Guest Blog: Advice to Gym Parents, by Darrin Steele

Darrin_Steele2Today’s guest blogger is Darrin Steele. He recently sent an email to the owner of the gymnastics club his daughter, Kalyany, trains at sharing his insights and thoughts as a parent in the brilliant sport we call gymnastics. While his thoughts are particular to Aerials, they are truly universal and could apply to any trustworthy club.

Darrin Steele is a two-time Olympic bobsledder. He was part of a four man bobsled in the 1998 Olympics and a two man bobsled in 2002. He has been the CEO of the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation since 2007 and is also involved with Autism Speaks and Project Play. 

With his Olympic background and his daughter now competing at the elite level, here are the thoughts he would share with any new gym parent, but I think they are valuable to any parent of an athlete.


  1. Relax about move-ups.

Success at one level doesn’t automatically mean a gymnast is ready to advance to the next level. Aerials does a fantastic job of ensuring that their gymnasts have the essential fundamentals necessary to safely advance to more difficult skills. Every time I see a level 9 or 10 from other clubs perform difficult skills with poor technique, I appreciate the Aerials process. A few years ago I learned about a girl who landed on her head during a bar routine and became paralyzed. That is one of the risks gymnasts face and the greatest fear for us parents. The one thing that helps me sleep at night when it comes to that fear is the unwavering commitment Aerials makes advancing girls only when they are ready.

Kalyany did not move up to level 5 (now level 4) with the other girls even though I thought she was more than ready. We didn’t realize it at the time, but that allowed her the experience of being one of the top girls at her level. It helped her confidence and allowed her to be a leader for the first time. In hindsight, being held back was one of the best things that ever happened to her. She eventually moved past every one of the girls who moved up before her. This sport is a marathon, not a sprint.


  1. Be a parent of a girl who does gymnastics, not a gym-parent of a gymnast.

Identity matters. Research shows that the more a girl identifies as a gymnast, the higher her likelihood of her burning out. Gymnastics is what she does, not who she is. Make sure she has other areas of focus. Those other areas will be crucial when she deals with injuries or set-backs, and they all deal with those from time to time.

A parent of a girl who does gymnastics is proud of her commitment, sacrifices and work ethic. Gym-parents have their identities connected to the success of their gymnast. Research shows that when parents emphasize competition success, the athlete is more likely to lose enjoyment, become averse to competing and will be more likely to drop out of the sport prematurely. When a gymnast performs poorly and looks out at her parents’ faces in the crowd, she is seeking comfort from her disappointment. If she sees that her parents are devastated, she will get the message that her performance is responsible for her parents’ emotions. Her drive to succeed should come from within and the best message to give her is that her parents love watching her compete, regardless of how she does. Anything else distracts her and takes away her enjoyment. It can be a devastating feeling to you watch your daughter fail when you know how hard she has worked. Too bad. Work on your poker face, because she needs you to fake it.


  1. Chill on college expectations.

Most gymnasts will leave the sport before college becomes a reality. We all think about it and hope that this expensive sport will lead to a college scholarship. It’s OK to hope it or think it, but keep it quiet. It only increases pressure on the girl and decreases the enjoyment. The investment you are making in your daughter should be the benefits she is getting from increased physical activity, development of work ethic, goal setting, character building, working as a team, overcoming obstacles, physical literacy and confidence – not college.


  1. Pick your battles when it comes to complaints about coaches.

Coaches in youth sports are not perfect. Aerials has great coaches, but they are still human and they will make mistakes from time to time. If you find a coach that does 80% right and 20% or less wrong, you have a good coach. The vast majority of [problematic] situations should be treated as learning opportunities for the athletes. Teaching them how to handle [less-than-perfect] situations prepares them for life and sends them the message that you believe in her ability to handle her own challenges.

In 10 years with Aerials, I only felt the need to complain about a coach one time. I didn’t go to the owner, I didn’t try to get the coach fired and I never told my daughter about it. I treated it as a learning opportunity for the coach and contacted that person directly. It’s a respect issue and the coaches have earned the right to understand the parents’ point of view when there’s an issue as well as the right to be heard since there is always more to the story. Yes, we pay a fee for a service, but there is so much more on the line than just a service. These coaches become very important in the lives of our girls and they do far more than teach them gymnastics skills. We are building a partnership in the development of our daughters and when that partnership is developed and protected, our daughters benefit.


  1. Focus on the positives and the real competition.

Golfers of any ability understand that even when they have a bad round, the good shots they had keep them coming back. The same is true for gymnasts. It doesn’t matter how bad a practice is or how poorly they perform in a competition, there are always “good shots” to be proud of. Sometimes we have to help them to focus on the positives rather than the negatives. The worst thing we can do is help them focus on the mistakes. Mistakes will be addressed in practice by coaches. Our job is to make sure they are having fun and focusing on the positives.

It’s natural to feel competitive toward your daughter’s peers, but keep it in check or you send the message that you care more about other gymnasts than your daughter. Athletes cannot control other gymnasts and the only real competition occurs between an athlete and themselves. An athlete should never focus on who they can or who they cannot beat. The most important question an athlete can ask is, “How good can I be?”