Gymnastics

Kids are learning from us, even when we least expect it!

How many times have you heard anyone in gymnastics, or sports in general, say that kids can “learn so many life lessons” by participating? As a coach, I hear it all the time, and I read about it all the time.

If you have kids, or if you coach kids, and you’re interested in providing the all-important life lessons to the children around you, then you must take this to heart.

Kids are constantly learning, absorbing, observing, and listening (even when it doesn’t seem like it). They watch us, they hear what we say, they take in what we do. They observe how we react to things, and how we handle ourselves in sticky situations.

Kids are learning from us even when we aren’t expecting them to. As coaches, parents, and leaders in their lives, we need to remember that they are constantly soaking in our behavior and words. We are their role models, and we all need to remember that there is a kiddo lurking in the background learning from us when we least expect it.

I write a children’s gymnastics book series called Gym Rats. There are five books so far in the series, and I am re-launching all of them, beginning with book one, Basic Training! If you are interested in the life lessons that gymnastics has to offer your kids, then this is the book series for you. Subscribe to my blog or friend me on Facebook (or both!) for updates and great new deals coming your way!

Gymnastics, USAG, USAIGC

2018 USAIGC World Championships

Part 2

While publishing this post, “the United States Olympic Committee has filed a complaint…against USA Gymnastics, seeking to revoke USAG’s recognition as a member National Governing Body of the USOC.” This action is long overdue, and will be the topic of my next blog post.

The 2018 USAIGC World Championships meet, held in Orlando, Florida in June of this year was a culmination of our six-month-long inaugural competitive season under the umbrella of USAIGC. As a gymnast and coach, I have been at USA Gymnastics’ (USAG) State Championships, Regional Championships, Westerns Championships, and National Championships. The differences in the World Championships and the rest of these meets highlights differences in the two programs. The USAIGC World Championships is an expression of the USAIGC program as a whole – it’s an accurate and refreshing expression of what IGC claims to be and what competitive gymnastics ought to be.

To begin, in reading the “About” page on USAIGC’s website, one gets a sense that the organization is in it for the development of children into well-adjusted adults, not just star athletes.

Our Competitive Program provides an environment that fosters and nurtures the attributes of a sound mind, sound body leading to successful, healthy and well-rounded gymnasts. Our Competitive Program is built on long-term skill development with the intentional slowing down of our gymnasts’ learning curve providing them the necessary time to develop and perfect gymnastic skills in a safe, logical, progressive manner within our recommended training hours per level. Over-training is the number one reason gymnasts leave our sport. Our Competitive Program provides our Gymnasts with ample time for school responsibilities, family activities and an outside life with friends. Life is about experiences and the USAIGC/IAIGC provides a positive well-balanced Competitive Experience for ALL of its USAIGC & IAIGC Gymnasts.

Contrast this with USAG’s website, also taken from its “About” page, which is trying to right the wrongs of its distant and recent past by playing “catch-up” with its corruptive atmosphere:

USA Gymnastics is committed to creating a culture that empowers and supports our athletes. The organization has and will continue to take specific and concrete steps to promote athlete safety and prevent future abuse by vigorously enforcing the USA Gymnastics Safe Sport Policy, which requires mandatory reporting; defines six types of misconduct; sets standards to prohibit grooming behavior and prevent inappropriate interaction; and establishes greater accountability. Other efforts taken to strengthen that commitment include establishing a dedicated, toll-free number (833-844-SAFE), the safe sport email address (safesport@usagym.org), and online reporting to simplify the process for reporting; building a safe sport department that is developing a comprehensive education plan for members; and adopting bylaw amendments to provide the basis for further developing our safe sport programs and governance. The Athlete Assistance Fund, established by the National Gymnastics Foundation, provides financial resources for counseling services for any current or former gymnast who was a member of USA Gymnastics and suffered sexual abuse within the sport of gymnastics.

