An Open Letter to Moms, Dads, and Coaches of Gymnastics: STOP Doing This To Your Kids!

Hi everybody! I’m Coach Rebecca Smith, the founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching. It’s my job to help young athletes get happy, healthy, and successful in their sport.

I’m here all full of adrenaline in this moment because I’m just so sick of some of the ways that the sport of gymnastics (and not just gymnastics, but youth sports in general, especially the aesthetic sports like figure skating, gymnastics, swimming) expects little girls in tight spandex to be perfect. And they are ridden into the ground because inevitably their bodies will completely fall apart by age 16. And if they can’t peak by then, then they’re done and it’s a waste.

There was this article in the New York times that was all about Chellsie Memmel and how she’s coming back to competition. She was a 2008 Olympian, and now she’s back and she’s 31. That’s considered geriatric and a half for gymnastics unless you’re Oksana Chusovitina and you’re 45 and you’re going to your eighth Olympics competing on vault!

You look at these outliers and you’re like, “Whoa, they’re freaks. I’m surprised that they’re alive still!” But you know what? There’s something to it. And Dave Tilley, who does the Shift Movement Science podcast, talks about this a lot – why we think athletes have to peak so young. And why we think there is this crazy breakneck pace that these athletes must be on or else run out of time and you’re not going to reach your dreams. Or you give your heart, soul, health, freedom, and happiness to the sport, or you fail.

That’s basically the vibe. There are four people who get to go to the Olympics and if you don’t break your body and your brain to get there, you won’t get there. So it’s like this concept of now or never; if you don’t do it now you will never get there. You’re too old. You’re too broken. You’re too…any of this stuff.

I put my two little girls in gymnastics in the beginning in mommy and me classes and I was like, “Ah, I’m back in the gym. This is so fun. I can’t wait.” And then as they got a little older, I started to have this anxiety of would I let my girls compete in gymnastics? And so I’m going to tell you my opinion on that. And I’m going to tell you what needs to get called out and what needs to stop happening in our sport.

So if you are a gymnastics’ parent or a youth sport parent, or maybe even more importantly, a coach, or if you know a parent or coach who you’d like to forward this to, I would like to really get this out there. And I want to spread the word on what are the practices that are just not acceptable anymore. These are all practices I experienced as a gymnast. These are also all practices I participated in as a coach up until 2015 when I stopped coaching. I mean it’s pretty crazy how deeply entrenched this toxic behavior is. And I’m going to call it out and I want you and me and whoever you share this with to be on a team trudging toward change together.

Okay, so if you have an athlete that you care about who’s a gymnast, please stick with me and also give me your comments. I want to open this dialogue because we’ve got to work together to change this.

So I disagree that you can be too tall or too old. There are experiences in our world that show that, but here’s the reason why you can’t be too tall, too fat, too old, too anything and actually make it in gymnastics because of the way that we are trained. I started gymnastics young and then I was a wild, rambunctious four and five-year-old and my mom pulled me out. And then she brought me back in at age eight, which is way too old to be doing pre-team. It’s crazy but at eight years old, I was very much too old to just be getting started in competitive gymnastics. So that was the message that I received.

As a result of my late start, I had these messages in my head of I will never be good enough.

I will always be too tall. I will never be as good as the younger, smaller, better kids. Those were constantly at me. I was relieved to be in the older age group, because then I had a chance to medal even though my scores were so low constantly. I was getting those messages. So I don’t actually even know if I was good at gymnastics. All I know is that I didn’t win. I was too tall. I was too old. I wasn’t good enough. I was too scared. It was all this negative stuff that was inside of me, but it was being constantly reinforced because if you’re not going to be a level 10 by age 13, why bother? You’re not going to college or not go into the Olympics? Like, what’s the point.

And when I was this 14 year old level six, I was like, this is it. There’s no way. There’s no way I’m going to get to do anything important in gymnastics because you peak at this age and then it’s over. There is nothing to do. So it’s this concept of you must rush, rush, rush, rush, rush to get your skills, to get through the levels, to get to the point where you can be somebody or what’s the point.

