Say what you mean, sure. But how do you say it?

I wanted to write about coaches and athletes but after my first re-read of this post, I see that the same article applies to parents and their children as well.  When you read this substitute the words “Home” and “Kids” for “Gym” and “Gymnast”, you’ll see what I mean. The point is still very valid either way.

How important are the words that we use during a workout in the gym?  Obviously clear communication is always of prime importance so both gymnasts and coaches understand what to expect on each attempt of a gymnastic skill.  But, are we really saying what we mean? Or better yet, are the athletes really hearing what we mean to say? 

On a typical day in most gyms you may hear language of this sort: “You idiot, can’t you get it right!”  You didn’t stick it!” “Don’t bend your legs!”  Before going too far, let me point out that my first example is more likely (if you are in a gym of any worth) the inner dialogue a gymnast may have with him or herself. The last two examples could come from the coach or a parent. In any case, it’s the culture that allows and encourages or eliminates and discourages this type of phrasing.

Classic comments from gymnasts like, “I can’t“, or the infamous, “I’ll try, but...” are quite common in most gyms. The range of excuses and negative comments are as varied as the gymnasts who say them.  Coaches too can be heard saying things like: “Don’t chop your steps“, and  “Your back is too arched“.  A better way to put it might be “stride out a bit more” and “Pull your tummy in” But from an instructional standpoint: we, at Gymfinity, try to use what’s called a positive sandwich. So our way would be to say “Next time, try to lengthen your stride” (instruction), “you seem to be chopping your steps a bit” (pointing out error) “so let’s pick up some speed and stride it out.” (reinforce positive instruction).  Or “Let’s use some of that amazing ab strength (+) your picking up big arch at the bottom of the swing (-) so pull in on the middle, Tighten up the abs (+).  We have found that though you shouldn’t ignore the error you can wrap it in positive instruction.  We don’t dwell on the mistake. That would be like telling a skier to “ski down a hill but don’t hit the tree“. While your skier is picking bark out of their teeth you can reflect on why that instruction didn’t work the way you meant it to. 

Unfortunately this method of communication continues to reinforce the undesirable behavior (bent legs, hitting a tree, etc.) so it occurs again and again, or maybe, in the case of the tree, once is enough. Coaches and gymnasts alike need to concentrate on what they want, not what they don’t want to have happen.  For instance, when a gymnast attempts a skill and has poor form some coaches respond with, “Don’t bend your legs“.  All the gymnast hears is “bent legs” and that is what they are thinking about the next time they make an attempt.  More examples? Try this. DON’T THINK OF A PINK ELEPHANT. Don’t even think of a gray elephant.   I’ll bet you did.  In the same way that my instruction caused you to think of an elephant (pink or not), coaches can cause their gymnasts to concentrate on the reverse of what they want.  This is the same principle that keeps smokers from being non-smokers. They concentrate on not smoking instead of the positive aspect of clean, pure lungs.  It’s why obese people stay big.  They keep thinking of all the weight they have to lose, rather than the slim body they desire.

Gymnasts and coaches alike should concentrate on a positive orientation in communicating and thinking before attempting each skill.  Positively oriented directions such as “keep your legs straight” focus on what you want. That will get a result more efficiently thanthe negative oriented statement. I will say that negative will work. It will work slower, with more frustration, but it will work. It may cause your gymnast to lose their love of gymnastics and they may quit. Then, no one wins, but it worked, right? At least that coach got what they were working toward. (That’s sarcastic).

  When attempting to gain feedback from the gymnast, coaches need to instruct them in the proper method of reply.  For instance the coach asks: “What do you think you can do better next time?”  The appropriate reply would be: “Next time I will keep my legs straight.” Definitely not: “I bent my legs.” That response only reinforces the bent legs.  You cannot concentrate on the reverse of an idea and expect it to be rectified.

In keeping with this theme there are certain questions a coach never answers, such as: “What am I doing wrong?”  The correct form of the question is “What can I do better next time?”  Coaches need to consistantly correct the form of the question and tell gymnasts why it is important to ask positively oriented questions. 

In this post I do not mean to negate the very real need of a gymnast to indicate his/her fear or apprehension in attempting new skills.  Statements like, “I’m scared”, indicate genuine concern on the gymnasts part for his/her safety and need to be heard and respected.  A gymnast asking her coach for assistance is always appropriate.  In such an instance asking for an additional spot is a positively oriented direction/action.  

I see you shaking your head: those of you who have heard me coach might think that I am talking one theory and practicing another. My relationship with my gymnasts is more akin to being a big-brother figure and thus there is give and take with gentle ribbing. My team knows that is how I show my care and concern as well as genuine compliments and positive instruction. If you listen to me coaching, you will hear a lot of questions as I use a more Socratic style of teaching. You will hear some teasing too, but you will always hear a sandwich of positive instruction. 

Most of this post deals with what is actually spoken out loud in the gym, but it  is also applicable to the running mental dialogue or “self talk” we continually hold with ourselves as well.  As a parent or coach monitor yourself for a time and see how often you talk to yourself about the things that you don’t want, and realize gymnasts do the same thing.  As the adults we need to make every effort to change negatively oriented statements as soon as they occur, this will take continuous practice, but it can be done especially by a coach/parent who cares as much as you (did you notice the sandwich?).  Now is the time to do an about face and only concentrate on what you want.  The mind will work to achieve your currently dominant thought regardless of what it is – think only about what you want.  

As I tell my gymnasts “we may not always get what we want but we will always get what we expect.  Expect to do it right, expect good form and strong technique. If it goes wrong, focus on the fixing not the error.”  Easy to say but hard to do. Try it today at home, see how you do.

Leave a Comment