The Willingness to Listen

As a coach and gym owner, I have always made sure that I demand the respect from my gymnasts that such a position requires. They know who is in charge at all times, and who has the final say. However, I do a lot of introspection, and even though I consider myself pretty accessible and easy to talk to, I find that some kids (and some parents) would just rather skip a conversation altogether with me and just deal with discomfort, pain, fear, concern, etc. I may be unrelenting when picking apart a beam routine, or when I know that someone can do a flyaway by herself and truly doesn’t need me to “stand there,” but some of my gymnasts don’t see that I am the person to talk to about a frustration, lend a suggestion about an injury, and that I am willing to help them solve a problem. I was thinking about why this is — why I am so hard to approach sometimes?

For me, the intent of coaching is not only to teach gymnastics, but it is also to teach my gymnasts all-important life skills. One very important skill is for each gymnast to have the self-confidence to stand up for what she believes is best for her. I can see that my role as head coach and gym owner can be quite intimidating for children. If I want to teach gymnasts how to be independent people who stick up for what they believe is best for themselves, then I, as a coach, need to be approachable and welcome input and feedback from my gymnasts.

Inherently, coaches are intimidating. We are in a position of authority, and good kids have a healthy respect for authority. However, if I want to teach my girls to have a voice, then I need to teach them that it is okay to stand up to authority sometimes. I have to make sure that I am receptive when they are willing to say something.

Some kids are just naturally better at communicating than others (in fact, some are too good at it… you coaches know what I mean!). But as a coach, I find that my kids ultimately really don’t want to disappoint me. They want me to praise them and give them props for a job well done, which I do try to do. I’m loud, I give high-fives, we have a chart where gymnasts put up a star for a job well done, and we have other motivational and praise-centered items for the gymnasts.

However, some gymnasts don’t tell me what is going on because they believe that they should just be strong and push through. Some gymnasts just think that I don’t want them to complain and just do the work. Some don’t want to hurt my feelings. Some misunderstand my intensity as unapproachable. Regardless of the type of communicator, the more information I have, the more I can help her in her gymnastics. I can also help her recognize when it is best to communicate, when it is best to keep her head down and work, and when it is best to tell me that she needs to stop. But I cannot help direct her unless she speaks up in the first place.

This is each gymnast’s sport. I allow my gymnasts to have a say in their gymnastics. I want them to be able to talk to me when they are scared or hurt. This is a major responsibility that I must teach them to take seriously. My goal is to help them, and I can’t do that unless they communicate with me. My girls are expected to work hard and give it their all, but they are also expected to come to me when there is a problem.

This doesn’t mean that the gymnast will always get her way. But is does mean that I can cultivate a path for her to speak up. Maybe she doesn’t understand the best way to proceed, even though she thinks she does. Maybe she has a great plan of how to get herself to go for a skill, and I can help her execute it. Maybe she needs to bounce an idea off of me so I can see where she is coming from, whether it’s a place of resistance or fear. In any case, the more she is willing to share with me, the more I can do to help her. But in order for her to stand up, I must be willing to listen, and prove to her that I am.

Competition Tears

I am not a fan of crying at competitions (or in general). My gymnasts will be the first to tell you that I will be the first to tell them that “You can’t see through tears. Go wash your face and come back here when you’re ready to be rational.”

However, in my search to be a better coach, I realize that I need to distinguish between the different types of tears. I am, after all, working with children, adolescents, and teens who have an overabundance of emotions, hormones, and nerves, as well as underdeveloped emotional restraint. I am here to teach them how and when it’s acceptable to let the tears flow. This isn’t true just in the gym, but in life in general. This is where I can really help my girls out.

I cringe to say this, but in our last meet, I had three types of tears on the competition floor:

Fear.

One child was truly having a hard time with her round-off back handspring. She can do the skill safely in practice. However, she is learning how to cope with the stress of the meet, and the nerves of doing the skill under time constraint, as well as in front of a crowd of people. It got the better of her, her back handspring was especially scary, and she cried. (She then cried harder when I told her that she could neither do any more round-off back handsprings, nor compete it in her routine.) However, I gave her a choice: she could do her routine with just a round-off, or she could scratch floor. She chose to go out there and perform her routine without her back handspring. She stopped crying and did her very best. As her coach, I am very proud that she went out and competed to gain the valuable experience that it doesn’t always go our way, but we can always try our hardest and put forth our best effort. This kid was nine. She bounced back great.

Illness.

One child was trying really hard not to to be sick. She was tired from being up all night, didn’t have much energy since she didn’t eat much breakfast, but she rallied at the meet. We were taking it one event at a time, and at each event, she pulled through. On beam, however, she get upset that she wasn’t able to perform her more difficult back tuck dismount and started to cry. Our coaches told her that it was okay, and it was better to get through the meet safely. Besides, she didn’t need the skill as a requirement. She came up to me, and I asked her if she was feeling sick, and she said no, it was just that she wasn’t going for her dismount. I told her exactly what the other coaches told her, and told her to go wash her face and get ready to compete a great routine. She stopped crying and stuck her routine. I certainly know what it feels like to be sick and not have a grip on all of my emotions. This kid was eight. She did a pretty good job getting a hold of herself.

Falling.

One child fell on both her beam and bar routines. This is where I have no patience for crying. Guess what? We’ve all been there. Handling both success and failure in gymnastics with grace is one of the most important lessons the sport can teach us. I believe that if I coddle these gymnasts or let their teammates let them act like they are victims, they will learn nothing. This kid was ten. She could have done better. But now she knows that, and she has more meets to learn how to handle failure a little better.

I am trying to be a better coach each day I head to the gym. To me, part of coaching is seeing the whole gymnast. I am coaching individuals, and each child has a unique set of circumstances that I need to address in order to help her learn the most, which is something that I have to remind myself of on a daily basis. This last meet really showed me that I need to make sure I know the source of the tears and have a conversation with her before I just send a kid out to wash her face.