As a gymnastics coach and former gymnast, I have come to understand that I had a unique childhood experience – I had a very positive club atmosphere despite the fact that I was a high-level athlete for eight years. It saddens me to know that I find mine to be the anomaly in the experiences of many successful gymnasts. This is an article I wrote, explaining why I coach gymnastics.
I began coaching gymnastics when I was 16. I was a level 10 gymnast, the only one in my gym at the time, and I thought it would be fun to help little kids learn how to do gymnastics. I continued to coach through high school and in the summers during college. When I graduated, I became the program director of a local gym in my college town. At the age of 22, after learning my college teammates’ stories, Iunderstood that I had a very positive gymnastics experience. My mission then, and my mission now, almost 20 years later, is that I want to share my positive gymnastics experience with as many kids as possible, to provethat great success is possible in a positive environment. I was successful (four years at level 10, four years as a Division I college competitor), and I was not abused physically, emotionally, or sexually on my road, unlike somany high-level gymnasts, as we have recently come to find out in the aftermath of the USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar scandal.
Throughout my career, nothing was perfect; I became injured, and I wanted to quit a few times, like most high-level athletes. It was hard work, and I worked hard. It was hard because I had big goals for myself, and I wanted to reach them. In order to do that, I had to go to the gym and to meets rather than go to football games and prom. I did homework nearly every open minute I had in order to maintain straight A’s. I was extremely careful about the food I put in my body. The difference for me, compared to many other gymnasts my level was, my coaches and parents didn’t put these pressures on me. They did not abuse me to get results; I pushed myself.
Despite many successes throughout the years, my love was not competition, but in everyday practice. I wanted to get better, to learn more, and to be the best I could be in the gym. If I did well in a meet, then that was frosting on the cake.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my coaches asked me if I wanted to compete elite gymnastics. After a couple of days of weighing the possibilities, I decided, that no, I was happy as a level 10. Over those two days, I examined why I did gymnastics, and realized that it was because I truly loved learning harder and harder skills. In elite, I would have to conform to compulsory gymnastics once again, and, frankly, given the option, I didn’t want to doit. In level 10, there were no limits to what I could do difficulty-wise, and I also didn’t have to ever do compulsory gymnastics again. It was a win-win in my opinion. But the beauty of that situation was that my parents and coaches(who I’m sure would have loved to have an elite athlete) gave me the choice.
As I continue on with a life in gymnastics as a gym owner, coach, and gym mom, I am coming to grips with the fact that my gymnastics experience growing up was an anomaly. There are very few high-level competitive gymnasts who grew up in my positive environment. I can understand that as a high-level athlete, a gymnast must be pushed. I was pushed — but never was I trapped.
The closest I felt trapped was a period going into 6th grade when my mom wanted me to try another gym — a higher-level gym — to see if I could really excel. It was really her decision to move me, but I obliged and tried it for the summer; I hated it. Although my mom did not want me to, I quit. And although she did not think I made the right decision at the time, she ultimately left me to choose, and it was the biggest decision I had to make in my young life. I quit the sport altogether for a year.
After my sabbatical, I returned to my original gym and loved the sport once again. Down the road, I was faced with the possibility of trying another gym again: when I was in high school, my coach told me that he had never taken a gymnast as far as I had the potential to go, and he understood if I wanted to leave and go to a more advanced gym.But, he told me, if I stayed, he would learn right alongside me and help me reach my goals in the sport. Once again, I had a choice. I stayed.
In my senior year of high school, after having sat out for six months due to a back injury, I sat in the kitchen talking to my mom about whether or not I wanted to continue the sport through college. Did I want to put myself through four more years? We talked about how hard it was on my body, how difficult it was to come back from injuries, and just how much time and dedication it takes to be a high-level gymnast. We sat there and had a very honest talk. She helped me examine all sides, and made it clear that whatever I was to decide, the choice was mine. It was one of the best decisions I have made in my life, to stay in the sport four more years and accept a college scholarship.
I was never on the path to Olympic greatness, and I never trained elite. I was just a run-of-the- mill level 10 gymnast who loved flipping and twisting. I worked out 20+ hours a week, chose not to go to prom or other school functions, and I have never thought of that as a sacrifice. Instead, it was what I chose to do.
In our “all or nothing” culture, it may be easy for parents and coaches to get caught up in a gymnast’s potential. We need to step back and remember that it is the kids who are doing the work, putting in the time and dedication, and they have to choose the path their life will take. We are helping to guide their lives, but we must refrain from forcing them. It is their goals that must remain the focus. We may not like every decision they make, and we can try hard toguide them in what we think is the right direction, but ultimately, it has to be up to them to make the goals and do the work. Allowing kids to make decisions is one of the best things we can do to create strong and independent people. And when they understand that they are doing the sport for themselves, only then can they truly love it.
This article appeared in Gym Rats Magazine.