What are We Teaching our Kids?

This is a post I did a year ago, and recently (going to meets this season), it has become apparent that these things can never be said too much.

These are some areas that I feel we, as coaches, are underacheiving.  I have thought about these things for the last few years while attending meets and clinics, etc., and think now is a good time to discuss them.  I guess you could say that these are my pet peeves, but I really don’t want anyone to look at this as a negative attack on anyone personally, but more of a “hey, we have a great opportunity to have a profound effect on these young peoples’ lives, so let’s work harder to accomplish that mission” type of thing.

Here they are in no particular order (I am aware of how “long-winded” I am, so please, no comments on that, haha):

1.  All athletes should remain in the competition arena until the last competitor is done competing. It amazes me sometimes when I see coaches allowing their kids to leave the competition area before all of the teams are done competing.  What we are saying to our athletes is that the only thing that is important is their performances and maybe the performances of their teammates, but no one else.  This is such a missed opportunity!  While kids today sometimes seem to have less empathy than I can ever remember, we have this great platform to show our athletes how much everyone else wants the same thing that they do.  This is the beginning of their ability to look outside of themselves and feel for what other people go through.  It can be the start of true altruism for that individual child.  And this, in turn, makes the world a better place.

We try very hard with our program to remind our kids that what the other girls are doing is just as important to them as it is to us.  We tell them that we will always remain in the competition area as long as there is a girl competing in our session.  And here is a big key to this…we, as coaches, remain seated with them (there is always at least one of us who does this).  We do not allow them to run around unnecessarily, but remind them to sit, facing the girls that are competing.  We also make it a point to our girls to go and thank teams that stay until the end if we are the last ones competing and there are only one or two teams left watching.  Unfortunately, this happens often.  It disappoints me to know that we are missing the boat on making our gymnasts more respectful and mindful of others.

2.  Athletes should put their things into their gym bags (all of their things), zip them up, and put them out of the way.  This could be under or behind the chairs that are provided for the athletes to sit, or along an “out of the way” wall.  When we allow our athletes to come into a meet and we do not remind them to put things away, we are again missing an opportunity to make them more mindful of others.  We should be telling them that they would not like it very much if they came over to sit down on the chairs and there was no where to sit because of the laziness of others (unfortunately, we are able to give them very clear examples of this at every meet that we attend).  We should also mention how they would feel if someone was walking in that area and tripped on their belongings and had to go to the hospital or missed the rest of her season because of the injury she sustained because of our bags.  I realize some people find this to be far-fetched, but I have seen some major messes at meets, and very recently.  This is unacceptable on our parts as coaches!  Kids are going to do whatever they are allowed to do.  It is our job to teach them how to behave in these situations, and this is an important one, in my opinion.

3.  There should be no talking during the presenting of awards.  This is so disrespectful to the athletes on the award stand!  I know that many coaches do not go to awards because of the limited time between sessions, and we are no different.  What we have done though, is to go to them whenever we possibly can, and speak to them about behavior as often as possible.  Our kids rarely go to awards without being first reminded of our expectations.  I, personally, am not above going up to the front where the girls are sitting to reprimand them for talking during this time.  I have done this a few times.  I feel very strongly though, that after an adequate number of times of this, and several discussions with them, that when they do have to go to awards without us, I can trust them to behave appropriately.  This makes me very proud as I know that they are learning something that many gymnasts are missing out on.  Again, it is our responsibility to help these girls become better people through the opportunity that gymnastics provides.  It is not just about teaching the sport!

4.  All athletes should stay until the last award is handed out.  This one is exactly the same as not leaving the competition area before the last competitor.  We need to make sure our gymnasts know that what they want is not more important than what all of the other girls at the meet want.  They are all there for similar reasons, and no one is better than anyone else as people, or more important.

5.  Scores at a meet are the least important thing about the meet.  I know we all know this, but putting it into practical application can be a different thing.  Scores are, after all, one of the few tangible evaluation tools that we have in this sport.  I am fairly sure that most coaches remind their athletes that the score is not the most important thing, but these same coaches (myself included) sometimes over-react to scores when they are at a meet.  If we are to truly convince our gymnasts that scores are not so important, then we have to be very careful about our own reactions to those scores.

