Just another gymnastics meet. Or is it?

Compulsory season is well under way. Even if this is your first season on the competitive scene, you’re probably a pro at spending four hours at a gymnastics club to watch your daughter for a total of maybe five minutes of gymnastics. (It’s sounds awful, but it’s weirdly exciting, isn’t it? It is, you know it is.) You have the snacks, the cushions to sit on, the prepared answer when she inevitably asks for a new leotard or t-shirt or gym bag that’s on display. You are old hat at this.

Well, in case you didn’t know, there’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes (actually it’s right in front of you because it’s a completely open gymnasium, you just don’t know it’s happening). Every meet is a brand new situation and no matter how hard your coaches try to prepare your daughter for every possibility, there are always variables you, as the parent, will never see.

As a coach, showing up at a meet means being prepared to think on your feet, make split-second decisions, and handle every possible outcome with your athletes and team. For starters, there is determining the line-up. Yes, even gymnastics has a line-up. Every gym does this differently, but at ours I know that the first kid up on each event is the most consistent, steady gymnast they’ve got. It’s a huge compliment to be put first because it means the coaches trust you enough to hit your routine and lay the groundwork for your teammates. But what if your most consistent gymnast had a terrible warm up? Or had a really rough week at practice? Who do you put first? Do you trust that she’ll handle the pressure when the time comes or do you pass that torch to someone else?

Next comes the equipment. Most people who have never participated in the sport don’t give much thought to the equipment the girls compete on. Trust me, the gymnasts do. Every gymnast is used to the way the floor bounces at her gym. The bars are chalked up just the way she’s used to on her home turf. And sure every beam is four inches wide, but there is always that meet with that beam she could swear is only 3-and-a-half inches wide… and why on earth is it bouncy?

It doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but these tiny factors can have a huge impact on your daughter’s meet. Would you like my own personal, embarrassing ‘for example’? When I was competing the vault was not that nice, tongue-shaped tabletop you see today. It was a horse, much like the men’s pommel horse still is today minus the bars on top. Vault was one of my better events, I never worried about it too much, until we showed up at a meet in Arizona. For whatever reason, the host gym had entirely Spieth Anderson equipment, and SA equipment in those days was made of cloth instead of leather. My brain immediately went “cloth=slippery=nope.”

I was a level 9, vault was our first event, and I did not manage a single practice vault that did not land on my face. Naturally, my grandparents had driven all the way from Colorado and brought along a family friend to witness this equipment freak out. Competition began and it was not pretty. Jason, my saint-like coach, decided it would be wise to stand there for my vault in case he needed to save my life (a split-second decision I was grateful for later), something he’d never needed to do in a meet before. My vault was a tsukahara (you don’t need to know what that is, just know it involves a back flip). I landed the first one on my face after my hands slid off the vault the same second they touched it. My second vault was worse considering I missed my hands entirely and I’m pretty sure Jason was the only reason I even made it to my face instead of the top of my head. It was ugly. So ugly I got a zero and the judges actually apologized to me. Apologized. (I’ve never heard of that happening before.) Because your skill does not count as a skill if your head lands before your feet. Oh. Right.

I’d like to say the meet improved from there, but it really didn’t. The bars were slick, causing myself and a lot of my teammates to peel off on our dismounts, and floor was just a total disaster (I left both copies of my floor music at the hotel like a champ). I don’t actually remember beam, but I do remember that my gymnastics club didn’t return to a meet in Arizona for at least a decade. (I’m not even kidding.)

My point is this, there’s a lot going on at a meet, and a whole lot of nerves on top of it. Gymnasts are superstitious, and creatures of habit, and the smallest things can throw off an entire meet. It doesn’t always make sense (a cloth vault should not a disaster make), but it’s reality for your gymnast and her coaches. A certain brand of equipment will throw her off kilter, a certain judge will always make her extra nervous, competing right after a certain teammate will make her doubt herself. These are the minutiae of gymnastics and, for better or worse, we love it. So take every meet as it comes, knowing there’s always the next meet to fix a botched one, or even a next season to redeem herself.

