Thursday, October 1, 2015

Gymnast or Gym Rat?

This month marks the beginning of Maddie's second competitive gymnastics season. Last year was very eye-opening for me, leading to a conclusion: I am thankful to have a gym rat rather than a gymnast.

My observations began at her first meet last year. When watching the competitors, I noticed that some were considerably more refined in their performance than my daughter. I wondered if it was just that many of these girls were in their second year of competition, or if it had more to do with quality of training. Then I watched Maddie. I saw her beam with pride and joy in her own performance. That's all that mattered, so I let it go.

Then my "former-nurse ears" perked up to the conversation going on around me. Parents from other gyms were trading stories about the overuse injuries their girls were sustaining and recovering from. This was a level 3 gymnastics meet, where the girls are generally 5 to 8 years old. While I expected to see an occasional injury in [much] older gymnasts, I never thought I'd hear about injuries at this level! And overuse?! I scanned the gymnasts again, and - sure enough - I noticed a number of taped ankles and wrists and even a few girls sitting off to the side, unable to compete. I figured if more stringent training resulted in smoother performances - but also included increased risk for overuse injury...I'd happily take the more relaxed training any day.

Observations continued at our big travel meet for the year. We went to San Diego and competed against girls from around the country, as well as a few international teams. I was amazed at the level of performance from some of the gyms. Many of the girls seemed to be well on their way to the Olympics! Then I looked more closely. One girl (who looked no more than 6 years old) was berated by her coach for not lifting her leg high enough at one point in the floor exercise. This happened about 3 feet away from me - plenty close enough to see tears welling in the girl's eyes as the coach scolded her. She immediately had to go out and compete after the exchange. I feared her emotional state would effect her performance, but I breathed a sigh of relief when she finished an absolutely beautiful routine. Then I was disgusted when she walked off the floor. There was no high-five for her, no "Great job!". Nothing. I wanted to run out and hug the poor girl.

I heard more horror stories from our coach, featuring one in which she overheard a coach pitting one gymnast against another. The offending coach had pulled the two girls to the side and said, "Okay...this is it. There is only one spot open on the level 4 team for next year. Which of you is going to prove to me you're worthy of that spot, and which of you is going to have to go through another whole year of level 3?" Meanwhile, our girls (some of who were cast out of other gyms for not having the right body type or ability level) were laughing, giving high-five's, and yelling words of encouragement to one another. Maddie ended up nowhere near the podium at the end of the night. Her scores didn't remotely resemble those who walked away with the trophies. That was fine with me. She was off in the corner during the awards ceremony...playing with her teammates - her friends.

At another meet I struck up conversation with a mom from another gym. She mentioned her daughter would be quitting at the end of the season. I asked why, and she quickly said, "Burnout! The practices are just too much and she has had enough." I learned that her daughter (a 7-year-old) had 4-hour practices 3 days per week. Maddie had 3-hour practices, 2 days per week. No wonder some of these other gymnasts had such clean performances; they were practicing nearly twice as much! I was thankful for our relaxed practice schedule. It allowed for Maddie's weekly tutoring sessions, piano lessons, and one night of rest per week!

By the end of the season Maddie's skills had changed immensely - they had greatly improved (even earning her a highest all-around score in her last meet and a trip to the top of the podium!). What hadn't changed was her relationship with her teammates or her love for the gym. Her favorite days of the week remain her practice days, and after practice she still begs to stay for "free gym".

We no longer live in an age where parents kick their kids out of the house by 10 A.M. to "go play" and allow them back in at dinnertime. Now you run the risk of getting authorities called on you for neglect if you so much as allow your kid to walk home from school alone. So we rely on organized activities for our kids to get exercise and to form the bonds and relationships they would have when playing "out and about" in years past. All too often, however, parents seem to see these sports teams as lottery tickets rather than developmental tools. Even if their heads aren't swimming with visions of pro sports teams or the Olympics, they're often intoxicated with dreams of college scholarships. My kid does gymnastics, but she's not a gymnast; she's a gym rat. And I'd have it no other way. She improves skills, she stays healthy, she makes friends, she builds confidence...and she has fun. I'm as concerned about the expense of college as any parent. But if I'm going to enter the scholarship lottery, I'd rather roll the dice on academic possibilities, not athletic. Let sport be for fun. Let her be a gym rat!






















