The Willingness to Listen

As a coach and gym owner, I have always made sure that I demand the respect from my gymnasts that such a position requires. They know who is in charge at all times, and who has the final say. However, I do a lot of introspection, and even though I consider myself pretty accessible and easy to talk to, I find that some kids (and some parents) would just rather skip a conversation altogether with me and just deal with discomfort, pain, fear, concern, etc. I may be unrelenting when picking apart a beam routine, or when I know that someone can do a flyaway by herself and truly doesn’t need me to “stand there,” but some of my gymnasts don’t see that I am the person to talk to about a frustration, lend a suggestion about an injury, and that I am willing to help them solve a problem. I was thinking about why this is — why I am so hard to approach sometimes?

For me, the intent of coaching is not only to teach gymnastics, but it is also to teach my gymnasts all-important life skills. One very important skill is for each gymnast to have the self-confidence to stand up for what she believes is best for her. I can see that my role as head coach and gym owner can be quite intimidating for children. If I want to teach gymnasts how to be independent people who stick up for what they believe is best for themselves, then I, as a coach, need to be approachable and welcome input and feedback from my gymnasts.

Inherently, coaches are intimidating. We are in a position of authority, and good kids have a healthy respect for authority. However, if I want to teach my girls to have a voice, then I need to teach them that it is okay to stand up to authority sometimes. I have to make sure that I am receptive when they are willing to say something.

Some kids are just naturally better at communicating than others (in fact, some are too good at it… you coaches know what I mean!). But as a coach, I find that my kids ultimately really don’t want to disappoint me. They want me to praise them and give them props for a job well done, which I do try to do. I’m loud, I give high-fives, we have a chart where gymnasts put up a star for a job well done, and we have other motivational and praise-centered items for the gymnasts.

However, some gymnasts don’t tell me what is going on because they believe that they should just be strong and push through. Some gymnasts just think that I don’t want them to complain and just do the work. Some don’t want to hurt my feelings. Some misunderstand my intensity as unapproachable. Regardless of the type of communicator, the more information I have, the more I can help her in her gymnastics. I can also help her recognize when it is best to communicate, when it is best to keep her head down and work, and when it is best to tell me that she needs to stop. But I cannot help direct her unless she speaks up in the first place.

This is each gymnast’s sport. I allow my gymnasts to have a say in their gymnastics. I want them to be able to talk to me when they are scared or hurt. This is a major responsibility that I must teach them to take seriously. My goal is to help them, and I can’t do that unless they communicate with me. My girls are expected to work hard and give it their all, but they are also expected to come to me when there is a problem.

This doesn’t mean that the gymnast will always get her way. But is does mean that I can cultivate a path for her to speak up. Maybe she doesn’t understand the best way to proceed, even though she thinks she does. Maybe she has a great plan of how to get herself to go for a skill, and I can help her execute it. Maybe she needs to bounce an idea off of me so I can see where she is coming from, whether it’s a place of resistance or fear. In any case, the more she is willing to share with me, the more I can do to help her. But in order for her to stand up, I must be willing to listen, and prove to her that I am.

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