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Thursday, September 6, 2018

How to Save Elite Gymnast(ic)s

With USAG teetering on the brink of failure, decertification, and financial and moral bankruptcy, we have reached a precipice that calls for not just drastic measures, but REVOLUTION. 

I love gymnastics. I love coaching. I love watching drill idea videos on YouTube. I love choreography and discussing choreography. I love flipping. I love walking down a beam, back and forth, back and forth. I am very fortunate in that no one in the sport has ever tried to steal this joy from me. But currently there is a system in place that does exactly that.

If you follow me on Twitter (@missiflippi) or you've had any conversations with me on one of many gymnastics Facebook pages, you've heard me shout into the wind my proposal for fixing elite gymnastics:

Elite gymnasts need to be 18 years old. 

The notion that a professional athlete--and in the context of gymnastics I am using the term professional as the equivalent of elite, because it denotes skill level--should be AN ADULT is apparently outrageous to a lot of people in the gymnastics world. 

How did we get here? I'll tell you how--in the 1960's and 70s, in Eastern bloc countries with oppressive governments, coaches realized that young, pliable, people-pleasing girls were the easiest to instruct. So they sought out the tiniest children, worked them all day long in the gym, often starved them or refused them water, took them away from their families, made them perform high-risk skills, had them doing high volume repetitions that led to overuse injury, and they won with this formula. 

So in America, we didn't say, "Hey, that sounds like a way to turn a fun sport into a dangerous Dickensian factory of child labor." We said, "Well, that works, let's copy it!"

Fast forward to present day. While some things have changed--for instance, it's not usually necessary to live away from home anymore to find elite instruction--some things are the same level of ridiculous. 
  • Gymnasts may begin competing at FOUR years old. 
  • The minimum age for Level 10 competition is NINE. To put it in perspective, Level 10 is NCAA level. Do you have a 9-year-old you'd like to throw on the football field with the Alabama defensive line? 
  • 40 hours per week--the same as a full time job--is, anecdotally, the average training time per week for an elite gymnast. 20 hours per week is the limit for an NCAA athlete. 
  • Many gymnasts have even lower level gymnasts training 16 to 20 hours per week--for instance, a 7 year old level 3 who is just learning basic skills such as roundoff-backhandsprings. In contrast, some gyms are able to train this level as few as 4-6 hours per week. 
  • Many gyms refuse to accommodate a gymnast who has achieved a certain level but would like to scale back. For instance, a 14 year old has started high school and is training 20 hours per week at level 7. This schedule becomes overwhelming, but rather than cut the hours in half and let her perform at a lower level, she must quit altogether. 
  • The sport is rife with overuse injuries. Many teenagers at high levels have had multiple surgeries.
  • Many coaches scream at, belittle, and intimidate their gymnasts. 
  • USAG has offered NO guidance to their top athletes regarding nutrition. 
  • USAG rewards younger gymnasts by holding skill competitions related to age. TOPS is a program designed to recognize naturally talented kids; 11 is considered too old to participate. 
  • Elite gymnasts often give complete control of their lives over to their dominating coaches. 
  • Weigh-ins, crash diets, eating disorders lead to sick and depressed gymnasts. 
This list could go on. But let me stop right there and tell you a little bit about my Dream Gymnastics Federation.
  • Elite gymnasts must be 18 years old. 
  • Until a gymnast is 18, training should be limited to 25 hours per week. 
  • Training hour caps should be in place according to age and level.
  • Minimum competitive age at the lowest level should be 6 years old. 
  • Gymnasts may train up to 25 hours per week up through the age of 17. If they choose to compete in NCAA, they will then be subjected to those restrictions of 20 hours per week. If they choose to become elite, they may increase their hours as they choose when they turn 18. Some may choose to become elite following NCAA. At that point they may increase their hours as needed. 
  • TOPS program--age-related skill competition-- should be eliminated. Hopes program--pre-elite competition for 10 year olds, should be eliminated. 
I've brought up these ideas and people are just FLOORED at the idea of training "only" 20-25 hours per week. They are flabbergasted at the suggestion that someone should wait till after college to pursue elite. The fact is, the average age of gymnasts in Rio was 20. Gymnasts who are competing elite in their 20's (Simone Biles), 30's (Catalina Ponor) and even 40's (the Queen herself, Oksana Chusovitina) have accomplished it because they are training smarter, they have autonomy over their own bodies and minds, and they are physically strong enough. By putting limitations on elite status and training hours, we can help prevent domineering, ego-driven coaches from assuming dangerous levels of power over children. 

There is nothing safe or healthy about a 10 year old training 40 hours per week at the highest level of sport. If you can find a doctor or scientist or child development specialist to refute this claim please send me their name and credentials. It is time to recognize that elite coaches are usually acting in the best interest of their egos, not in the best interest of children. It is time to recognize that we have prevented the growth of our own sport and our own businesses by perpetuating the notion that it's only for children. It is time to acknowledge that we have screwed things up royally. It is time to backtrack. We have everything to gain by imposing restrictions of age and training hours on elite gymnastics. The lives of young girls are at stake. 

*I want to note that in this post I've not even tackled the horrifying sexual abuse suffered by hundreds of gymnasts at the hands of Larry Nassar and the thousands more who have suffered under other coaches and authority figures. This particular post pertains to the physical and emotional harm caused by overtraining and how we can resolve these particular problems. 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Jerk Culture of Gymnastics

Hey remember when your friend was like 35 and had never exercised in her life and then decided to start going to the Y to work out? Remember when you were like, "Don't even try, Wendy, what's the point of starting something new this late in life?"