It is obvious that the two organizations vary greatly in their focus and mission. USAIGC is clearly proactive in its attention to promoting a positive and safe atmosphere in each of their member gyms with the decisions they make and the values they present. Their clear intent is to put children first, and to give them the best possible life through their involvement in USAIGC’s program. USAG, on the other hand, is unquestionably reactive in its approach to explaining who they are. They focus their attention on making up for the wrongs they have committed, and giving members resources to turn to in the case of past and future abuse. In no way does their webpage provide a prospective member the feeling of security and confidence that USAIGC’s page does.

Being a part of USAIGC for over a year, I have found that the organization lives up to its promises. When Paul Spadaro took over in 2001, a background check on every member club’s employee and volunteer over the age of 18 was mandatory. This was groundbreaking in gymnastics at the time. In contrast, for USAG, background checks were only mandatory for those coaches and judges on the floor at competitions, leaving open many gaps in knowledge about many coaches and volunteers (which is what Larry Nassar was) within a club’s walls. USAG has since updated their policies, however, only as a result of the backlash of the largest sexual abuse scandal in sports history.

As a new member club in 2017, we hosted a Rules and Policies clinic for all clubs and judges interested in being a part of USAIGC. Judges are required to be recertified every two years. The recertification is free, and it is held by USAIGC’s Technical Director, Mary Bakke-Spadaro. This recertification ensures that the judges are keeping up with rule changes, that they are scoring correctly, and are applying the rules the way in which they were intended.

As such, Paul and Mary are extremely accessible, and they are willing to answer emails or calls immediately. I have even received a response from Mary on a technical question while she was on vacation! Contrast this with USAG’s past CEO, Steve Penny, who allegedly tabled complaints regarding Larry Nassar, and is now formally indicted and charged with removing and/or destroying documents related to Nassar’s investigation.

Paul and Mary Spadaro walk the walk when it comes to USAIGC. They believe in what their program stands for, and they back it up in every move they make in the program; their program makes sense, and they know it does. What’s more, they believe that gymnastics is more than the ability to flip and twist; there are important life lessons inherent in the sport, that we have the responsibility as youth coaches, to be teaching the kids we coach.

USAG, on the other hand, produces many rules that they fail to enforce. Their competitive structure is one that is rife with abuse, and the main focus of competition is not on learning valuable life lessons, but on winning medals and team trophies.

The USAIGC World Championships meet welcomed gymnasts from all over the United States and other parts of the world. Gyms heralded from Canada, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. Next year, Germany will be joining us. At the meet gymnasts swapped t-shirts with kids from other parts of the world, something that they will forever remember. This emphasis on camaraderie versus competition was evident among the relationships that the gymnasts forged with one another at the gymnast parties, as well as on the competition floor. Coaches extended helping hands to one another, and we truly got along very well with our competitors. The competition was friendly; we were all in it for the same reasons – the kids.

Why does this difference between USAG and USAIGC matter? Whereas USAG breeds an expectation of uniformity among its member clubs where beginning mandatory levels of competition require that all gymnasts perform the same routines and skills, USAIGC highlights the independence of its member clubs, which is inherent in its optional-only program. Each rule that USAIGC has intelligently tweaked reminds us that this is a kid’s sport, and we are in it to help develop and protect children. In it, kids learn about winning and losing with dignity and grace. Kids aspire to improve their skills, and they are rewarded for it. They learn to push themselves for themselves, and not for anyone else, or out of fear of their coach or governing body. These differences remind us that gymnastics is not just something that wins us medals and team trophies; it teaches us how to confront obstacles, make goals, and work hard to strive for them.

Ultimately, it is refreshing to be a part of a program in which the season culminates with a meet where the emphasis is on the benefits of the kids. I am proud to be a member of a competitive gymnastics organization that continues to strengthen the lives of its athletes. I am also proud not to be a part of a program that is just trying to not ruin the lives of any more of its athletes.

