I began my gymnastics journey at the age of 7. I started in classes, then shortly afterward joined the competitive team. For the next 17 years, I experienced lots of highs and lows in the sport; from winning state and regional titles and ranking nationally, to times where I suffered injuries or plateaued for years and contemplated quitting. I retired from competing at the age of 24, after having made it to Elite level competition and qualifying for the National Qualifier at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. I learned thousand of skills over the years, from fundamental to advanced elements across the six men's events. By far the most valuable skills that I learned, however, were the ones that have stayed with me long after my uniform went into the closet for the last time.
I have coached gymnastics for the last 22 years and now also own gyms and train other coaches. The most important things that I try my best to pass on to my students and staff is the importance of the life skills that are taught through the sport of gymnastics; skills such as goal-setting, working through fear and disappointment, and how to properly deal with conflict, both internally and externally.
Goal-setting is perhaps the most obvious skill that gymnastics teaches, and in the beginning levels the main goals are pretty straightforward in the form of routines, which each level has a routines for each event. To learn these routines however, coaches demonstrate a very important step in goal-setting, which is to break down main goals into smaller, achievable steps. Routines are broken down into the skills that they are composed of, those skills are broken down into their parts and techniques, and those parts are further broken down into drills and exercises, which teach the parts, which teach the skills, which teach the routines for each level.
If an athlete progresses into the upper competitive levels and as they get older, they'll gradually be taught and learn how to set their pace. They'll learn how to take whatever drive or passion that they have and use them to decide what their goals are for the sport and in what time frame they want to accomplish those goals. Since every gymnast has their own set of abilities and hinderances as well as varying levels of passion and drive, every gymnast's goals and pace will be different. What is true for every gymnast, however, is that the nature of the sport (and the assistance of a good coach) teaches athletes how to take longer-term goals, break them down into short-term goals, and set benchmarks for progress along the way.
WORKING THROUGH FEAR AND FAILURE
These goals are what create the motivation for a gymnast to over come some of the greatest struggles of gymnastics (and life) - fear and failure. Fear is a very real and ever-present element of gymnastics because the sport requires gymnasts to do things that are potentially dangerous, which are also things that the body is not used to doing. This can make it scary to think about doing a skill, and then scary again while actually performing it. An athlete is able to push through these fears by keeping the vision of their goals fresh in their mind. The essential element that is learned in this process which carries on throughout life, is the ability to take the emotion and passion that is associated with achieving a goal, and letting that be at the forefront of the mind, ahead of even fear. While focusing on what could be, what could happen takes a back seat.
This doesn't mean that overcoming a fear is going to always lead to success, however. In fact, in gymnastics we fail more than we succeed. It sometimes takes hundreds or even thousands of attempts of performing a skill before it is achieved, and then often thousands of repetitions before a skill can be performed proficiently. Unfortunately, this can mean a lot of disappointment. It means a lot of failed attempts. The same focus on goals and what could be is what helps a gymnast constantly recalibrate and refocus (or even at times make to make adjustments or reevaluate goals) to overcome the prospect of further disappointment. This is so important for life, because it gives the gymnast tons of experience with dealing with failure; taking failure after failure and using them as a learning tool to get closer and closer to where they want to be.
DEALING WITH INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL CONFLICT
Constantly dealing with fear and failure creates a lot of internal conflict in a gymnast's mind, which in turn can lead to conflict between teammates and a gymnast and their coach. The sport of gymnastics along with the help of a good coach helps shapes a healthy mind and spirit when done properly, but it rarely comes naturally. Most of us are pretty hard-wired to avoid dangers, fears and failures, and that can create some pretty tumultuous internal battles at times. What's worse, because in gymnastics competitions there is a constant strive for perfection, gymnasts can sometimes develop somewhat of a perfectionist mentality. When they don't perform up to their standards or the standards of others, the gymnast can sometimes become overly dissatisfied and set impossible standards for themselves. This is why as coaches, part of what we try to teach gymnasts is how to take those feelings of dissatisfaction and help the gymnast recognize that those feelings mean that they really care about what they're doing and are motivated to help them push through, instead of turning those feelings internally into thoughts like "I always mess up", or "I'm never going to be good enough".
While a gymnast is dealing with all of these things going on in their mind, it is easy to see why sometimes gymnasts can get frustrated or angry and lash out at teammates or their coach. Part we aim to do as coaches is to help each gymnast work through those feelings and teach them empathy, for themselves and others. One of the benefits of being a part of a team is that you are with a group of other people that are going through very similar things that you are going through. By helping gymnasts realize this, we can help them put themselves in another's shoes, and teach them to support each other in their times of need. When an athlete sees that their frustration or anger is met with kindness and understanding from their teammates or coach, it can be very disarming and will hopefully lead them to do them same for another.
There is a saying that gymnastics is 90% mental and 10% physical. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, there is a lot of truth to it. It is what makes the sport so transcendent. The skills are lessons that a gymnast learns along their journey carry with them throughout their life, just as they have helped me throughout mine.
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