 

An Open Letter to Coaches of Gymnastics

Now, what if let’s just say that the women’s gymnastics team had 30 year olds on it and I was 14. I could look at that and go, you know what? It takes me a little longer to get things because I am a little more cautious than anxious, but I think if I keep at it and I get stronger and I keep working, I could probably be a level seven. I could probably be a level eight. I bet if I kept working on this, I could be a level nine. I bet if I move slow and steady and I followed the lead of my brain and my body, and I worked together with my coaches to reach my goals one at a time, I could do anything.

I mean today I could, I bet you, if I had the desire, which my body hurts just thinking about it to go and be a level eight gymnast. I could probably do it but I was given all these messages that it was not possible, which made me give up on myself.

Then we’ve got all of the coaching practices. I made a little list of all the things that I used to do that were done to me that are very much still acceptable in coaching practices that are not okay. These are not healthy. They’re not helpful. They’re not kind. They are not useful. They are not bringing out better athletes. So parents, if you see this happening, it’s your job to call it out. And that’s hard in this toxic culture, but it is your job to call it out. Coaches, if you’re listening and you have that little twinge of guilt because you do that then it’s your job to cut it out.

Here are the things coaches should STOP doing to their athletes:

1. Using drills or conditioning as punishment

Punishment has no place in sports, especially youth sports. There’s no need for punishment. It’s this big misconception that there’s a motivation issue and the child needs to be motivated. Or if they wanted it badly enough, they would do it. So I’m going to give them a little motivation by giving them something that they’re going to want to avoid.

Punishment is so harmful. It destroys the relationship with the athlete. It destroys the relationship between the athlete and the drills and the conditioning. Because here’s the thing…the athlete does need the drills in the conditioning to get to the skill. But who are you as a coach to say that they must get it now or else? What if their pace is just slightly different? What if their mind needs to get taught to in a different way? Maybe they’re an audio learner and you keep showing them. Maybe they’re a kinesthetic learner and you keep explaining it to them. And then you’re yelling at them because they’re not getting it and they don’t want it badly enough.

How about instead, if we were like: ‘Something’s not connecting. Let’s see why don’t I connect with this athlete and figure out what they need.’ There is a concept in positive discipline, which is a parenting philosophy that I just love that says connect before you correct. It’s so easy to be like, ‘Fix that, fix that, fix that. Oh, that’s wrong.’ And as a parent you’re like, ‘Oh, stop doing that. Stop doing that.’

What if you connected first? And you were to go to the athlete and say something like, “How did that one feel to you? Did that feel good? Or did that feel off?” And if the athlete says that it felt kinda off then you can find out what they think is going on. What if you need to help them connect with what you’re doing that isn’t working. So then giving them a punishment is creating shame. It’s creating more of a disconnect. It creates less trust with the athlete, less trust with you. So then they’re going to feel like they have to figure out on their own anyway, and they’re going to get yelled at no matter what. So then they’re tense and then they’re not making corrections. So if you slow it down and instead of going “You’re punished, go do this thing” you said “Bring it in kiddo. Okay. Let’s talk about what’s going on. Something’s not connecting. What do you think is happening? How do you think this is going? How’s that feeling to you? What do you think you need?”

I mean, I’m sure that most gymnasts would look at their coach like, is this a test? What am I supposed to say here? Am I about to get in trouble? But if you could create that kind of atmosphere in your gym, where the athlete is a co-coach, a co-participant because that athlete is connected to their own mind and their own body better than any coach could ever be. So that athlete is ultimately the expert on their own performance. You just elicit it by helping them to trust themselves and helping them to trust you.

Okay, so stop using drills and conditioning as punishment. Parents, if you see it, call it out. And if you’re afraid to, that should be a red flag in and of itself.

2. Making athletes stay harder or work harder if they’re afraid

If they’re not going for a skill because they are afraid and you force them to stay on beam until you do it, or you have to stay at workout until 9:00 PM or 10:00 PM until you throw that skill because I’m not letting you out of here until you go for it. And if you want it bad enough, you’ll do it.

There’s so much harm in our sport, but this is a very common, very harmful practice in gymnastics. If an athlete is not going for a skill that they can physically do, and they are in tears and they are shaking and they are frozen and they are trying and bailing and they cannot get themselves to do it, it’s not because they’re a little jerk. It’s because they’re terrified. And they’re not just terrified. Their brain has gone into complete survival mode. Their brain feels like they are on the firing squad that could actually die.

