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Thursday, April 6, 2017

It's time for a radical change in gymnastics

Remember life in the '70's? No? Ok, so kids rode around without carseats while their parents had no seat belts. Cigarettes were welcomed anywhere--hospitals, airplanes, schools, the stifling car of your best friend's family. Fad diets--I'm pretty sure everyone was eating nothing but grapefruits and tapeworms, but that may be an exaggeration. Six year old latchkey kids staying home alone for hours on end weren't unusual. We can look back on these common practices from then and laugh at how much things have changed. But the fact is, things are better now--and isn't that a relief? 

So why are we clinging to an outdated model of gymnastics--small children, long hours-- that was popularized forty years ago? 

Everyone has heard of Nadia Comaneci, but does everyone recall that she was only 14? To quote Bart Conner in Gymnastics' Greatest Stars,* "She would prove Bela Karolyi's theory that to wait until after puberty was to waste the best of their years."

From that moment in 1976, we accepted that standard. If you start by 5, 6, maybe 7 years old, you've got enough time to be Nadia. If you start at 9 or 10, well, how can you be Nadia in only 4 or 5 years? Too late for you to have a career, silly fourth grader! Start young, train excessively, diet carefully, maybe move away from home and live with strangers, compete injured, receive criticism, witness or endure abuse, remain silent, perform flawlessly as a representative of your entire nation before an audience of millions at age 14 or 15. 

Abuse, manipulation, injury, depression--these are the byproducts of these outdated training regimens.

Set aside everything you know about gymnastics. Is 40 hours per week of intense physical training healthy for a twelve-year-old? 

What about piano? 

Hey kid, if you want to play piano, the really impressive songs, you MUST practice six hours a day, immediately. If you do not practice 6 hours a day, you should probably not play piano at all. 

Is your kid good at math? 

Hey kid, you're making straight A's! That's great! Since you're so good at math, you should do advanced math five days a week for four hours straight. But, if you don't want to do math for 20 hours a week, you can't learn it at all. 

Is there ANY activity that would be healthy, physically and emotionally, for a child to commit to for forty hours a week? 

The question is not whether this WORKS to produce great gymnasts, but whether it is in the best interest of a CHILD.

I don't coach elite gymnasts but it matters to me because of the trickle down effect. Upper levels are going 20+ hours. Lower levels are going 12-16. We cannot retain gymnasts when we run them off with unnecessary and, frankly, harmful training schedules. The vast majority of children and families will NOT stay long in a sport or activity that demands so much time.

As a sport we're in this mindset of exclusivity--if you can't hack 16-20 hours, you don't belong. And you know what these kids do? They become superstars in varsity cheer or track or soccer. Because they can spend less time on that, and they receive positive attention from peers and accolades from school instead of being told daily that they're just a mediocre gymnast. 

If we set standards for training hours by age and level, we'd be taking in MORE kids to the sport, not running off the ones that don't want to put in an absurd amount of hours. As they age they can put in more hours, culminating in the NCAA standard 20 around later high school years. Then when they are adults, they can do whatever the heck they want. If you want 40 hours and you're over 18 and not bound to NCAA, go for it. 

We'd have stronger, healthier, happier kids, and we'd have elite adults who are better able to handle the stresses of representing their country, won't be as susceptible to manipulation tactics by unscrupulous coaches, and can understand the limitations or capabilities of their bodies. 

Everyone wins because it's good for business too...but coaches would have to check their egos. It would be safer and healthier for athletes, and it would absolutely grow the sport.

*Yes, I can quote my favorite gymnastics videos from memory.

Note...This post has simply expanded on my own post in the Coaches For the Ethical Treatment of Athletes group. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

You're never fully dressed without a custom leotard

When I was eleven or twelve, I started doodling ideas for leotard designs. In the late 80's competitive gymnastics leotard designs were color blocked in your custom colors--that is, geometric designs were sewn into place. My gym? Well, we were the prettiest-- dark purple, light purple, and turquoise were color-blocked into a common design of the time, a v-shape across the chest that continued up the underside of each arm.

So my hobby sort of took off; being the fidgety type, I couldn't watch TV without entertaining myself on the side. Soon I had a folder full of leotard images that looked something like this:

I brought my leotard folder on every trip, always with my bag full of my favorite markers. After a few years, I had about 500 leotard designs. Also in my leotard supply bag: I sent away for leotard catalogs, or took my coach's cast off ones, of the big three: GK, Alpha Factor, and Valentine's. I can still picture every page of those catalogs!

At fifteen, I finally did something tangible with my leotard obsession. I sent one of my favorite designs to GK to have it custom designed. I still remember that $85 price tag, I couldn't believe I was spending that much of my own money! And my coach was happy to humor me--I got to wear my own design in my final optional competition. 

This hobby directly led me to my college major, in fashion design. And in a dream job scenario, after graduation, I flew up to Pennsylvania for a job interview with GK. The most surprising part of my interview was finding out that the design team (at the time, at least) didn't have anyone with gymnastics experience. I discussed my design aesthetic and my likes and dislikes for competition leotards. When I mentioned that I preferred designs that elongated the arm--a vertical stripe down the arm is flattering, while sleeves with asymmetrical horizontal stripes going across one arm can look distracting--they actually said they hadn't thought of that!  While I didn't get the job--admittedly, I was a terrible interview and probably looked like an underage child wearing mom's best church clothes--it was an amazing experience. 

Has anyone ever been this obsessed with leotards before? It would be great to know I'm not the only one!
This was 1992, before gymnastics parents were expert action photographers. 

Clearly a deduction for pausing too long before a skill, since my folks were able to catch this photo of me being still long enough. 

My leotard sketch folder was lost in Katrina but I salvaged my original leotard!

