I was recently in Florida to visit my Dad and he told me of a friend’s son who was a great gymnast but was considering leaving the sport. His parents were saddened because they are so proud of his accomplishments and prowess and hate to see him leave something that has given him so much success. Garrett is 11 and compete’s as a Level 4 gymnast in northern Florida. My Dad asked if I would be willing to offer some advice to him or his parents, and the more I thought of it the more I was sure of what I wanted to say.
You see, I was Garrett. I was a little older when my crisis came but the circumstances are probably the same. There is a brotherhood of gymnasts because we all have similar experiences and can truly empathize with each other in a way that other athletes might not comprehend. So I decided to write to Garrett. So, Hi Garrett, you have no idea who I am and why should you listen to me? I don’t know. But I do have something to tell you.
Great picture. Even your form is good and that’s unusual for younger guys in the gym. I can tell you work hard, it shows. I run a gym and coach way up here in Wisconsin, and I mostly coach girls, but I have been through the evolution of the sport and my journey led me to being here and doing this; and I have never been happier. I can honestly say that all the good things in my life have come, in one way or another, from gymnastics. I won’t bore you with all that fluff, but I wanted you to know that I do have a credible opinion on the sport, and being a guy, and a little bit on guy’s gymnastics too.
I heard that you are thinking of quitting gymnastics. I understand. Believe me, I have had those times when the soreness and pain just weren’t worth it and I felt like giving up, but I didn’t. I don’t have any amazing “overcoming adversity” story to inspire you but I can tell you a few things from an outsider’s perspective.
There are many benefits to gymnastics and I could list a bunch of them: strength, flexibility, confidence, social development, understanding physics, goal setting, drive, determination blah blah blah. I could explain how kids in gymnastics statistically stand above their peers in grades and academic achievement, or I could explain how it’s statistically safer than many other sports including football, basketball, soccer, swimming, skating and even golf (sorry Dad) but it is slightly more risky than bowling. Ha ha, but seriously that’s not what you should hear, that stuff isn’t important to you, is it?
Gymnasts have 3 things to train, Garrett, in order to succeed; their head, their body and their heart. I know that you know that, even though you’re only 11, and even many parents and coaches don’t get that, do they? We have to train our heads to understand our sport. We have to “get it” and we have to know why things happen when we do them. Why does the bar launch me up when I push it down? Why do my feet need to be in front of my body when I hit a spring-board? Those basic nuts and bolts tell us how to do our skills.
We have to train the body; we have to be strong and flexible and powerful. Our friends don’t know all the time we spend stretching splits or bridges. They don’t know how many rips you had learning to swing high bar or how many back handsprings you’ve done to be able to do even one without a spot. They don’t know all that, they just know you can do some pretty cool “tricks”. Right? The truth is; other kids play without any gain of something productive, no skills learned or goals accomplished, but gymnasts play for a reason. We grow stronger, smarter, more confident and better every time we “play” in the gym.
The hardest part to train is the heart. On days when we are sore, or frustrated, when we cry because skills aren’t coming as easily as we want them to, when stretching hurts we need to still see the love of our sport above all that. When your friends are going to a movie but you can’t go because you have training, you need to remember how doing gymnastics makes you feel. When you feel like your friends are distant because you were not around when that “really funny thing” happened, you were at the gym, you need to feel inside that it’s worth it. I know that, inside you, you know it’s true. It’s worth it. I know because you have done it this long. I know you’ve had successes, those don’t come easy, but it feels pretty good to hear your name called for an award. It feels great to go to the podium, just you, and have that medal placed around your neck. You don’t think about the rips and stretching pain then, do you? But you should. You should remember what you did to get there, that’s important. It feels good to be noticed for something that you’ve done. And believe me, even when you don’t get called, people are noticing.
I remember missing out on stuff because I was in the gym too. It still happens now, my friends do stuff after work, but I train. I train other kids now, but the schedule is the same. I know how being this way can sometimes make us feel alone. But we’re not, we have gym friends and they are great because they are going through the same things we are going through. One time we had a team shirt that said “friends are like silver but team mates are like gold.” It’s kind of the same idea and I feel like it’s pretty true.
I bet your school work is top-level. I bet you’ve get your homework done before most kids even open a book. Study and hard work, the stuff it takes to make a great student, those are things you already have in abundance. That is something you do, that will pay off in the long run. In fact when you go to college, you could train in the gym, finish your studies and then still have time to win all the chicks from the guys who just wasted time and have to study late. My sons are 7 and 3, so I don’t know, is 11 too young to think about girls? Well, whatever, some day it will be important, and the ladies will totally love your muscles. But I digress.
This is a long letter, Garrett, and if you’ve made it this far in a single sitting then you are truly an exceptional 11-year-old. So let me sum up so you can get away from the computer and do something productive. When my team kids do something, say like 25 pull ups, the encouragement starts, not at the first pull up, but around number 20. I ask them, “you already did 20, do you want to give up now?” The hard part is the part where there is no encouragement, it has to come from inside. Sometimes our inner coach is on break, when we need him to push us and keep us going, he may be silent. That’s when the heart we trained kicks in. That’s when the last 5 pull ups get done. That’s what wakes our inner coach, and makes him say “oh sorry, let’s get back to work.” I know some days it’s hard and you want to quit. But look inside, listen to the inner coach and follow your heart. Our sport needs good male gymnasts and there aren’t a lot of them because it’s so tough. But those who make it through the tough times will always stand above the crowd. It may not seem like you stand above anyone yet, you’re probably shorter than the crowd, that’s OK. The time will come when your name is called and you will be able to stand up, you alone, and say “look what I’ve done, look what I can do. I am a gymnast”.
Be proud Garrett, you can do what other kids only wish they could do, they can’t do it because they aren’t strong enough to step away from the Wii or the TV. You are and you will always have that. Hang in there, nothing worth doing is ever too easy. I don’t know you, but I believe in you. You can do this.
If ever you want to talk, my Dad can pass along my number. I’d love to hear how you’re doing.
Gymnastically yours: J.
PS here is an article by Bill Sands, a big dog in our sport. He says it pretty well but it’s kind of dry (and long). Check it out if you want, you’ll probably find it cool like I did.