Jitters, butterflies, and nerves, oh my.

Colorado Aerials level 5 gymnasts. Photo courtesy of Erin Pelton.

The beginning of fall means the beginning of gymnastics compulsory season. Compulsories are the first levels of competitive gymnastics, named such because every gymnast does the same routines, the same skills. For spectators this means you’ll be listening to the same floor music over and over and over again. For the gymnasts it means they’re doing the exact same routine as the girl before and after them, so you have to make it look better than they did if you want to score higher. It can be challenging, especially if you’re brand new to it. Mostly, though, it’s very exciting.

I still remember my first meet with startling detail considering it was 22 years ago. My gym has a policy of training one level ahead of what you’re competing. At the time, I was pre-team (we were called gymstars) and we learned the level 5 routines so that when we moved up to level 5 we were beyond prepared. There were a few of us who were ready to move up a little early, so they had us compete in a couple level 5 meets as gymstars. Now, as the owners’/coach’s kid there was always a little extra pressure on me. Never pressure to win (my parents were the opposite of those gym parents, despite their careers), but pressure to prove I deserved to be at whatever level I was. Truthfully, I think most gymnasts feel this pressure. No one wants to be moved up a level just to bomb a whole season.

My first meet also happened to be Pike’s Peak Cup, which happens to be my club’s host meet. It’s still one of the bigger invitational meets to this day (and a Nastia Cup qualifier) and attracts clubs from all over North America. Needless to say, I was feeling the nerves. And it showed. I vividly remember tripping on my squat-on on bars (a move where you simply put your feet on the low bar to jump to the high bar) and face planting. Uneven bars and I ended up having a very antagonistic relationship throughout my gymnastics career — hilariously ironic if you know anything about my dad. I also forgot an entire pass of my beam routine, which means I pretty much skipped half the elements I was required to do. Needless to say, it was not my best meet (still not my worst, but that’s a story for another day). But it was an excellent introduction to competition. The inevitable butterflies before you mount beam, the crushing disappointment when the entire audience watched you land on your face (they didn’t, only a few people saw it, surely, but it feels like everyone). It was an experience I fell in love with, a love that never diminished in my years in the sport, and one that I still miss today.

Gymnastics is a tough sport to choose to compete in. It requires a level of perfection that very few sports can compare. It’s not like any team sport where even if you have a bad game, your teammates can make it up for you or vice versa. The pressure is all on you because no one can do your beam routine for you. It’s remembering to point your toes and keep your head in and squeeze your legs together and push tall through your shoulders, all at the same time. And that’s just for one skill, three seconds of your minute and a half floor routine.

You, brand new compulsory parent, are in for a roller coaster of emotions and experiences with your daughter. There are going to be meets that make you wonder what the heck she has been doing all this time at practice because surely she knows how to keep her legs straight. There are going meets when she’s so nervous that you’re convinced this level of anxiety can’t be healthy. But then, there will be meets where you see her reach the podium, or finally stick that beam routine, and nothing will beat the smile on her face or the enormous boost of self-confidence that can provide. And in the end, that’s what the sport is really all about.

So if your daughter or granddaughter or friend is feeling extra anxious this compulsory season, don’t try to diminish her worries. Be supportive — wrap that extra tight ponytail into extra tight spiral curls, ply her with enough Gatorade and PowerBars to last a month in the wild (or don’t; to this day I can’t eat a PowerBar without wanting to gag). Be happy for her no matter how she competes — no one is more disappointed than she is that she fell three times on beam, after all she’s the one who has put in the hours at practice. Mostly, just be there (even if it means not actually being at the meet because oh my gosh grandma your presence makes me eight hundred times more nervous). In the end your support, whether physical or emotional, will mean everything to her.

Tell me, how do you help your gymnast prepare for meets? Answer in the comments below.

Listening to the national anthem before the competition begins. Photo courtesy of Erin Pelton.

Listening to the national anthem before the competition begins. Photo courtesy of Erin Pelton.


  1. You never disappointed me when you competed Asha. It was so fun to watch you handle the pressure and try your best even when you didn’t win. We were hoping your competition experience would help you become the adult your mom and I wanted you to become. It worked! We watch you set goals and strive for them as an adult. You don’t give up when things get tough and most importantly you view failures as challenges and not defeats. I attribute your years in gymnastics for much of your ability to do this. Nice writing by the way – keep it up! Love you, Dad


  2. What a brilliant and helpful article. My daughter had her first competition a few weeks back and while the rest of her squad had all attended comps ( gym and ballet) before with older siblings this was her first. She was first up and fell off the beam and well, it was all a bit traumatic. Next competition is tomorrow and she has just found out she is first up again and really doesn’t want to go. This article is just what she needed to know/hear as her coaches aren’t big on encouragement. and she just needed to hear someone say “you’re ok kid and we trust you, that’s why you’re first up. It isn’t a punishment.”
    You have a great writing style and this is a joy to read. Thank you.


    • I am so happy to hear this article helped your daughter. I’m sure she rocked her second competition; and even if she didn’t, she should know that no gymnast makes it through her career without falling in a meet. Not one. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a gymnast who makes it through one season without falling. I’m thrilled that my words might have offered her even a small measure of encouragement. Being a gymnast takes a lot of guts and hopefully her confidence will grow with each competition.


  3. As a coach I try my best to be extra light-hearted at meets..The nervous girls will pull a “what if I fall” and I say “Whoo caaarrees!!!” (Even though, like them, I do care of course!) Realistic goals are perfect… If we know a certain gymnast struggles on bars, we’ll say beforehand “Ok, we know bars still needs work so we aren’t shooting for perfect, we are shooting for the best we can do at this point.” If a girl knows she has a kick butt beam routine we’ll say “OK our goal is first place beam – Let’s go for it why not!?” But it’s never “Do it right or die”. It’s NOT life or death, coaches… have fun out there!


    • Great advice! I know as a coach I always try to stay extra calm and easy going at meets. Usually the girls put enough pressure on themselves; it can be our job as coaches to remind them that this is the fun part, this is what they’ve been working hard in practice for, so enjoy it. And if it goes poorly, help them learn from it for the next meet.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s