And because she can't get enough at the gym...









What "watching TV" has become...



What happens when there's more than 3 days between practices...



My lovely little gym rat!

22 comments:

  1. Love it that both you and the coach have ideals that match, and that Maddie is supported to be a gym rat.

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    1. Thank you very much! We're very lucky to have such great coaches! Take care and have a wonderful weekend! :)

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  2. You are lucky to have found coaches that match your ideals!

    I went from gym to horse back riding and the two things I remember the most about competitions from when I was say 10 was the time a girl lost to me and ran her ribbon over with her horse and the time a girl was pulled off her pony and slapped for a bad performance. Just horrifying

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    1. WOW! That's...I'd say ridiculous, but it's just so SAD I can't even say that! I just shake my head (with a heavy sigh). I just don't get the priorities of some parents. :( Thanks so much for sharing, though, and have a wonderful week!

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    2. And that was the 80's I can't even imagine what it is like now. It makes me sad.

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    3. I wonder, too, what those people are like now as adults. Did they come to realize the destructive nature of that way of thinking? Did they regret their parents' decision to raise them that way? Did they grow to just treat/teach their children the same way? Did they turn to drugs, alcohol, or some other destructive behavior because of the misconception that winning meant everything and they couldn't live up to it? When I was a nurse on the medical unit at Seattle Children's Hospital, I took care of kids (mainly girls) with eating disorders, who were too medically unstable to go to the psych unit. Their problems always had little to nothing to do with food. It was all about power struggles and control issues in the home. When I was at that big gymnastics meet in San Diego, I wondered how many of those girls would be future eating disorder patients. Sadly, it felt like a huge breeding ground for such maladies.

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  3. Great article. I feel the same way about my daughter's figure skating.(her name is Maddie too!) We found a coach that knows how to develop skills without losing the fun aspect of it all.

    And our family policy is one sport and one musical instrument. I want my kid to have free time to dream and.... be a kid. Cause, when it's over, it's over.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Cindy! I'm so glad you, too, were able to find a coach who "gets it". One sport and one instrument sounds like a great plan. I often wonder what happens to kids when their parents have "put all their eggs in one basket", with obsessive concentration on a single activity - whether it be soccer or piano or horseback riding... What happens if/when the child decides he/she has had enough, and now they have a huge void in their lives because they've never been given the opportunity to explore other activities? I think it makes much more sense to offer a child well-rounded exposure to various extra-curricular pursuits...and to always leave some "down time" scheduled in for play. Thanks again for sharing, and have a wonderful weekend!

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  4. My dad was in gynmastics all the way through college - because he wanted to, it was fun for him. When I turned four, I was put in a local gymnastics program. There was no pressure from my parents to continue past that first year if I didn't want to. I didn't. I ended up sticking to soccer and downhill skiing - both of which I ended up quitting because of the girls on the team; they sucked the fun out of it for me.
    I have to give you major props for allowing your daughter the freedom (and finding a coach that has the same perspective on organized sports for kids as you) of fun. She's a child. She (and her body) shouldn't be under that much stress. There's already too much of it, just growing, learning in school, and trying to fit in, let alone that much high-pressure competition. And people wonder why suicide rates are going up? I'd be willing to bet that's part of it. Good for you for recognizing what's important in the entire situation. I wish more parents saw it that way. I think kids would be a lot happier.

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    1. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply, Milli, but I really appreciate you taking the time to read my post and share your thoughts. I'm glad you also had the freedom to pursue extra-curricular activities that interested you, as well as the freedom to stop whenever you wanted. I hope you were able to collect many happy memories from soccer and skiing before moving on to other ventures. Take care and have a wonderful day! :) ~Stephanie

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  5. I have a gym rat too - and I'm a gymnastics coach! I much prefer our relaxed atmosphere at our gym. Almost all our seniors get college scholarships and they are well-rounded young women outside the gym.