And there becomes a moment when you make the athlete do that skill that you have actually made the athlete risk their own life, essentially is how their brain perceives it. That you, the coach, who’s just trying to get them to do what they’re capable of has forced that athlete to do something that felt completely dangerous and unsafe. So that athlete has come to this moment where it’s become so bad that they’re standing up there on that beam, crying and shaking. It’s become so bad that they’re willing to risk their life to get off that beam. That’s what that means. It doesn’t mean you won or you helped them. It means that you got them to the point where they were willing to risk their life, to make you happy and to get off of the chopping block.

What the athlete needs in that moment is for you to connect with them and, and say, “Whoa, buddy, you look really stressed out. You were doing this yesterday. What’s going on?” And they’re going to be like, “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not sure. I don’t know what’s happening.”  Because their brain is in complete survival mode. Their brain is in fight or flight. They want to get the heck out of there as quickly as possible because they think they’re going to die. Their brain thinks they’re going to die.

So that’s when you go, “Okay, what can you do right now?  You ask them to scale it back to the point where they can do something, get a win, and be done. If you allow them the space to collaborate with you on what’s possible for them in that moment, not what should be possible or could be possible or what their friend can do or what they did yesterday, but what’s possible for them in that moment – you collaborate, you connect, you ask them to help co-coach themselves.

That’s the way you salvage some confidence in that confidence-destroying moment. So parents, if you ever see a coach keeping an athlete on an event until they throw a skill they’re terrified of, that is not okay. It’s not useful. It’s not healthy. That is the one thing that creates more mental blocks than anything.

The athletes I talked to who have had mental blocks for years, it almost always starts with a situation like that, where they have a trauma that their brain then goes this skill is not safe and coaches are not safe and I’m not safe.

So please save me some trouble having to help you work through that by just not allowing that to happen.

3. Sarcasm

I used to do this as a coach. I remember going to gymnastics camp with a group of my kids and being like, “That was hard. Wow.” Or like, “Hmm, beautiful. Hmm. That was pretty cute. I don’t know what you’re doing.” It feels so harmless. And I was like, I’m hilarious. I just say all these witty things to these kids and they love me.

But you know what? It was hurtful. It was hurtful because I watched other coaches do it. And I was like, Ooh, that’s so hurtful. You know if an athlete is trying, maybe they’re not trying their hundred percent best, they’re 70% best and you’re like, “Wow, that was cute. Like, that was really good.” It’s pouring shame onto these little humans who just want to please you. So get rid of the sarcasm and use the words that you mean.

So if you want to say, ‘I know you can do better’ then you go to them and you say, “How did that one feel to you? Can you feel your back leg? What does it look like to you from here? Do you think that you’re hitting it the way you want it to?”

And they’re like: “Oh that one felt really sloppy. Sorry, coach. I’ll try it again.”

And then you have just created the space for them to explore, and then they go and empower themselves to improve rather than you shaming them into improvement.

4. Pushing Kids Down In Their Splits

I loved to do this. This was my favorite thing, pulling and pushing until they screamed. I thought it was awesome because guess what? That’s what people did to me. And I was very flexible. So I was like, why can’t you just do your splits? And that’s physically abusive. You cannot inflict pain on a child. You can’t do it. I mean, all the things we would do to these kids in their splits, like put the ankle weights on and then come step on their legs and push them down.

They’re laying on their back and their middles. So I’m sure somebody told me back in the day that that’s not okay. And I was like, okay, whatever. Like, how else are you going to get your oversplits? This is what you have to do. You know what? It’s not. And that’s not okay. So if you see your coaches doing it, let them know that’s not healthy for the kids mentally or physically.

5. Drill Sergeant Coaching

That is what I consider not allowing any two-way conversation with athletes. The coaches are the only one who speak and they bark orders and the children comply and that’s it. And if they don’t comply, they’re in trouble and they’re punished. That’s not how it should be.

There has to be a two way. There has to be collaboration within this relationship. That one way coaching, it leaves out so much information on what can actually create a more efficient training program for your child.

6. Putting A Deadline On Having To Get Skills

I had a parent in the PerformHappy parents group reach out and say like, how do you guys feel about this? You know, putting a deadline on getting a skill. Like if she doesn’t flip her vault by June 1st, she’s not moving up.

So I’m like, “Oh my gosh, it’s May…what kind of a deadline is June 1st?” They just finished their competition season. How could they have been up training sufficiently to make flipping a vault safe this much before competition season? I mean, so of course they don’t have any more information than that, but I’m like June that’s so arbitrary.