Another thing that we have to do to help our athletes focus on the right things is to give them plenty of feedback on their performances, so they have a better idea where they stand.  I usually try to give my gymnasts a critique on their performance before the score is posted.  Many times I will tell them during this critique, that “I really don’t care what score comes up, that was the best vault you have ever done!”  It is very important, in my opinion for them to understand that one (or two or four) person’s view of their performance on one particular day for one particular routine, is not a real evaluation of where they are with their gymnastics.  What is important in this setting is how they handle the pressure, how mentally strong they are, and how much their performance reflects their training.  These are all things that we talk about when we are evaluating their performance when they are done.  It is through these discussions with them, I believe, that our athletes really do understand where their scores fit in relevance terms.  This does not mean, however that our girls aren’t proud of where they end up in a meet.  But there is always a balance, and finding it with your athletes is a very important life lesson.  We must teach them that if they are happy or unhappy about a performance, that evaluation should not change when the score is flashed.  The gymnast has either done the best she could or she did not.  A score doesn’t change that.

6.  An athlete should definitely have goals, but the process is the absolute most important thing.  For a gymnast to be successful in her sport (or any athlete in any sport), they obviously need to have goals.  Without these goals, the day-to-day training that is necessary for success would not be possible.  One of the things that is overlooked sometimes, though, is the trip to those goals.  So much focus is placed on the goal by the gymnast that she may not really appreciate what she has already achieved.  This, in my opinion, is another of our many jobs in coaching.  We have to remind our athletes of all of the great milestones in their career, and more than that, the lessons that they have learned along the way that will make their lives even better.

The reality of this sport is that most athletes will never achieve their ultimate goal, and the more intense the athlete is, the more likely she is to feel like she has failed because of this.  I really believe that the atmosphere and example we set in the gym is the determining factor to whether the gymnast feels like a failure or a success at the end of her career.  I have even seen in my career (too many times) the gymnast who actually does achieve her ultimate goal and feels more relief than happiness.  I think this is a little bit of a tragedy, and more than that, I believe it is preventable.  The whole point of this incredible sport is to build stronger, happier, more successful people.  How can we do that if our athletes come away feeling like they have wasted a good many years of their lives, because they didn’t achieve ultimate success (Vanessa Atler, anyone?)?

We try very hard in our gym, as I know many other gyms do, to actively search for small successes on a daily basis.  We want to remind our athletes as often as we can all of the great things they are accomplishing, so that they feel successful more often.  Trust me, they are going to beat themselves up plenty, and we are going to criticize them plenty as well, but I am always looking for that genuine opportunity to let them know that they are succeeding.  It can be anything from “I am so proud of you for coming into this meet after being sick, and doing what you did today,” to “There are lots of athletes who would have given up way before this if they had to deal with what you had to.”  We all know things like this, but I think we all have to do it even more often.

7.  Athletes on the award stand should congratulate the athletes on each side of her.  This is something that we just started requiring of our athletes this season, and I feel like it is so valuable.  It really makes the girls remember that they are not the only ones trying to achieve their goals.  It opens their eyes to the feelings and realities of other girls, and I can’t think of many things that I would rather have them learn.  I strongly suggest that we all have our athletes do this.

8.  A great athlete learns to keep reactions on a fairly even keel.  This means that they should never get too high or too low about what is going on (especially in reaction to scores).  One of the biggest examples of this, to me, is when an athlete begins her warm-up on a particular event, and it doesn’t go well.  We have to teach them, and ourselves, that this beginning of the warm-up is not more important than it is.  It is not enough though, for us to say to the athlete that “your warm-up is not a reflection of the gymnastics you are going to do.  What you do the majority of the time in the gym is what is important,” and then we turn around and get frustrated or angry at a gymnast for blowing a turn in warm-up.  This has always been a tough one for me.  I can remember many times getting very nervous when an athlete was not doing in warm-up what I had seen her do in practice.  We, as coaches are human after all, and while my motivation is almost 100% in the realm of wanting her to do well for her, there is a little piece of all coaches that desires success for ourselves.  We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have that longing.  So, I would get aggravated when those things happened, and that frustration would show through to the athlete and then they began to doubt themselves, and then their performance was very likely to be affected.  I’m not promising that I didn’t get frustrated a little over the last weekend when we hosted our St. Louis Classic, but the difference now is that I am more aware when this happens and the result that can occur, and so I hide it and turn it around.  I remind myself that they will always fall back on their training if I can help them to control their emotions and wandering thoughts.  What I have found is that, if the training has been done the right way and the athlete truly is prepared for what she is doing and she isn’t stressing because of this or her coaches reaction to it, then the “crappy” turns that happen in warm-up from time to time really don’t have an effect on the performance of the athlete when she competes.  This was an awesome discovery for me, and I hope that all of you can use it!

