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Monday, March 26, 2012

Public outcry over a dieting seven-year-old may be a telling sign of the obesity epidemic in America

When Dara-Lynn Weiss wrote about her seven-year-old daughter's struggle with weight for this month's Vogue, it was clear that the problem was as much mom's as it was daughter Bea's. Weiss admitted to a lifetime of food and eating issues, including starving herself, using dangerous medications, and trying every fad diet. When Bea was seven years old and four feet four inches tall, the pediatrician indicated that her weight, 93 lbs, was unhealthy, and thus began Weiss's struggle to manage her daughter's diet. 
The article is not available online but you can read a synopsis and typical criticism here.
Weiss readily admits to being "incompetent" and " woefully inconsistent." She goes on to explain all the mistakes she made, and how miserable the diet made her daughter. Diet and exercise finally brought Bea down to a healthy weight--but now that her struggle has been publicized, critics are gasping. "What a horrible mother," they cry. "She's practically guaranteeing an eating disorder!" 
But the thing is, they're already dealing with an eating disorder: the child eats too much! (Weiss describes how "there wasn't anything [Bea] didn't absolutely love eating" and "she polished off adult-sized plates of food" at four years old).
Helicopter parents have spent years dishing out love-yourself-psychobabble because they're so afraid their children will feel bad about themselves, or worse, get angry at them. One thing they fear most is the dreaded NEGATIVE BODY IMAGE, because they don't want to "give" their kids anorexia or bulimia! And what has been lost in all this handle-with-care-parenting is the ability to be firm, to tell kids no, to teach kids health and wellness and self-control. 
When you work at a gymnastics facility, you have a front-row seat to other families' eating habits. And it's often shocking. When I was little, a Happy Meal was an infrequent treat, sometimes dinner during a long road trip to grandma's. I've seen a mother feed her kids Happy Meals as a snack, before workouts, three days a week. Many parents think a full-size Snickers on a regular basis is appropriate for a small child. Mothers often bring snacks in case their toddlers get hungry; a quart-size bag completely stuffed with Goldfish crackers is not unusual. 
What I often see in the general public is a complete inability to gage what portion size is appropriate and what amount of exercise is appropriate for a child. Then you have extreme cases, like the author of the offending article, who has a history of disordered eating, and consequently, no clue how to instill good habits in her own child. Critics complain that Weiss's diet tactics were "selfish" and "immature," but I think she's actually representative of many of today's parents who have struggled with their weight.
Look, parenting can sometimes be difficult and unpleasant. I hate telling my kids that they have to go get their shots. But it has to be done. I hate telling my kids, over and over again, to make up their beds, when it's so much quicker and easier to do it myself. Undoubtedly, a loving parent wants to simply tell her overweight child she's beautiful just the way she is--because that's true!--rather than tell her she needs to lose weight. But the challenge of parenting is finding a loving way to do the hard stuff. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Your Daily Dose of Gymnastics: Lilia Podkopayeva

Lilia Podkopayeva was a huge fan favorite in the mid-nineties. Not MY huge favorite, mainly because I think she took the cutesy route and I'm not a fan of cutesy. However, one thing is undeniable: she's probably the best female front tumbler ever.

These days front tumbling is much more commonplace than it was in the early to mid-nineties and Lilia Podkopayeva was at the forefront of that trend. Still, no one since has been able to tumble forward as effortlessly as she. The speed and rhythm of her front handsprings and double fronts are the same as if she were tumbling backwards.

The routine shown here is not the worst cutesy offense I've ever seen; at least it's got a classical style to it. Lilia was known for balletic routines, incorporating leaps and turns more suited for the stage. Her fouette turns may not impress dancers but are deceptively difficult: multiple turns are not easy when you're sinking into a layer of carpet and foam. Most gymnasts do "outward" turns from a lunge (turning in the direction of the front leg) because inward turns (ballet style from fourth position) aren't ideal on the narrowness of the balance beam or the softness of the floor.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Repetitive repetition (see what I did there?)

Christine "Peng Peng"--or Peng Peng "Christine" Lee-- is another talented Canadian. I'm still not sure which is her real name and which is her nickname. I'm sure a quick google search will yield an explanation if you're just that curious.

Here's her bar routine, which is fine. I think. I have no idea what she did, other than FOUR toe-on skills in which she steps down one leg at a time. It's fricking distracting. Maybe that's the point. I don't know if this routine is amazing or mediocre, because all I remember are those step-downs.

