include conducting your own research into and asking about your gym’s governing body, its philosophy, and by taking an objective look at how it’s affecting your daughter, her growth in and out of the gym, her self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-motivation.

 

6 thoughts on “Win Medals? Part III

  1. Very well written. I am so proud of your vision and mission. Also Cheyenne was kept from learning skills and kept in a separate group so she couldn’t excel. She would go behind the head coach to open gym and self taught or was assisted to learn skills of the next level. When the coach found out she reprimanded her and told her she was not to attempt new skills until they thought she was ready and they would decide when. There was also the issue of weight. The “larger and older” girls were put in a separate group that was obvious to everyone, gymnasts and parents. Although Cheyenne did well at her level she was not included in the “A” team she was “B” team. This was said by another gymnast. Cheyenne at one time said if she would lose 10 pounds then maybe this particular coach would let her be in the “A” team
    group. When I confronted the coach about my daughter’s perception, her answer to me was” it wouldn’t hurt if she did, but that’s up to her” . She was 12 and weighed maybe 100 pounds and pure muscle. Another parent who was a child psychologist had the same issue with one of her daughter’s because she was larger than the other 2 and the coach would publicly humiliate her and I heard her say one time she needed to run extra laps because she wasn’t watching what she was eating. It was sad to see the child’s response. The “select” were beaten emotionally and psychologically into fear and submission, and feared to be set aside and ignored.

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  2. There was a reason that the coaches were referred as the “Nazi coaches” it was communist country gymnastics training and brutality. Even to this day. A gymnastand parent from their team told me that although they taught how to win, after leaving they said they despised the coach. When she had taken her for shoulder surgery the ortho Dr wanted to know what gym she attended because the injury was abuse and that a child of her age should not have such an injury, it was equivalent to a major league baseball pitcher injury after decades of pitching.

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