Learning to compete well takes time; help your gymnast enjoy it by enjoying the spectacle as a parent. And it’s okay to laugh when your daughter completely forgets to salute the judge and has to run back onto the floor to do it.

Me, as a level 9. Just to complete the embarrassment.

Me, as a level 9. Just to complete the embarrassment.

What has surprised you the most about this competition season?

Like a Girl

“A boy at school challenged Sydney to a pullup contest the other day. Results: Sydney 14, boy 0. Thank you gymnastics!”


Miss Sydney Barfield, 7-year-old rock star.

This was a Facebook post today from a friend of mine, Luke Barfield. Luke and his wife, Trisha, own Colorado Aerials East gym, and watching them cultivate their own club, sharing their special brand of positivity with new generations of gymnasts has been amazing to watch. But this post isn’t about that. Sydney is Luke’s daughter, a bright 7-year-old who will be competing her first gymnastics season next spring on their Xcel team. And this day, the day she crushed some over-confident boy at school who assumed she wouldn’t be stronger than him by virtue of the fact that she’s a girl, will stay with her forever.

One of the greatest gifts gymnastics gave me was a supreme confidence in my abilities as a girl. Having talked about this topic with several of my girlfriends who were also gymnasts, I know they feel the same. Being a girl is hard, and to me it feels like only recently have we tried to look at why.

Always, a company that certainly knows a thing or two about being a girl, recently started a campaign to turn the tables on the age-old insult “like a girl,” hoping to show girls that doing something like a girl is empowering, not demeaning. When I was in elementary school (and middle school, actually) the Presidential Fitness Test was still the yearly bane of most kids’ existence. I, on the other hand, loved the day we had to do this dreaded test. Sit-ups, shuttle run, a pike reach, mile run, and pull-ups. Every year, without fail, a boy in my class would bet me I couldn’t do more pull-ups than him. Every year, that boy was put to shame. Thank you gymnastics, indeed.

As far as I know, they no longer keep track of these things at schools, but as of high school, I still held the record for pull-ups at my elementary school. I set that record in first grade. It gave me a confidence in my abilities that has yet to leave me. (I also have an absurdly competitive nature, so thanks for that, too, Dad.) My husband is a bit of a fitness buff himself, has been his whole life, and he still recalls being beat by Jamie McCalley at pull-ups in elementary school. She was the only person, and a girl to boot, who could beat him (ironically, Jamie was a teammate of mine at the time). As a boy, it taught him not to underestimate a girl’s strength just because she looks a certain way, or just because she’s a girl.

My mom was recently working with a group of high school boys on acrobatics for a stage production she helps to produce. They were at the gym, training to do aerial straps, and the boys couldn’t help but watch the tiny, little team girls climbing the rope all the way up to the ceiling while holding their legs in a pike to the side of the rope. None of them could do it even using their feet.

Girls are fierce and girls are capable and girls are strong. Gymnastics teaches its participants these facts at an early age, simply because it’s a requirement. You can’t physically do gymnastics without being able to hold your own body weight on your hands, or pull it up to a bar, or whip it over your head. If you are a gymnast, you are strong, and you know it. That knowledge, especially as an adolescent girl, makes you carry yourself differently. It helps you hold your head a little higher in the halls at school, it makes you grin at the thought of any strength challenge in P.E., it gives you the absolute knowledge that you are just as capable as any boy your age. It’s priceless and that knowledge of what you’re capable of never leaves you.

Recently Kacy Catanzaro made headlines across the country for being the first woman to complete the qualifying round of American Ninja Warrior, a physical fitness challenge that undeniably favors tall men with superior upper body strength. She wanted to prove to everyone that women shouldn’t be counted out of a challenge that clearly isn’t in their favor. Unsurprisingly, Kacy used to be a gymnast.

Gymnastics gives you a physical and mental strength that will give you confidence in the years when it’s hardest to find. It will teach you that being a girl means being fast, being strong, being capable of any challenge. So yes, thank you, gymnastics.

Tell me, what are you proud of doing like a girl?