Love the Battle

Gymnastics is, arguably, the hardest sport in the world. Okay, I’ll give you that it’s one of the hardest sports in the world, but I will take on any middle-aged, football obsessed man when he argues otherwise. And my reasoning is simple: gymnastics only gets harder.

I recently saw one of those inspirational fitness posts on pinterest that said, “It doesn’t get easier, you just get better.” While that may be true for soccer, or football, or baseball, or basketball, gymnasts get no such break. Sure, a cartwheel on beam seemed impossible when you were six and it’s like sleepwalking now, but the sport simply gets harder with you. You got your round-off back handspring? Great, now add a back tuck. Mastered the tuck? Make it a layout. Layouts are easy? How about a full? Now a double full. Two-and-a-half and add a punch front out of it. Do you get my point? And that was literally the progression of one possible tumbling pass on floor.

When a basketball player masters a free throw, do they move the hoop higher? (It’s called a hoop, right? I’m basketball illiterate.) Do they make him scoot back a foot? Make him do it behind his back? No, I’m pretty sure he gets to be awesome at free throws forever. My point is this: gymnastics takes a mental tenacity that very few sports require. And at a much younger age.

I don’t want to get all “kids these days” on you (I still feel like a kid myself, if I’m honest), but allow me a moment to point out some truths. There is a lot of pressure on parents today to raise successful kids. Kids that are great at sports, maintain near perfect GPAs, have test scores to get them into their college of choice, and being varsity in a sport is pretty great, too. I’ve met Kindergarteners with Spanish tutors, and kids who have been learning sight words since they were two. We want our children to succeed so badly that we’ve forgotten how to let them fail. And then we’ve handed them smart phones so that they learn to expect instant gratification. (I’m still kind of shocked my smart phone can’t make dinner for me yet.)

What does this have to do with gymnastics? I’m glad you asked. Sports take time. Blood, sweat, and tears. The very obstacles that modern day parents are under pressure to alleviate for their children. Gymnastics, the hardest sport in the world (see how I brought that full circle?), is a sport that your child will never master. Because there is always a way to make that newly mastered skill more difficult. Then there will be skills that take your gymnast years to learn, even though they only took her teammates a few weeks or months (go ahead, ask me about my blind change on bars). The current generation’s need for instant gratification will be met with shocking resistance, and according to those in the know in the sport, it’s beginning show.

I’m sure you’re completely surprised to hear that my family often talks about gymnastics (though not as much you’d probably think). In a recent conversation with my dad, he said this:

The more I have thought about this [the changes in today’s athletes], the more I realized this is why I was ready to retire from the day-to-day coaching in my gym. It wasn’t that we lacked talented gymnasts but it was because they seemed to lack the desire to work through whatever it took to accomplish their goals — working through pain, dealing with disappointment, and being motivated by failures instead of avoiding them. As I have aged I have looked at my time differently; time is more of an investment where it used to be something I had a lot of. I was feeling more and more like the time I was investing in the girls was no longer the best use of my time. Coaching the coaches, on the other hand, has rejuvenated my love of teaching and I continue to feel inspired to do so.

That is obviously not to say that this is universal amongst every gymnast competing today, but the pace of modern life has changed things for modern athletes. There are no shortcuts in gymnastics (or any sport) and if failing at a skill after trying it will keep you from trying again, you will not succeed.

Recently, an Olympic gymnast came to our gym to spend an evening with the gymnasts and share some inspiration. She mentioned that at one point in her career as an elite she was trying to master a new skill on bars and made herself do it 50 times at every practice. 50 times! I can’t think of any skill I did 50 times in one practice. And even with that repetition, it took her a year to get it. 50 times per practice for a year before she could do a skill. Nothing could be further from instant gratification.

But take heart gymnasts, parents, and coaches, because the beauty of the sport is that gratification, though it won’t be instant, when it comes, is more satisfying than you can imagine. It’s what keeps us coming back. It’s the reason we cheer so loud when you finally stick a beam routine at a crucial meet, or finally manage that blind change on bars. The first time you get a 9.0 at a meet or go for your series on beam will be a moment that sticks with you for life. Eventually you’ll get addicted to seeing the outcome of your hard work, the satisfaction that comes from knowing how hard you worked. Success in this sport is never given, always hard fought, so as we said at my gym, “Love the battle.”