It's been a while since I've been very familiar with the Code of Points, and obviously things have changed in the past few years, because I still don't know if 14.0 is a good score or a bad score. What I do know is this: there is, or was, a deduction for repetition.

We had a level 8 once who did a lovely beam routine and we thought she should have scored higher. Her tumbling pass was flipflop-flipflop (2 feet), and her dismount was flipflop back tuck. (Laypeople: flip flop is shorthand for back handspring.) Upon asking the judges, we found that they deducted for repeating a skill three times. Had she stepped out of one and landed on two feet with the other two, there would have been no deduction--this is an error of composition, if I'm not mistaken.

So Peng Peng here, I suppose, is not getting deducted because each toe-on skill is actually different. In addition to the toe-on transition from low to high, she's got a toe-on to handstand, toe-on handstand half pirouette, and toe-on handstand full pirouette. From an aesthetic standpoint, this is the same skill. But according to the Code, these are three different skills--and of course the step-down itself is not a skill--and therein lies the loophole allowing her to repeat that novelty step-down so many times without penalty. Still, as with the case of Victoria Moors' lovely and difficult routine vs. Lauren Mitchell's sloppy and difficult routine, the Code is being carefully worked to the gymnast's advantage. Yet there's no room to apply a reward or deduction based on aesthetics or just the general feeling that this step-down issue is like a nervous tic and you just want to tell her to stop doing that already.

Unless they ARE deducting for composition. Who would know, when I still don't know if a 14.0 is good?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pacific Rim Championships and My New Favorite Floor Routine

I enjoyed the coverage of the Pacific Rim championships yesterday. Jordyn Wieber did what she does, winning easily. But my vote for best routine of the competition goes to Victoria Moors of Canada. Superior tumbling, with actual choreography. Yes, you can fit [really lovely] dance into a routine with four tumbling passes.

It's insanely annoying that that routine scored lower than this sloppy performance by Lauren Mitchell of Australia. Finishing tumbling passes with jumps--in Lauren's case, very poor jumps--has already been overdone to the point of absurdity. (Check out the embarrassing split jump after her second pass.) Still, her difficultly was 0.3 higher so I guess it doesn't matter that she's hiding every single landing with an ugly jump. Is this somehow better than a controlled lunge? Once again common sense is trampled on my the Code of Points.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Plague

I've had a bit of a set-back in my workouts. I seem to have the plague. Less sympathetic folks will tell me it's just a bad cold/cough/sinus infection, but I assure you, I have the plague.

When you have children and they get sick, first of all you have to stay home with them, and then you catch it, which doubles the down time. Poor kid, he doesn't get the benefit of an Ibuprofen-Sudafed-Codeine-Afrin-Antibiotic cocktail with a twist of Vicks Vaporub. But now both of us are feeling much better.

So, today was the first day in a week I've been able to work out. And yes, I've become the sort of idiot who starts to get anxious when I miss too much. Guess I'll start packing my running shoes on vacations too.

I try to run a mile on the treadmill while I watch the Today show, but I was trying to take it slow today. So instead of my standard sprint-style, get-it-over-with running-on-my-toes, it was the old 12-minute-mile Shuffle of Misery.

Which makes me wonder. Big time runners, what are you doing? It's sort of a hot topic these days, running heels-first or toes-first. Are you using the ugly 5-toe running shoes? I'm a better sprinter than long-distance runner (I may have mentioned that once or twice), so I've been running on my toes, and it does feel better on your legs overall; it's just a more natural running motion.

And from a gymnastics perspective, a lot of what we do is emphasize the natural springing motion of the ankles. Using your ankles/toes gives you more bounce than using your knees alone; when you see kids doing slow, lumbering tumbling passes, it's partly because they haven't learned to bounce with their ankles/toes and their legs are having to do all the work.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Old Gymnast, Old Tricks: My Story in International Gymnast

One way to get into International Gymnast magazine: make fun of yourself! I had to chuckle when the editor mentioned how much he also hated running. 

Here's the story copied below. Or read it in the March 2012 issue of International Gymnast, my favorite magazine since 1989. :)

I'm not sure if it's the current trend in general, or if I've just reached the age, that it seems like everyone I know is running 5K's and 10K's and competing in triathlons and training for marathons.

I have a theory about this.

I don't for a minute believe that all these people actually enjoy running.