By the way, when I talk about controlling reactions, I don’t mean that we want our athletes to never get excited or disappointed about things.  That is what humans do, and there is a time and a place for each.  We shouldn’t really expect our kids to have the desire necessary to put in the amount of time and hard work that this sport requires if they could not express their excitement when they actually accomplish these things.  And we should not expect them to spend that energy and time and heart, and then be bubbling over with joy when they fail at the goal they had set for themselves.  Our job is to teach them the things that are okay to react to and the things that are not, and what to do next.  This takes things from a reactive state to a pro-active state.  Now, we are going to do something about the negative situation, or remember what we did to accomplish the positive and repeat it.  A great example of this “right time and wrong time” scenario is when an athlete is not doing what they need to in the gym and then cries because they fail at the meet.  I, personally, try to use this (as I try to use every situation) as a teaching opportunity.  I let them know two things – – the first is the fact that they can do something about this situation by changing their behavior in the gym – – the second is that they have not earned the right to cry when they have not done everything they can to keep this from happening.  In other words they contributed to this, and I tell them that it is like pouring water on your own head and crying because you are getting wet.  I use this time as an opportunity also to inform them that if they calm down, then the first time is okay, but the second one is not.  They are told that they will have to leave the meet and go and sit with their parents.  I have only had to send a girl out of a meet for this once in over 25 years.  Most of the time, if the athlete knows that you will follow through, and you are doing your job in the gym to continue this lesson, this warning is all that it takes.  Sometimes, the athlete changes their training habits, and sometimes they don’t, but they most always change their reactions when this approach is taken and is consistent with the team and philosophy of the program.

9.  Support and cheer for the other teams in your rotation.  This one is a lot like the awards stand, but even more personal.  If we encourage our athletes to go and meet the girls in our rotation and root for them, then they are not only learning empathy, but social skills as well.  They are finding new friends that have similar experiences, and maybe even friends that they will have contact with for several years.  We can’t possibly know what the future holds for that friendship.  Could one of them donate a kidney to the other one someday, or something simpler, like saying the one thing the other needs to hear when losing a loved one?  This dynamic is again, a very much underappreciated aspect of our job as coaches.

10.  We can set an example for our athletes by helping each other out as coaches.  This includes, when possible, blocking time together when a team has only 2 or 3 athletes.  Even making the offer to a smaller team by a larger team really shows the athletes what is important.  Our athletes look up to us like almost no one else in their lives.  They emulate us without really even knowing it.  When they see us helping out others, they will respond by doing the same in their lives.

11.  We control what we can control, and don’t worry about things we can’t control.  The judges are not in our control, and therefore it does us absolutely no good to worry about what they did or didn’t do.  Our athletes have to believe that they can do enough to change anything.  That means that, even if they have been underscored, they can get back in the gym and train even harder and do such great gymnastics that it will be impossible for someone to deny them.  The greatest athletes have to believe this is true!  Notice, however, that I did not say that it is completely true.  If an athlete wants ultimate success, though, this has to be their mantra.

In closing…

I think that it is extremely important that we remember how valuable an opportunity we have with these children.  What we are teaching in respect to skills and routines is important, but this only occupies about 1/7 to 1/5 of the athletes’ lives.  We have to remember that the lessons they can learn from the sport can help them with the rest of their lives.  What a great gift that can be!

Thank you and I hope this is helpful to all of you.

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11 Comments on “What are We Teaching our Kids?”

  1. Just Another Opinion Says:

    Points 1-4, 7, seem like they ought to be within the control of the meet director, if no one else. Clearly, an enforcement issue would ultimately be at hand, but some announcements at the beginning of the meet/awards ought to help curb much of the deviations, no? I understand your greater point is that coaches ought to be doing this teaching. But, assuming my experience to be somewhat normal, my first competitions were in gyms where the awards and the competition area were the same place, i.e., after my kids were done competing, there was no where to go. Moving up in the world to big meets in venues with distinct awards rooms and separate hospitality rooms, it’s only then that leaving is even an option, and many coaches/kids might leave because they aren’t used to it and don’t know better. Now, common sense might tell you that most often professional athletes don’t leave after they’ve been benched for the remainder of the game (unless they’re injured or ejected), so we should probably stick around until OVER is OVER. But, we all know what common sense is not.

    #9 seems important to me for a few reasons, especially the higher up you go in levels. Many girls past level 6 are training in smaller and smaller groups, which means they might be alone at meets. If you’re cheering for each other in level 5, and year after year you see this other girl (from across the state!) at the same meets as you, that’s pretty cool. Any time you can make connections with people from different parts of the world, even if that part is only 200 miles away, it is a good thing.