So I reached out in the Complete Performance Coaching Facebook page and I was like, “What do you guys think about this concept? And you know, most people were like: “No, oh, that stresses my daughter out so much.” And one coach posted that you have to have flexible deadlines.

And I’m like “Yes! Flexible deadlines. What a concept?!” If you have 30 athletes on your team, they are going to have 30 different timelines. They’re going to have 30 different sets of injuries and weird, bad sleep nights and not enough lunch today and drama with their friends and stress at school and vacation. And you know, all of these things are going to be hitting each of those 30 kids at a different speed in a different direction. They’re growing. All of this stuff is happening in them.

So how can you say all 30 of you shall do this by this date or else. It just doesn’t make any sense. You know, when you’re dealing with humans, you bring the humans together and you talk about goals. What do you want to accomplish? You want to go level eight next year. Okay. Here’s where you’re at. Here’s where I need you to be for safety by, you know, next season. So here let’s sort of reverse engineer based on the human. And then we’re going to check in and go, okay, we’re two weeks into this plan. It seems like we’re behind, let’s kind of reconfigure. What needs to happen here?

I like a good wishlist. It’s a great antidote to perfectionism. Like “Hey guys, I have a challenge for you. I would love to get everybody feeling confident enough to want to flip a vault by June 1st. All right. That’s the challenge. If you want to, on June 1st, you get to.”  How different is that? Right? If you don’t feel ready, that’s okay. But then the kids are going to be like, “Ooh, challenge. Okay. What do I have to do?” Versus “If you don’t get your vote by June 1st, you are not competing level eight.” That’s the understory you’re left behind and all your friends are going on without you. And then there’s this block of terror that’s like I have to do this skill that feels terrifying and that’s basically putting my life on the line for my social connections and I don’t want to be left behind! So I better chuck this thing and hope it’s ok.

Break my neck versus “You know what, coach? I think I’m ready. I’ve been working for a month. I’ve been really excited about it because I love this challenge. And I’d love to be there with my girls flipping on June 1st.”

Delivery is everything but arbitrary impunitive deadlines. No, thank you.

7. Focusing on perfection

Perfectionism is so toxic. People love to be perfect in gymnastics. They love to be perfectionists. It’s even this thing – ‘I’m such a perfectionist.’ Or ‘That’s why we’re gymnasts. We’re such perfectionists.’

But you know what it really is? It’s anxiety. It’s never feeling good enough ever. It’s not being able to receive a compliment because you’re like, “But my toe wasn’t pointed or it should have been higher or hers is better.”

Having that relationship with yourself where you just are never good enough leads to so many nasty things in life. So many bad boyfriends and so many sacrificed opportunities where you’re like, “It’s just not good enough. I’m not good enough. I will never be good enough.” So coaches if you’re like, “It’s not perfect. Needs to be perfect,” that’s toxic. That’s continually undercutting confidence. It’s like, you’re going up the down escalator. They’re like working and working and you’re like, not good enough. You’re working. You’re working. Not good enough. Working, working not good enough. Instead focus on their progress. Like, okay, that was good. And it’s getting better.

That’s what I do with my daughter, as she learns to read and she learns to swim and she learns to do cartwheels and she learns all these little skills…my tendency is to be like, oh my gosh, that was so perfect. Which isn’t even real or true. But instead I’m like, oh my gosh, you’re working so hard. And your cartwheel is getting better. As a result, you’re working so hard and you’re getting better at reading. I’m so proud of you.

If you focus on their effort and you call out that they’re working for it and they’re earning it, not that they have arrived at this superficial end point that no one will actually arrive to. Instead you focus on, it’s getting better kiddo. It’s getting better. Good. It’s getting better, getting better because it can always keep getting better. And you can actually pat yourself on the back for five minutes.

8. Trying to trick athletes into doing skills that they don’t feel ready to do (to prove yourself right that they can do it)

So picture this coach is like, “I know you can do it. I’ve seen you do it before. It’s time to do it.” And the athlete doesn’t feel safe. “I have grown an inch and this just doesn’t feel right today. And I fell on this yesterday and I feel nervous.” And the coach is like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re fine. Go do it.”

The coach has good intentions, right? They’re not trying to let their ego run the show, but ultimately they’re like, “I’m going to get this kid to do the skill. And then I’m going to feel really good because I was right. Because I knew you can do it.”

