Dear Gymnastics Coaches,
Since working with athletes over the past years I have found a few common themes that I hear from the athletes. Since most of these themes have to do with the relationship between coach and athlete I felt it important to inform the coaches of these situations.
First, high-level gymnastics draws in a certain personality type. This gymnast is what we call a perfectionist; generally this gymnast is hard-working, determined, and pays attention to detail. Since gymnastics requires mastery of skills, consistent practice, and a huge time commitment, a perfectionist is usually a good match for the sport of gymnastics. The challenge comes in when a perfectionist knows that they must be perfect but they simply cannot reach the expectations placed on them by their coaches or even themselves.
A coach’s job is to teach gymnasts how to perform their skills with the least amount of deductions possible. In order to do this the coach trains the gymnast to be strong, flexible, and spends many years training body positions, drills, and the skills needed to master routines. From the time the gymnast enters the gym they’re constantly learning how to be stronger, how to punch higher, how to squeeze tighter, how to run faster, and how to hopefully one day be good enough.
For the gymnasts, they are constantly hearing that they need to be stronger, punch higher, squeezed tighter, run faster, and many times they find themselves feeling that they will never be good enough.
Many of the athletes I work with feel that they are failing at gymnastics and in life. In the perfectionist’s mind they feel that every time they get close to success that success is pushed a little further away. And because success is always dangling in front of their nose and they are never able to grab it, they are a failure. Perfectionists think in a world of black-and-white, right and wrong, good and bad, and success and failure. So for a perfectionist if they are making mistakes or not able to succeed then they feel that they are failing.
Because coaches are the ones whom are consistently giving them the instructions on how to make improvements (because that is essentially the job of a coach) it is the coach that the perfectionist also feels that they can never please. If the coach is consistently asking the gymnast for more and more and more than the gymnast feels that they will never be able to please their coach.
I hear gymnasts tell me that they feel that they are disappointing their coaches if they fall at a competition, they can’t get a skill fast enough, if they are scared to do a skill, if they have trouble understanding what is asked of them, or they simply are having a bad day. Gymnastics coaches of course are not disappointed in their athlete but they may be frustrated, stressed, or annoyed because the gymnast did not perform the way the coach was hoping. That in many ways causes the gymnast to have more fears, performance issues, and a lack of confidence because they are so concerned about disappointing their coach.
Coaches need to take the time to reflect on how far their athletes have come and how far they have improved. The athletes need to hear that you are proud of them. The athletes need to hear more then just corrections. Especially perfectionists, they need to hear that they are succeeding.
Next, coaches also must remember that their word carries more value to the gymnasts than that of an average person. Gymnasts place their coaches high on a pedestal where most of everything that they say is believed. If the coach tells their gymnasts that they need to keep their head in when they punch for a back tuck, they believe it. Just like if they tell them that they need to have a strong core to be able to hold body shapes, they believe it. If they tell them that they are not trying hard enough, they believe it. And even when they tell them that they are lazy and that they are wasting their time and their parent’s money and they should stop doing gymnastics, they believe it.
Coaches have been known to say even worse, I admit I have caught myself saying some harmful things in my past as well, and we all need to know that we must be careful what we say to our gymnasts because they are listening, and they are believing.
I truly believe that coaches are doing the best that they can and that they put 100% of their heart into the development of their gymnasts. And I truly believe that if some of the coaches knew that their gymnasts were scared of them, they thought their coaches hated them, they thought that they disappointed their coaches, were sick to their stomachs when they knew they were going to coach them on an event, and some gymnasts even wanted to quit because they are so fearful of their coach, the coaches would certainly not want their gymnasts feeling this way.
And finally, during practice today pay attention to what you say to your athletes, and how you say it because these are children’s lives you are molding. Do not try to break them down to build them up. Most will stay down. Build them up. Empower them. As coaches, YOU have more power than you may understand. YOU have the power to mold children into fierce, strong, and unbreakable athletes, so use your power wisely.
The Gymnastics Mental Coach