    Ultimately, a lot of these issues seem to hinge on a question of reputation. That is, the cultivation of it. In basketball, you can be a ball-hog, and no one will want to play with you. You can’t really be a gym hog (well, I guess you can hog warm-up space, etc…) but you can be similarly disagreeable to compete with. So the question becomes whether or not you’re going to be classy even if no one else is. There actually are all sorts of selfish reasons to do this (or cynical reasons: if we’re the polite, kind gym we’ll look good and people will want to join our club, etc.) but the ultimate answer is really that you do right things because right things are right. Let’s assume for a moment absolutely no one else cares about congratulating other competitors. Well, says your girl, I do. So I will. And if that makes me the strange, overly nice, overly helpful kid, then so be it. I am strange, overly nice, and overly helpful. I can think of many far worse things to be.

  2. Troy Says:

    Great comments, JAO!
    As far as your comment about smaller meets and kids not leaving them, I have, unfortunately many times, seen kids leave the competition area and go up into the stands to see their parents. Many times these athletes walk (and stand) in front of parents of other athletes who then cannot even see their kids compete. Again, I don’t blame the kids in most of these cases. It is our job as coaches to teach them these things.

  3. James Says:

    I absolutely love this post. These were lessons taught to me as I was a gymnast from my coach. Like you said, these lessons carried over to other parts of my life and my parents always got compliments about how respectful and nice I was. I truly never understood why they got this compliment because I was just being my normal self. That is until I became a coach. The disrespect (from the leaving early, talking during awards, crying because of score) that I see in other teams just floors me.

    I try so hard, as a coach, to teach our girls how to be respectful and was really glad to read some of your techniques on how to do that. I will definitely incorporate and try out some of the ways you teach these lesson and hope to see a better result. Thanks for a great post!

  4. Troy Says:

    Thanks for the comments, James. And, if this is the James that I know, then I can vouch for the niceness factor! You are definitely one of the “good ones”.

  5. J. Orkowski Says:

    I applaud your points, each and every one. I feel that as coaches we are obligated to teach our gymnasts about life, civility, compassion, dedication, integrity, and honesty and use gymnastics to do it. Everything you listed is a great lesson and we have followed most of your suggestions since our gym opened. I also have found that my most cantankerous parents in the past have learned a lot from their children.
    Thanks for posting this. I am glad to know that there are people out there that prioritize the character of the child as highly as the gymnastics.

  6. Troy Says:

    Thanks, J. Orkowski, for your comments! I really appreciate it.

  7. Paul Says:

    Great points Troy. You pointed out many things that I think about all of the time. Keep getting the word out there….

  8. jaycflip Says:

    Great blog, and great post. Thank you for the invaluable information and the chance to discuss things that matter to coaches, students, and parents.

    Here is something of interest which has been making the rounds in the Nutmeg state. The Gym Chat Forum has a thread on this topic with links to the Nick Checker situation: “A coach that doesn’t want parents to watch?!”

    From the site, gymnasticscoaching.com:

    A coach Nick Checker (Nicholas Checker, Nicholas P. Checker) resigned his position after 21-years with his club to protest a management decision that opened his gym to spectators, including parents.

    Checker had argued that he covered the viewing window “so parents didn’t distract children and to reduce risk of injury.”

    Personally, I prefer children’s sports clubs to be open to spectators at all times, even at risk of distraction.

    But there is a great compromise, one with which almost every coach can agree. Spectators sit behind one-way mirrored glass.

    Parents can see in. But the gymnast sees a mirror.

    At this suggestion Nicholas Checker would resign after 21 years, at the time of the installation of the glass.

    Why the controversy as an ongoing concern? The resignation would follow the compromise—that is, this coach would leave employment AFTER the proposed compromise of installing the one-way mirror. This followed Checker’s blocking of the path of the parents by placing a mat in the path.

    And the aunt (a 27-year resident of Montville) chose to withdraw her niece from her pursuit of registration in a neighboring town in which the aforementioned coach is said to be working, following a verbal dispute, in which the fifteen-year old was told she didn’t have the “right” hair or looks to be one of the women on the “team.” Apparently, the niece questioned whether or not the coach’s toupee was colored (dyed) and if he was indeed 49 years of age as stated (and not 63 which was in fact his true age as of early 2013).

    Distressing, to say the least.

    The coach is also active in calls for auditions for videography and/or plays.

  9. jaycflip Says:

    As you eloquently pointed out, “I really believe that the atmosphere and example we set in the gym is the determining factor to whether the gymnast feels like a failure or a success at the end of her career. . .” On this, I would like to raise the question as a follow up to the excellent post by Troy, “What are we Teaching our Coaches?!”

  10. Teraisa Says:

    It’s good you reposted this because it’s true-our kids WILL appreciate this later in most everything they come across in life. The majority of gymnasts I have competed with or coached are great adults and I believe their training feeds directly into that. Blessings to all of us!

  11. Troy Says:

    Thank you, Teraisa!


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