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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Some gymnastics coaches create champions--but who's teaching the REAL kids?

I've just dipped my toe back into the waters of gymnastics coaching after a 9-year hiatus. That's the amount of time it takes to have a few kids and get them old enough to bring them along for the ride once a week.

I've been coaching preschool gymnastics for a year, but in all honesty, that's a job more akin to teaching actual preschool than it is to coaching gymnastics. But for the past month, I've been helping out with recreational classes and level 1s. It's really fun and, more than that, a great challenge. I love trying to think of ways to get a child to learn a new skill, when what's been done before hasn't worked.

And nine years ago, what DIDN'T I have at my disposal? YouTube. What a wormhole.

Now, YouTube was already a wormhole for me, and really the basis for this blog--I wanted to just occasionally offer my opinion and memories of gymnastics, but mainly give quick links of memorable performances to people that might not have been paying as close attention as I was throughout the late 80's and 90's. But now that I'm trying to brush up on my coaching skills and remember the many drills and techniques I'd almost forgotten, I realize that gymnastics coaching videos are another wormhole altogether.

At night when I finally relax on the couch and turn on some mindless television, I surf my ipad for coaching drills. I've already gotten some great ideas--my favorites are by JAOVideos, such as this one showing various drills for teaching casts to little ones:



Not only are these videos good reminders of exercises I'd long since forgotten-- or never thought of in the first place--but the videos are concise, well-edited, and usually without any awkward talking or commentary, making them infinitely more watchable than some others.

When you search these videos, however, you'll realize an annoying trend. There are many "professional" gymnastics coaching videos. They show drills that magically work! Look at this tiny child perform this drill--now look at her perfect cast handstand! (It's the gymnastics equivalent of the cooking show, when the chef puts one dish in the oven to cook and immediately pulls out the finished product). The suggested videos that will follow are peppered with this sort "AMAZING 6 year old gymnast has incredible front tumbling!" "8 year old Jenny working her double backs!"

Both the coaching videos and the show-off-gymnast videos are frustrating to me, because I'm coaching the real kids. The problem with the drills and skills videos is that the girls featured are typically the most gifted, the most ideal, the tiniest, and already fairly advanced. Similarly, the "Incredible 7 year old working optionals!" is not the norm, she's the exception. Her coach was just lucky that her parents wandered into his gym.

Now, it DOES take a good coach to develop an already-talented gymnast, don't get me wrong. And the best coaches do have a mind for clever drills and an eye for technique. How do you get a Gabby Douglas or a McKayla Maroney or a Simone Biles? You take a very gifted child to a very knowledgeable coach. But where does that leave everyone else?

No gym has a sign that says "Child Prodigies Only." The vast majority of the kids in a gym are just "average." Or even below average! But they, too, deserve special drills and careful attention. They want to achieve their maximum potential, whatever that may be. Their parents are paying good money and would like to see some results.

When videos show only the most talented young (VERY young) gymnasts, it's detrimental in a few ways. First of all, it's not realistic to coaches who teach REAL kids. A second grader, nearly as tall as I am, just wants to land a cartwheel on her feet. A stocky 8-year-old can do everything else in level 1 but can't get past that stupid pike-to-roll-up mount because her body type just isn't ideal for that odd skill. A 70 lb. third grader wants to learn a back hip circle, but even if she could hold a tight position, she's too heavy for me manually paddlewheel her around the bar like some drills suggest. Where are the coaches who want to offer tips on how to spot the most challenging beginners? They are demonstrating "beginner" drills with more advanced gymnasts to make themselves look good.

Secondly, these boastful videos of very young gymnasts doing outrageous difficulty are frankly, detrimental to the sport. As a coach, my slogan has always been, "I love gymnastics, and I want you to love it too." If we truly want as many kids as possible to participate in the sport we love, we can't pick and choose only the most naturally gifted or the tiniest or the youngest. That sends a message to girls who are only 8, 9, 10 years old--"You are too old. You are too big. You are too clumsy. You are wasting your time."

When coaches focus all of their attention on the remarkable ability of a very select few, they are telling the "average" kids and the recreational kids that they don't matter. If a kid enjoys gymnastics, whether she is 6 or 14, it is a coach's job to help her improve and have fun. And even if the 6-year-old is working back tucks while the 14-year-old is struggling with kickovers, they are both equally deserving of the coach's time, energy, and respect.