I always tell people that I learned so much by being a gymnast and now being a coach. I learned more about people, about teaching, and about myself by being a part of this amazing sport. I could brag on gymnastics all day, but I wanted to post a couple of ideas that I felt made sense to me: I thought about calling it “Things I learned through gymnastics that didn’t involve flipping” or “Skills I learned in the gym that stuck”. But I went with the above: After the Cartwheel.
The point being that as adults we often tend to see a kid’s participation in sport as something they do for fun or fitness. Seeing it in that limited capacity doesn’t allow us to acknowledge the life skill and character development that comes with being an athlete. Kids learn, Respect, responsibility, problem solving, social skills, patience, caring, and fairness. In gymnastics they also get to learn cartwheels, so we got that going for us too. Some of the lessons provided by sport in general and gymnastics specifically appear below. It’s not exclusive to gymnastics, to be sure, but my experiences are offered here, and that is certainly gymnastics flavored:
Lesson #1: Addressing Fears; I Know You’re Scared. Go For It Anyway.
Gymnastics asks kids to do things that normal people would find not only very difficult, but realistically quite terrifying. Flipping upside down on a 4-inch beam for example or twisting and flipping during self-powered flight may seem beyond tolerance by an average person. Gymnast’s are definitely not average.
In our sport we use progressions and lead-ups to assure the gymnast that they are capable of accomplishing what is being asked. Proper preparation provides some comfort, but many times the first time doing a skill can be very scary. I was taught that it’s OK to be scared. Though fear is what keeps us alive most of the time, it’s just our brain telling us that extra attention maybe needed to accomplish something. Fear tells us to be on edge to protect us from doing something dangerous, or maybe it tells us to take an action to alleviate a stressor. In either case, we are given to option to respond; fight or flight. One of the best feelings I get as a coach is to watch a gymnast, after numerous times doing drills and corrections and maybe taking months to develop, do a skill for the first time on their own. The self-satisfaction knowing that they did it, alone, beating doubt and destroying fear. The look on their face is more than pride, more than accomplishment. It is hard to explain but it is glorious.
Everyone has fears. But success only comes, when despite the fear, we make a decision and create action. Gymnastics taught me that. I lived that lesson many times over. I still deal with fear every day. My fears are different now, but I still have fears to face. I ask myself if I am prepared to face it down. If I am not, what could I be doing to make it less scary. If I stand up and act accordingly, it usually ends with admitting “That wasn’t so scary.”
Lesson #2: Accepting Failure; Go Ahead and Fall
We find that children (and adults) are given a fear of failure. It has been bred into us that failure is bad, and people will lie, cheat, and steal to avoid it. I believe that 90% of all learning is derived from failing.
When we were students the teacher didn’t give us 1 math problem for homework. We got sheets full and we got some wrong. Then, noting our mistakes we were taught how to do things correctly. Learning the right way to do math and then being given many many opportunities to practice it correctly. What if we stopped looking at failure as something to avoid and rather saw it as something to embrace? It would be a great jumping off point for progress.
In gymnastics, kids fall. It’s what they do and they’re pretty good at it. But teaching them to get back up, adjust, push through the fear and try again is an invaluable lesson. I have fallen. I have been injured pretty seriously. My coach positioned it like this: “Are you up for it? Can you prove to yourself that you can do it? Can you prove it to me? Can you prove it to the judge?” Of those 3 I knew the only one I really had to prove anything to was me, but nothing would stop me from proving it to all 3 and my mom, and my team mates, and my brother, and everyone. No fall, no injury was going to keep me down. It was because of failing that I gained motivation to try again. Yes, being an athlete creates a sense of resilience, but I cannot explain how fulfilling it is to actually feel resilient. To be able to say to yourself “I bounced back (no gymnastics pun intended). It motivates you, for sure, but the long lasting effect goes on long after. Even 37 years later I feel that nothing will stop me once I have made up my mind. I can, and do, overcome anything that falls before me. I learned that in the gym.
With gymnastics we have the benefit of motivating through fun for learning such lessons. “Getting it right” is fun and kids are taught to try again and again and progress higher and better. Gymnastics has no top-end. There is always more to learn and better to be done and just like life in general, learning and growing is fun. Why would anyone not want to have that?
Of course, there is more to share than that. I’ll conclude next time with lessons I’ve learned; After the Cartwheel.