Gymnastics, USAIGC

Celebrating High School-Aged Gymnasts

A month ago, I had the opportunity to take my high school-aged gymnasts to New York City for a competition. We had a fun and exciting weekend, with 14-year-olds and older. A parent chaperone and I took the girls on the subway, saw Yankee Stadium (albeit by accident), saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, saw the entire city from the observation deck of One World Trade Center, went to Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and all the other touristy things five ladies can cram into a meet weekend. We had a great time getting to know one other better. The gymnasts roomed together, in a separate room from the chaperones. We treated them like the adults they are becoming.

As parents and coaches, we want our kids to get all the positive things out of gymnastics: something productive to do, self-discipline, time management, a healthy lifestyle, drive, determination, a positive attitude, a healthy outlook on life, learning how to win and lose gracefully, getting up after falling down, goal-setting, seeing things through, mental well-being, etc. The greater amount of time that kids can stay in gymnastics, the more opportunity they have to learn these important life lessons from the sport. These are the rewards that we should seek for our gymnasts as parents and coaches. As each child is different, so are her abilities in the gym. Regardless of her innate talents, however, we have the opportunity to impart the above valuable life lessons in every gymnast.

Of course, I believe in goals, goal-setting, and following through to reach those goals. I also believe in setting large and long-term goals. However, when the ultimate and only reason to do gymnastics is to get a college scholarship, parents and coaches are setting their gymnasts up for possible defeat and failure. This perspective, coming from a former NCAA gymnast, probably sounds strange.

According to USAIGC, “statistically there are between 2-2.5% of athletic scholarships available per year. There are 4.5% – 5% academic scholarships available per year.” That’s not many! We have to look realistically at the possibility and probability (in a real, statistical sense) of the award of a college scholarship, especially to the Division I school of the gymnast’s choice.

In my experience, parents, coaches and gymnasts who tout a Division I scholarship as the ultimate goal for gymnastics, do so prematurely. When this desire is first uttered, the gymnast is generally young, excited, and in love with gymnastics with all her being. At this point, she doesn’t even know what it necessarily means to get a college scholarship. At this stage, parents and gymnasts forget that the gymnast has to grow up first, making it into and out of middle school. And despite all the potential they might have, they have to use that potential and make it to a high level first, before college. Their desire and ability to stay injury-free, must remain. Most competitive gymnasts fizzle out and peak before high school!

The USAIGC website states,

Our Competitive Program provides an environment that fosters and nurtures the attributes of a sound mind, sound body leading to successful healthy and well-rounded gymnasts. It is built on long-term skill development with the intentional slowing down of our gymnasts’ learning curve providing our gymnasts the necessary time to develop and perfect gymnastic skills in a safelogical, progressive order with recommended training hours per levelOver-training is the number one reason gymnasts leave our sport.

In order to make it to college-level competition, a gymnast (and her body) must make it through high school. That is a toll many gymnasts’ bodies and minds cannot handle – fast growth, plus a high level of gymnastics is many times a recipe for injury or burnout. USAIGC’s philosophy on slowing down the skill learning process is just what gymnasts need to thrive, build the skills necessary, peak at the right time, and have the drive and physical ability to continue in the sport for another four years past high school.

We need to celebrate gymnasts at the high school age so more gymnasts have the drive to make it. It’s fine to make college the goal, but let’s make it one of the sub-goals – the icing on the cake. Let’s make it to high school first, then through high school and all the drama that comes with it: puberty, homework and grades, teenage angst, change in attitude/personality, friends pulling them in different directions, dating, and all the other interests teenage girls develop during these integral years.

College gymnastics has to be more than just the way to pay for college. Kids could just get a job and have it much easier. College has to be the gymnast’s goal, not the goal or a threat by mom and dad that “you’re not going to college if you don’t get a scholarship.” That’s an inordinate amount of pressure to put on a 12-year-old, who hasn’t even gone through puberty, a growth spurt, or even entered high school yet!