Oh, I’m sure some of them do. I guess they just love huffing and puffing through the neighborhood, feeling the wind in their hair, hearing the acorns crack under their Nikes. But frankly, I think that many people run races simply to have something to work toward. They want a reason to exercise, a way to get credit for the hard work they've put in at the gym.

I'm a terrible runner. But I have to say, I've considered it myself: How can I test myself, how can I feel some sense of accomplishment, what sort of goal can I set that will give more purpose and direction to my workouts? The clear answer is with an organized race. As an adult, it’s pretty much the only way to satisfy that competitive urge, whether you're driven by the other athletes, or you just hope to set a personal best record, or you want that sponsor-list event t-shirt to prove you did it. 

But you know what? To heck with that! I hate running. It's boring. It's miserable. It's not so great for your knees.

So instead I'm setting my own fitness goal--one that doesn't involve running. And to do it, I'm going to need to borrow a set of bars. Just for a few minutes…at some point. But not yet.

I struck upon the idea a few weeks ago when was celebrating my daughter's 5th birthday. We had her party at the local gymnastics academy and we had the run of the whole place. That's when I did something that always drove me crazy when I was a coach, working parties. Gymnastics parties are for the KIDS, you know. No adults on the equipment, please. No size-13-dad-feet on beams; no grandma, purse in hand, on the parallel bars (I saw that once). 

But I just couldn't help myself. It was all so enticing! Ever so discreetly, I casually sidled over to a set of bars. With a furtive glance to see if anyone was watching, I quickly felt for adequate chalkiness. I saw the opportunity, and I took it.

I jumped, reached for the bar, took a nice glide--wait, not so nice. Funny how I couldn't seem to extend myself at the end of that swing. Why should that be hard? It's just swinging! I straddled to make it easier, but the tops of my legs were really burning. Toes to the bar...almost. How many times had I coached little girls, "Don't throw your head back!" (Did they also feel like they were wearing concrete helmets?) Now, to pull right up...ooooph! Or not.

A kip, the very building block of any bar routine, is no longer a part of my skill set. My kip is GONE. Sure, I can still break out a respectable handstand to impress my kids. I could probably even eke out an ugly cartwheel on beam if I needed to. But what I imagine when I drift off to sleep at night, is that sensation of a perfectly timed, smoothly swung, straight-armed kip.

The glide kip, to me, represents all that's great about gymnastics. It's the skill that gives young gymnasts fits. You can spend hours trying, month after month, knowing you’re strong enough and oh-so-close, but you can't quite understand the technique or master the timing. And it's tricky: you have to pull, yet push; you have to let your hands roll around the bar when you want to hang on for dear life. 

Then one day, you finally jump! glide! pull! push! and find yourself perched on top of that bar for the first time. You experience a moment of such utter delight, such pure joy, that all you can do is laugh and yell and kick your legs in victory because your arms are finally doing what they're supposed to do by suspending you up on that bar. I loved watching friends, and later students, learn that trick. There's nothing like seeing the surprise on a kid's face when they make their kip for the first time. It's like Christmas morning. 

Hundreds or thousands of kips will follow, and it just becomes another basic skill. But I still remember the simple pleasure of gliding on that bar and feeling like it was easy. 

THAT is my goal. Some folks get satisfaction from crossing a finish line, but I want the satisfaction of completing a skill. I want to float up to that bar like I did when I was twelve. 

Here's what I’m up against: I understand what to do, but I'm no longer fit enough to do it. I now realize that I spent my youth bemoaning my mediocre gymnastics ability, when in fact I was actually quite athletic and strong. Eight years ago I was still playing around the gym where I worked, then having three kids in five years made it easy to stop exercising. But for the past two years--I'm 35 now-- I've worked out at my local Y two or three times a week. I've found that a cross-train class is really similar to the conditioning we did in gymnastics--and as an adult I push myself more because I'm striving to get the best workout possible in the shortest amount of time. I also enjoy a cardio-kickbox-hip-hop class--much more fun than the treadmill.

I'll need to modify my workouts a bit. I'm aiming for three or four times per week. I'll have to add in some more purposeful exercises, elements to serve as kip drills.  It should be easy to get in some extra abdominal work (ab classes are offered at the Y because everyone wants a flat stomach), but outside gymnastics, I've found, the hip flexor gets no love. So I’ll have to find time to get in all those leg lifts and V-ups I’ve been missing.