Monday, January 11, 2016

How to Win at Gymnastics Every Time

I coach my own kid. That arrangement has pros and cons, but one of the best parts is that being her coach gives me a better understanding of what success means for her in gymnastics.

It can be difficult for parents to understand how routines are judged, but I can assure you it's a very complex system that strives for maximum fairness. But you don't need to understand the judging rules if you're aware of what your child, personally, has been working on.

My kid loves gymnastics and it doesn't come easy for her. She works so hard and it's  frustrating for both of us when she struggles with skills that other kids master very quickly. A back that just won't bend, flat feet, and low muscle tone have made a roundoff back handspring an ongoing struggle for her, while her friends are performing that skill effortlessly with hardly a second thought.

But yesterday was different. Fueled by the adrenalin of competition, she finally performed that skill with the technique that allowed her rebound and finish properly, instead of landing tha-thump with hands still on the ground. I could see the excitement in her smile. When she came off the floor, grinning, she exclaimed, "It was so high! I felt like I was FLYING!"

And THAT is why your kid does gymnastics.

Don't underestimate kids by assuming that they're disappointed if they didn't win. Ask them what skill they love. What skill they want to achieve next. What's hardest, most fun, scariest, easiest. If you're in tune with what your kid is working on, what they're good at and what they struggle at, you'll have a better idea of what constitutes a "win" for them. Because most moments of exhilaration and joy and don't happen on the awards stand.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Can CrossFit save Men's Gymnastics?

Gymnasts and former gymnasts--raise your hand if you've gotten into CrossFit. Even if you haven't yet, you've probably already heard about how CrossFit draws heavily on gymnastics movements. If you're not in the know, I'll give you a quick rundown.

You'll get there, do a little warm up and stretching (this is where you wow them with the remnants of your flexibility, even if it's not what it used to be). You'll see some rings (no one told them those are only for the boys). You'll get an assignment (a WOD--workout of the day).

Toes to bar--that's leg lifts. But get this--they don't even care about straight legs and pointed toes!

Handstand pushups--just when you thought you'd never do those again. You can offer tips to the others about levering in!

Pull ups--another familiar one.  And don't worry about a dead hang--they're cool with whipping up! They'll tell you that's "kipping," but it's best not to get hung up on the details.

Box jumps--just go up and down, you don't even have to flip!

Rings--so as I mentioned, chicks do rings too. And what everyone tries to do is a muscle up--just go from a hang, up to a straight arm support. Funny thing is, that's not actually a skill in the Code of Points. But if you've never been on a set of rings before, wow, is it hard!

Here--watch David Durante use his gymnastics background to school a bunch of really good athletes.  (There's a whole series of these, and they're all great.)

So clearly this relates to gymnastics, but why is that important?

Because there are gymnastics programs across the country who can't even drum up enough interest to offer even one boys' gymnastics class. And now suddenly at thousands of CrossFit "boxes" there are salesmen and doctors and housewives and teachers who are utterly fixated on accomplishing one gymnastics task that isn't even an actual skill in the code of points.

As a gymnast, don't you feel sort of vindicated? Haven't you been telling everyone all along how gymnastics is the best sport ever, with the best athletes on the planet? People are taking notice! They want a gymnastics-style workout. A MEN'S gymnastics-style workout. And they're not even sticking around for the fun part. They just want conditioning!

So this is a good thing, right? But I have to wonder if USA Gymnastics, FIG, and NCAA gymnastics teams have put much thought into the correlation between the two sports. Because the obvious thing to do at this point is to figure out how gymnastics can capitalize on the public interest in CrossFit. Surely they've noticed that many great gymnasts are going on to be successful CrossFit athletes. Surely they've noticed that CrossFit is really Gymnastics' younger, flashier, more media-savvy cousin.

But it's not just about having a sport for former gymnasts to transition to. It's about riding the wave of CrossFit popularity to potentially rescue men's gymnastics from the brink of extinction!

Many gymnastics facilities already house CrossFit programs because gym owners understand the connection. Now we need to show these CrossFitters that they can use their athleticism to do the fun stuff. We need to lure them to events as spectators because they will be able to appreciate and relate the high difficulty level on display. If there were an official collaboration between the two sports, could CrossFit athletes and their families could fill the stands on discounted tickets and a promise of an open-gym meet-and-greet where they could come try out those rings right next to the guy that just won? Just a thought.

CrossFit people have kids! And they want their kids to grow up with an appreciation of health and fitness. Gymnastics is the perfect sport for the child of a CrossFit enthusiast--they'll acquire strength and discipline and all that good stuff. But kids need incentive. And the incentive, the payoff, is FUN TRICKS.

The recent Men's NCAA Gymnastics Championships attracted an audience of just over 2,560. The CrossFit Games, however, packs stadiums with tens of thousands of fans to watch a championship that been in existence for less than a decade. While colleges across the country are cutting men's gymnastics programs left and right, CrossFit champions are competing for millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements.

Maybe it's a little soon to know if CrossFit will have the staying power of other sports. But the numbers don't lie. Now it's up to the powers that be to seize the day. Carpe Diem, men's gymnastics. What can CrossFit do for you?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Your Daily Dose of Gymnastics: Laurie Hernandez

It's been a while since I saw a routine I really just wanted to watch on repeat.

Compare to Mykayla Skinner, whose fantastic tumbling gets a little overshadowed by less-than-pleasant music and "filler" choreography.

Knowing that Martha Karolyi has final say over the USA women's program, one would think that she would get every team member performing a routine of the same caliber as Hernandez. Who does her choreography? Can we get this person to do every US routine?

There is an outcry in the gymnastics community to bring back artistry. The US sets the tone for the world of gymnastics. Even if the code doesn't require artistry, why not lead the world in this trend because it's the best thing for the sport? Because we can.