Wait, you don't remember that, because you are not a jerk.

Hey runner, remember when your running buddy decided that marathon training was just too time consuming and exhausting? Remember when you were like, "There's just no point in running anything less than a marathon, so just stop altogether. You're a marathon runner and if you're not going to run marathons, just quit. Don't bother trying to run with me, I only run with marathoners."

No, runner person, you did not say that, because you are not a jerk.

Hey personal trainer, remember when you turned away the guy who couldn't bench press a hundred pounds, because you were embarrassed by his skill level? Remember when you told him that he wasn't good enough to be associated with your gym?

No personal trainer, you wouldn't do that, because you are not a jerk.

And also, this is your job, and that's how you make a living.

The sport of gymnastics is filled with jerks. Just look at the message we send to kids. "Are you 9 years old? Are you--gasp--double digits? TEN? Sorry, we don't have beginners classes for OLDER kids." Is there ANY other activity or sport that considers 10 to be OLD? Can you imagine if every Crossfit gym turned away everyone over 23? Do you think the Crossfit brand would be as successful as it is if they refused to work with someone who was 33?

How many gymnasts do you lose to cheerleading? I don't for a minute believe that every girl that transitions from gymnastics to cheer does so because she has always dreamed of being a cheerleader. Gymnasts become cheerleaders because we have failed to give them what they need. What they need are fewer hours in the gym. They need to be appreciated by their coaches and peers. They need to be told how great they're doing NOW, not how great they WOULD be if they could just manage to get up to the next level. They need to be retained in the sport they love, not pushed out the door into an alternative they don't even enjoy as much.

Ever since a bunch of desperate people in 1970s Eastern Bloc countries realized they could harness the malleability of small children to create tiny, muscular automatons, we've created our own ridiculous standard to stroke our own jerk egos. The human body hasn't magically evolved over a few decades to accommodate gymnastics, our standards have just increased. Kips are not any easier now than they were in 1970. Demanding coaches are just less impressed with them.

How powerful is the gymnastics coach ego? So strong that coaches are willing to PUSH children we love and income we need right out the door.

The gymnastics ego is so strong that it forgets that the 13 and 14 year old Gold level gymnasts who can "only" do back handsprings or back tucks, who coaches have given up on, are still the strongest athletes in their grade.

It is completely insane that we in gymnastics have such astronomically higher athletic standards for children than we do for adults. Next time you're coaching, pretend it's your mother up there on that beam doing a wobbly but stuck full turn. Wouldn't you think, "Holy crap, Mom, that was fricking fantastic?" Pretend your English professor ran out there and nailed a cartwheel. "Dang, Dr. Hoppenwasser, I didn't know you had it in you!"

The values of fitness that adults pride themselves on--trying your hardest, just showing up, participating for the love of it, good sportsmanship, admiration for everyone's effort--are being completely left out of children's gymnastics. Your actions and policies and coaching are probably telling them that gymnastics is only worthwhile if you perform at an advanced level. And I guarantee you wouldn't tell an adult that about their favorite pursuit.

If you want to grow the sport, if you want to improve your business, if you want to produce happy gymnasts, if you want to be a better person, stop being a jerk.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

How to tell if you're a terrible gymnastics coach (or if you have one)

Now that the repulsive pervert Larry Nassar has been locked up for life for crimes against countless young women and girls, we can delve deeper into the culture that allowed this monster to thrive.

The purpose of gymnastics is not to go to the Olympics. The purpose is not to achieve elite status. It's not to win, it's not to get a college scholarship. The purpose of gymnastics is to learn cool tricks. And no matter how much you emphasize the healthy and positive byproducts--discipline! Perseverance! Fitness! Hard work!--the bottom line is, your job as a coach is TO TEACH KIDS COOL TRICKS. So get over yourself.

We are not curing cancer. We are not saving lives. We are not performing rocket science. Get over yourself.

The hubris...the audacity...the VANITY of these coaches who are so egotistical as to place what they perceive as their OWN triumph ahead of the well-being of small children, is what has enabled the sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse to thrive in the sport of gymnastics. Your job is to build kids up. Your job is to help kids have fun. Your job is to make kids love gymnastics.

If you are a coach that screams insults at your kids,
if you make them practice injured or ill,
if you think that constant or chronic injuries are normal,
if you make them feel small or stupid or worthless,
if you talk down to their parents,
if you think a 7 year old needs to practice 25 hours per week,
if you tell a 13 year old she should quit because she's not advanced enough,
if you tell a 13 year old not to even bother starting because she's too old,
if you select kids only for body type or submissive personality,
if you place gymnastics of higher importance than school or family,

but you DO have kids that score high and sweep the awards in every competition, and you feel a burst of egotistical triumph when you see them on top of the medal stand, let me tell you why you have not, in actuality, succeeded as a coach:

                                          BECAUSE YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON.

There is a reason why we do gymnastics. It feels like flying. It feels like a rush of adrenalin at accomplishments big and small. It feels like an optimistic embrace of infinite challenges. It feels like joy and delight and happiness. It feels like being beautiful. It feels like art. It feels like an urge to share with everyone that this is the greatest sport in the world. It makes you want to go again and again and again.

This is why we do gymnastics.

If you are a coach
                or a judge
                or a gymnastics official
                or a doctor
                or a professional
                or even a parent
who has contributed to the sort of toxic environment that left 156 women and girls weeping in a courtroom,

you don't belong.
Get out.