Now about those bars. The biggest challenge for an adult wanting to do gymnastics is finding access to equipment. My kids' local gym doesn't have an adult class, so I'm prepared to pay for a private lesson. Those can be costly, but most of my preparation will be at the Y I already attend. I also have the option of trekking the hour and a half back to the gym where I used to work. And because I'm not attempting something dangerous--skills involving rotation in the air are definitely no longer in my realm of possibility--I feel I can practice the skill itself on a sporadic basis. 

Finally, I’ve got my gymnastics blog, www.opinegym.com, to keep my friends abreast of my progress. Maybe I’ll get others thinking outside the box to find their fitness motivation or better yet, recapture something they loved from childhood.

And that's my game plan to relearn a kip. I think you can teach an old dog new—or old—tricks. Will it take a month? Six months? A year? There's only one way to find out. 

Tim Daggett: Meanest Commentator?

Here we have Rebecca Tunney (GBR) on beam at the American Cup. I mentioned in my previous post that I thought NBC commentator Tim Daggett was too harsh. Judge for yourself.

"She's going to be a bit damaged after this competition," says Tim.

Honestly, Tim. It's a beam routine, not a tour of duty in Iraq. She was unprepared and out of her league. There's no need to beat a dead horse. I do agree that at this level, you should be prepared to receive criticism. However, this verges on bullying. Anyway, even with the three falls and the countless wobbles, the most inexcusable part for me is the hair-shake. (See it at 0:50). Maybe sloppy hair really does lend itself to a sloppy performance.

Lucky for our friends across the pond, they can rely on British bars badass Beth Tweddle. I could watch this again...and again...and again.

I don't know about Beth, but I will be disappointed with anything less than a gold on bars for her at the London Olympics.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I love the American Cup! And other gymnastics thoughts.

Once again, if not for my trusty DVR, I might have missed the broadcast altogether! The American Cup is always great to watch, I'm reminded, after browsing past routines on YouTube, just how fantastic it is to view gymnastics in high definition.

Here are a few thoughts:

First of all, I'm just gonna say it now: here's your Olympic Champion:

Aly Raisman, I like you more and more! Your tumbling is just a joy to watch. BUT. If you can have such lovely form mid-flip on floor, you can also do it on bars. Get it together!

Gabrielle Douglas seems to be peaking at just the right time! Which is great for her and great for me because I've been singing her praises all along and I love it when I'm right. Plus, she looks great in purple. And I love purple. Hooray!   

Tim Daggett, if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Everyone knows Rebecca Tunney was not here to run away with the competition. There's no need to be ugly. Her poor little beam routine was obviously a disaster but at a certain point critique becomes cruel. Tell the audience what's gone wrong, but then explain that she's there to represent the Olympic host country and is not expected to win. The end. (At some point I'm sure the video of her beam will appear online, and you can judge for yourself how unnecessarily mean he was). 

I don't post about men's gymnastics very often. But how exciting is Danell Leyva? Let's call him Sideburns. 

We also got to see this clip of Sideburns at 2011 Worlds. The only thing that can make a nasty fall nastier is spitting out a tooth in super slo-mo.

Speaking of sideburns, let's talk hair. There's a trend, particularly within the collegiate ranks, of sloppy, ridiculous-looking hair. Is this a beauty pageant? No. But in a sport where you are judged on how clean your performance is, shouldn't you present yourself in a tidy manner? YES. So I was delighted to see all three Americans looking so pulled-together. All it takes is a few barrettes and hairspray. Here are some of the American Cup competitors:

I know people joke about scrunchies. I'm not saying you have to wear a scrunchie (although I don't have a huge problem with it in an athletic context). I'm just saying, take a little pride in your appearance. I think the American Cup competitors did. (Exception: Rebecca Tunney, I defended you from harsh commentary, but if you have to shake your head to get your 1983-toddler-curtain-of-bangs out of your face in the middle of your beam routine, it's time for a new 'do.)

Here's what I'm campaigning against:

I mean, I get it. Sometimes the look you're going for is messy-casual, I'm-too-cool-to-care hair. But there's a time and a place for Sunday-morning-frat-house-walk-of-shame hair, and a big time gymnastics meet is not it. Also, I'd almost prefer a scrunchie to a ribbon. There's something incongruous about bed-head hair with kindergarten hair accessories. I'm not trying to be mean-spirited here. I'm just saying, you've worked hard to get here. Dress up for the occasion. 

Where was I? Oh yes. American Cup. Nice routines, nice hair, nice Olympic preview. Jordyn Wieber is the one to beat.