So what they do is like, “Okay, I’ll start you.” And they put their hand out and the athlete starts to go and they pull it away and they’re like, “See, you didn’t even need a spot.”

But what that one action does is it creates this lack of trust. It is a break in trust that happens between the athlete and that coach. Yeah, coach, you got the athlete to do what you wanted them to do. But now that athlete is going to wonder if her coach is going to actually spot her or not going to spot her? And the safety and comfort that you once provided has now been cut in half. You do it again, cut in half. Do it again. Cut in half. This is not scientific, but you get the idea. If you say you’re going to put your hand there, you better put your hand there. And if you are not going to put your hand there, you better be honest about it. And that athlete better comply or not comply consent.

That’s the thing is that one method of coaching creates compliant athletes who develop mental blocks, fears and inability to communicate. They can’t trust themselves or you. And they rely on their talent to get them through. And if they make a mistake, they feel like they are bad. Then on the other side, you’ve got these athletes who are allowed to fail. They can communicate. They can say, I don’t feel safe to try that. And then what happens is you build this trust between you and your athlete. Then you build this possibility and you don’t tell them they’re too old. They’re 11 years old and level five. You tell them they’re getting better. And that you believe in them. And let’s try that. And I can’t wait. And here’s the challenge. What if we could get that skill by June? I bet you could, but don’t worry. No pressure. If you feel ready, we’ll do it.

If what was pleasing to you was that they’re getting better and they’re trying hard, then they would go so much farther. They wouldn’t burn out. They wouldn’t go through all of those things –  my back pain, my anxiety, my perfectionism, my inability to understand the concept of consent, my lack of trust in myself and others. All of those beautiful “gifts” that keep on giving from the sport of gymnastics. What if those weren’t there? What if I knew when to stop when my body hurt?What if I knew how to listen to my fear and not just be run by it and try to ignore it? What if I knew that I would never, ever be perfect. And it was okay. And if I could just get a little better every day, that was great. What if I knew about consent and knew how to say, “You know what, coach, I don’t feel comfortable doing that today.” Then maybe when I was in college, I would have been able to say no when I meant no. And maybe when I was, beyond that, I would have been able to say no when the answer was no. So for any of you who have little girls who you want them to be able to say no, when it’s no, this is so important. They have got to understand the value of no means no.

And if the coaches keep coaching the way that they’re coaching and no doesn’t mean no, then that gets built into their brain and taken with them in life. Still to this day, I’m undoing baggage from my 14 year old life where no didn’t get to mean no. So this is so serious.

If you prioritize mental health and communication and the whole athlete, then you get to have this amazing character building experience that brings about these happy, healthy, successful athletes and these coaches who feel really nourished by their jobs.They don’t have to feel like jerks when they go home and their athletes all hate them and don’t have to blame it on these kids who just aren’t compliant and won’t do what they’re told.

So just a quick little four-step recap on what to do here:

If you see any of those things that I talked about, call it out, email me, I will coach you through what to do, what to say. I want to be part of the solution. But here are the things to do:

  1. Be flexible. Meet those athletes where they are. One size does not fit all for coaching.
  2. Connect before you correct. This goes for all humans that you encounter in life – connect before you correct.
  3. Focus on the growth mindset. That idea that we’re going to get a little better and we’re going to try hard and everything’s going to work out. We’ve got grit and we’re just going to keep at it. And you can get anywhere you want to. And it might not be by the time you’re 16 and that’s okay.
  4. Put humans first. These are children. They are worthy of our love and respect, regardless of their performance.

I do a little exercise with the kids in the PerformHappy group where I grab a $20 and I go, who wants it? And they all want it. And then I crumble it all up. And they all still want it. Then I stomp on it. They all want it.  And then I tell them that the $20 bill is a failure and it’s so mean and terrible. They’re like, “Yeah, I still want the 20 because it still has the same value.”

So even if that kid is being a jerk and not listening and not trying and not applying themselves and all of those things, they are still worth the same amount as if they were your perfect little superstar and they need to be treated accordingly.

Please let me know if you are in this with me. If you are willing to go on my crusade and start making these changes, I would love for you to share it with somebody who thinks the same way, or maybe somebody who just needs to hear it.

Thank you so much for your attention. This is so important to me.