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  6. Thank you for taking the time to read my post, and thank you so much for sharing! I'm so happy to hear from another coach who believes in the importance of well-rounded childhoods! Kudos to you and your gym rat! And congrats on the success of your seniors; that's so great to hear! Take care and enjoy the rest of your week! :) ~Stephanie

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  7. You are a wonderful person Stephanie! Sometimes, I wonder how you find all that valuable time. Time for writing, looking after the kids - 4, your husband, your job, replying to your posts and of course people like myself who not only admire you, but quietly follow your progress through life. You are beautiful both on the outside and inside! And yet you find the time for people half a world away beset with their own problems....how do you manage it all Stephanie? And I must add, you have such a lovely heart too. May God bless you always, because you are the angel of life! Yes. With wings too, that take you to help people with your kind words and attention. Stop blushing......you better believe in it, because you will be rewarded in this life only for your concern for others. May you remain blessed always! Arshad.

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    1. Boy, Arshad, I don't even know how to process so many sweet, loving words! If I have learned to make time for much in my life, it has only been through the strict and constant "tutelage" of my children! LOL I also had to laugh out loud when I read your line, "Stop blushing...", because it was just at that point in reading your message that I was inclined to type back "[blush]". :) Thank you so much for your kind words and well wishes; you're a wonderful friend! Take care and I hope you have a joyful weekend! ~Stephanie

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  8. Really happy to have found this blog. Thanks Stephanie. In my schooldays there were many gymnasts and swimmers who were pushed to do sport because their parents wanted to. I'm limited in the sports I can do, but I used to swim better than I could walk - because it was something I could compete equally in alongside my peers. These days I write and walk in equal amounts, and while I'll never win medals for either, they both bring me great peace and happiness, just as you say about Maddie being a gym rat.

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    1. Good for you! I'm so happy to hear you were able to find a sport you enjoyed as a child and that you continue to be active - and [most importantly] happy with your activity. Thank you for taking the time to read my post, thank you for sharing, have a wonderful week, and may writing and walking continue to bring you joy! :) ~Stephanie

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  9. It is so good to know that there are parents out there who get that childhood is about play! That it's play, exploration, caring, and connection, lots of it, that makes for resilient, healthy kids. This piece needs to be read and re-read by so many adults, both coaches and parents. Thanks so much for finding a way, and the time, to put it all into words. My daughter is a personal trainer who has seen the impact on her kid clients when parents push. It breaks her heart. I will send this to her. I think she will find it comforting.

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    1. Thank you so much, Patricia, for taking the time to read my post, for forwarding it on to your daughter, and for your very kind words! I don't know if sharing my thoughts will change the minds of parents/coaches who think differently, but it can't hurt to at least give them food for thought! Take care and enjoy the rest of your week! :) ~Stephanie

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  10. Yes I agree that slow and steady wins the race. My mother forced me to try gymnastics for 3 months since she loved it so much. I also loved it and even taught some gymnastics. Also there is nothing greater for a kid than having fun.

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post, Chuck! I think your rule about having fun can apply to adults, too. After having my kids, I found myself quite out of shape. A wise person told me, "Just find something you like doing, and do it!" If you're going to have to drag yourself to the gym because you can't stand the gym, that exercise isn't going to last long. If you need some competition to keep motivated, you should be playing some tennis or basketball. If you like some time to just move while enjoying some music, you should be walking (or jogging) around the neighborhood. If you feel like dancing to that music, you should be rockin' out to some Zumba! Fun is crucial for sustainability. Fortunately, my daughter is still very much in love with her gym, and I'm having a great time watching her enjoy herself. I'm glad to hear you found some joy in the gym, too; it sounds like your mom made the right decision to introduce you to it! Take care and have a wonderful weekend! :) ~Stephanie

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  11. Having read this I believed it was extremely enlightening.

    I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this informative article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending way too much time both reading and commenting.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my post; I'm glad you enjoyed it! Take care and enjoy the rest of your week! :) ~Stephanie

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