USAIGC gets it right: they offer a unique meet to celebrate the accomplishment of gymnasts continuing to compete into their high school years. It doesn’t matter what level the girls are in – it’s not just for the highest levels. What matters is that they are still in the sport, despite all the odds stacked against them. We need to remember that gymnastics is difficult day-to-day, let alone year-to-year. Remember that a gymnast in her first year of high school has eight more years of gymnastics left if she competes in college. That’s a longer period of time than most 9th graders have been in gymnastics total! Society demands that our children commit to college before they even enter high school. (And deems them failures if they don’t follow through.) So much changes during these important formative years in a child’s (not just a gymnast’s) life. As adults, we need to have realistic expectations and take the pressure off. Most gymnasts don’t make it to college on a scholarship. Most gymnasts quit by the age of 12. Let’s give our girls a well-rounded childhood so they can make objective, long-term, and realistic decisions about their future – with or without gymnastics.

Gymnastics, Junior Olympic, USAG, USAIGC

Win Medals? Part I

3DDF96DC-DB68-41D2-903D-E349D4EA419DThe above is a snapshot of USA Gymnastics’ mission statement in their Women’s Program Rules and Policies through the end of 2017. For many years, the first two words of their mission statement were “Win Medals.”

Five years ago when my husband, Marc, and I opened our gymnastics club in Tucson, AZ, we were not planning on competing immediately. We wanted to attract recreational kids and teach them sound progressions, and bring them up to compete, eventually, when they were ready. But even though we weren’t planning on competing yet, we found it a necessary component of our business to be a member of the governing body for gymnastics clubs in this country.

The only option we had in Arizona was USA Gymnastics. I hesitated to be a part of it, as from my experience, it was difficult for my philosophy and coaching style to thrive within USAG’s parameters. There was another association, available in other parts of the country, that sounded like it fit my philosophy better, but it did not exist in Arizona.

Even though it was USAG’s top priority, our goal was not to “win medals.” Our philosophy was, and it continues to be, to provide kids of all levels of ability sound gymnastics instruction and all the positive life lessons that participation in a great sport like gymnastics can provide. I had a positive gymnastics career. I had positive club coaches, and I had a positive experience in college gymnastics. I wanted to pass that on to as many kids as possible.

We teach sound progressions and technique in our gym. Some kids take longer to understand and apply these techniques and progressions, so their gymnastics is not perfect. And as coaches, we believe that it is okay and perfectly acceptable to have children who are imperfect. A child is learning. A child should not be expected to be perfect. Perfection is a topic inherent in gymnastics training, especially when dealing with elite athletes. I’ll reference this topic in future posts.

On the surface, and in reading USAG’s past and current Rules and Policies, it would seem like our sport’s National Governing Body provides logical and reasonable parameters for entry-level gymnasts in its Jr. Olympic Program:

A. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, fairness to all athletes and competitive balance, the mobility system within the Jr. Olympic Program should be followed in the manner that it was intended:

  1. Before moving up a level, every athlete should show proficiency at her current level.

  2. 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.

  3. For athletes to repeat a level with the intent to gain an advantage over other competitors or teams IS NOT in the spirit of the Jr. Olympic Program or youth sports in general.

(2013-2020 USAG Women’s Program Rules and Policies, Chapter 8)

What happens if the “mobility system within the Jr. Olympic Program” is NOT “followed in the manner that it was intended”? My competition experience has proven that this is more often the case than not.

In Parts II-IV, I will call attention to USAG’s negligence in enforcing their own rules and policies, how they look the other way when gymnasts and entire teams outscore others by competing perfect routines at the beginning levels of competition, and how this contradicts their supposed adherence to good sportsmanship and the spirit of youth sports. I will demonstrate how the organization is detrimental to the “unknown gymnast,” the young gymnast who is not destined to be an elite athlete, the gymnast who goes to the gym three or four days a week because she loves the sport, loves her teammates, and wants to learn more. These are the little girls who aren’t highlighted in the newspaper or the best-selling books, who don’t have a voice, and who are affected everyday by the policies that USAG makes up and then chooses to ignore.

In the mean time, please feel free to read my “Gymnastics Manifesto,” prompted by our club’s recent experiences in USAG’s Jr. Olympic Compulsory Program.